On Warfare and Weakness: Interlude, Revolutionary Spirits

The person who finally got me to sit down and read John Caputo's The Weakness of God is Jonathan McRay. Jonathan is the author of You Have Heard It Said: Events in Reconciliation, and he's my go to source for all things Wendell Berry or with anarchist theory. Jonathan was the co-host of the anarchism panel I presented at a few week ago at the CSC.

Last week Jonathan sent me a quote from David Graeber's book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology about the relationship between inner, imagined worlds of conflict versus external, interpersonal/social forms of conflict.

As an anthropologist with interests in societies and cultures that are egalitarian and peaceable in nature Graeber makes a connection between what we've been calling "spiritual warfare" and the associated peace a society enjoys. Graeber argues that societies that are haunted by spiritual war tend to be more peaceable:
Of course, all societies are to some degree at war with themselves. There are always clashes between interests, factions, classes and the like; also, social systems are always based on the pursuit of different forms of value which pull people in different directions. In egalitarian societies, which tend to place an enormous emphasis on creating and maintaining communal consensus, this often appears to spark a kind of equally elaborate reaction formation, a spectral nightworld inhabited by monsters, witches or other creatures of horror. And it's the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war. The invisible worlds surrounding them are literally battlegrounds. It's as if the endless labor of achieving consensus masks a constant inner violence--or, it might perhaps be better to say, is in fact the process by which that inner violence is measured and contained--and it is precisely this, and the resulting tangle of moral contradiction, which is the prime font of social creativity. It's not these conflicting principles and contradictory impulses themselves which are the ultimate political reality, then; it's the regulatory process which mediates them.
Graeber goes on to describe some anthropological cases illustrating this dynamic among various egalitarian societies. In each case he notes this disjoint between the violence in the spirit-world with the placid processes of communal consensus building: "Note how in each case there's a striking contrast between the cosmological content, which is nothing if not tumultuous, and social process, which is all about mediation, arriving at consensus." A few paragraphs later he concludes, "the spectral violence seems to emerge from the very tensions inherent in the project of maintaining an egalitarian society."

We might pause here and reflect on the psychological and sociological dynamics of all this. As a psychologist I'm intrigued by this notion that internal, spectral, spiritual, and mythological war creates the social and psychological capacities to create an external peace amongst ourselves. Perhaps the demons have to be internalized for peace be experienced in our midst. Is the devil the shadow of peace? That's a point that we all might debate.

But Graeber pushes on to connect these spectral worlds with the "counterpower" necessary to promote social change in oppressive contexts. Graeber discusses his own experiences in Madagascar noting how within Malagasy history rapid changes took place in social attitudes in relation to the institutions of monarchy and slavery. For generations these institutions were considered to be legitimate, moral and justifiable. But within a short span of time they became rejected as illegitimate and oppressive. What created the imaginative capacity for such a radical realignment in the Malagasy moral consciousness?

Graeber answers the question by going back to the spectral world:
The puzzling question is how such a profound change in popular attitudes could happen so fast?...[S]omething about the implosion of colonial rule allowed for the rapid reshuffling of priorities. This, I would argue, is what the ongoing existence of deeply embedded forms of counterpower allows. A lot of the ideological work, in fact, of making a revolution was conducted precisely in the spectral nightworld of sorcerers and witches; in redefinitions of the moral implications of different forms of magical power. But this only underlines how these spectral zones are always the fulcrum of the moral imagination, a kind of creative reservoir, too, of potential revolutionary change. It's precisely from these invisible spaces--invisible, most of all, to power--whence the potential for insurrection, and the extraordinary social creativity that seems to emerge out of nowhere in revolutionary moments, actually comes.
There is a lot here to digest and object to. I put it out here simply to stir the pot some more about this notion of "spiritual warfare." Thanks again to Jonathan for the head's up.

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7 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Interlude, Revolutionary Spirits”

  1. Truth be told, I'm not ever sure half the time if I really know what I'm talking about.

  2. I do realise I'm on my own here - and starting to sound slightly obsessive - but, as a self-confessed stats geek and student of existential balances, Richard, I thought you might be interested in the exact ratio between anarchy and order.

