Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Piketty, The Wall Street Journal, and Rational Conservatives


Piketty, The Wall Street Journal, and Rational Conservatives
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century, has almost had the effect of a tsunami on economic thinking here in the United States after its translation from French into English washed up on our monoglot shores. In France itself it has been treated as more or less just another economics book-- no big deal.

Its impact on the US is due to many factors, not least of which is the fact that our educational system is woefully inadequate by European standards as well as our lower cultural literacy compared to Europe. Piketty's work appears here as a revelation, but to the educated European he is only providing a fuller historical context for what most people already understand.

Marxists, especially, should have been under whelmed to learn that the capitalist system creates imbalances in wealth with a large pool of poor and exploited workers at one pole and a small group of capitalists hogging the social wealth at the other.

Piketty tells us this system is not sustainable and to prevent the "Marxist Apocalypse" the capitalists have to modify their behavior and moderate the social inequalities their system creates. The thought that capitalism might be replaced is indeed an apocalyptic nightmare for the bourgeoisie but for the working classes it might be more like a Marxist Epiphany come true.

The Wall Street Journal, no friend to the Left, has reviewed Piketty's book ("A Not-So-Radical French Thinker" by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, weekend edition May 24-25, 2014). Here we find, implicitly, that not only have some on the Left "lost it" over seeing Peketty as some sort of super progressive, but that many American "conservatives" have, explicitly, also gone completely off the deep end by referring to Piketty as a "soft Marxist."

The conservative movement is the U.S. is, however, overloaded with "thinkers" who are intellectually immature and dishonest, selling their brain power (such as it is) to the Koch brothers, the Murdochs, and their ilk. The WSJ review points out that Piketty is a professional academic economist and his book merits consideration. He is a neo-liberal economist who supports market capitalism and, like many other neo-liberals, he advocates "government redistribution to smooth out some of the market's excesses.".

The WSJ points out that in France you can find "honest-to-goodness actual Marxists [that] are still at large" and Piketty is not one of them. The fact that he has simply described how capitalism is actually functioning and this is enough to send so called conservative intellectuals into a nose dive (one from the American Enterprise Institute is especially mentioned) over "soft Marxism"  is evidence enough that many, I think most, conservatives have no regard at all for the facts or even rational discussion but are only mouth pieces for the corporate interests who support them as paid propagandists.

Piketty is worth reading. Marxists have a deeper understanding, I think, about the functioning of the capitalist system so there will be no surprises here, but readers will find a detailed history of wealth distribution and creation over the last three hundred years that will convince anyone with an open mind that this system is exploitative and is leading towards an implosion that could very well destroy it.

Marxists, of course, think the system must be replaced and is ultimately existentially unreformable. Neo-liberals such as Piketty do not agree and he proposes reforms in his book which he thinks will save the sinking ship (such as an international, or at least a European Union, wealth tax).

The WSJ review suggests that the right wing could benefit from reading Piketty. If the inequality he describes is not remedied "it could undermine the social order" and "for all the huffing and puffing about Mr. Piketty's supposedly revolutionary ideas, that conservative insight might be his most lasting contribution to the American debate." Indeed, it well might.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Waiting for Mangabe or Slavoj Zizek on Mandela's Socialist Failure


Thomas Riggins

This is a reply to Slavoj Zizek's article "Mandela's Socialist Failure" published online in The Stone (a New York Times maintained philosophy blog) on December 6, 2013. In eight pithy paragraphs Zizek endeavors to expose the real legacy of Mandela as opposed to his current "beatification." The Catholic Church used to have someone play the role of Devil's Advocate to denigrate the reputation
of a person nominated to become a saint. Zizek has taken it upon himself to see to it that Mandela's "beatification" does not progress to full fledged "sainthood."

Zizek's mantra is that "Mandela was not Mugabe"-- the "good" as opposed to the "bad" Black African leader. Mandela is seen as "a saintly wise man" and Hollywood even makes movies about him. He was "impersonated" by Morgan Freeman who, Zizek points out also impersonated God! Oh my!-- what are they trying to tell us? Zizek should perhaps be reminded that Morgan Freeman is an outstanding actor (or impersonator if you prefer) and has played many roles-- including a chauffeur. And, Zizek notes, "rock stars and religious leaders, sportsmen and politicians from Bill Clinton to Fidel Castro are all united in his beatification." Somehow I don't see Fidel Castro as a "politician" in quite the same way as the unprincipled pragmatist Bill Clinton. Nor do I think Fidel and Clinton are "united" in their evaluations of Nelson Mandela-- far from it. According to Zizek, Mandela is hailed for leaving behind "a muti-party democracy with free press and a vibrant [!] economy well-integrated into the global market and immune [!] to hasty Socialist experiments."

But what is the truth about this man's legacy? The Devil's Advocate will reveal  "two
key facts"  that are "obliterated" by all the pro-Mandela beatification activities. Fact One: There is still wide spread poverty and social misery in South Africa and an increase in "insecurity, violence, and crime."  The majority of Black  South Africans
are living "broadly,"  Zizek says, "the same as under apartheid." This fact "counterbalances" any "rise of political and civil rights."  What is the "main change" in South Africa since the time of Mandela according to Zizek? It is a "new black elite" has joined the "old white ruling class"-- not a new constitution giving equal rights to all citizens and allowing all South Africans to live and work together.

Zizek's statements are completely ridiculous. There are deepening economic problems in South Africa today as well as class divisions but Black people and all South Africans no longer have to carry passes, all can vote, people can go to the same beaches and hotels, etc. The millions who mourned the death of Mandela are acutely aware of the problems facing their country and also aware that the repressive, dehumanizing regime of official racism and apartheid is dead. To think that reality has been "obliterated" in the consciousness of South African people by a Mandela sainthood cult is an insulting affront to the citizens of the new South Africa and reeks of a colonial European outlook towards African peoples. So much for "Fact One."

Fact Two: Black South Africans are becoming angry because the memory of the aims of the "old" African National Congress (social justice and a "kind of" socialism are being "obliterated from our memory." Far from being "obliterated" the program of the ANC and its allies in the labor unions and the South African Communist Party are constantly debated and discussed by the people of South Africa and the demands for more radical reforms and more progressive policies can be democratically advanced. Zizek overlooks the fact that there is a real living democracy at the root of the New South Africa and that Nelson Mandela played a major role in its creation. The millions mourning his passing are not mindless masses with "obliterated" memories.

According to Zizek South Africa is just another example of the current left paradigm:
the left comes to power promising a "new world" but then confronts the reality of the international neoliberal capitalist consensus . Imperialism can speedily punish countries trying to embark on the socialist road. In South Africa's case political power was ceded to the ANC on condition that the existing economic system was preserved . It was thought that this prevented a civil war of massive proportions.
This Historic Compromise (called by some a Faustian pact with the old regime) is at the root of the current problems of poverty and mass discontent in the country.

Zizek is sympathetic to Mandela's dilemma -- create a "new world"-- risk a civil war-- or "play the game" and abandon the "socialist perspective." [There is too much focus on Mandela here-- these decisions were made collectively by the leaders of all the major forces in the liberation movement.]  Zizek  asks a question that is still hotly debated today. Given the  constellation of forces facing the ANC et al on the assumption of power "was the move towards socialism a real option?" [Compromise was indeed necessary, but did the ANC concede too much?]

Seemingly inspired by Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (a coming of age novel for adolescent libertarians), Zizek looks for "the grain of truth" in the "hymn to money" found in the novel: "Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice-- there is no other." 

Not only is there no "grain of truth" in this "hymn" but when human beings only deal with each other on the basis of money we get all the horrors of blood, whips and guns that humans employ against each other in order to obtain and control more and more money (slavery, colonialism, imperialism, fraud-- you name it). It is not humans per se, of course, who engage in these horrors, but a special class of humans  (capitalists) created by the dominant economic system of monopoly capitalism. 

Not content with uncovering a grain of truth in Randism, Zizek imputes the same idea to Karl Marx-- a most un-Randian leap of fallaciousness. He asks if Marx's ideas about "the universe of commodities" were not similar to what Rand said in her hymn about money. After all Marx said under capitalism "relations between people assume the guise of relations among things."  This is a perfect example of a non sequitur and  I defy anyone to find the similarity between Marx's statements about the fetishism of commodities and Rand's view "that money is the root of all good."

Zizek's confusions continue. He thinks that the relations between people in the "market economy" can appear "as relations of mutually recognized freedom and equality." Maybe in the days of Adam Smith but I doubt even then. Donald Trump and his chauffeur hardly are equals or exercise the same amount of freedom. Mitt Romney thought 47 per cent of the American people were social parasites and he is an outstanding representative of the freedom and equally offered by the "market economy."  Most working people know exactly their relations to their bosses and it not only appears to be unequal and unfree (who gets the pink slip and loses unemployment insurance) it is unequal and unfree-- and all of Ayn Rand's baloney will never make it otherwise. 

It is obvious to any aware working person, that the blatant inequality and restrictions on human freedom under the "market economy"  lived and felt by millions of Greek workers, Spanish working people, and others in the EU and throughout the world, that  Zizek's view -- under capitalism "domination is no longer directly enacted and visible as such" -- is just nonsense. Such ruminations by a famous philosopher can only give philosophy a bad name.

While Zizek says that Ayn Rand's ideological claim (only the love of money can free people) is ridiculous, he persists in reminding us of the "moment of truth" it contains. The problem, he thinks, is Rand's "underlying premise" which is "that the only choice is between direct and indirect relations of domination and exploitation" and any alternative is "utopian." Ayn Rand has no such premise. She thinks in simple dichotomies. Unfettered dynamic capitalism and the love of money is GOOD and it is in no way, direct or indirect, involved in any relations of domination and exploitation-- it is the root of GOODNESS. On the other hand any efforts by liberals , socialists, misguided Catholic popes, or anybody else that impinges on this system of goodness is EVIL and a direct source domination and exploitation.

Zizek, however, thinks the "moment of truth" in Ayn Rand's theory of money is that it teaches us "the great lesson of state socialism." Despite Zizek's discovery of the Randian "moment of truth," I don't recommend using Atlas Shrugged as a prolegomena to any future socialism. This is the "truth" that Zizek has discovered.
If you abolish private property (God forbid!) and the market without concretely regulating production then you resuscitate "direct relations of servitude and domination." What does this mean? What "state socialist" country or countries can he be referring to that did not or do not have plans that regulate production? So called "state socialism" was famous for having "central planning" and tried to concretely regulate both production and distribution. As it stands Zizek's lesson is pointless.

He expands on his lesson. If we just abolish the market "without replacing it with a proper form of Communist organization of production and exchange, domination returns with a vengeance, and with it direct exploitation." This isn't very helpful. Communism doesn't spring full blown from the brow of Lenin the day after the revolution. What does Zizek think is the "proper form" of Communism. He gives us no clue in this article. I fear there is no lesson at all to be learned from Ayn Rand's "moment of truth." Certainly not Zizek's tautology that socialism fails to create communism if it doesn't create the proper form of communism.

Zizek now propounds a "general rule"-- it is really just his way of saying  the more things change the more they stay the same. It goes like this: when the people rise up against "an oppressive half-democratic regime" [what is a "half-democracy"-- people either have democratic rights or they don't] it's "easy" to get large demonstrations underway [I think that's what rising up means] and crowd pleasing slogans are devised (pro democracy, anti-corruption, etc) but after the "revolt succeeds" the people find themselves still oppressed as they were before except in a "new guise." 

This seems to me to be a strange concept of what a "successful" revolt is. Zizek seems to think it is some sort of spontaneous generation of of all things good and great for the people and if doesn't happen overnight, then the revolt has failed. His case studies are of the revolts "in the Middle East in 2011." He doesn't seem to understand that these are ongoing processes. The French Revolution didn't end with chopping off the King's head. The revolts may have been begun in the Middle East in 2011 but they are ongoing processes with ups and downs, advances and set backs and it much to early to decide which have failed and which have succeeded or even what "failure" or "success" will mean in the longue duree.

Zizek plogs along. The people do not succeed because they are prevented from seeing that their exploitation continues in the new guise after the revolution by the "ruling ideology" which blames them for their failure because they don't understand that they are not yet mature enough for full democracy [ and anyway, as Lady Thatcher  put it, 'there is no alternative" to capitalism (TINA)]. Zizek doesn't make sense here because he maintains both that the people don't realize the same old exploitation is going on and that they do realize it but are themselves blamed for it by the "ruling ideology." I think Zizek will find "the people" a bit more sophisticated and not as simple minded as he portrays them.

Zizek now explains how US foreign policy has developed a strategy that redirects the revolutionary energy of a popular revolt into political forms desired  by US imperialism (not a word used by Zizek in this article). The US did this in South Africa after the end of apartheid. If this is the case then the ANC, Mandela, the SACP, and entire liberation movement were puppets of US imperialist foreign policy. While he is at it, Zizek also says the same was done in the Philippines, post Marcos, in Indonesia, post Suharto, "and elsewhere." 

Now US foreign policy is indeed a formidable enemy of the people's of the world but the explanation for the problems of liberation movements in attaining their stated goals after the assumption of power can't simply be explained by saying they are victims of US foreign policy's elaborate "detailed strategy of how to exert damage control." In fact, as Wikileaks has shown, the people in charge of US foreign policy often don't know what they are doing, set in motion ridiculous plans, and often end making a mess out of whatever they had in mind to accomplish.

US foreign policy is by and large incompetent and its agents, diplomats, Congressmen and women, generals, cabinet members, and intelligence professionals can only foam at the mouth and yell "treason" when a young soldier, performing his duty to the Constitution of the the United States, Chelsea Manning, reveals some "secret" wires showing up the blunders and failures of the "professionals" in the state department and others and how they try to mislead the American people.  In any event,  Zizek says the big problem of the liberation movements is in finding a way to counteract US policies. As he puts it-- "how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe." Perhaps a dialectical synthesis. Is  Zizek is waiting for Mangabe?

Finally, Zizek tells us what to do "to remain faithful to Mandela's legacy"-- a legacy he just told us was a failure and capitulation to imperialism. Zizek is just the philosopher of that kind of legacy. One he himself calls of "unfulfilled promises" and one that didn't "really disturb the global order of power."  We must forget the "celebratory crocodile tears" shed for Mandela and his leadership. I think that the people of South Africa and many of the dignitaries  (but not all) at his memorial and funeral would, and should be, outraged to be accused of faking their feelings for Mandela. We must instead concentrate on his failures. He ended his life as a "bitter old man" realizing his hero status "was the mask of a bitter defeat."  How does Zizek know this? He thinks, this is the type of philosopher he is, that "we can safely surmise" this to be the case because "of his doubtless moral and political greatness." What sense is there in saying there is political greatness in being a bitter old defeated man. Is the true founder of democratic South Africa then president F. W. de Klerk who is neither bitter nor considered a failure? Where is the moral greatness in bitterness?

