The Paraphyletic Commune

564px-Barricade_Paris_1871_by_Pierre-Ambrose_Richebourg    Today marks the 145th anniversary of the founding of the Paris Commune, the revolutionary socialist government that ruled France’s capital for seventy-two days in 1871.

Upon the collapse of the Second Empire in the face of a Prussian invasion, the Parisian proletariat, backed by radicalized National Guard from working class neighborhoods, rejected the bourgeois Third Republic that rose in its stead, electing a Commune council of Blanquists, Proudhinists, and other radicals in its place.

The Commune’s bottom-up legitimization represents a refutation of the kind of double bind liberals demand of their constituencies to this day: if you don’t want the troglodytic Donald Trump, you must support Hillary Clinton–the Kissinger of Honduras–and the neoliberal kleptocracy she represents, impoverishing millions at home and murdering millions more abroad.

The diminished expectations have metastasized deep into science’s viscera.

“If the West is really in its decline-and-fall stage, its Caligula stage, its Donald Trump stage,” former news editor Colin Macilwain just published in what is for Nature an uncharacteristically piquant op-ed,

then this isn’t just an issue for political and financial elites. It’s also a problem for the [scientific] ‘experts’ who crawl around after these elites, massaging their egos and defending their interests.

The playwright Bertolt Brecht had a good line on expertise. In his plays, doctors, lawyers and other ‘experts’ are generally portrayed in threes. They squabble haplessly among themselves, each manoeuvring into the position that most elevates themselves in the eyes of their aristocratic paymaster.

And that, sadly, is the role to which senior scientific leaders have sometimes reduced themselves. In the main, they have been happy to accept the autocracy of politics and finance, even, like the president of the European Research Council, hanging around at the annual meeting of business leaders at Davos in Switzerland, hoping to pick up crumbs from the rich man’s table.

And the price for such specks and smidgens?

[T]hose senior scientists who do engage with the government or public — as scientific advisers, for example — often take up highly political positions without acknowledging that they are doing so. For example, they support free-trade agreements that cede the right of democratic governments to control things such as cigarette advertising or pesticide use without hard, scientific evidence. This is a political position that is pursued with great dedication by global corporations — and that is haplessly bought into by many scientists without a thought for its consequences.

Recently departed dialectical biologist Richard Levins, once exiled to Puerto Rico upon walking out on HUAC, made a similar observation nearly forty years ago. A recent obit noted,

[Levins] was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. But in 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War, he wrote a letter to the organization declining to join because its scientists participated in military research and, by extension, US foreign policy. “There is the elitist myth that history is made by the important people who are in the know, which happens to include us,” he wrote, adding: “There is the placid belief that a society which appreciates us so well cannot be all that bad.”

The up-and-coming scientariat, impoverished and radicalized by the neoliberal university, is starting to sweep aside the lucrative ahistorism in surly fashion.

“Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science;” writes the petulant self-described anti-intellectual Sam Kriss,

it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds. In his TV appearances, puppeted by an invisible army of scriptwriters, this tendency is barely held in check, but in his lectures or on the internet it’s torrential; a seeping flood of grey goo, paring down the world to its driest, dullest, most colourless essentials…

Form follows function

when his TV show Cosmos described the sixteenth-century astrologer Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, executed by the Catholic church for proposing a heliocentric solar system. See how the idiots persecute us, the rational, with their superstition and their hostility to objective thought. The reality – that Bruno believed in magic, worshipped the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, and was executed not for heliocentrism but for denying the divinity of Christ – is ignored, because that isn’t Fucking Science Love.

Or when [Tyson] decided that ‘Italy valued cathedrals while Spain valued explorers. So worldwide, five times as many people speak Spanish than Italian.’ A spurious reconstruction of the past from present conditions, or the I Fucking Love Scientific theory of history: successful tribes were populated by little atavistic Carl Sagans; if Italians didn’t slaughter millions in the New World it isn’t because the peninsula was at the time fractured into multiple city-states (some of them occupied by, uh, Spain) which supplied significant amounts of capital rather than colonists, it’s because they weren’t interested in spaceships.