    Are you interested to know the answer? Just a tiny bit curious?

    Well, apparently, it's 1 to 200.

    How do I know, I hear you gasp in delighted wonder.

    Because that's the ratio between the mass of a black hole (I did warn you) and its host galaxy. And it's fixed - always half of one percent.

    That means there's a direct and dynamic relationship between the two. It also means that the degree of rule-bending chaos at the centre of a closed system - invisible, by the way, to the order surrounding it - sets constraints on the activities of that system.

    .....no? Just me, then?


    But your post has made me wonder whether there mightn't be a way of applying this relationship to our moral universe after all, so thank-you as always.

    Okay - enough black holes already.

  3. Andrew,


    I really like your Black Hole Ratio example - Fascinating! Since you are a fan of “Stats” what do you think of Gregory S. Paul’s research?


    “Author and researcher Gregory S. Paul offers what he considers to be a particularly
    strong problem of evil. Paul describes conservative calculations that at least
    100 billion people have been born throughout human history (starting roughly 50
    000 years ago, when Homo Sapiens—humans—first appeared). He then performed what
    he calls "simple" calculations to estimate the historical death rate
    of children throughout this time. He found that the historical death rate was
    over 50%, and that the deaths of these children were mostly due to diseases
    (like malaria). Paul thus sees it as a problem of evil, because this means, throughout human
    history, over 50 billion people died naturally before they were old enough to
    give mature consent. He adds that as many as 300 billion humans may never have
    reached birth, instead dying naturally but prenatally (the prenatal death rate
    being about 3/4 historically). Paul says that these figures could have
    implications for calculating the population of a heaven (which could include
    the aforementioned 50 billion children, 50 billion adults, and roughly 300
    billion fetuses—excluding any living today). A common response to instances of the evidential problem is that there are plausible (and not hidden) justifications for God’s permission of evil.” - wiki

    These recent discussions have been very absorbing on so many levels. I want to regress here for a moment and reach back a little into “Pop Culture”. You might be aware of the 1956 Sci-Fi Classic, “Forbidden Planet”. In this Film, set in the 23rd century, the characters (space explorers) encounter the technology and nightmares of an extinct race of beings who called themselves “The Krell”. According to the Dr. Morbius character, (who had been shipwrecked 20 years earlier on the planet), the Kell reached an unprecedented state of technological and cultural brilliance. They then created an ultimate technology that allowed them to manifest physically their own
    thoughts and desires – similar to a Star Trek-like Holodeck. All was “Paradise” until something slowly started destroying them and their magnificent surface world – the macabre and ghoulish manifestations of their own unbridled subconscious! Later, it was revealed in the film, that this furious “incubi” whom had then started attacking and killing members of the new crew, was in fact a creature from the “Id” of Dr. Morbius himself, whom had earlier tried to enhance his own limited brain capacity to that of the “Krell level”- ending up with the
    same uncontrollable nightmarish results! In the end, both he and the planet are destroyed by the self-destruct sequence of the massive machine under the surface.


    On one level the film is a lot of silliness mixed with crude special effects, however on another, it is incredibly profound. If you are proponent of “Stellar”, as well as Biological Evolution, which you seem to be, how then do you reconcile in your own mind, the idea of “Spiritual Warfare” as its being discussed here and as it pertains to
    “Scripture” (i.e. Judeo-Christian & possibly other traditions) juxtaposed to the sentient biologically evolved creatures that we appear to be (?) Essentially, the big question can be pared down to this –


    Is the battle from “Within” or does it come from “Without”?


    I currently understand it as a synthesis of both, as I’ve stated in my earlier post. However, the “Gordian knot” that is “Free Will” seems to add yet another irreconcilable twist in the story of who and what we are, and what it "is" exactly that we are supposedly fighting against (?)


    Your Thoughts?

  4. Hi Cercatore

    Thanks so much for the reply. I wasn't aware of Paul's rather chilling mathematics, but I have (like many of us, I suspect) found my mind being boggled when making similar mental calculations. And I'd definitely take the 'profound' rather than 'silly' view of the classic 'Forbidden Planet' - Jungian discussion, echoes of The Tempest AND Robby the Robot - what's not to like?

