The Revolution of the Return Home
Midwinter Thoughts on Benjamin, Culling, and Conservatism
A reader asked me last week if I still believe in revolution. I answered that question briefly, but it really deserves a longer response.
As I write this, I’m sipping coffee while staring out upon the bare branches of an oak just outside my kitchen. It’s the day after Christmas: utterly quiet in the house now, quiet on the street outside, grey but not sullen. Peaceful, really. Rather beautiful.
Yesterday, we hosted my sister and her two sons. There were supposed to be many more family members here, but some of the others got a stomach virus and ended up in a hospital emergency room. Not quite what one hopes for on a holiday, really, but along with my partner and his mother, we six had a rather charming and warm afternoon. Exchange of gifts, a meal (I made lasagna, which has been the traditional meal for my sisters and I since we were young), and along with all that a sense of continuity and especially of normal life despite the political and social chaos of the world.
The last few weeks I’ve been a bit out of sorts. I’ve written about this before, how there’s a moment around each solar point of the year (the 8 holy days of the Celtic-pagan calendar) that feels a lot like just before you shift a gear on a bike. The force you use is no longer gripping the way it’s needed, or it’s gripping too hard. The solar point is the moment you need to shift.
The winter solstice is mid-winter in this reckoning, and this accounting makes more sense in the land where I live than the Roman calendar marking that date as the beginning of winter. At Samhain (1 November) the first extremely cold days started, and by Imbolc the first sprouting of some hardier plants begins, and the solstice is the mid-point between these. So, I’m halfway through winter here.
Historically in this land, this period is when the final culling of herds would happen. The ancestral peoples here (up to only about 100 years ago) would slaughter the animals they would need to eat through the rest of the winter and into early spring. Now of course we just buy packaged meat from grocery stores, so we’ve forgotten this natural cycle. Regardless, it’s still with us, preserved especially in the rituals of resolutions and reflection around new year’s and the very large dinners many people still cook for Christmas day.
That “out of sorts” feeling I mentioned was exactly that, the contemplation of what needs to hang about for the next full cycle of the year and what can and should be culled. We generally think of culling as a negative thing, an unfortunate necessity perhaps but otherwise worth avoiding. Predators are said to cull herds of the sick and old, and we mostly understand this is good for nature but also think nature is brutal and vicious for evolving such a process and fear people getting the same idea about humans.
Culling though is a lot more like pruning. Every gardener learns this quickly, that cutting away some branches and leaves actually helps the plant grow. Culling is the same thing, cutting back parts so the larger part can continue.
It’s likely difficult for most to inhabit this knowledge, but culling and pruning align closer to what we see as political conservatism rather than political liberalism. Conservatism urges for the continuation of things by pulling some things back, and sees in endless growth and expansion a recipe for starvation and death. Of course, that’s not generally how conservatism maps on political parties any longer—it’s difficult to find truly conservative Republican politicians in the United States or truly conservative Tories in the United Kingdom.
If anything, this kind of conservatism maps more to Green or other environmentalist parties in Europe, though again not very closely. The kind of Green party politics that are often ridiculed and vilified by liberals and leftists both in Europe and the United States tend to be the most conservative. For instance, opposition to nuclear power production, genetically-modified organisms, and 5G rollout derives from a conservative stance against capitalist expansion in directions that could lead to irreparable environmental and societal harm.
Such opposition is typically smeared as reactionary, anti-science, and superstitious by progressive politicians and thinkers. Leftist in the United States (particularly the Democratic Socialist left centered around the journal Jacobin) particularly ridicule this kind of conservatism, and in this they are much more in alignment with the capitalists of Silicon Valley and the corporate-sponsored politicians of both major US political parties.
This conservatism—again hardly represented by any major political movement—is also seen in the populist reactions against digital vaccine passports and increased government restrictions of human movement and interactions in the name of public health. Here we need to understand that though governments and public health officials introduce their proposals and these new regimes in the name of protecting the vulnerable and stopping the spread of a virus, there is always a larger unacknowledged concern few of them ever mention: the continuation of capitalist economic expansion.
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To understand this, remember that there have always been other options to deal with the spread of COVID. A total shutdown of all economic exchange and international travel for a few months at the beginning of the outbreak—which is what quite a few public health officials and scientists had urged for—would have significantly slowed the transmission. Of course, this would have also completely emptied the treasuries of every government in the world, since their citizens would only have agreed to such measures in return for a kind of emergency socialism the capitalists would never have been able to claw back.
The other option would have been to let the plague take its course. This would have meant mass death, yes, but mass death to a capitalist doesn’t mean the same thing that it means to us. For us, it’s sad and terrible. For a capitalist, it means inflationary wages and labor shortages.
The last time a plague swept through the world, it destroyed feudalism. Landowners couldn’t find enough serfs to work their land any longer, and those remaining serfs suddenly had intense power. The labor shortage this created is one of the primary reasons the ruling class resorted to colonial exploits and slave-taking, returning to “primitive accumulation” to save their position and re-assert dominance over the peasantry in Europe.
Neither of these options are pretty nor really desirable. The point in mentioning them is to show that maintaining the current expansionary growth of capitalism has always been a primary (though obscured) motive in government policy decisions. Progress must continue at all costs, which means that labor availability and capitalist economic activity must not be damaged in any attempt to deal with the crisis this plague has caused. Forcing people to take vaccines created through capitalist production and distribution keeps the world headed towards more capitalism. Telling people to keep working but from home means the capitalists get to keep exploiting labor in new ways instead of redistributing their wealth back to those who created it for them.
Here you might be inclined to object, though: isn’t this also a kind of conservatism? Keeping the system in place rather than letting it undergo some revolutionary change through crisis—isn’t this a kind of anti-progress stance?
