Monday, September 10, 2018


When Sam Vaknin was first coming to public consciousness, his issue was related to gender politics.  That is, he was promoting the idea of narcissism, being self-centered, which was an attitude encouraged by our privileging of boys and the narrowing of access to power until women had to work through men, usually husbands.  The resulting male entitlement promoted the assumption that women were naturally secondary.  But it failed to understand that when women were relieved of the forced depletion of pregnancy and child-raising, they could earn their own livings and wield their own power.

Now Vaknin says, with alarm, that women are just as narcissistic as men.  He invents a new category, "malignant narcissism," which he considers dangerous, even evil, because it is not just a primary concern for one's own safety, success and supply of praise.  Now it has moved on to destroying and constraining any competition.  I agree that the pattern exists and is in our everyday life.  

Vaknin thinks it is in cities and encouraged by population expansion, so that to survive one has to become more competitive and more ruthless.  My experience is that it's also in small towns and partly happens because the ruthless city people come to the small towns where they can be in charge.  This is one of three dialogues about Vaknin's present political interest, and focuses on a binary between feudalism (one big "king" who is in control and willing to do anything to defend his kingdom, including starting wars that kill millions, which Vaknin appears to approve.  He is originally Israeli, at present employed by a Russian university but sounding oddly Chinese.  He's very learned and believes that he understands what's happening better than anyone else -- a narcissistic conviction.

This interview is very nicely presented by a handsome male interviewer, matching pristine white shirts, and a waving outdoor plant as background for Sam. It includes jokes and smiling, which is quite unlike the stern workroom auto-filming of the past.  The crux of these three discussions is the phenomenon of all the wealth of the world flowing into the pockets of a hundred actual persons -- individuals -- which is a problem of both Nazism (a privileged elite that controls everyone else) and Capitalism (the same thing based on the control of money).  Communism is shrugged off, but Marxism is not.  Vaknin sees the former as a corruption of the latter which was an unsuccessful attempt to address everyone who produces and redistribute their wealth to everyone else.  Communists pretend to do that, but in fact they soon become "nazis."

Vaknin is full of 19th century ideas, some of which have become so symbolic of wars we've fought that their mention arouses emotional responses strong enough to set political bonfires.  This is also true of racism and feminism.  Some words and "moves" will get a person fired quickly with little recourse.  But Vaknin is centering on hatred of an elite, which we have countered with the rule of law.  He suggests the rule of law has lots its effectiveness (certainly it's being challenged by the Republican willingness to ignore it) and been replaced by the cult of personality.  Trump seems a good illustration of that.

Vaknin's idea is that feudalism -- a lot of peasants governed by a kind of hierarchy pyramid with an autocrat at the top -- was the dominant pattern of Western nations until it was broken by the Black Death that destroyed up to seventy per cent of the population in Europe.  (Something similar happened when smallpox decimated the American indigenous people, except that in America Europeans swept in to take over the spaces left by death.  In Europe no other population moved in, so there was space for invention and enpowerment of the peasants.  This reached a peak in France in the 1700's, resulting in democracy.  And the guillotine.

The advantage of democracy is that the instability and changing processes support invention and progress.  The advantage of feudalism, which is evidently a version of a benign kingdom, is that the bottom layer enjoys consistency -- everything stays the same.  We are thus as the beginning of a wave of feudalism because we all yearn for safety, consistency, and predictability.  I see this and believe it, but I think the situation is far more complex and unpredictable.

Vaknin remarks that the transition from democracy, when the people make the decisions, is already giving way to feudalism when authority figures between the people and the dictator make all the decisions.  I see this all the time in the waves of regulations, reporting systems, and conditions.  They can be a major source of irritation and restriction, which erodes the rule of law -- even the Constitution of the USA.  

His understanding of religion is that it is a system of meaning that presents icons and rituals reinforcing the dominant minority's legitimacy in the eyes of the "peasants."  He thinks it works best if it is conflated with the government and it doesn't matter whether it's secular, since it is the "beloved leader" who replaces God as a source of order.  This idea works best with a disciplined stoic like Putin.  Trump just can't follow through, even though there's a lot of tolerance for a dictator.

All the previous is 19th century thought with a growing Enlightenment vibe.  The assumptions are rational, assume that individual humans are happy to be embedded in communities (except for the exceptional like Vaknin) and that money is real.  One of his worries is that when corporations or individuals or even countries become extremely rich that they "take" and "hide" the money so it's no longer in circulation -- as though it were a commodity like, well, vegetables.  But money is only a way to register and "book-keep" value that society agrees upon.  An invention like block-chain can simply eliminate it.  No more billionaires blowing us away with their importance.

There is an industrial side to this, oddly framed in petrochemical terms that can be monopolized.  Solar power and the like draw on supra-planetary sources that can be individually accessed so that there is no transport to be dominated and blocked.  One aspect of feudalism is that moving around is prevented by borders and highways, but the Internet means that we can all go anywhere at least intellectually -- though Vaknin points out that 40% of the Internet goes to countries like China that try to control it.  I'm not sure that they are even 40% successful.  It's basically invisible word-of-mouth.

Bottom line, I enjoy watching Vaknin with his paternalistic convictions and he puts things in terms that are helpful.  But he's becoming an old man now, and he can't see around corners like the ones approaching us.

No comments: