Satyagraha

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The Soul-State Homology

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Thomas Cole (1836) - The Course of Empire.  Part 3: The Consummation of Empire

The soul-state homology posits a close connection between the individual soul and political organizations like a city and state. The relationship is stronger than a mere analogy. Rather, soul and state are seen as two expressions of a common archetype ; or that the state’s affairs are outward expressions or materializations of the soul’s affairs.  The phrase, ‘as within, so without’ explains the notion succinctly. Whatever happens within your own soul is paralleled by events and processes at the societal level.

Expressions of this homology can be found in various spiritual and philosophical traditions. In the West, its most elaborate and articulate presentation is found in Plato’s Republic. The same general idea can be found in various Eastern religions, and elsewhere.

If true, the homology has important practical implications.

First, the it implies a distinct view of how one thinks of oneself in relation to society.  Today especially, idealistic people take a keen interest in the world.  The avidly read the news, identify problems, and remain in a state of irritation or outrage.  This easily becomes a preoccupation approaching an obsession with the world’s affairs and problems.

The soul-state homology, however, suggests a different, more appropriate response: if society has problems and is unjust, these same problems must exist within the personal soul.  The soul, not society,  is our first concern: because the soul is closer to us, because we are uniquely responsible for its cultivation and integrity, and because it is immortal.  If something should preoccupy us, then, it should be concern about the integrity and welfare of our soul. It is by tending to the soul that we find happiness.

Moreover, to the extent that disorders in a nation are manifestations of disorders of soul, then by concentrating our attention on self-knowledge and self-improvement, we are more likely to effect positive changes in society.

An extension of this principle is that the main purpose of the material world is to teach us about our souls.  Thus, if we look to politics and see strife and discord between ‘left’ and ‘right’, the purpose of that is to alert us and teach us about some corresponding internal conflict.

A second implication of the homology concerns charity.   At some level, all other people — at least insofar as we perceive and experience them — are manifestations of ourselves.  And since the ideal of a perfect soul is one where all elements are harmoniously ordered and united in concern for the welfare of the entire self, so this must also be true of society.

It therefore becomes impossible or even absurd to deny the entitlement of any other person to ones love,  or to seek a social system that is not perfectly just and fair.

This, in turn, suggests that one function of society and social institutions is to supply an arena for action:  a field laboratory, as it were, for the soul’s alchemy.  By working to help other people or to make society more just, we simultaneously engage in a kind of healthy transformative medicine or magic in our souls.

So much, then, for theoretical speculation; ultimately, the soul-state homology is the kind of idea that will either appeal to one or not.  Either way, not much can be said here to make it appear more or less plausible than it already is.

Rather, let’s consider what the homology would imply today:

  1. Your soul is in crisis, and has been for about 10 years.
  2. War is threatening to break out between your inner United States and your inner Iran.
  3. An old order, based on money, materialism and social disparity is decaying.  A new order is emerging.
  4. You have some kind of internal government (with Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches).
  5. Your internal government has been co-opted by selfish special interests.
  6. A resistance movement has developed, but is currently poorly organized and lacks a clear vision of the future.
  7. You have the inner equivalent of news sources, but these supply false opinions, rather than true facts.   You have an inner Fox News, CNN, etc.
  8. Your inner citizens are polarized into two diametrically opposed camps: ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives.’ Each camp demonizes and blames the other for everything wrong.
  9. This conflict is promoted by special interests, who use the inner government and inner news sources for this purpose.

We could go on, but this is enough to convey the general idea and sufficient food for thought.

What, then, would be the practical implications?  Clearly, if our individual souls are as troubled and messy as the outside world today, then we need to focus a great deal of attention on cleaning house!  The homology suggests we should redouble efforts toward self-improvement.   It also means that, while we can learn much from the world, we should retain the ability to be detached from it.  If we let worry over injustice or war upset our thinking, and place our minds under the control of fear and anger, rather than clear reason, then we are unable to focus attention on self-improvement, which is where our attention should be.

One further feature of the soul-state homology might encourage us. A standard tenet of religion is that, while one has a personal moral responsibility to apply oneself to self-improvement, ultimately improvement comes by grace from a Supreme Being.

This makes sense.  To the extent that we are fallen, or perhaps simply immature, we are not wise enough to direct our own spiritual and moral growth.  Help must come from a higher source.

Our attitude, then, must be one of humility.  While we intensely want to change for the better — if, for no other reason, than because our life is filled with frustration and unfulfilled hopes — this must not manifest itself as an egoistic striving, which only makes matters worse.  Our personal responsibility is not to change ourselves, as much as to choose to cooperate with grace for our self-improvement.