The truth is that Mandela was a realist who made unavoidable compromises to free his people from apartheid, that he and his comrades in the ANC and SACP and the trade union movements forged a revolutionary struggle that toppled one of the most repressive political regimes in the world-- one backed by the post powerful imperialism in the world and its allies. This was not a failure to attain "socialism." Socialism cannot be imposed from above, it must be struggled for by working and oppressed people themselves and Mandela helped found the preconditions for that struggle.

The fact that the mighty of the world came to his memorial is testimony not that he failed "to disturb the global order of power" but that he profoundly shook it and they are eager to co-op his message and be identified with him because they know that all over the world at this very moment millions of oppressed people in both the centers of capitalist power and in the neocolonial fringes are beginning to rise up and demand their rights and that they have much to learn from the tactics of the South African liberation movement. Slavol Zizek's libels notwithstanding,  Nelson Mandela was a great revolutionary leader who freed his people from oppression and inspires masses  around  the world to fight for a better world-- he was the farthest it was possible to be from a "bitter old man."

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Women, Fertility, and the Rise of Modern Capitalism: Review


Thomas Riggins

This is a review of the above named article by Alberto Alesina (Harvard Economics Department) which appeared in Science 25 October 2013. It is an interesting article, not least because it is illustrative of Marx's view that bourgeois economics ceased to be a science after the time of David Ricardo and became merely an exercise in apologetics for capitalism but also because it attempts to answer the question "How did the Black Plague change work and family opportunities for women" as relates to the rise of capitalism.

This is a short summary overview of the article in six sections:

1.  Income per capita (total economic output divided by total population) equals the wealth of a nation. The wealth increases only if the the output increases faster than the population. Historically the relation of output and the population was stable, resulting in social immobility. Two revolutions changed this. First, the "Malthusian" [?] revolution due to the Black Death]-- slowed down population growth. Second, the Industrial Revolution increased output. The first revolution was a precondition for the second because it allowed income to go above subsistence level creating a demand for goods and technology that "pulled away" from agriculture creating the conditions for the birth of modern capitalism. An important consequence of all this was the increase in the number of women in the work force. [This section puts forth the thesis of Alesina's article. Now we must see how he fleshes it out.]

2.  The author now states Malthus [1766-1834] made a great discovery--i.e., "population growth is continuously held in check by the resources available to sustain it"-- and this hinders social progress. Two observations here: 1) this common sense self-evident observation was hardly unique to Malthus and is not what he is famous for (which is the preposterous unscientific observation that food supply increases arithmetically and population geometrically); 2) a stable population does not of necessity prevent social progress. The article next informs us that Europe had  stable living standards until struck by the Black Death (bubonic plague) in 1348-1350 when a third of the population or more died. The result of the die off was a labor shortage and a surplus of land to be worked. This caused wages to go up, especially in agriculture,  and opened opportunities for women to work in the fields, giving them less time for child care, thus leading to a rise in the age of marriage and a lowering of the fertility rate and a slowing of future population growth. I am confused about the "rise of wages" because most agricultural workers in the 14th century were bound serfs not wage workers. Craftsmen did make more money and workers in towns and cities a well but the serfs benefited by being able to demand a greater share of the product rather than by "wages" per se, although in some areas a minority of paid agricultural workers did exist. In fact it was an attempt to suppress gains by the serfs and peasants that lead to the peasant wars which broke out after the plague years.

There is no reason to refer to this phenomenon as a "Malthusian" revolution.  In the first place four hundred years separate Malthus from the Black Death and in the second place Malthus is not really entitled to have anything named after him as he was not an original thinker and plagiarized all his major ideas fro earlier writers and put them in the service of the landowning class as opposed to the up and coming bourgeoisie of his day and the working people. Marx points out (Theories of Surplus Value, Vol.2) that Malthus got his ideas mostly from a little known writer on agriculture and economics, James Anderson (1739-1808). Marx wrote, "Malthus used the Andersonian  theory of rent to give his population law, for the first time, both an economic and a real (natural-historical) basis, while the nonsense about geometrical and arithmetical progression borrowed from earlier writers, was a purely imaginary hypothesis (chapter ix, sec. 1)."  Malthus never credited those authors from whom he copied his ideas. That he is still taken seriously by some modern economists is evidence of the ideological rather than scientific role of the
discipline under capitalism.

3. The article also points out that the need for child labor increased due to the shortage of agricultural labor and this implies an incentive for an increase in fertility-- counteracting the decrease in fertility implied by women working in the fields and thus unavailable for child care. Almost all the sentences used by the author to advance his ideas are qualified and speculative: e.g. higher wages "could have" effected fertility and "might have" increased fertility. These factors "may have played out" in different ways in different parts of Europe. A useful theory cannot be
based on "could have" and "may have" speculations. He now wants to ask "why"
wages and fertility "could have" been different in different parts of Europe-- particularly the difference between North Western and South Eastern Europe.

4. His answer is also speculative as he calls it "one possibility." That is,  the (non-existent) "Malthusian" revolution brought about income growth before the Industrial revolution. This is because after the Black Death  fertility in South Eastern Europe returned to pre-plague levels but increased "substantially" in North Western Europe. "Not surprisingly, this part of Europe led the spectacular rise of modern capitalism." The "Not surprisingly"  is begging the question. Growth in fertility was an important factor in the growth of capitalism. Evidence: there was a growth of fertility in North Western Europe and then there was the rise of capitalism. This is evidence of a correlation not a cause.

5. Regardless, the author thinks that the Black Death and the "Malthusian" revolution were only two factors in the rise of capitalism in North Western Europe. He says "one possibility" for another, and the tipping factor, was the Protestant Revolution.

6.  Regarding the Protestant Revolution-- i.e., the Reformation, the author, who mentions Max Weber, credits Lutheranism with introducing the ideas of an accumulation of human capital. The concept of "human capital" is not worked out. Capital accumulation (money for investment in commerce)  however, based on frugality and hard work by  individuals  which implies that one has been chosen as one of God's elect was a feature of Protestantism.  Actually this so called "Protestant Ethic" as a factor in the rise of capitalism was credited by Weber to the influence of Calvinism not Lutheranism (which he took a dim view of). The author suggests  that perhaps the influence of the Reformation on the development of capitalism was not due to the religious doctrine as such but due to the emphasis on economic growth that Protestantism developed. A strange suggestion since Weber's point was that the economic emphasis was a deduction from Calvinist religious principals. Calvinism was based on a doctrine of predestination and economic success was evidence (but not proof} that one was predestined to be one of the elect (who gets to Heaven)-- the more economically and socially successful one was the better the evidence of future salvation.

I must conclude that this article doesn't provide any evidence whatsoever for any of its major contentions. It doesn't even mention the role of the discovery of the New World and the wealth that flooded Europe as a result of the dispossession of the native populations, nor the enclosure movements by which peasants were dispossessed of the commons or driven off their land which was then developed as private property while the dispossessed were forced to become laborers working for others on the pain of imprisonment or death. The article is highly speculative and inspired by discredited  and unscientific notions of a nonexistent "Malthusian" revolution and leaves us as much in the dark after reading it as before as to the actual influence of women and their fertility on the rise of modern capitalism.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Marxism is Real Naturalism


Marxism is Real Naturalism: Galen Strawson and Panpsychism
Thomas Riggins

Sartre once remarked that the attempt to construct a philosophy that goes beyond Marxism simply recreates a pre-Marxist view that is no longer relevant to current understanding. In a recent issue of the London Review of Books (9-26-2013) I believe the philosopher Galen Strawson guilty of just such an attempt in his article "Real Naturalism."

