Saturday, December 7, 2013
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: Galen Strawson and Panpsychism
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 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
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
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.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
This article aims to reprise Marx's 1844 article on Hegel's philosophy of law which ends with the memorable prediction that the Germans will only become conscious of their revolutionary destiny when they respond to the "the ringing call of the Gallic cock." Well, the last time the Gallic cock was heard from was in 1968 and it was rather subdued compared to is noisy past (1789, 1830, 1848, 1871).
Fortunately for those who read this pre-Communist Manifesto work of the young Marx (he was 25 when he wrote it) it has many useful ideas packed into its 13 pages that are still of interest today even though no one is expecting the Gallic cock
to make any ringing calls in the foreseeable future. Its greatest call remains that of 1789 which inspired the Russian, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Revolutions as well as the Cuban and which is echoed today in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Now for Marx's ideas and how they relate to today's struggles. There are revolutionary movements at work in the contemporary world and some of the ideas expressed by Marx in relation to the French and German movements of the early nineteenth century can be applied to them. There are three areas where revolutionary ferment is currently occurring-- the MIddle East and Africa where we see revolutions and counter revolutions breaking out in several different countries, Latin America where several countries are now led by pro socialist and/or progressive governments inspired by the Cuban revolution and threatened by US imperialism, and in south east Asia where both India and Nepal have active revolutionary movements based on exploited peasants and indigenous peoples.
Unfortunately in some of these areas, especially in the Middle East and Africa, there are armed groups and political organizations whose ideological roots are allegedly based in religion and a fanatical commitment to creeds which do not reflect objective reality (this is also true in Europe and especially the U.S. where dogmatically fundamentalist ideas fuel many in the Tea Party and the core of the anti-choice movement which rejects Roe vs. Wade and treats women as objects to be manipulated for political gain.)
This essay by Marx ("Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction") maintains that the fight to improve the world involves a fight to criticize religion since we will not be able to focus on the real world and its problems if we spend our time engaged with a false world such as the one conjured up by religion. This essay is admittedly dated but still of some interest today.
This work is justly famous as the source of the quote that "religion is the opium of the people." While opium may be able to supply some relief from an intolerable reality we can't expect people doped up on opium, spiritual or otherwise, to be involved in schemes for rationally based world improvement. We will get to the full quote in a minute. First, I want to note that in 1844 Marx thinks the basis of all criticism of the basic world order is the criticism of religion and that in his day this criticism has basically been completed-- at least in western Europe (Germany in particular). "Man makes religion, religion does not make man."
Marx is right of course for the Western world in general and large parts of Asia (China, Vietnam) religion is no longer a major factor in people's lives (except in a pro forma sense or within fringe groups or in backward areas). Unfortunately this battle has not yet been won, or even joined, in large areas of the Third World. Religion thrives on oppression and only by simultaneously fighting oppression, and furthering progressive education, will religion wither and the people flourish. The following is Marx's full quote on this issue:
Religion "is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma."
He continues: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people."
Finally, he says: "To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion."
These three quotes form the basis of the materialist outlook on religion. But what is the difference between illusory happiness and real happiness? If a person is experiencing "happiness" what more is there to say? If we take an example from current history and say that the members of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, being at heart members of a religious organization, are living in an illusory world and the Egyptian people demanding their removal from power was an example of the demand to abandon illusions about the nature of the problems facing Egypt and the existing state of affairs then, it would seem, the only justification for this action would be to revolutionize the state of affairs (i.e., the social, economic, and political status quo) to such an extent that religious illusions would no longer have any traction in that society.
But who is to decide who is delusional? In the first place, rather than speaking of illusory versus real happiness, it would be better to speak of a feeling of happiness based on a false belief about the nature of reality and one based of a true belief about the nature of reality. You may feel (temporarily) happy taking your laetrile for that lump but you would be better off having it removed.
As for who decides, Marx was very specific (in 1844) as to whom this responsibility devolves. It is the role of philosophy in service to history. We will have to allow Marx to use this Hegelian way of expressing himself: while critical of Hegel he had not yet completely liberated himself from Hegelian ways of expressing his ideas. He says: "The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."