It would be, but only if we treat the present situation as if it has always been around. It hasn’t, of course. In fact, the current iteration of global capitalist exchange—in which industrial production for consumer goods is outsourced to China, container-shipped to every port in the world, and then distributed from central warehouses to store shelves or other warehouses where they are then sorted by Amazon or other companies to be shipped again direct to homes—is really only a few decades old.
If you are in your 20’s, your grandparents grew up in a world where “made in China” was a rarity and most things they ate were grown within a few hundred miles of their home. Sure, they couldn’t get strawberries in winter or have anything they might want to buy shipped with just one click, but they also lived in a world where a disease first showing up halfway across the world would have taken more than a handful of months to ravage their neighbors.
Go back even longer and, with the exception of the Spanish Flu, you don’t see catastrophic diseases quickly sweeping across vast distances and varied societies until the Black Death.1 And of course, the Spanish Flu only spread so widely because of a World War, soldiers from across the world congregating in the same geographical locations to kill each other and then bringing back illness to their families and homelands.2
The Black Death in Europe was primarily spread across large geographical distances through merchant trade. The transmission of plague occurs so fast now because it uses the same transmission networks built to accommodate the new modes of capitalist industrial production and distribution, as well as the secondary consumption economies (business travel and tourism) for which airline networks have expanded. Again, these are newly expanded networks, expanded in order to increase capitalist production and exchange just as mercantile networks in the late Middle Ages had expanded to increase the wealth of cities.
The problem here is expansion and the drive towards endless (and reckless) growth. That growth is liberal in the political and economic sense: laissez-faire, free trade, few restrictions, no boundaries, no borders, all things which capitalists require to continue. And with that expansion of course comes costs, costs paid not by those who push for and profit from these policies but those who never have any say about such matters.
Plague is one of those costs, which is also a great moment of profit for some pharmaceutical companies, for online retailers like Amazon, and all other opportunists eager to seize on the societal disruption it has caused. It’s also a perfect moment for governments needing to strengthen their position of dominance over their citizens, a moment to test the viability of social credit systems and re-introduce tiered rights systems supposedly abolished by democracy. And it’s most of all a perfect moment to change the moral order, to encourage the kind of social opprobrium directed at those who don’t always wear their masks the right way or fear getting injected by something the government tells them they must have.
All this is done to make sure capitalism can keep expanding. Shutting down the international distribution and travel networks the capitalists created would have significantly slowed the plague, likely giving local governments and emergency services the time to prepare. That would have been the conservative solution, by which I also mean a radical solution (remembering “radical” means “root”).
This radical solution would also have caused a crisis the capitalists could not survive. It would have been a revolutionary act, the only kind of revolution that I find I believe in anymore.
There are two leftist ideas of what a revolution is, one of which is shared also by the kind of conservatism I mention. In the other one, revolution is a turn towards progress, towards an expansion of technology, rights, new kinds of social arrangements, and new kinds of labor. When a Silicon Valley CEO calls something revolutionary, that’s what he means. So also do too many people who think that smashing windows or embracing new identities is revolutionary. This is the sort of “revolutionising” that The Communist Manifesto aligned with the bourgeoisie, the changing of all modes of production and with it all social relations as well.
There is another kind of revolution, though, the one Walter Benjamin described:
“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.”
This sort of revolution is ultimately a conservative one. It doesn’t want to keep going, to keep expanding. It wants a rest, a pause, maybe even a complete turn from the direction everything’s been going. Instead of the promised smartphone in every pocket, it thinks maybe we could all just talk to each other in person again like we’ve been doing for millennia. Instead of one-click shopping and global distribution of industrial production, maybe we could know the people who make things for us and not buy so much. Instead of remaking society and introducing new surveillance and tracking measures to keep capitalism going through a plague, maybe we could just see this as a really good reason to pull the emergency brake on the train of progress.
It is conservative, but it does not map to what we think of as right or left. It has no directional orientation at all except towards home, the body, and the earth. It is the conservatism of a gardener who knows she must thin some plantings from a pot and prune some branches from her rosebush to have more flowers, of the villagers who decide which animals to cull so that both the herd and the humans who tend them will both thrive. And it’s the conservatism of “conservationism,” that much older idea before environmentalism which sought to keep forests and streams around so that people a hundred years on would get to meet them too.
So yes, I believe in revolution, but only this kind, the conservative sort. I’d like to see humans survive, and also the forests. I’d like people to keep being able to meet together without first needing to show a QR code, just like we’ve been doing for all our human existence. I’d like the grandchildren of my nephews to get to meet the descendants of the animals I encounter on my daily walks, rather than learn about them on extinction lists.
Revolution means to “turn again,” but wheels don’t only go one direction. It’s okay to turn back a bit, just as we might turn back on a path we realise was the wrong way. Some people—who also stand to profit quite a bit from all this—are telling us all to keep going, keep riding, that we’ll eventually get to their promised land. They call that “forward,” but circles don’t really have a forward and backward, nor an end nor beginning. The direction it’s going is completely relative to where we are standing.
So, yes, I guess I do still believe in revolution. Not the kind that wants to change the world, though, nor the kind that believes we’re best marching endlessly towards a future someone else dreamed up for us.
Instead, the only revolutionary and the only revolution I trust is the one that looks around at its companions, surveys the distance, and says in love, “hey—I think we’ve gone far enough. Let’s go home now.”
It took 11 years for the Black Death to spread from its likely origins in Central Asia to Scotland and Ireland, for example, and also a full year from its first appearance in England to arrive to those places. On the other hand, it took only 3 months for COVID to appear in Ireland and Scotland after its earliest reported case in China, and 2 weeks from its arrival in England.
There is even a theory that the flu originated in the United States, spread amongst soldiers on bases there, and was then spread to Europe when those soldiers were deployed.