Engels long ago pointed out that there are basically two trends in modern philosophy-- one which leads to idealism and myth making, and one which leads to materialism and the correct scientific approach to understanding the nature of reality. I hope to show in this article that Strawson (hereafter "GS") has taken the idealistic path.

GS states unequivocally the following: "I'm a naturalist, an out-and-out naturalist, a philosophical or metaphysical naturalist about concrete reality. I don't think anything supernatural or otherwise non-natural exists." We shall see. Reality has already been qualified by the adjective "concrete" which leaves open the possibility of some sort of "non-concrete" reality to play the role usually reserved for "spirit" or "mind" in idealistic philosophies. I want to be able to replace the term "naturalism" with the term "materialism" (which I defend) so I am a "materialist about reality" period.

We need to be clear about terms. I think naturalism is the same as materialism but some naturalists disagree. Some think that there are emergent qualities in the material world that lead to the transcendence of mere nature. I think they are mistaken and are dualists or idealists as regards reality and are naturalists in name only. All such emergent qualities are ultimately to be explained by basic constituents of a material nature.

Physicalism is also another name for materialism. This outlook originated with the Logical Positivists with respect to their materialist philosophy of mind. For the sake of clarity I will use the term "materialism" instead of either "naturalism" or "physicalism" (or sometimes "n-materialism" and "p-materialism" to be really clear) in order to avoid the obfuscation introduced into philosophy by the multiplication of useless terms. I hope I have not obfuscated here.

Now GS says that the non-natural can only be known in relation to the natural and everything natural is "anything that exists in space- time." Well, materialism also holds to this view and, since everything that exists does so in space-time, GS should simply say he is a materialist, adopt Marxism-Leninism as the most consistent materialism, and that would be that. Except that he thinks many people who call themselves n-materialists are not-- they are really false n-materialists, they are "noturalists." Which is just what I think GS himself is.

What upsets GS is his view that in the last fifty years or so so-called n-materialists have questioned the existence of conscious experience and nothing could be more self evident than that we have experiences. GS blames this lamentable state of affairs on the influence of Behaviorism which led most n-materialists to think that, since Behaviorism explained all human activity without recourse to concepts of consciousness and experience, it was unscientific to use such concepts. Even when they broke with Behaviorism as such they still denied the existence of "experience" because they did not think the concept compatible with the n-materialist view that everything was "physical."

These "false" n-materialists, in the view of GS, simply deny that matter can be conscious and since they don't believe anything else basically exists except matter it follows that there is no such thing as experience.  Now GS admits that many of them deny that they don't believe that matter can be conscious and so experience can be "physical," but he says they only make these claims by changing the meaning of "consciousness" so that "whatever they mean by it, it excludes what the term actually means."

GS now switches from speaking about n-materialism to p-materialism. There is no problem here because they are the same thing. We cannot reduce everything we hold to be explainable in terms of p-materialism to terms of physics. Physics right now is in flux and no one can state that they know exactly what the ultimate theory of reality will be, or if there will even ever be such a theory. According to GS, outside of certain quantitative structures revealed by mathematics and experimentally tested physics appears unable to "tell us anything about the intrinsic nature of reality."

GS wants us to doubt physics because he wants to create a p-n-materialist theory of the mind which will not be reducible to statements of physics. He exhorts us to think in terms of the views of Locke, Hume and Kant, as well as Eddington and Bertrand Russell to accept the "point that physics can't convey the nature of everything that exists-- even though everything is wholly physical." This appeal to the great thinkers of the past is unnecessary.

 I can't think of any materialist, unless he or she has completely lost his or her way, who would deny that the nature of certain things that exist-- appreciation of a work of art by a person for example-- is to be explained by physics even though the art work, the person's brain and the neural activity within it are  wholly physical. It is enough for materialism to point out that the nature of the appreciation which exists within the person would not exist without the physical (materialistic) prerequisites of the brain.

So I don't see a problem with the existence of "experiences" which GS wants to call his "starting point: outright realism  about experience, conscious experience." A new term has now been introduced: "realism." This too is, I think, just another term for "materialism"-- "r-materialism." I don't want to belabor the point, but while Marxists are content to use just one term, "materialism" tout court, our non-Marxist philosophical colleagues insist on using three different terms and usually eschew using such a crude old fashioned and discredited term as "materialism"-- not all of them but enough so that I need to use these distinctions I have made for purposes of clarification.

I agree with GS about the "terminological wreckage" that one finds in the philosophy of mind and so sympathize with him in wanting to get a clear understanding of what "experience" means. It is just the pre-philosophical notion that every one has, from childhood up, when they feel, hear, taste or see something that they are aware of. He takes the example of the taste of pineapple from Locke-- to taste pineapple is all you have to do to know what tasting a pineapple is like. That is a real experience, the experience of the taste of pineapple. Materialists would be wrong to think "they have any good reason to give an account of experience that is in any way deflationary or reductionist  relative to the ordinary pre-philosophical understanding of experience."

GS is surely right for any ordinary everyday conversations about experience, but a materialist, talking to another philosopher, would not be remiss in pointing out that the taste of a pineapple is a function of some type of brain activity without which there would be no experience of said taste. I think it rather obvious that "physical reality has experiential character only when organised in certain specific ways-- e.g., in the way in which it is organised in brains" [or proto-brains or some functionally equivalent organ or structure.] At this point in his essay this materialist position presented by GS need not, he tells us, be ruled out. But he is going to try to and rule it out later because he wants to defend the possibility of panpsychism! Let us see if he succeeds.

Now I agree with GS that experience really exists the way he says it does-- I have a real experience of the taste of pineapple and I do not question the existence of this conscious experience. But GS says that if that is the case then I must be "fully open to panpsychism." This is the view, according to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, "that the physical world is pervasively psychical, sentient or conscious (understood as equivalent)."  Well, I am fully open to his argument (if he has one) but I don't think his argument will prove his case.

He begins to make his case by arguing that materialists who argue for the non-existence of experience are wrong, and since we all are aware of experience we have better reason to doubt the existence of non-experiential reality than of experiential reality. He says we know "some physical stuff" is experiential because of brain states and concludes that we have no reason not to conclude that "all physical stuff is in its fundamental nature wholly experiential in all conditions and in all respects all the way down." But not all materialists argue that experience doesn't exist. The fact that we experience external reality does not necessitate  the fundamental nature of external reality is "experiential" in the same sense that we experience it and call our awareness "experiential." This is the fallacy of equivocation.

GS, however, concludes that he has shown that panpsychism is the logical result of p-n-materialism. He calls it "pure" panpsychism " since "it goes beyond the version of panpsychism according to which all physical stuff has experiential being in addition to non-experiential being." He also claims that this version of panpsychism "leaves everything that is true in physics untouched."  Quite a claim since we don't know if everything that we think is true in physics is true.

GS admits he has not really made the case in his article for panpsychism. What he thinks he has done is to show that "there's no reason" to think that the world given to us by physics is fundamentally non-experiential rather than experiential. Since the world as we know it is our experience of it. "There is," he says, "zero observational evidence of any non-experiential concrete reality."

What does this mean? Because all our knowledge of the world is our awareness and experience of it therefore there is no evidence that it has an existence independent of experience. GS denies that this is what his position amounts to. But that is exactly what his position amounts to. He simply enunciates his position and says anyone who doesn't except his view is "not a real naturalist."