Marx may have thought this battle was over in the Germany of his day, but it is still raging here in the USA: one only has to read the the statements made by right-wing US politicians on the issues of a woman's right to choice, or on the food stamp program, or on sex education or on social welfare and "entitlement" programs to see how retrograde religious references are put forth to justify reactionary and even quasi-fascist social policies. And it is not just in the United States. Every day you can read in the papers how all over the planet religion is used to crush the human spirit, attack enlightenment, retard scientific understanding and further the goals of fascism, militarism, and imperialism. Although they are an important influence, all the religious progressives and pacifists in the world will not stem this backward tide of religious fanaticism without robust secular movements and political parties that are able to rally millions of oppressed people to fight against it.
Behind the religious facade stands a more this worldly enemy. Marx writes that once the other worldly illusion has been mastered we must focus on the reality of this world and the real roots of oppression and human self-estrangement. "The relation of industry, of the world of wealth generally, to the political world is one of the major problems of modern times." A 170 years isn't so long after all as our world today faces exactly this problem-- from the Koch brothers to the Occupy movement, to big oil and pollution, to the European economic crisis and the war against working people, to the world wide faltering of capitalism based on domination by banks and financial institutions, and third world exploitation-- it is all based on struggle over which countries and which classes are going to control industry and the world of wealth.
As this struggle intensifies we can expect the world to become a more and more violent place. The past century may have been only a prelude of things to come. We read in the papers that Japan plans to rebuild its military, the US is building up its forces in the Pacific (aimed at China) and moving into Africa, NATO is carrying on wars of aggression far from its home bases and preparing for interventions any where that may threaten Western dominance. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Honduras, Haiti, Libya, Egypt, Syria (to name just a few of the most recent examples) no country is safe from Western intrigue, drones, outside interventions, or externally manipulated civil wars whenever the economic interests of the US and its allies and puppets are seen to be at risk.
Marx realized that journalism alone, philosophy and criticism alone, would never be able to change this situation or be able to overthrow the world system of human exploitation. "The weapon of criticism cannot, of course," he wrote, "replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses." This is why Wiki-Leaks and people like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden along with other whistle blowers and investigative reporters must be silenced, for governments and their toadies know that once the people are informed, once they realize that the theories of their own governments are that information and democracy must be restricted (fascist policies introduced) in order for them to carry out their repressive domestic and international polices, they will fight back (or so they think) to ensure their rights and lively hoods.
A revolution in thought must precede a revolution in deed. Marx thinks there must be a material basis for any revolution. "Theory can be realized in a people only insofar as it is the realization of the needs of that people." People around the world are becoming more and more aware of their real needs which are the exact opposite of those they are told about by capitalist governments and their hand kissing mainstream media. They need jobs, peace, education, housing and clean air and political parties and movements that truly represent working people and their allies, not bombs, drones, military interventions, no fly zones, fossil fuels, austerity and bank bailouts, and capitalist and fake socialist and labor parties that betray them.
A political revolution, such as we see in Egypt, or the "Arab Spring" in general, is only a partial revolution. Marx's thinking here is conditioned by the experiences of 1789 and 1830 in France. What are these partial revolutions based upon Marx asks [a complete revolution would change the social relations and economic base of a country-- 1789 rather than 1830-- or even 1776.] His answer is that a "part of civil society emancipates itself and attains general domination; on the fact that a definite class , proceeding from its particular situation, undertakes the general emancipation of society."
In Egypt in 2011, for example, it was the middle class in alliance with the workers and peasants and some elements of the big national capitalists against the military dictatorship headed by Mubarak and representing compradore capitalists in alliance with US imperialism and its puppets (e.g., the EU).
"No class of civil society can play this role," Marx says, "without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative; a moment in which its demands and rights are truly the rights and demands of society itself; a moment in which it is truly the social head and social heart."
