A Series of Blog Posts or a Book?

So, after I asked in a recent post for ideas of what I should write about, Jack Minard sent me this:

Write about the difference between political or social organization and economic organization. I.e. do democracy and capitalism have any hope of co-existing well? Always seemed like a bad marriage to me! Doesn’t capitalism depend on inequality while democracy would do best with complete equality of opportunity? Of course there are differences in people. Some “cream” will always rise to the top… your thoughts?

Well, I started writing a post in respond to Jack’s comment a few days ago and before long I was up to 5000 words and I felt that I had barely touched the subject. A friend suggested a series of blog posts and I’m leaning in that direction although others have suggested that I should write a book. At 72, a book seems a little daunting although I surely have enough material to write one. Blog posts seem more manageable. I don’t know. I’m still making up my mind. However, Jack opened up a porthole to my memory of the countless books and articles I’ve read over the decades as well as the uncountable number of hours I’ve spent in thinking about these things and in teaching about them. Ask Carolyn how often she’s caught me in a virtual altered state as I explored in my mind all the threads of evidence and connection I’ve collected over the decades of thought and contemplation. She’d be talking to me and I’d be off somewhere in my mind wondering about a sentence in Marx or Veblen, Innis, Nietzsche, Elias, or Becker. I have been known to be ‘into myself’ for hours if not days and weeks on end, lost in thought. It’s been my adult life, but I can recall that even in my early teens I had an insatiable curiosity about things as my father discovered over and over again as I would dissect clocks, motors, engines and whatever else was at hand in an effort to learn about their workings and their essences. I still do that with words.

So, what about democracy and capitalism? To be sure, there’s a lot to be said and a lot has already been said about ‘them’. Of course, the word is not the thing as Plato and others have remarked nor is the map the territory (Korzybski), and both democracy and capitalism have to be explored as concepts as well as more or less real worldly phenomena. When I was still teaching, I pointed out to my students that dictionaries are closed systems. Try this: take a word like map. Go to its dictionary definition and then go to the definitions of each word that’s used to define it. You’ll soon discover that you end up in a rabbit hole with no exit: The map is a representation, the representation is a map, and so on. Democracy is a fine concept, then, but what is its reality? Rule by the people? What does rule mean? And who are The People? Does democracy imply that each individual participates in the exercise of power? If the leaders of a country tout it as the greatest democracy ever on the planet are we to just take their word for it? How do we decide if a country is REALLY a democracy? These are all questions I will attempt to answer in subsequent blog posts.

Capitalism is easier to define in some ways than democracy although there is some disagreement as to the effective use of the concept. I personally don’t use it, but because jack brought it up, I’ll explain. Fernand Braudel, one of my favourite social historians, wrote that Marx never used the term. Re-reading Marx’s work with the specific intention of proving Braudel wrong, I had to conclude that, no, he was correct. I haven’t found the term anywhere in Marx and if there’s anyone who would have used it, it would be Marx. But he didn’t. The reason is fairly simple. Whenever an ism is added to a word, it refers to a system, a movement, something like that. Wikipedia notes: Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Marx defined his work as the materialist conception of history and he was not impressed with other theorists who tended to see structures and systems independently of them as a process. Marx uses the notion of the capitalist historical mode of production to describe the focus of his analysis. This may seem like just semantics, but it’s not. Capitalism as a word describes a set of relationships frozen in time and place. Marx was more interested in the historical development of capitalist relations of production born in feudal relations and still with us. Marx wrote in the Introduction to Capital, Volume 1 (I paraphrase): “All I have wanted to do is the same for political economy that Darwin did for biology.” Engels repeated this same sentiment in his eulogy to Marx in 1883. That doesn’t mean that Marx was looking for a mechanism like natural selection in political economy. I’ll explore this further in another blog post. Why do I spend so much time here on what Marx had to say? Because his work, not entirely original but still seminal, is not to be denied in any discussion of the capitalist mode of production and its special place in history. Marx understood that the capitalist mode of production would inevitably go global and he was correct. Needless to say, capital is high on my list of fun things to think about along with labour.

What is the relationship historically between the capitalist mode of production and political systems like democracy? Neither depend on each other, that’s certain, not theoretically, nor in practice. This is one very important theme I will explore in the coming weeks.