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the problem with panpsychism. Physics is not the only science we have to deal with-- there is biology, geology, and paleontology just to name a few others. Science has pretty much shown that our cognitive abilities including consciousness and awareness and the abilities to experience the world we live in are functions of our nervous system and the evolution of our brains. A rock is not going to be "aware" of anything. There was a time when there was no life on earth and no experiences either. Everyone knows this story. Our observational understanding of the history of the universe makes the materialist (non-panpsychic) view the most compelling logical explanation of all the concrete facts we presently have at our disposal.

I think GS knows his position in both counter-intuitive and unscientific because he ends his essay by saying that he predicts "that no philosopher who disagrees will take any notice" of his "argument."  But a bunch of assertions is not an argument and he has already said that he was "not particularly disposed to make the case for panpsychism" in this article.

He quotes Hobbes to back up his prediction: "Arguments do seldom work on men of wit and learning, when they have once engaged themselves in a contrary opinion." If you don't accept GS position, well then, "You're not a serious, realistic naturalist." Perhaps GS should rather be thinking about Horace's observation "mutato nomine de te fabula narratur."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

John Gray, David Hawkes and the Myth of Progress


Thomas Riggins

John Gray is a British social philosopher who, in the words of David Hawkes, puts forward an "uncompromising challenge to the myth of progress." Hawkes (an English professor at Arizona State) has recently published an essay, "Backwards into the future" in the TLS (8-30-2013) which is a sympathetic presentation of Gray's views and a review of his latest book, "The Silence of Animals: On progress and other modern myths." What is Gray's challenge all about.

Gray's new book is an attack on "meliorism"-- which Hawkes explains as the view "that the moral and material condition of humanity will improve over time" and that its improvement is, in the long run, inevitable. Defined this way "meliorism" will be easy to attack. Conjoining "moral" and "material" conditions with "and" rather than "and/or" and adding "inevitability" suggests that meliorism is some form of utopian dream and indeed a myth.

But not all philosophers use this straw man definition of meliorism. Much more useful is the definition given, for example, in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Meliorism "is the view that the world is neither completely good nor completely bad, and that incremental progress or regress depend on human actions." This view holds that "By creative intelligence and education we can improve the environment and social conditions."

Meliorism is the possibility that humans can make some progress towards improving the world but regress is also possible at times, and there is no guarantee of success since human actions cannot be predicted with inevitability. Under capitalism, for example, human actions are guided by competition and the profit motive and lead to socially destructive behaviors with respect to the environment and other people who are seen as objects to be manipulated for economic gain. Meliorism in such a system would not seem to have much chance of success in the long run, although in some parts of the world progress in scientific understanding and disease control can be discerned.

The Wikipedia article on "Meliorism" points out that this view is the basis on which the values of liberal democracy, human rights, and liberalism as a political philosophy are founded. I should also add that Marxism and other forms of socialism are likewise indebted to Meliorism but do not think the meliorist project can really get underway, or can get underway only with great difficulty, under capitalism or in under developed parts of the world where meliorist social projects, including socialism, are attempted in the face of capitalist hegemony.

Hawkes praises Gray for his "bold effort" to "exorcize" the "spectre of progress." This "spectre" presents itself in "the guises of Enlightenment rationalism, Romantic individualism, liberal humanism, nationalism, Marxism, and neo-liberal capitalism." Only the kitchen sink seems to be missing.

But I think Hawkes indulges in over kill. He attacks the uses to which science has been put in the last century and gives as negative examples the two world wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima (all done under the aegis of capitalism). He says science is misused,perhaps, due to a defect in its methods and thinks "we may well ask whether such uses are not in some way inherent in the scientific method that enables them."

I don't know how many science courses English professors are required to take, but Gray's target is not progress in science but the claim that there has been moral progress. In a talk he gave at an RSA conference in Britain he stated that there has been progress in scientific understanding of the world from the time of Copernicus and he is not arguing against that, but he rejects claims of ethical and moral progress-- the United States, for example, has reverted to the use of torture a practice we had thought was extinct in advanced democracies and outlawed by all sorts of international agreements and conventions.

There is nothing "inherent" in scientific method, anymore than in mathematics, that leads to the Holocaust. The failure of morality that led to the Holocaust, or Hiroshima, or the Invasion of Iraq was not a failure of science. Science, as is mathematics, is neutral on moral questions and only seeks to describe how the world works in terms of natural processes. It is similar to the rules of chess: this is how the pieces move, etc. If you play chess poorly it is not the the fault of the rules.

Hawkes admits that Gray "never renounces belief in scientific truth" but still there are serious consequences resulting from an abandonment in belief in moral or ethical progress. The consequences Hawkes reports that Gray thinks follow from his rejection of moral progress are not "profoundly disturbing" as Hawkes maintains because they don't really follow at all. Gray thinks it is worse to lose "faith" in progress than to lose it with respect to "God, reason or even science," Hawkes writes.

We are told without the idea of progress we cannot see "meaning in life." But this is just not true. Humanity makes itself by its choices and gives meaning to life by the commitments it undertakes. Sartre pointed this out before Gray was even born when he said "Whenever a man chooses his purpose and his commitment in all clearness and in all sincerity, whatever that purpose may be, it is impossible for him to prefer another. It is true in the sense that we do not believe in progress. Progress implies amelioration; but man is always the same, facing a situation which is always changing, and choice remains always a choice in the situation. The moral problem has not changed since the time when it was a choice between slavery and anti-slavery." That there is no transcendental meaning to life does not mean there is no meaning tout court.

We also have to abandon the idea that "empirical appearances conceal substantial essences." This is nonsense. Discussions of empirical and substantial essences, or real and nominal essences, of Aristotle's views or Locke's for that matter are quite independent of one's theory about "progress" one way or another.

Nor is it responsible for our having to give up the belief of a "soul" within the body. Materialism is responsible for this view-- it goes back to Epicurus at least and is not dependent on Gray's views about the myth of progress. Ryle's The Concept of Mind, written when Gray was a toddler, deals with "the ghost in the machine" quite apart from notions of progress.

One can also reject the idea of progress independently of being either a neo-pragmatist or a postmodernist-- it does not commit one to rejecting the view that signs refer to external reality.

Finally we are informed, incorrectly, that not having faith in progress means we "view the world as a depthless simulacrum with no underlying significance." Wrong again. Not all cultures have produced philosophies based on the idea of progress. The Ancient Egyptians for one had no concept of progress in our Western sense yet they did not believe the world was a depthless simulacrum without significance.

Again, Sartre would maintain that we are responsible for creating our own significance in terms of the values we choose to live by. The world presented by science is the backdrop for our experiences and choices -- it up to us to provide the significance. None of the above five so called "profoundly disturbing"consequences of rejecting the idea of moral progress are logical consequences of such a rejection.

This very conclusion that I have articulated is the one Hawkes indicates is shared by Gray himself. Hawkes writes that one of the conclusions of The Silence of Animals is: "The world can only have meaning conferred on it, or be deprived of it, by human beings." But this conclusion does NOT logically follow from Gray's thinking. He thinks we have arrived at this conclusion not because the world has changed but because the mind-- i.e., "the twenty-first century mind" has changed. But this conclusion would be consistent with the views of mid twentieth century thinkers such as Sartre, among others so no new and startling "development in human history" is responsible.

Marxists would say that the dominant ideas in a culture are a reflection in the ideological super structure of the social reality that the culture has created around its basic interaction with the natural world it finds itself in and especially with respect to its mode of extracting food and sustenance in order to sustain the living human beings that comprise it.