It was Mohammed Morsi and the political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that emerged in 2012 as the general representative of the forces that brought down Mubarak-- it claimed to represent the incarnation of the most general (and contentless as it turned out) demand of the revolution: "Democracy" as incarnated in free and fair elections. Unfortunately for the Brotherhood its anti-democratic and dogmatic nature soon came to the fore as it tried to impose its sectarian doctrines on the rest of the revolutionary movement, of which it was only one component, while relying on the military to maintain it in power.
This is why a merely political revolution is only partial. In Egypt one "tyrant" was removed from power, and a would be tyrant was also expelled from office-- both by the Egyptian military reacting to millions of people in the streets demanding rights and freedoms which are the norm in stable bourgeois democracies. The real rulers in Egypt remain the military-- the same military that installed Nasser-- and the economic and social relations remain the same. To what extent they will allow bourgeois democracy to take hold in Egypt remains to be seen. One thing we can count on is that all the forces of US imperialism will be marshaled against the Egyptian masses and their democratic aspirations.
Marx, in this essay, thought a complete revolution would have to be led by a class whose emancipation would free both itself and all other classes-- by abolishing class differences. Of course, he is talking about 1844 Germany and the working class was very small and just beginning to develop so any coming revolutions would be bourgeois democratic in nature and not socialist. Yet Marx thought that only a full fledged socialist revolution, one demanding the abolition of private property, would actually be able to free human beings from exploitation and oppression. That day has not yet dawned but, if Marx was right about the role of criticism in the development of human self consciousness and the struggle for freedom, we can conclude that the role of religion and the religious consciousness will play an insignificant part-- indeed will be a negative rather than a positive ingredient in the self liberation of humanity from its self imposed fetishes and idols.
What then does Marx think will replace religion as the moving force in advancing historical progress. He said it would be philosophy. In his day what we call science was more or less considered a part of philosophy-- natural philosophy. So if we think of Marx as thinking that the road to liberation will be guided by a materialist philosophy based on scientific understanding we will not be misguided. The section of humanity that will traverse this road is that of the working people, including agricultural workers, and especially industrial workers who will finally be able to put the economic resources of the planet, the common property of all not the few, to work for the common good.
This day will come, following Marx, when scientific philosophy finds its material weapons in the working people and they find their spiritual weapons in scientific philosophy. But whether it will be the Gallic cock or some other whose ringing call proclaims this day remains to be seen.
Friday, July 12, 2013
Marx Reloaded, A Film by Jason Barker: Review and Commentary
Jason Barker's film, Marx Reloaded, was released in 2011. It is 52 minutes long and is now available for viewing on the internet. It was interesting to watch but it did not have a lot to do with Marx except superficially. If Marx was reloaded it was with blanks.
The film presents a series of talking heads many of whom have no grasp of what Marx and Marxism are all about and who engage in flights of "postmodern'' speculation as to the meaning of Marxism today. There are a few exceptions that I will note. There are also a few non-Marxist supporters of capitalism who don't see any future for Marx. There are no representatives from contemporary labor movements or political parties which are part of the ongoing Marxist tradition.
The question addressed is if Marx's critique of capitalism is valid for our time. If the critique is valid then what comes next? Is Communism going to make a return? Is it coming back to replace the capitalist system?
The film opens with an animation of Marx meeting Trotsky and Trotsky undertaking to enlighten Marx as to the significance of Marxism today. Trotsky will attempt to guide Marx to an understanding of how ideology works in society. Quite the tail wagging the dog.
The film then begins by asking how economists today explain the greatest capitalist
crisis since the great depression of the 1930s. The answers we get are not very telling. Now the talking heads take over.
First up is the late former chief economist of the Deutsche Bank, Norbert Walter (1944-1912) who says that we [bankers] made mistakes. E.g., in the USA people could get mortgages at 110% of the value of their houses. The banks made money cheaply available, people borrowed too much and they couldn't pay back what they owed. Later in the film he tells us that Marx's ideas about getting rid of capitalism by abolishing a society based on commodity production for profit would create a world that people would not want to live in as that would lead to the abolishment of "the universal medium of money" which "turns everything around us into commodities" and "money is an essential medium for civilization, for peaceful coexistence and the organization of complex societies." This begs the question as communism is a complex society based on production for human needs not commodities for profit. Mr. Walter must have forgotten about the two world wars that almost destroyed European civilization in the last century when he opined that "peaceful coexistence" is one of the benefits of a money economy.