I’ve objected to Tyson on GMOs myself, as has Michael Friedman here, particularly the way by some convergent coinkydink he just happens to abstract capitalism as a force of nature. Monsanto fan Bill Nye, the Science Guy, positivism’s id, is meanwhile scoring his own due comeuppance.

What, then, is our alternative?

Successful revolutions, Alain Badiou wrote of the Commune, turn facts on the ground, suddenly seizing power for one, into a metaphysical singularity around which existence is organized. Evanescent circumstances become concretized logic: “Beginnings can, then, be measured by the re-beginnings they authorize…Like every veritable event, the Commune had not realized a possible, it had created one. The possible is simply that of an independent proletarian politics.”

Science feels the repercussions. “The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously,” wrote Karl Marx of the Commune, “and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.”

A tantalizing notion, Karl! How so in this case remains a lost history worth the search, a means by which, à la Slavoj Žižek‘s neo-Hegel, to help reestablish the precedents of a new science still to emerge.

As I proposed here and here, as others elsewhere, even Darwinianized Victorian Bildungsbürgertum despised science–long a proletarian staple–in the hands of anyone other than bourgeois practitioners entrained by imperial imperatives. Antecedents to Macilwain’s crumb-lappers.

“Scientific materialism was portrayed not only as an ideology against the Catholic Church,” Stefan Phol-Valero writing on Spain 1868-1890 reports,

but also as the main source of moral degradation and therefore the intellectual fermentation of social disorder. When the first Spanish congress of socialist workers were held in Barcelona in 1870 and anarchist movements started to emerge, the principal cause of the workers’ unrest debated in the public sphere was materialism. The Paris Commune of 1871 is one of the clearest international examples of social disorder, related by the contemporary press to materialism represented by people like [Ludwig] Büchner. Despite different political orientations, many of the Spanish elites helped to portray scientific materialism as a common social threat that had to be fought…

Science was presented as a key element for the progress of civilization; however, the absolute centrality of moral progress was also emphasized. The idea that real and proper progress was the combination of the material and the moral, based on Catholic principles, was repeated over and over again. This kind of progress was, as one article literally observed, the only one that could prevent the unrest and agitation of the working classes.

Joy Harvey shows the Commune and its destruction bore deep impressions upon French anthropology,

Although the rise to political power by the positivists in the republican governments which followed the Siege and the Commune of Paris at first strengthened the alliance between positivist and materialist, evolutionism extended to social evolution was to function divisively in the Société [d’Anthropologie de Paris]…

The varied and turbulent history of the rise of evolutionism in French anthropology cannot be viewed as deriving simply from factors internal to evolution of anthropology. It presents, instead, a case of evolution becoming transformed in the presence of powerful political and social catalysts.

In Germany, Darwinism itself took it on the chin, as Constance Sommerey describes it, from public health hero Rudolf Virchow no less,

Virchow’s refutation of [Ernst] Haeckel’s demand [evolutionary theory be taught in schools] was not only built on scientific considerations, however. Virchow had another argument up his sleeve; an argument that would weigh far heavier than his scientific concerns. He claimed that the dissemination of Haeckel’s evolutionism could foster the propagation of socialism. Virchow’s argument referred to the rise of the Paris Commune in 1871, in which the proletariat organized itself against France’s conservative government. Virchow insinuated that the revolutionary power in Haeckel’s anti-aristocratic, anti-clerical, science-based statements resembled those uttered by the upset working class in France.

So science, yes, but in the service of power.

And now with the Washington Consensus daily delegitimizing itself, a populace lurching out of its propagandistic fog, and scientists flunking structurally administered loyalty tests, are the days of the Halls of Science returning?

Will young investigators opt into collaborating with their local community however they might be needed? Will they support indigenous anti-imperialists the world over? Will they serve on the barricades proverbial or otherwise?