And while the scientific world view would question the idea of "eternal verities" with respect to the development of ethical and moral systems, if Gray's views are correct about the world's meaning, or lack of it, being dependent on human beings then-- the very idea he rejects-- that it is "not the discovery of an eternal verity about the world" (as Hawkes puts it) is incorrect. The only way it could be true that the "meaning of the world" is put there by the human mind is the fact that the world in and of itself has no transcendent meaning of its own-- it never did and presumably never will-- it is just atoms and the void-- and this is certainly an eternal verity about the world and a necessary condition for Gray's views to even make whatever sense they do make.

Hawkes questions whether Gray is correct in apparently thinking that life, even for people who think it has meaning, is still meaningless. Gray writes, "symbols are useful tools; but humans have an inveterate tendency to think and act as if the world they have made from those symbols actually exists."

Hawkes, however, asks if this is really an "inveterate tendency" rather than [as Marxism suggests] the result of historical conditioning. We might think the word "fire" is a symbol for the speedy exothermic oxidation of combustive substances resulting in heat and light and we would not, I think, be wrong to hold that what the symbol represents "actually exists." However, we might not have the same opinion as the ancient Greeks about "Zeus." It is the job of science, and philosophy, to try and hook up the proper symbolism with the actually existing world.

We can pass over the next section of Hawkes essay where he discusses the problems of symbolism and signs as elaborated by Gray in an earlier work-- FALSE DAWN ( 1998; 2nd edition, 2009). Here the discussion revolves around Gray's use of economic examples to illustrate his theories and Hawkes seems to take Gray seriously when he does so. The problem is that Gray's economic views (and Hawkes remarks about them) appear nonsensical. I base this not only trying to parse this discussion but also on Paul Krugman's review of the second edition of FALSE DAWN. Krugman, who has a Nobel in economics, thinks that Gray's writings on the subject are the "garbled" views of an "ignoramus." Krugman, however, writes that Gray didn't need to show himself "to be an economic ignoramus, when his core argument does not really depend on economics anyway." [ False Dawn : The Delusions of Global Capitalism (book review, New Statesman)] Let us return to the "myth" of progress and the "core argument" and leave the dismal science to Krugman and his confrères.

Hawkes next deals with a contradiction in Gray's position (not necessarily a bad thing.) Progress may be a myth, but "modernization inexorably occurs" [the spectre of progress under another name] Hawkes writes. We may claim not to find any meaning in history but history and change still go on. If the myth of progress is overcome and our understanding of the world is no longer perverted by it-- is this not progress? Hawkes, I fear, may be a victim of dispirited English department post modernism when he writes, "If the Western intelligentsia no longer acknowledges any significance to life, that does not mean that we have discovered a timeless truth that had been hidden from Aristotle, Plato and the prophets of monotheism. It means that we can no longer see meaning where others once did."

Well, I don't think Hawkes speaks for the whole "Western intelligentsia." As far as finding significance in history is concerned the "Western intelligentsia" would do well to ponder the following admonition from Hegel with regard to any scientific study and that is the categories we use to find significance or meaning in the world are the ones we ourselves bring with us and a thinker "sees the phenomena presented to his mental vision exclusively through these media." From which he concludes that to a person "who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn , presents a rational aspect."

And what do we find when we look at the world rationally-- i.e., scientifically. We don't find the world according to Plato or Aristotle or the prophets of monotheism. We find a universe about 13.788±037 billion years old, we know life on one planet (so far), Earth, which is about 4.6 billion years old and it seems has had life for the last 3.6 billion years and for the last 200,000 years, anatomically modern humans. Our species resulted non-providentially by a process of evolution by natural selection. So here we are and we have to make the most of it.

Do we see any significance or meaning in the history of our species. Hawkes seems to agree with Gray that it is irrational to believe in (moral and ethical) progress-- he is very unimpressed by the twentieth century-- but, he says, that doesn't mean there is no meaning in history.

Hawkes proposes that the meaning of history is not progress but anti-progress-- i.e., not ascent but decline. "History is not progress but regress, not advance but decline,and it leads to destruction rather than to utopia." Gray would think this just as ridiculous as progress because for him the basic reality is that the animal man is an unchanging essence. In his book Straw Dogs he writes "Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive."

Hawkes writes that "Belief in historical regression is a far more challenging proposition than Gray's assertion of insignificance." It is challenging because it is ridiculous. What is history regressing from-- Atlantis? Ancient Egypt? the Stone Age? At least Gray's warmed over Schopenhauerian pessimism makes some sense where regress doesn't.

Hawkes also seems to miss the point about the difference between moral progress and scientific progress. A world without polio or smallpox is a great scientific advancement and shows that we can make progress in disease control and understanding nature. If there are areas where polio still breaks out, mostly in the underdeveloped world, it is a moral crisis not a scientific one. If capitalists demand money and profit for medicines it is a moral crisis not a scientific one.

When Hawkes writes, "It is relatively easy to admit that what we have seen as scientific advancement and economic enrichment are meaningless" he is missing the whole point of what science is all about. It is not meaningless to to fight against malaria, yellow fever and other infectious diseases. Pasteur was not engaged in a meaningless exercise when he discovered how to prevent rabies, nor was Koch when he discovered the cause of tuberculosis.

Hawkes ends his essay by remarking that we may soon have to consider the fact that scientific advance and economic enrichment (two inherently different activities indiscriminately lumped together) are "actively evil and destructive." This is like calling cooking evil because some people over eat and get sick. Did cooking make them sick?

I will give the last word to Bertrand Russell who sums up all that anyone will get out Hawkes' essay or Gray's books as far as positive knowledge is concerned. "Change is one thing, progress is another. 'Change' is scientific, 'progress' is ethical; change is indubitable, where as progress is a matter of controversy" (Unpopular Essays, 1951).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Marx and the Muslim Brothers


Thomas Riggins

How should one respond to the claim, made by Sheri Berman a political science professor at Barnard College, that Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are "Marx's contemporary successors"? [Oped- New York Times 8-10-13: "Marx's Lesson for the Muslim Brothers"]

This seems like an outrageous assertion and I doubt that there are many Islamist madrases where hadiths from the life of Karl Marx are discussed. Lets take a closer look at professor Berman's article to see the reasoning behind this statement.

She begins her article with the well known remark, allegedly adapted from Hegel by Marx about history repeating itself first as tragedy and again as farce. Marx puts it this way: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Berman says this remark (it is from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) was made in response to the revolution of 1848 and the overthrow of Louis Phillip the last French king (King of the French). The title of Marx's work refers to the month of Brumaire in the French Revolutionary calendar adopted to celebrate  the new era of liberty (and to get rid of the Christian calendar). Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d'etat on the 18th of Brumaire Year VIII of the Republic (November 10, 1799).

This 1848 revolt ushered in a Republic (the Second Republic, 1848-1852) the French are on their Fifth now) but this republic, which the French masses had hoped would be a radical democratic and progressive government, was actually a conservative and even reactionary compromise that liberals made with the conservative forces because they feared the demands being made by the workers. The Communist Manifesto was written at this time.

The first president of the Second Republic  was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873: the undistinguished nephew of  L'Empeuror)-- he was the son of Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother). In 1851 he staged a coup against the republic and later became the Emperor of the French as Napoleon III (Napoleon II, the son of Napoleon I died  from consumption in exile in Austria  at the age of 21 in 1832).

The "tragedy" in Marx's remark is the reign of Napoleon I (his downfall) and the "farce" is the coming to power of Napoleon III. Berman sees a pattern in the coup staged by Louis Bonaparte -- the dictatorship of Napoleon III came to be because "Conservatives were able to co-op fearful liberals and install new forms of dictatorship"-- i.e., the Second Empire. Basically that is what happened.