Next up is Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, and author of "Taming The Trade Unions", who tells us the crisis was caused by inflation due to governments printing too much money. That is all we hear from him.
On a more general level of the problems of capitalism and the meaning of Marx's writing the film interviews several people identified as philosophers, political philosophers, theorists, critics, etc. Some are well known to the academic community although their grasp of Marxism may be questionable. We now hear from Antonio Negri, co-author of "Empire", an expert on Spinoza, and a founder of Italian Autonomism, and "Worker's Power" (Potere Operaio) an ultra-left formation in Italy with a secret armed wing. Negri tells us that the capitalists [neo-liberals] cannot pay the workers the price of their labor [which doesn't even make sense in Marxist terms-- a wage is the price paid for labor-- he should at least be talking about the value of their labor-power not the price] and that they remain in power and are able to wage wars around the world only as long as the working class remains quiescent due to high wages. But as we see the capitalists can't do that so Marx is still relevant.
This line of thought is taken up by the film which now asks does Marx's theory of exploitation hold today or is the way capitalists make their profits changing? The answers are sought from more talking heads without any clear explanation having been given as to what Marx's theory of exploitation is. What is clear is that with a few exceptions, which I will note, none of the answers given in this part of film are dealing with Marx's theory.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek is now up to bat (what film on "Marxism" would be complete without this latter day Eugen Dühring). He is described as the "leader" of a new movement to revive Marxist and Communist thinking. He revives Marx by proclaiming that the classical notion of exploitation [left unexplained] no longer works due to the knowledge explosion-- he does not tell us why this is so. However, it has something to do with computers because we need them to communicate with each other and so we have pay "rent" to Bill gates because he owns part of our mental substance. I am tempted to think that in professor Zizek's case Mr. Gates is a slumlord. Finally we are told that we need a redefinition of the "proletariat" because the "proletariat" is larger than the working class. Zizek also notes that the unemployed today demonstrate because they want jobs-- "please exploit us in the normal way" they are saying to the capitalists. I think he strikes out as the "leader" of a new "Marxist" movement. He will appear again later.
Antonio Negri now reappears. Capitalism, he says, has evolved in ways Marx could not have predicted. Exploitation is not only of factory workers but of workers throughout society. You can't start a revolution with the factory workers-- you need them but also all the other workers too [I think Marx could have predicted this, in fact he already knew it.] You need the other workers, Negri says, because they are the "most" exploited. What can that mean? The examples he gives is of research and cinema workers and the like because they produce more value. None of this makes sense because the Marxist concept of "value," "surplus value," "labor power" and "exploitation" are never brought up in the film. If they were none of the things these talking heads and intellectual will o the wisps are saying would make sense anyway only the viewers would at least understand why.
Herfried Munkler now makes his appearance. Dr. Munkler, co-editor of the Complete Works of Marx and Engels and a professor at Humbolt University, in contrast to those who have appeared before, actually knows a thing or two about Marxism although in its Social Democratic deformation. His concern is not limited to discussing the plight of working people in the West but focuses on the exploitation of working people in the so-called Third World where working conditions are subhuman and wages are ridiculously low in comparison to the advanced capitalist countries. Here it is obvious that Marxist ideas are relevant and that capitalism is being abusive.
Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri's collaborator on the book "Empire" (not worth the read)
now appears to bring us back from the Third World to the the First to tell us the economy is now centered on "immaterial" and "immeasurable" products-- that is, on "ideas" not on "objects" like old fashioned commodities such as cars, refrigerators, toasters-- the products of industrial manufacturing. Economics is about relationships and intangible assets [not, coal, oil or natural gas]. He is listed as a literary critic and political philosopher, at least he talks about political philosophy like a literary critic.