So, I guess I’ve decided to go with blog posts rather than a book. I suppose blog posts can be pasted together to make a book in any case. So it probably doesn’t matter. That said, I have lots to say about capitalism and democracy and their surrogates, business and representative government. I’ll do that in the next many posts I write. I’ll use Canada as a subject in most cases but the United States is also in my crosshairs. I’ll roam around European history and literature. I’ll return to my dissertation and comment on Harold Innis’ notions on nationalism. I’ll throw in some Veblen. Marx will appear here and there as will a slew of other writers. I don’t want to get bogged down in semantics, but clarification of terms is essential. The first chapter in Bertell Ollman’s book Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society is called: With words that appear like bats. It’s worth it, I think, to take a bit of a stroll through Ollman’s book, something you can do for free by clicking on the title of his book above. I say this not only as a reference to Marx and his critics, but to the use of words in general. So many words appear like bats, flitting in and out of the dusk so fast it’s hard to get a good look at them. Democracy and capitalism are those kinds of words. Batty they are, but maybe with the right camera we can at least get a good approximation of what they represent and how they relate to one another. Stay tuned.

See what you’ve done, Jack Minard!

Bank of Canada’s Poloz might be spooked by an unnatural economy: Don Pittis – Business – CBC News

Many Canadians with high debt loads fear the potential impact of interest rate hikes. Given some strange factors in the economy, it’s difficult to predict when the next hike might come.

Source: Bank of Canada’s Poloz might be spooked by an unnatural economy: Don Pittis – Business – CBC News

This is a pretty bizarre story. Pettis reports that Stephen Poloz, the Bank of Canada chief, says his usual models for figuring out what’s going on in the Canadian economy aren’t doing the job anymore. The economy, he argues, is behaving strangely.

Well, I don’t think ‘the economy’ is behaving strangely at all. In fact there is no such thing as the self-contained ‘Canadian Economy’ any more that there is such a thing as exclusive Canadian weather. The problem Poloz is having is that his models have never worked and will not work in the future either. His models are based on the country, Canada, as the basic unit of analysis when in fact, global finance capital should be considered the basic unit of analysis.

Not all of them, but most countries are beholden to global finance capital. Veblen would call politicians and the likes of Stephen Poloz “Guardians of the Vested Interests”. There is very little left of national sovereignty. Harold Innis argued in the late 1940s that Canada only had sovereignty for about 6 months in 1926 when the British and American empires were almost equally influential north of the 49th parallel. Since then it’s been downhill.

More important, the shift to globally based production makes a mockery out of the notion of ‘Canadian’ manufacturing.  Corporations based in the West have transformed Chinese society (and many others in the so-called Third World)  by moving most of their productive capacity there. The Chinese have gotten jobs, certainly, but also killer pollution. We, in fact, have exported jobs and pollution. We should be proud of ourselves. Of course, it could be no other way and we, as ordinary citizens, are not to blame. It’s almost impossible to figure out what’s really going on out there but we get the odd hint now and again from the mainstream media, although they are focussed on scandal and misbehaviour like tax evasion rather than on the real story.

The course of history is pretty much fixed: globalization has been in the works for centuries and will end with the complete integration of the globe’s economic power. It’s getting to the point where national governments are becoming a major fetter to the process of the expansion of finance capital and will be soon in a position where they won’t even be able to pretend that they have any control over their own economic lives. Their currencies are objects of speculation with traders making billions guessing on which currency will go up relative to others. Their ‘trading’ relations are increasingly governed by international bodies like the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and other multinational agreements. One example of how silly the situation: when General Motors moves a  car from Brampton, Ontario to some place in Michigan, the economists call that international trade. Who’s leading who around by the nose here?

Of course Canada has stagnant wages and low inflation. There is a growing divide between labour’s productive capacity, including knowledge and training, and the needs of business and industry. Labour is not ready for the new global economy and, frankly, governments don’t give a shit because if corporations need cheap labour they know where to find it, and it won’t be in Canada. Jobs in Canada are increasingly precarious, often short term, without benefits and job security. There are a few people driving around in Mercedes’ and BMWs, but most people are sucking air driving their Toyotas they bought on credit over 7 years, and just hanging in there hoping things don’t change too radically, too quickly.

People are strung out on personal debt. Yet Poloz says the economy is doing just great. Poloz and his counterparts all over the world need new economic models, ones that are global is scope and focussed on capital accumulation and concentration if they want to understand anything about what’s going on. Statistics Canada, like all national statistical agencies, is seriously behind the times too, collecting national statistics. A long time ago Harold Innis told a gathering of his colleagues that it was about time that they (e.g., social scientists, economists, political economists, and historians as well as the statisticians at Stats Can) ceased allowing national governments to lead them around by the nose. I’m not holding my breath waiting for this to happen. There are some good international agencies collecting statistics, but unfortunately they have to rely on national agencies like Stats Canada. We need a real, global agency that can follow the bouncing buck wherever it leads.