Berman goes to say that these "same patterns are playing out in Egypt today." Three groups seem to be at work according to Berman-- LIBERALS ( not otherwise specified but must include the progressive petty bourgeoisie, secularists of almost- all types, the working class and  independent unions, progressive Christians (Copts), progressive Muslims, etc.,)-- AUTHORITARIANS (the compradore bourgeoisie, the armed forces, the supporters of Mubarak-- both secular and religious, conservative Christians, and some Islamists, etc) and ISLAMISTS (in this context this group must be the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters). We are told that the "Islamists" are "playing the role of socialists" -- i.e., the role the socialists played in 1848.  Zut alors!

She thinks 2013 Egypt is analogous to 1848 France because 1.)  the masses have overreached "after gaining power" [but the masses never gained power in 1848-- nor have they in Egypt in 2013];  2. the Egyptian "liberals" were put off by the the enactments of  their former allies the Islamists [ but the French liberals were afraid of the PROGRESSIVE demands of their former allies-- the working class while the Egyptian masses-- not just the "liberals"-- were afraid of the REACTIONARY demands and enactments of the Muslim Brotherhood]; 3. The liberals "have come crawling back" to the "authoritarians" to get protection [ this may be true of France, but in Egypt the "liberals" did not "crawl"-- they demanded, with the largest demonstrations and mass movement in the history of Egypt, that the army take action and remove the Islamists, who were elected under false pretenses, from power]; 4. The "authoritarians" have taken back the "reins of power" [while this seems to be what is going on in Egypt today, in France the liberals compromised with the "authoritarians" and both shared the reigns of power.]

So it does not seem to be the case that there is any merit to Berman's comparison of the French (actually it was was a broader movement ) Revolution of 1848 with the on going revolution in Egypt. Most glaringly it should be noticed that in 1848 the "socialists" never gained power so any comparison with the Egyptian "islamists" of today is off the wall (in more ways than one).

But wait! Berman's analysis gets even more Baroque. She says that if the Egyptian masses ("liberals") continue to support the crackdown by the army they will be playing into the hands of the Islamists (which may be the case) and that the Islamists are "Marx's contemporary successors." I am sure the Egyptian Communist Party, the independent labor federation and unionists in Egypt, as well as the Communist and worker's movements around the world  will be surprised to discover that it is not they but the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who are the "successors" to the teachings of Karl Marx.  Even as an analogy this is unhelpful.

Berman says the Islamists would be right if they adopted the slogan: "Islamists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains." Well, the Islamists should not be in chains, but unfortunately one of the things they try to do, as soon as they lose their chains, is to put them on non Islamists-- this is what they started to do in Egypt.

Berman says the "liberals" implored the military to end "the country's first experiment in democracy." What seems to have happened is that the vast majority of the Egyptian people rose up against the betrayal of their democratic aspirations which the Muslim Brotherhood began to engineer once they were in power. The military was asked to intervene so that the experiment in democracy could start up again. Plans for a new constitution and elections are in the works.

One of the most advanced politically of the opposition groups, the Egyptian Communist Party, has characterized the Muslim Brotherhood as the leading force of the "fascist religious right" in Egypt and the representative of the "most parasitic, tyrannical, corrupt, fascist, racist and reactionary segment of large capital" dominating the country. [The Egyptian Communist Party:  The June 30 (2013) Revolution… Its Nature, Duties and Prospects].

 So the current struggle being carried out in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities is a struggle to the death between the forces representing secular democratic people's power  and fascist reaction. The army, whose leadership is not Islamist, has, for now, sided with the people. The fact that major elements of the Western mass media seek to portray this epic battle as simply an anti-democratic military  coup merely indicates the sympathy of the imperialist powers with fascism when confronted with a people's uprising.

Trying to force the events in Egypt into the Procrustean bed of 1848, Berman writes that during the 1848 uprising the "liberals" feared that "workers and socialists might win" so they joined with the conservatives thinking "the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils."

"This," she tells us, "is almost exactly what is playing out in Egypt now." The only difference is that the Egyptian situation is exactly the opposite of what happened in 1848. In Egypt the "liberals" were not reacting to a socialist threat. An authoritarian reactionary Islamic movement came to power by running on a fraudulent democratic platform-- the "liberals", the Egyptian left, the working class, and the vast majority of the people coalesced together to fight this usurpation of the 2011 Egyptian Democratic Revolution. The armed forces supported the masses as the "lesser of two evils." How the armed forces will react in the future, once the Islamist threat is contained and eliminated, will depend on how unified the masses are and how determined they are to push through a really democratic and inclusive constitution.

What is Dr. Berman's analysis of why "liberals" act the way they do? Does she discuss what material interests they represent, what classes they represent and the relations of their interests and ideas to those of others they may be able to ally with or must needs come into conflict with? The answer is no. "Liberals" act the way they do because they "like order and moderation and dislike radical social experiments." They also "fear"  those who engage in "extremist rhetoric, mass protests and violence." Which is just what the "liberals" did to get rid of Mubarak!

She compares the coming of "democracy" to Eastern and Southern Europe after the implosion of the Soviet Union to the middle east.  In Europe "extremism and religion weren't major factors" (forget the genocidal  wars in the Balkans) and anyway the European Union "was there to help." The poor Egyptians don't have a European big brother to guide them (and won't do what the Americans tell them)--"there is no strong democratic neighbor to guide them." Maybe Bibi over in  Jerusalem could help out?

This "liberal" fear and or dislike of "radical social experiments" is as true today, we are told, as it was for "liberals" in 1789 and 1848 "and it's true of Egyptian liberals today." Oh my! It was the French "liberals" that brought about 1789 and there are not many people who have read up on the great French Revolution that would not call it a "radical social experiment." The whole point of a "tragedy" vs "farce" comparison is the contrast between the courageous, radical and revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie of the French Revolution of 1789 and the pusillanimous, conservative and counter-revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie of 1848.

After a few more irrelevant paragraphs concerning Marx's analysis of 1848 and the development of socialism in Europe and the errors the "liberals" made because they did not understand how to handle contradictions among the people-- she decides the Egyptian liberals should realize that just as all European socialists were not "proto-Stalinists" and that many were total sell outs ("socialists" who "wanted  social and economic reforms, but not ones that were mortal threats to capitalism or democracy'') so not all Islamists "want to implement a theocratic regime. " Liberals should work with these moderates or " Egypt’s political future will be troubled."

The problem is she nowhere discusses what "Islamism" means. Islamism is a political and religious tendency, made up of moderate elements and also forces of extremism (restoration of the Calafate!), which seeks to create political states based on religion: "The Islamic Republic of -------." No state is meaningfully "democratic" if it favors one religion over others and thus treats some citizens as "more equal than others." The Muslim Brotherhood claimed to be moderate yet once in power brought about its own downfall by trying to impose its Islamic doctrinaire positions on the population at large which led to a massive revolutionary upheaval joined by the armed forces.

The imperialist powers and their press call this the imposition of an undemocratic military dictatorship but the Egyptian masses have yet to make this determination. How the masses and the military relate to one another in the coming months will determine the next stage of the Egyptian Revolution that commenced in 2011. Marx, by the way, has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Marxism, the Taliban and Plato


Thomas Riggins

Recently Simon Blackburn, the well known British philosopher, reviewed "Knowing Right from Wrong," the new book by Kieran Setiya, in the TLS ["Taliban and Plato" TLS July 19, 2013]. The essay deals with Setiya's attempt to defend ethical realism (objective moral knowledge is possible) which Blackburn rejects in favor of ethical pragmatism (useful moral knowledge is possible). I think neither of these positions are tenable and the best way to approach ethics is from a Marxist perspective.