5 Responses to “The Paraphyletic Commune”

  1. Isn’t Angela Merkel a physicist?? Scientist, politician, (a woman even)… perhaps we’re evolving?

  2. rgwallace Says:

    My apologies, Clem, I’m not clear on your point. Merkel, who drove Greece into the sea, as it were, is firmly in the banker camp. If, on the other hand, by evolution you mean we can now reject her gender as legitimacy enough, then I concur. It’s the Berta Cáceres of the world, environmentalists extraordinaire, assassinated by foreign directed investment, who deserve our solidarity.

  3. Perhaps I should do the apologizing here. My citing Ms Merkel as a scientist come politician – and perhaps a most successful politician at that – seemed to speak to the point: “[T]hose senior scientists who do engage with the government….

    But instead of selling out to big money and influence without being aware of it, I see Angela’s move into politics as an authentic embrace of the world as she appreciates it.

    As for her being firmly in the banker camp – no argument here. But I do ponder whether it is a fair characterization (even with the ‘as it were’) to suggest Greece’s push into the sea is due to her driving effort. My read is that the Greek’s had made agreements they weren’t up to keeping. Ms Merkel then seems to me more a policewoman inheriting the role of calling them out for their dithering. But all of this does walk away from where I started out. A scientist turned politician… and fairly successful in both realms by some objective measure (even if one is not sympathetic to her particular brand of politics). And she managed this as a female – not a first female in either realm (Einstein’s cousin was a female German physicist; Margaret Thatcher to represent the other)… but still a steep climb for her generation. The caliber of a Darwin or Levins? it remains to be seen, she still breathes.

    I’m still trying to digest the full measure of your thesis here. Part of me wonders if how science is paid for underlays some of your angst. Public vs private investment in science is a dialectic worthy or more attention than I think it achieves. Tyson and Nye as posers in white lab coats seems defensible. But holding up a revolutionary government that managed to hold sway for 72 days… well, one might hope for a better model to point to for inspiration, no?

  4. rgwallace Says:

    Using Merkel as a counterexample implies our choices are down to throwing in with the neoliberal order 1) consciously or 2) not. I know you’d object to that characterization, but I’m fascinated by the extent to which you instinctively identify with–in the sense of role-playing–politicians who work expressly in the interests of capital.

    There are always alternate modes of interpretation instead. The E.U., for instance, led by Merkel directly, used Greece like the U.S. used the housing crisis–as a means of bailing out bad banker bets:

    “Greece’s revised budget deficit that year,” writes Mark Blyth in that radical journal Foreign Affairs, “was 15 percent of the country’s GDP—that’s 0.3 percent of the eurozone’s economy. In other words, the Greek deficit was a rounding error, not a reason to panic. Unless, of course, the folks holding Greek debts, those big banks in the eurozone core, had, over the prior decade, grown to twice the size [of] their ‘too big to fail’ American counterparts…

    “In such an over-levered world, if Greece defaulted, those banks would need to sell other similar sovereign assets to cover the losses. But all those sell contracts hitting the market at once would trigger a bank run throughout the bond markets of the eurozone that could wipe out core European banks…

    “Greece was thus a mere conduit for a bailout. It was not a recipient in any significant way, despite what is constantly repeated in the media. Of the roughly 230 billion euro disbursed to Greece, it is estimated that only 27 billion went toward keeping the Greek state running. Indeed, by 2013 Greece was running a surplus and did not need such financing. Accordingly, 65 percent of the loans to Greece went straight through Greece to core banks for interest payments, maturing debt, and for domestic bank recapitalization demanded by the lenders.”

    The Paris Commune is a radical favorite because, unlike Blyth’s piece, an alternate mode of interpretation led to reversals in fortune for nearly two million people in a matter of *days*. And–the point of the post–may have had significant impact on the nature of science. Such reversals, as rare as they may be, imply the capitalist ethos, hammered home in daily propaganda, is no natural order.

  5. Rob:
    Didn’t mean to disappear on you. Was out of town and only sometime thinking about this thread. Now that you have another post up – and covering a couple of similar items, I’ll try to catch up and render some opinion(s).
    Until then.

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