Thoughts for Black Friday

“We never expected that the collapse of Western Civ would be good for the economy.” This is a line we’ve been using for several decades now.

Today is the day when we turn to the Drudge Report to read such headlines as: “Gang fight at Black Friday sale. … Man punched in face pulls gun on line-cutting shopper. … Woman busted after throwing merchandise. … Thousands of teen girls & young women rush Victoria’s Secret. … Video: Insane battle over phones on sale. … Mayhem at Nebraska mall where 9 murdered in 2007. … Shoplifter tries to mace security guards. … Police: Man left boy in car to buy 51-inch TV.”

And so forth. While acquiring groceries yesterday, up here in the Canadas, we overheard several fat ladies plotting their Black Friday shopping strategies. They knew the hours at which various shops would open: this one at 5 a.m., that one not until 6 a.m.; & outrage because another was “refusing” to open until its usual time. Toronto, even without celebrating Thanksgiving on the U.S. date, aspires to match Philadelphia for the bigger event on the morning after.

It’s not that people don’t have brains. It’s what they use them for. We were impressed that these ladies, who might pass quite plausibly for drooling idiots on most other occasions, were suddenly so sharp, so well-informed, so “committed.” Is this ground for hope? No.

Suddenly we thought of all those people who in distant antiquity (say, 1975 A.D.) sat with their families through huge Thanksgiving meals. There must have been many retail workers among them. And today, all of those have their minds fixed on getting up for work in the middle of the night; & going to a workplace that will resemble a piranha tank when the meat falls in.

And yes, this is good for the economy: for as long as economic health is measured in current statistical terms.

Therein lies the weakness of any mediaevally Toryish political philosophy, whose referents are quality & not quantity of goods, & which seeks some intangible “satisfaction” in the product of human labour. Which mobilizes intuitively on aesthetic issues. Which holds (as our mediaeval ancestors once did) that even War must be conducted in a high style, & under all kinds of ethical restrictions, & must absolutely exclude non-combatants.

And again, let us think of those Chinese. As we all know, they discovered gunpowder a thousand years before we did. But until very late in the day, & alas under Western influence, they didn’t use it even against the barbarians. They made, instead, beautiful firecrackers. For the notion had been instilled in them, that if one were to use such stuff to blow up human beings, one would certainly incur the Wrath of Heaven.

How quaint!

We have been thinking a lot about China through the last many weeks, for our bedside reading has been historical & archaeological, about the old Chinese west: “Sinkiang” or Chinese Turkestan through the centuries. As Kipling could have said, “What should they know of China who only China know?” Just as the American westward expansion floods light on the nature of America, so too did the Chinese westward expansion. Or rather, pluralize that, for their own Wild West was won & lost many times over the centuries.

Now in the T’ang dynasty, in the court at Chang’an, there were bureaucrats who understood supply-side economics, kept taxes therefore low but spread them widely (which generates much more revenue than the opposite, covetous “stick it to the rich” strategy). There has been, to our knowledge, little scholarly work done on this by the economic historians, who remain occidentocentric; & let us admit we are inferring from things read beside the point.

But what we say appears obvious: a vast Empire, comparable in scale to the United States or greater in relation to the world of its day, in which “capitalism” is flourishing & generating the wealth for huge infrastructural schemes, to say nothing of the immense standing army that besuits a “hyperpower.” Where also, technology has advanced far beyond that of any neighbouring realm, & often seems almost modern. Through fire signals along watchtowers, for instance, Chang’an could know within hours about trouble a thousand miles away. At sea or on land, it had forces ready. Expeditions could be mounted even to far Afghanistan.

It was an Empire which, like every other in history, finally collapsed upon itself, defeated by nomadic & semi-nomadic peoples it vastly outnumbered & whose technological inferiority was laughable; but whose will was greater. Through political disunity, China destroyed herself, & we have distant glimpses of what will happen in North America, when our own brilliant high technology is suddenly of no avail. Demographic things, like the reduction of the population to a fraction of what it once was, as an immensely complex system of food distribution comes to pieces, & few are prepared for subsistence farming. Empty cities. Savage alien rulers. The learning curve rising once again, straight ahead.

Two points were made above: about supply-side economics, & about the Wrath of Heaven. In the heyday of the T’ang, both were understood. In the collapse, neither could be remembered. The world, of course, is more complicated than that, yet we refer perhaps through these two, to aspects of a single point: for the boundary of Heaven & Earth is never quite certain.

To be in accord with Nature, & master her jungle of “supply & demand,” we must also master another part of Nature: the jungle within man. In politics, it is given to us to find ways to choreograph, & harmonize, the demands of Earth with the demands of Heaven — working not against, but with the grain, from the lowest to the highest. Only thus can we ever rise out of our lazy hapless squalor.

We have been reading also Paul, particularly the Pastoral Epistles, in which he is writing not to churches but to individual men. There & elsewhere through the Pauline epistles one is struck again & again not only by the fire & fury of his Faith, but by his reason & common sense in every practical matter. Read him answering such questions as, What sort of man do we want for a deacon? What sort of women will serve the Church well?

In reading such things, we hear echoes of Confucius: of universal principles at work in the regulation of human life, or “religion” as such regulation is called, from the Latin. We need upright officials. We need persons free of scandal to fill these offices; we need persons sufficiently formed that they will not succumb to the many corrupt temptations of office; we need persons who will earn respect, because they actually serve. We need men & women who haven’t risen too quickly, who won’t let power go to their heads. We need people from stable families, who have formed stable families. “Geniuses” we can do without.

Whether Paul is telling Timothy or Titus, or Confucius is telling Yen Hui, there are moments when it seems all the same. An example must be set, for the common people will be ruled by this example. Tyranny will not work; “do what I say not what I do” will not work. That way lies revolution.

We see in Black Friday the collapse of this conception of Order. And the sad thing is, it is the only conception of Order. There are no easy alternatives to it; there are no easy ways out. Mere machinery will never work on its own; no Constitution can save us from ourselves. The machine must be operated by good & capable women & men; by humble persons who honestly fear the Wrath of Heaven. Or, whatever the machine, it will crush us.