Blackburn begins with Plato's position in the Republic: the Good can only be understood by those intellectually elite philosophers who rule Plato's ideal state in the interests of the people. After their basic studies and military training the elite undergo ten years of mathematical training followed by five years of philosophy and begin to take part in ruling at the age of 55. This puts ethical knowledge out of the way of most people who must take on faith that their rulers have actually attained such knowledge.

We need something a little more accessible, Blackburn thinks, and the virtue ethics of Aristotle based on common sense, empiricism and "scientific" method provided a practical alternative to Plato's views in the Republic (the Republic does not exhaust Plato's views on this subject.)

 Setiya"s book deals with, and Blackburn quotes him, "a tension between two things: the need to explain our reliability so that the truth of our beliefs can be no accident, and the need to leave room for communities that are not at all reliable."

Blackburn tells us that for Plato knowledge was different from true belief-- you might have a true belief that you picked up by accident, or a  guess, but this does not qualify as knowledge. Plato demands a "logos" for knowledge claims, "meaning," Blackburn says, "something like reason, justification or some kind of method -- and reliability seems a good yardstick for soundness."  But how do we test for "reliability?"

Here is the problem. Blackburn, for example, believes (1) in equal educational opportunities for men and women and (2) this is a reliable belief (i.e., true) based on  "cultural and historical forces" operant on Blackburn. Using the Afghan Taliban as a foil, Blackburn says they deny (1) and therefore (2) as well. "We need," he says, "a view from outside: an independent stamp of the reliability of our progress."

Where to find it? An appeal to Reason won't work. Just to claim we are "reasonable" and the Taliban are not is not  an independent outside view. What move does Setiya make that could uphold Blackburn's belief as reliable? He makes an appeal to "human nature." Setiya says "how human beings by nature live is not the measure of how they should." He uses the term "life form" for "human nature" and thinks, according to Blackburn, "in a proper environment, free from neglect or hunger or abuse" their true life form will emerge "and then they naturally gravitate towards the moral truth." This implies an objective moral truth out there (or in us) waiting for the proper environment.

Blackburn seems to contradict himself by saying this view is not meant to be "universally true" but more like natural history statements such as "dogs bark" or "finches lay eggs in the spring" which certainly seem to be, in the proper environment, "universally true."  Blackburn says: "So, the idea is that as a species, in the kind of circumstance in which we naturally live, we tend to believe what is morally and ethically true."  But this is just asserting the. conclusion, there is no argument here. The Taliban could say "Fine, where we naturally live women should not have equal educational opportunities as they have different roles to play in society and this is morally and ethically true."  Blackburn's belief is not upheld. But, I think the Taliban would reject the relativism implied here and think their attitude toward education is universally true.

Blackburn sees problems with Setiya's position. When we look at history and other societies we see all sorts of, to us, strange and wicked goings on. Bertrand Russell put it this way: "When we study in the works of anthropologists the moral precepts  which men have considered binding in different times and places we find the most bewildering variety" [Styles in Ethics, 1924].

 Blackburn says this leads to "a contemporary form of moral skepticism, which argues that a capacity for ethical truth would have given no selective advantage to anybody, so that it would be a miracle if it came to predominate  as a trait of our species." But this is nonsense as it assumes that the skeptic knows what ethical truth is and that nobody ever got a selective advantage from this knowledge-- neither of which the skeptic is in a reliable position to claim to know.

Setiya seeks to avoid moral skepticism, according to Blackburn, by adopting a position he calls NATURAL CONSTRUCTIVISM and defines as follows: "for a trait to be a virtue is for creatures of one's life form to believe that it is a virtue." This will not do at all. The Taliban, creature's of our life form, believe  it to be a virtue to deny equal educational opportunities to females (they may even feel it a virtue to throw acid in young girl's faces or shoot them for going to school) but really, should we think it is a virtue just because they have these beliefs. Mind you, Setiya wants to avoid both skepticism and RELATIVISM.

Well, we don't think it a virtue because our values differ from those of the Taliban and we share the same life form ( we are the same species with the same nature). But this begs the question. Blackburn has accepted female education due to the operant conditions of his culture and the Taliban reject it due to theirs. How do we escape relativism?

Setiya seems to be aware that you can't just define virtue the way he has done but he does so because he has "a certain faith in human nature." This implies the Taliban are wrong because they don't live the way our species (life form) is naturally programmed to live so, unlike us, they have not arrived at the proper ethical and moral conclusions. If you didn't already agree with the conclusion, you would never accept this argument-- if argument it be rather than just assertion.

Setiya warns us, says Blackwell, that his argument is the only way to defend moral knowledge or to have justified moral beliefs. It is "natural constructivism" based on reason and a universal human nature or, as Blackwell puts it, we may end up with "a soggy relativism" with one "truth" for the Taliban and another for those of us sharing Blackburn's operant conditioning.

Blackburn doesn't like this outcome, it "seems intolerable." He wants some justification for female educational equality, and it seems, for also thinking ill of the Taliban. If Setiya's moral realism won't work (i.e., no objective rules) he recommends a form of moral pragmatism. Blackburn's morals are more suited to our culture and useful and we (readers of the TLS and members of the culture that produced it) would shudder to live under the Taliban system-- so we definitely are going to favor female educational equality and, in fact, maintain it is the morally right thing.

Blackburn is modest, though, and admits there is a slight possibility he is wrong about this-- but this is only a theoretical possibility.  He even admits he doesn't have "the dialectical weaponry with which to topple the Taliban" and that he remains under the morality that the operant conditioning of his culture has created. He has hopes that the Taliban will change because their culture is "not hermetically sealed from ours" (the expected change appears to be one way), there will be "dissident voices"  and "stirrings of modernity" and half the population "has the burning desire to change." Cultural conditioning doesn't seem to take place among Taliban females. Can it be possible that Pashtun women are completely alienated from their men folk and none of them accept the traditional culture of their people?

Blackburn tells us the difference between realism ad pragmatism is that realism is interested in metaphysical problems regarding the nature of the "truths" of morality and seeks reliable claims as to this nature, while pragmatism does not believe this to be possible and there is no "foundation outside our ethics for our ethics to stand on."

What would a Marxist position be on these issues. I would propose a synthesis of ethical realism (there are objective ethical principals that should be followed if you want to create a particular type of society just as there are mathematical and physical laws you must follow if you want to fly to the Moon) and these laws also have a pragmatic dimension. Marxists do not believe in abstract metaphysical entities not rooted in the material world. They do not look for universal ethical principles applicable to all times and places.

The main motivating force of Marxism is to empower the working class, abolish capitalist exploitation of working people by the appropriation of the surplus value they create, and establish socialism and a world without one class or group of humans living off the exploitation of another. So there is a foundation to our ethics outside of our ethics which it can stand on. Whatever actions objectively further the interests of working people, which are determined by an objective scientific analysis of the social, political and economic forces in a given society, are morally and ethically correct. This is a materialist ethics based on forces objectively at work in a given historical period and has nothing to do with an idea such as "to be a virtue it is only necessary for members of your life form to believe it is a virtue" or a virtue is what readers of the TLS would think useful.

The class struggle is an objective fact of life and the sociological and economic laws that produce it are independent of the subjective desires or will of the people involved. Understanding these laws, such as the law of value, is possible and actions can be initiated in the real world to overcome this struggle and end it and the ethics and morals involved in this struggle rest on an objective materialist foundation independent of the human subject. This view point I think is much more realistic than that of either Setiya or Blackburn.