Now is the time for Jacques Ranciere, the co-author with Louis Althusser of "Reading Capital" (although his part was left out of the English version). He is noted for an educational theory which says a person can be a teacher without knowing anything about the subject he is going to teach; a view welcomed by not a few teachers. Ranciere makes three appearances in the film and manages to say nothing of importance in any of them. Here he tells us many societies have had exploitation without "explosions" so we can't draw from exploitation the logic of an end to exploitation. Economic exploitation is not the dominant factor in all social struggle. Ranciere seems oblivious to the Marxist view that, as Engels says, in the last analysis all major social struggles in class based societies have economic exploitation at their root. Each society and its economic formation needs to be individually studied. There have certainly been "explosions" over exploitation in all societies that have distinct social classes despite Ranciere's contrary assertions.
The film now takes up a new subject. We are told that to understand capitalism we must delve into the the "mystic realm" of the COMMODITY. It is certainly true that without an understanding of the origin and role of commodities we will not understand our economic system which is based on the production and exchange of commodities. Marx devotes the first chapter of "Das Kapital" to the commodity. It is a difficult chapter but once grasped the rest of the volumes of Das Kapital will be easily understood.
The film however does not deal with Marx's scientific analysis of commodities but skips to the last section of the chapter which is entitled "The Fetishism of Commodities." Without an understanding of the preceding sections it is easy to misunderstand this last section and, true to form, both the film's narrator and all of the talking heads in this part of the film completely miss the point and fail to grasp Marx's ideas concerning commodity fetishism.
To make a long story short, Marx's point is that the laws of the capitalist system are not products of nature as, say, are the laws of gravity or of aerodynamics but they are the result of human activity. Commodities and their relations are created by human beings and human beings can abolish them. Yet, because we are ignorant of the laws of economics we think of commodities as natural, as things which , although created by us, assume an existence independent of us and go to a market whose laws we are subject to and must conform to. This is similar to the creation of religions or "primitive" belief systems where a person creates a fetish and then bows down to it and thinks it has power over him and he must subject himself to its demands and will. The capitalist market appears as the natural form of economic exchange and there is no alternative to it. It is not true that there is no alternative and humans can abolish capitalism and rid themselves of subjection to the laws of commodity production and create an economic world which serves human needs and one where human needs do not take second place to the need to exchange commodities at a profit. None of this is addressed in this part of the film. Instead we get baloney. This is because the talking heads are in the grips of the very fetishism Marx warns us about.
Norman Bolz (media theorist): "The theory of commodity fetishism is Marx's most important discovery." It isn't. Marx's most important discovery is the distinction between the value of labor and that of labor-power which is the basis of the labor theory of value and of his analysis of capitalism. It is, however, one of the most important consequences of that discovery.
Bolz continues by saying Marx's theory reveals a secret as to why capitalism today "functions so well" [!!!]. The secret is "that goods in the capitalist market place satisfy more than simple needs they also convey a spiritual surplus value and this value is the real reason for the purchase." This is complete and utter nonsense.
Peter Sloterdijk (philosopher [but not a very good one]) is not so definite. He says the theory is probably "the important part of Marxist doctrine." This is because "Marx is among those who discovered the fact that things live." He goes on to say, Walter Benjamin "discovered the structural similarity between human commodities [?] and commodities as objects." He thus "universalized the category of prostitution." While there may be a relationship between fetishism and prostitution on some level, I don't think this is what Marx was getting at. "Prositution is always present when a beautiful thing feigns life and tries to seduce passersby with an offer." I think professor Sloterdijk should reread Marx's chapter on commodities.
Finally, here is Famonn Butler"s (policy analyst) take: he says it's human psychology to want things-- the economy is neutral-- it just produces what people want. Well then, that's it. Capitalism just produces what people want. Then why are there so many adverts all over the place? Do we need to be constantly reminded about what we want?
The film now turns to Marxism and Ecology-- only by now Marxism has been unloaded rather than reloaded. Zizek is now taking about "Communism" in the sense what we have in "common"-- the Earth as our "common substance" and we have to manage it together. He makes no proposal about how to do that. Michael Hart is also back talking about the "common" in "Communism" and how different that is from both the "Communism" found in the Soviet Union (derived from Marx incidentally) and also the "Communism" of American Anti-Communism [evidently he doesn't approve of either kind of "Communism"].