So Poloz should go trick or treating. A big bag of Nestlé’s chocolates might tell him more about what’s going on than his outdated models of how the world works.

Of course, the situation is not as simple as I’ve laid it out here. The complexity of the global economy has got to challenge the best computer modelling software that exists.This is just a teaser. I haven’t even mentioned export processing zones. Fortunately, there are scholars out there trying to figure things out. Bill Carroll at UVic is one of them. He’s working on corporate supply chains. We need more Bill Carrolls. Enough for now.

 

What Will a Post-Employment Future Look Like?

One of my former students, a frequent commentator on my blog, commented on my last post about my disillusionment and the nature of capital. She asked two questions in particular that I will address in this post:

“Do you see hope for mankind’s survival after workers are replaced by robots and machines and software? If so, do you have an idea of how we humans will be able to sustain ourselves once traditional “jobs” have disappeared?”

These are both good questions. To answer the first one, I’ll say right off that I’m no utopian. I leave the musings about future worlds to the utopians, dystopians, novelists and science fiction writers. There are enough Star Wars and Star Treks to go around. Still, there are some things I can say about the future that are science-based and predictable. However, it’s necessary to first think about what ‘mankind’s survival’ means.

The word survival needs some consideration. Ultimately, none of us, nor any of our marvellous creations survive or ‘live beyond’. Science, especially palaeontology, archaeology and related disciplines, have made it clear that our planet has only been around for a few billion years and we, as a species, have only evolved in that last few million. Us modern humans are a very recent addition to the planet and as with everything else, we’re still evolving and will continue to do so until we go out of existence, and that’s a sure thing. I used to challenge my students to come up with an example of anything that was amenable to perception via our senses that had not or would not come into existence at some point and go out of existence at a later point. Everything comes and goes. Life is a process, not a thing. Of course, I’m sure you can come up with a lot of “what if’s” here as in what if we blow ourselves to bits with nuclear weapons before we get a chance to evolve more or less peacefully out of existence? That may happen. We may try to commit species suicide, but it’s highly unlikely that every human on the planet would be eliminated by nuclear war. I’ll let the dystopians speculate on that one.

Besides, species don’t always disappear completely. They often evolve into other species over long periods of time. So, ultimately, survival is not an option for us, nor is it for any other species. It’s not even  an option for mountain ranges and continents, or the universe, according to some scientists. Nothing ever stays the same. Our limited sensual and perceptual abilities and weak sense of time often prevent us from fully appreciating that.

That said, and moving on, mankind will easily survive the advent of robots and extreme mechanization. I think my student’s question was more in line with the question: “what are we going to do when robots do everything for us?” I really don’t know. Probably some of the things we do now. Work will still need to be done. It is on Star Trek’s Enterprise. (Do you think people get paid on the Enterprise? What would they spend their money on, especially when you can order an Earl Grey tea, hot, at the replicator anytime you want without putting a toonie in a slot?)

Marx actually speculated on a post-capitalist world in one of his books, The German Ideology, but lived to regret it because he was afterwards forever branded a wide-eyed utopian. Later in his life he focussed almost entirely on writing Das Kapital, a basically scientific venture. By then he had abandoned his youthful idealistic philosophizing and political pamphlet writing. But I digress.

What I argued in my last post was that employment would come to an end, not work. I should have made that more clear. Employment is a way work gets organized. Working for wages is only one of many ways work can get organized. Slavery is another way. Work can get done too by volunteers. The point is that employment will disappear but work won’t. To take this one step further: Marx concluded (not specifically in these words) that communism will come when we are all unemployed. Now, that’s not strictly true. Markets existed in ancient Egypt, they just weren’t the dominant means of creating wealth. In the future, if things continue as they are, some employment may still exist, but it won’t be the dominant social relation of production.

The truth is, businesses are rapidly eliminating employees in a number of critical large scale industries. Machines have been eliminating, at an accelerating pace, a lot of the more onerous and dangerous tasks we used to perform as a matter or course. Who would have thunk that lawyering could be automated. It can be and already is to some extent. There are research algorithms that can do away with a lot of the work previously done by junior lawyers and minions in law firms. Lawyers will still be with us for some time, of course, but they don’t have any long term immunity from elimination. Same goes for physicians and surgeons. Very few activities we now take for granted have a guaranteed future. That idea seems impossible at the moment, but could a person living when the Gutenberg press was invented have been able to foresee the use of computerized printing, freeways and skyscrapers?