A similar humility, then, should govern our approach to the outside world.  We should believe that a higher power already has a benevolent plan; and we should trust and cooperate with this plan, chiefly by removing whatever obstacles we ourselves are presenting to its attainment.

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The Occupy Movement, Agrarianism, and Land Reform

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ALTHOUGH the Occupy Movement is voicing many important social and economic concerns, one has thus far escaped attention:  land reform. Here we outline arguments in favor of its inclusion.

The well-known monetary disparity, such that 10% of Americans have 90% of the wealth, is paralleled in land ownership.  Media baron Ted Turner, for example, alone owns more than 2.2 million acres — an area larger than Delaware!

Moreover, the federal government owns vast expanses of habitable land, including military bases, National Forests, and land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  In administering public lands, federal agencies, especially the BLM, are frequently accused of being overly responsive to corporate special interests.

We should consider the reorganization of land to produce a more just, happy and harmonious social system.  This may seem an unconventional and unrealistic proposal, but the truth is that reallocation of land to improve social justice has been done throughout history.

Legislation to allocate small parcels of public land to private homesteaders is easily accomplished.  Though no longer in force, the Homestead Act nevertheless established a precedent we may follow

With respect to vast private lands, we must first forestall the obvious objection:  that private parties have an inalienable right to retain lands to which they currently hold title.  This is definitely not so. Ownership of real estate — save, perhaps, that on which ones house and garden sit — is not a  natural (and hence inalienable) right.  We can allow that people have a natural right to own the property on which their domicile sits; or perhaps a few acres with which they ‘mingle their hands with the soil’ for sustenance.  But private ownership of larger parcels of land is an arbitrary social convention — something created by legislation, and removable by legislation.   Society may change such conventions according to the will of the majority and for good of society.  To be clear: this does not dispute that private parties have, in our society, a right to own land  — only that this is a legislated right, not a natural one.  That is, we could envision a society in which all the people got together and decided to disallow the owning of large tracts of land.  Certainly we can find indigenous societies where such is the case.

The idea of legally limiting public land ownership is not utterly foreign to European and American political theory.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, advocated the usufruct principle.  This holds that private citizens have a right to use the land and enjoy it’s fruits — but not to own it.  If you plant an orchard, you might own the apples, not the land itself.

Agrarianism

What concerns us is not just land redistribution, but, more broadly, effecting a transition to a more sustainable, natural, agrarian society.  Agrarianism, in a historical sense, can be defined as:  “the doctrine of an equal division of landed property and the advancement of agricultural groups.”  Today we may extend the definition by envisioning a migration of a certain number of modern urban dwellers to the country, where they may live sustainably in individual homesteads and/or intentional communities.

Sustainability would imply emphasis on self-sufficiency, including cultivating gardens or crops for food, use of renewable energy, water conservation, and like things.

Advantages of a More Agrarian Society

It seems self-evident that much would be gained by redistributing land to give more people the ability to leave the large cities and start self-sustaining, rural homesteads.  Certainly this is appealing to the sensibilities of many.  Specific advantages include these:

  • Gets  people out of crowded urban areas
    • reduces pollution
    • reduces stress, anxiety, and confusion associated with modern urban life
    • reduces water and energy problems
  • Eliminates commuting lifestyle
  • Healthy country living and natural food would promote good health and reduce health-care costs for society.
  • People can live in harmony with nature: the earth is made for man, and man for the earth.
  • 5000 homesteads = 5000 experiments in sustainable living and crop innovation
  • With the option to leave and migrate to the country, urban workers gain better bargaining position; can demand better wages and working conditions
  • Agrarian happiness doesn’t require a $100k college education
  • Committed individuals living on land can help preserve it (stewardship)

The last point is important because it counters the objection that National Forests or large conservancy land tracts should be left free from human habitation.  Responsible people can live within such areas in ways that enhance, not interfere with forest and wildlife preservation.

Feasibility

Is redistribution of land possible, or merely a pipe-dream?

It’s important here to refer to American history, in which a strong current of agrarianism has always operated. Indeed, the history of American economic ideology can be seen as a dynamic tension-of-opposites between agrarianism and commercialism.

Nowhere is this tension more clearly illustrated than in the opposing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  Jefferson, the Virginian farmer, wanted the country to follow an agrarian path.  He hated cities, in fact, and considered them breeding grounds for vice and unhappiness.  He believed that a nation of independent, citizen-farmers was the best way to achieve just and stable democracy.

In a draft constitution for Virginia, Jefferson proposed: “Every person of full age neither owning nor having owned 50 acres of land, shall be entitled to an appropriation of 50 acres”.  This proposal did not eventuate, but Jefferson did succeed in abolishing primogeniture laws in Virginia. Primogeniture is the custom by which all land in a family is inherited by the oldest son; abolishing primogeniture had the effect of, over several generations, breaking down large land tracts and distributing land ownership more fairly.