Herfried Munkler points out that Marx "applies exploitation not only to human labor but to the limited resources of nature. He says that if the exploitation of nature continues nature will be destroyed." Munkler thinks that we can reduce the exploitation of nature under capitalism and have common ownership of the Earth without a Marxist society. But this is just social democratic optimism as befits anyone affiliated with the SPD in Germany. He gives no program. But at least he brings up an all important issue; the destruction of the environment under capitalism today.
John Gray weighs in with the observation that international capitalism develops in ways impossible to predict and impossible to control (revealing that he is completely under the sway of the fetishism of commodities). He says the "New Leninists" [we have not met any "Leninists" in this film-- nor will we] and "Greens" are correct about the fact that "human action" has destabilized the environment but they are "deluded" in thinking human action can restabilize it. It doesn't occur to him that it is not humans qua humans that are destructive but only humans under the sway of particular sorts of economic and social relations. Even if humans could get together as a global collective, which he says will never happen, they could not restabilize the environment. Doom and gloom is all we can expect.
The film now asks if the current economic crisis was caused by an under regulated banking system. Is the only solution now and in the future to have state regulated economic systems? The film suggests we look back into history for solutions. I should note here that people who look to the past for solutions to present day problems are usually seen to be reactionaries.
Be that as it may, we return to Norbert Bolz who likes the fact that in the 19th century banks issued their own scripts which functioned as money. You could take it to another bank and redeem it in coin of the realm-- if the other bank trusted it! This system would make all the banks very aware of the true value of the scripts and bad banks would be exposed. He thinks this is a really good idea and I suppose there were no banking crises in the 19th century, except there were.
John Gray rightly thinks this idea is nuts because state monopoly capital [not his term] has become so evolved and complicated since the 19th century and this has happened as a result of the close interconnection between capitalism and state power-- there is no going back. But is there going forward?
Why is it that the state rushes in to save capitalism all the time? Is it possible, the film now asks, that these crises, like the one we are in right now, which broke out in 2007, are not side effects of capitalism but essential to its very existence?
Herfried Munkler tells us that Marx thought that crises would lead to the downfall of capitalism but since his day capitalism has gone through many crises and has "rejuvenated itself." He mentions Joseph Schumpeter's theory of crises as periods of "creative destruction." "Capitalism," Munkler concludes, "doesn't age. Instead crisis is its Fountain of Youth." This from the co-editor of the Collected Works is rather strange. Marx thought the internal contradictions would eventually bring about capitalism's collapse (or the mutual destruction of the contending classes within the system) but there was no time table and he argued that capitalism had at its disposal many tools to stave off immediate collapse but it would eventually prove dysfunctional as had the economic forms (slavery, feudalism,) that preceded it. Schumpeters "creative destruction" (destruction of the lives of workers and the majority of the population and creative of wealth for the so-called 1%-- the capitalists) is no refutation of Marx's theories.
The "theorist" Alberto Toscano, one of the very few interviewed who seems to have his head in the right place, points out that capitalism, whatever its ultimate fate, is responsible for creating a gigantic surplus population that it does not know what to do with. He mentions the book "The Planet of Slums" by Mike Davis and talks about the "surplus humanity" that capitalism has on its hands because its technological advances have made the number of workers it needs redundant. This is the "reserve army of labor" that Marx wrote about-- but now it is no longer a "reserve" it is just a surplus of human beings that are socially unneeded piling up in the slums of the world with nowhere to go. The "creative destruction" they may eventually bring about capitalism may have a hard time dealing with. Only the Chinese, with a non-capitalist economic system, seem to have been able to cope with the massive poverty in the rural areas of their country (and of course Cuba and Vietnam and a few others with non-capitalist economies, and now Venezuela, are beginning to follow suit).
Finally, the film asks what sense is there in believing another world, other than capitalism, is possible. TINA-- There is No Alternative was Ms. Thatcher's motto-- was she correct? Can a Communist alternative emerge after the experiences of the past century?