The point here is that the historical trajectory we are on suggests that capital is replacing labour at a greater pace than ever before in the execution of work. The mechanism by which this occurs is the constantly shrinking margins of profit and the inability of the whole capitalist world (not necessarily individual capitalists) to exploit workers.* In practical terms, if a large scale fast-food chain manages to eliminate most of its workforce, it will have a harder and harder time making money. This is partly because in eliminating its workforce it would also be eliminating a major market for its products. Obviously, there is no direct equivalence between workers and their ability or not to buy hamburgers, but if enough businesses eliminate a significant part of their labour force, there is obviously less and less in the way of aggregate wages to buy commodities. It’s true that fast-food workers could go work elsewhere, but if most other large employers are also doing the same thing, there will soon be nowhere to go. Meet a huge number of American workers. That’s exactly  the situation they’re in. Some may ‘choose’ to become self-employed, but that’s just another way of surreptitiously eliminating employment.

Employment will not be eliminated next week, or next month or next year. Probably not in the next 100 years. But it will be. If that’s true, how will we then sustain ourselves? With no wages, what would we do to buy things? Well, the trick here is to avoid thinking about the future in terms of the present. That’s tough. We have stores full of stuff for us to buy. What would they do? Change drastically, that’s what. Can you imagine a ‘store’ where you walk in, take what you need and leave (legally, that is)? Hoarding? Why would anyone hoard if they can get whatever they need anytime they need it? Besides, we have to ask ourselves why we need all the ‘stuff’ we buy. Do we really need it to be happy, to be fulfilled? As I already noted, we can’t think about a future world by simply imposing our current institutions on it.

Wow, is this a utopia I promised not to get into? I don’t think so. The logical conclusion of the elimination of employment is the elimination of employer/employee relations, wages, salaries and the need for any kind of benefits.  Some countries are already moving toward a guaranteed income for everyone out of the pool of income produced nationally by way of industrial production and business profits. Their education and health services are already paid for by the state.

Earned salaries and wages will no longer exist. Won’t that do away with human initiative? Yes, as we know it. But following the logic of the falling rate of profit to its conclusion suggests a number of consequences we cannot predict at this time. What will people do in a world without employment? Lots of things. Like I said, work will not be eliminated and may be more popular than ever. Most jobs will be eliminated however and, frankly, that looks like a good thing from where I sit right now. Many women who for a long time have not been paid for domestic work might also approve. If they don’t get paid for what they do, then why should the rest of us? Seems fantastical, doesn’t it? Well, it’s no more fantastical than the creation of employment in the first place. Jobs have not always existed, that category of labour was created in Europe starting around the 11th century,  but work has always been necessary because things need to get done. What may come of all of this is a much more equal distribution of the fruits of social production. How that would unfold politically I have no idea except to say that it would have to be a global affair. It may not come peacefully either.

As fodder for a future blog post, one thing I’ve always found fascinating is our love affair with our jobs. Maybe a topic for another post. It’s funny, though, why we seem to crave vacations and get lots of congratulations upon our retirement. Maybe we don’t love our working lives so much after all because we seem happiest when we don’t have working lives or when we ‘vacate’ them.

As a bit of an aside, but a point still relevant to make here, some of us were (in my case as a retiree) and are quite happy with the work we did or do. We were/are the fortunate ones. I loved teaching, but I didn’t particularly love my job. I liked the pay too, of course, but a paycheque is only one way that’s possible to reward a person for doing work. I’ll save this for another blog post too.

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*This statement itself requires much more elaboration, but I’ll save that for another post.

Quality and Morality

 

Quality Foods. Quality furniture. Quality trucks. Quality, Quality, Quality. Shite. Robert Persig some time ago wrote a book about quality. It’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Persig writes, his book has little to do with Zen and not much to do with motorcycle maintenance either. This was a very important book for me as I grappled with certain philosophical concepts in my youth. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the main protagonist goes catatonic after getting caught in his self-made vortex of contradiction around the idea of quality. As a fellow college instructor, I can relate to his descent into catatonia, although I was never able to quite make it all the way to its deepest reaches as Phaedrus (the eventual name of his protagonist) did.

 

The way we use the concept of quality these days drives me a little crazy but I’m not going to go grammar nazi and chastise all the unfortunates among us who constantly misuse the term or simply use it as a synonym for good. These days, quality stands for good. We seem to have lost the ability to qualify quality. Does Quality Foods refer to mediocre quality foods, poor quality foods or high quality foods? Well, that’s a silly question, isn’t it? Of course, the owners of Quality Foods mean it to refer to high quality foods. Any other conclusion would be nonsense. I presume that if we want to point out that a product or service is of poor quality we have to include the adjective ‘poor’ to qualify quality. Quality used by itself now means good. Any reference to any other kind of quality must be qualified with an adjective. Still pisses me off because it’s such a denial of the potential poverty of quality but I guess that’s just the way language evolves.