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example…. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition…. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff…. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strenth of the human body.

Source:  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 19, 1787.

Jefferson was not the only advocate of agrarianism.  John Taylor of Caroline, for example — the American foil to free marketer Adam Smith — supplied a philosophical and economic foundation for agrarian principles.

In contrast, Alexander Hamilton (who, incidentally, was one of Wall Street’s founders), believed America must follow the path of commerce and industrialization; for this, centralized banking and a financial infrastructure to promote corporate investment was needed.   Hamilton’s party won the day, setting in motion a series of reactions and counter-reactions that have continued since.

Acquisition of new territory (e.g., the Louisiana Purchase), along with growing unemployment and immigration in cities, produced a gradual campaign of political agitation for land access.  A wave of agrarian fervor swept the nation during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  And a few years later, a new phase of agrarian populism began, associated with such names as Horace Greeley, George Henry Evans, Henry George, and George Julian.

The movement gained steady ground.  In 1848, Martin Van Buren ran for president as the nominee of a newly formed Free Soil party.  Pamphlets circulated, and the phrase “Vote Yourself a Farm!” became a popular slogan.  Extracts from one such pamphlet are revealing:

Are you tired of slavery — of drudging for others — of poverty and its attendant miseries? Then, Vote yourself a farm.

Are you endowed with reason? Then you must know that your right to life hereby includes the right to a place to live in — the right to a home. Assert this right, so long denied mankind by feudal robbers and their attorneys. Vote yourself a farm.

Are you a man? Then assert the sacred rights of man — especially your right to stand upon God’s earth, and to till it for your own profit. Vote yourself a farm.

Would you free your country, and the sons of toil everywhere, from the heartless, irresponsible mastery of the aristocracy of avarice? Would you disarm this aristocracy of its chief weapon, the fearful power of banishment from God’s earth? Then join with your neighbors to form a true American party, having for its guidance the principles of the American revolution, and whose chief measures shall be — 1. To limit the quantity of land that any one man may henceforth monopolize or inherit; and 2. To make the public lands free to actual settlers only, each having the right to sell his improvements to any man not possessed of other land. (Reference: 1846 handbill.)

This activity culminated with the Homestead Act of 1862. Under the Act, an applicant could receive up to 160 acres of undeveloped public land. Requirements were minimal:  applicants needed only (1) to be at least 21 years old, (2) to live on the land for five years, and (3) to show evidence of having ‘made improvements’ to the land.

Despite problems, including widespread fraud by middle-men brokers (and national theft of Native American lands), the Act was, to judge by the number of families who participated, a  spectacular success.  Another testimony to the program’s success was its longevity: the Act stayed in effect for over a century: until 1976 in the lower 48 states, and 1986 in Alaska.

Prospects

This brings us to the present.  Clearly the tradition of agrarian reform is long and deep in American history.  It is eminently practical, and reflects the simple truth that it makes no sense to crowd people in cities when there are millions of acres of habitable land available.  It is, arguably, simply unnatural.  In 1850, 85% of Americans lived outside of cities.  By 1900, 60% of the population lived rurally.  Today the rate is perhaps 20%.  Perhaps we should reverse this trend.

This doesn’t mean scrapping cities.  Logically, what seems best is a balance between commerce and agrarianism, urban and rural living.  It seems, though, that we are today at a crest of a radically commercial phase, with urban areas falling apart and becoming increasingly aversive. A convergence of social and environmental problems suggests it may be time to shift towards agrarianism to restore balance.

Reading

Clawson, Marion. Uncle Sam’s Acres. Dodd, Mead, 1951 (repr. Greenwood Press, 1970). ISBN: 0837133564.

Commons, John R. (ed.) A Documentary History of American Industrial Society: Volume 7 and Volume 8. Labor movement (1840 – 1860, Parts 1 and 2). Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1910.

Dick, Everett. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands. University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

Gates, Paul W. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development. University of New Mexico Press, 1996. ISBN: 0826316999.

Landau, Elaine. The Homestead Act (children’s book). Children’s Press, 2006. ISBN: 0516258702.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought (3 Volumes). New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927 (repr. 1987). ISBN: 0806120819. Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3

Porterfield, Jason. The Homestead Act of 1862: A Primary Source History. Rosen Publishing Group, 2004. ISBN: 1404201785.

Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936. Peter Smith, 1950. ISBN: 0803208669.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth. Harvard, 1950.

Thompson, Paul B.  The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics. University of Kentucky, 2010. ISBN: 0813125871.

Wiltse, Charles Maurice. The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy. Hill & Wang, 1935 (repr. 1960). ISBN: 0809000288.

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