Antonio Negri says there is only capitalism so we must fight the bosses as the bosses fight us. This seems to be an eternal struggle-- there is only the movement Bernstein thought and so it seems does Negri-- at least in this film-- it is difficult to get just what he means so I may be incorrect here. He tells us what we all know-- Russia didn't have "Communism" it had "socialism." What is socialism? It is a way to manage capitalism, just like liberalism is. How would Communism come about? It "comes into being through a relation between transformations of reality and the will or decision to do it or to build it." After this bit of balderdash he leaves us with the admonition to junk the old Communist Manifesto and to write a new one-- he is not , however, the man to do it.
Nina Power, feminist philosopher, has more regard for the Communist Manifesto, and says it has continuing power to influence people. She is surely correct.
Zizek writes off the 20th century "communist" states, Social Democracy, the idea of local councils, collectives, Soviets (which first popped up in the 1905 Russian Revolution) and their latter day reincarnations. What's left? He tells us he likes the idea that "A communist society is one in which each person could dwell in his own stupidity." Zizek is already doing that so he should be happy. He says he got that idea from reading Frederick Jameson. He thinks it would be great if Communism turned out to be like a Bruegel painting. Whenever I hear Zizek expostulating it brings to mind what Karl Marx said about Jeremy Bentham i.e., "in no time and in no country has the most homespun common-place ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way." At least Bentham did not resort to pseudo-Hegelian verbiage.
Micha Brumlik (professor of education at the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main) maintains that after the 20th century we have the right to know what Communism is going to be like-- it has to be democratic to be supported. There will be a big fight over that, I fear, as different concepts of "democracy" will be put forth. But he is right to demand a politically active civil society not divorced from a democratic political system. He thinks that Hardt and Negri's unclear views on the "the multitude" will never get that concept up and running or have any practical outcome.
Jacques Ranciere leaves us with the view that while Marx wanted a "classless society" what we really need is what he calls an "emancipatory society." This is one "in which each has an equal share." This has a vague utopian sound to it-- a throwback to pre-Marxist French socialist thinking. Marxist logic, he tells us, is to prepare for the future, but he believes "instead that the idea of emancipation is really tied to a sort of appearance in the here and now of those we call the 'have-nots' and of those who make their presence felt through their capacity to think, to intervene politically and to prove themselves capable of organizing economic production." Ayn Rand would like this-- the have-nots and their masters-- only for Ranciere they would be good masters. This is a latter day reincarnation of Plato's Republic.
Ranciere goes on to criticize Negri. "Negri thinks capitalism produces communism [in the film Negri appears to think capitalism is here for the long run and must always be struggled against-- or if communism comes about it will be through the triumph of the will-- few of the people in this film are logically coherent]. In reality, capitalism only produces its own form of communism. But this is not the communism of everyone's capacity. There are those who say 'Look at what capitalism does. The idea of communism can't be so bad.' But I don't think those people are involved in constructing the idea of real equality today." What is this rambling discourse suppose to mean?
The last pronouncement I will consider comes from Peter Sloterdijk, who tells us that "People must join together to forge alliances against the lethal. They must provide mutual security and offer each other communities of solidarity on a planetary scale [sounds like an advert for NATO]. Because for the first time collective self destruction is possible. [Is he referring to the bomb? climate change?] Before we say 'communism' we must understand the principle of 'immunism' [a new -ism to worry about] or the principle of our mutual insurance which is the most profound motive of solidarity."
This is the sum and substance of the movie. Some of these thinkers are better than they have appeared in this movie-- but not by much. I don't think this film has reloaded Marx-- quite the contrary. I think it completely fails to present what Marxism is all about and its past accomplishments and future possibilities. No film can hope to present Marxism to the public without at the same time dealing with the real life problems of the union and working class movements and issues in the Third World. As I pointed out at the beginning of this review this film completely ignores working class leaders and the leaders of political movements inspired by Marxism and confines itself to interviewing intellectual talking heads who, quite frankly, often don't know what they are talking about. You can find this movie on You Tube complete with subtitles. It is 52 minutes long, and once you have watched it I think you will agree with my assessment.