Darling, There’s a Cannibal at the Door

Kirby Farrell | March 7, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Think for a moment about what slavery is.

No, not just black folks in chains all their waking lives, but slavery as control of another body and will. In this wider view slavery is akin to robotics or cybernetics. It turns another person into a machine that obeys – and magnifies – your will. You wish, and a hundred or a million hands carry out your will.

If this sounds like a factory, it’s because industrialism depends on tight control of a workforce. It can be called “wage slavery” if it’s too tyrannical, as in Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936). But ideally it’s a trade-off. You give your labor – your sweat, your waking life – to the factory-machine for 8 hours and in return, you and your neighbors enjoy a better life.

We can think of the conflict over slavery and work in historical terms. Most ancient societies, even in the Bible, were slave economies policed by warriors. Kill the “enemy” men and boys, enslave and impregnate the women.

In the wake of the great democratic revolutions of two centuries past, we moralize about the evils of slavery – and for good reason. But it helps to remember creaturely motives.

Slavery is about our appetite for more life. By subsuming someone else’s body and vitality, you are in effect consuming them: yes, literally using them up. Sure, the whip injures them, but slave labor itself grinds out life, as Nazis and Soviets showed us. But the slave is legally a non-person. Nobody. So slaves can be chewed up in the daily “grind” because they’re expendable. They’re not actually real people.

It’s not an accident that the western world finally outlawed slavery just as the industrial world learned how to substitute fossil fuels – steam, oil, gas – for human muscle. The quality of life radically improved. But it was a struggle. In this country it was only in the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, that working folks finally won the legal right to an organized voice. It sounds shocking, but there it is. The US still has the weakest labor laws of any advanced economy. The struggle for that right involved massive corporate coercion: firings, blacklists, a few actual massacres, as at Republic Steel in the 30s.

Now global economics are draining capital and jobs out of the US, and the war over who owns labor is heating up again. If you see it in creaturely terms, you’re struck by how the competition shows us alpha primates trying to dominate marginal animals. In the lingo of finance, you say that markets are moved by fear and greed. This translates as: people are moved by fear of death and greed for more life.

It’s customary to say that Wall Street’s greed wrecked the US economy in 2008. You could add that corporate military greed for dominance and prosperity has mired the nation in exhausting global war against “terrorism” or whatever. More of this in another post.

More immediate is this point: fear and greed aren’t separate motives.

Yes, the economic bubble = bullishness = greed. And yes, that leads invariably to economic bust = bearishness = fear. But in fact fear and greed drive each other. Fear pumps up greed for more life. But whoops, inflated appetite arouses fear of starvation. If you bought MacMansions and a Ferrari for every day of the week, and you see global economies eating away at the artificial prosperity of postwar America, then you fear/greed arouses your appetite. You want more personal power, more mastery, more control, more freedom, more captive bodies to expand your will.

But here’s the kicker. The drive for mastery has no natural limit. It’s finally tyrannical, the desire to be God. It’s cannibalism. Unchecked, it eats everything – and everyone – in sight. Then it faces the nuisance of disposing of all those used up bodies. This is of course why the alpha animals want to kill Social Security and health care.

It’s also why you’re quick to protest when you hear grinding teeth.

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