    As to the topology of spiritual conflict (to extend the mathematical metaphor), I guess I'd take my lead from Morbius. Like the Möbius strip from whom he presumably takes his character name, I think he challenges us to consider the 'non-orientabilty' of the battle. The monster turns out to be the product of the doctor's own "evil self". Perhaps the biggest danger is to define our struggle as solely 'inner' or 'outer'.

    I think the resolution and solution starts with an acknowledgement that we are allied to the forces we're trying to resist. Perhaps this is similar to your own idea of a synthesis?

    I like your reference to the Gordian Knot, which cannot be untied even when problems of topology and friction are removed, but I think such a synthesis points the way to a possible definition: "to the extent that an absence of fear and need to exercise power within leaves us free to resist the alliance of fear and power made manifest without, we may be said to exercise free-will".



    However, I've only just come up with this, so I look forward to having the holes (topological or otherwise) pointed out!

  5. Hi Dr Beck. I'm reading The Authenticity of Faith and really enjoying it but I have one question: When you talk about belief correlation like on page 170 regarding views of Satan and overall satisfaction in the God-relationship, you often say such results show that the beliefs are being "deployed" or "used" to accomplish an effect. Why not just say "this belief seems to correlate to that" or "this belief results in that"? Seems to me saying "used" and "deployed" is exploring potential motive and perhaps goes beyond the results and into speculation. Thoughts?

  6. I appreciate this, and I think it speaks to my interest in the inclusion of quotidian corporate life, in addition to quotidian individual life. I'd add that this egalitarian effect can be seen, at least in some historical instances, in the presence of external threats more generally (and not just arguably imagined external threats.) England and the U.S. responded to WW2 in this way, and as a result, life expectancy in England increased during the war. (I think Amartya Sen discusses this in Development as Freedom). Crazy. Or, if that isn't your flavor, Nehemiah's egalitarian economic reforms accompanied the building of the wall, which provides both an interesting example and a telling image.

    Insofar as the demonic is a non-human external threat, maybe it has the potential to encourage certain pro-social behaviors, when engaged properly, without the need for human enemies. At any rate, I think our pragmatic assessment of things like this should take a back seat to the question, "But is it true?" ... (Still, if something works, I think that suggests we should consider it at least instrumentally true.) Regardless of your ultimate metaphysics of evil (are angels really, really, real?), I think the complex of angelic/demonic language clearly refers to real phenomena that are not well-described in any other way. I take the strange, collective possession that is crowd behavior to be a prime example...I think of anarchists who I have seen turn into a collective 'organism' through a "snake march" as a prime, grounding example of this in my own experience. There is a palpable sense in which crowds, especially spontaneous, purposive, crowds, take on a collective life that must be distinguished from the individuals who comprise them.

    In this sense, I really support your "progressive" project of making the language of angels and demons relevant to people who doubt their 'reality' (meaning, their existence independent of any consensually-observable phenomena) ... I just think this move should be made into part of a general process of critical thinking that always roots spiritual concepts and language in consensually-observable phenomena. In this sense, it is a properly conservative endeavor, and not just a sop to the liberals. In other words, I view spiritual language as a kind of modeling that has the capacity to contain scientific modeling, but that also reserves a critical, ancient capacity to model moral and aesthetic truths at the same time that it models instrumental truths. Here we get to one of my own, favorite, delicious ironies: insofar as scientific modeling is like religious modeling, except it brackets moral and aesthetic truth as outside of its domain, then its only means of assessing religious models is by their instrumental value. In those terms, scientific argument doesn't retain the capacity to object to these moral, aesthetic and purposive (will-related) aspects of angelic-demonic language: it can only ask whether the model is of instrumental value. And on this, I think the answer is "yes"...qualitiatively, for sure, and perhaps quantitatively, and perhaps even causally (at least as causally as any social science.)

    For all of that, I'd love to see how instrumentally (ie, scientifically) precise David Graeber's research is. Is his methodology simply qualitative and comparative, or does he actually make a run at quantifying this, and trying to construct a causal or quasi-causal argument?

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