 

So, now I want to apply the concept of quality to morality. Can we talk about the quality of moral precepts? Can we come up with a hierarchy of moral precepts that go from good to evil or are all moral precepts supposed to be good. What does it mean to be a moral person? To what does ‘morality’ refer? I turn to this last question now, the others I deal with later and in subsequent posts.

 

The dictionary that comes with the Mac operating system defines morality as ‘principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.’ The Miriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary gives a “Simple Definition of morality [as]

  • beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior
  • the degree to which something is right and good: the moral goodness or badness of something.”

 

Fair enough. That seems straightforward, but is it? Are we born knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? If you believe that you probably also believe you were born knowing how to speak English. Not likely. Good and bad are social constructs and can only exist socially.

 

Obviously any judgment of behaviour can only be made when more or less discrete behaviours are compared with one another. The concept of morality cannot apply to an individual’s behaviour divorced from its social context. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ are inherently relative concepts. There are no behaviours that I know of that can be universally and consistently viewed as good or bad. You might argue that killing and rape are universally and always bad. If you did, you’d be wrong. Killing is only bad in certain contexts particularly when it is unsanctioned by the state[1]. In certain cases, such as in military combat, a soldier may be court-martialled for not obeying a direct order to kill an enemy combatant. In many contexts, killing is expected of one, so killing is not a universal bad. In fact, it would be considered morally reprehensible not to kill if it meant putting innocent people in danger. No matter how strongly we may be repulsed by it, rape is also morally ambivalent and in certain contexts is considered a duty. The Bosnian War was the scene of mass rapes perpetrated by combatants who were given direct orders to do so by their commanding officers.[2]

 

In Emile Durkheim’s work, morality is a word that describes how to measure the intensity of our connections to our societies. I add that it’s used to judge the quality of individual behaviour as it aligns with overall social (including sexual), political and economic values. It stands to reason then that in a class based society[3] moral judgments of behaviour will need to be made in a context where, as Marx noted, the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.[4]

 

To be continued…

 

Up next, morality and sexuality. I touched on this briefly in my last post, but I want to consider how important moral judgments are around sexuality.

Following that, I want to explore the politics of morality or why poor people are considered to be moral degenerates and made to feel shame and guilt for their situation.

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[1] The ‘state’ is one of those words that elicits controversy. I once did a graduate course decades ago now where the only task we had was to define the state. Not a simple task as it turns out.

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/bosnia-war-crimes-the-rapes-went-on-day-and-night-robert-fisk-in-mostar-gathers-detailed-evidence-of-1471656.html

[3] I won’t question the popular unquestioning definition of society here. I’ll leave that for a future blog post. Harold Adams Innis is a masterful critic of the conventional definition of society. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on Harold Innis’ work and it’s available on my blog.

[4] Of course, the ruling class is not homogeneous, it evolves over time, gaining and losing power in times and places. Still, there are some basic precepts and expectations of behaviour that we find are fairly ubiquitous in societies where the capitalist mode of production predominates.

Now, back to writing. Do you have any themes you’d like me to address here?

Time to get back to writing. Several ideas have come to mind as themes for blog posts. One is mapping. In the 1980s and 90s I taught mind mapping, a note making method created by Tony Buzan, and that spurred me to research mapping in general as a means of understanding the world using line and metaphor. That, in turn, motivated me to look into language, semantics and semiotics. That led me to the work of Alfred Korzybski and especially his book, Science and Sanity (I have a copy). He coined the famous phrase: The Map is not the Territory. It is one of the most complex books I have ever read on mapping and metaphor and destroys the myths we have about sanity, insanity, science and reality. It also dissects the idea of science. I also discovered many books by the likes of Umberto Eco (The Theory of Semiotics), Mark Johnson and George Lakoff. Lakoff and Johnson wrote one of my favourite books. It’s called Metaphors We Live By. I used all of these books – and hundreds of others, of course – extensively in my lectures. Words are metaphorical by their very nature as are maps and all representations. Dictionaries are essentially closed systems of metaphors. There’s lots more to be said on this subject, making it a strong candidate for future blog posts.

 

Another theme, one that I’ve already addressed quite a lot, is the relationship of nationalism and capitalism, especially as they relate to the rise of global finance capital and what we call globalization. The rise of global finance capital was bound to produce the kinds of backlash among the working classes of the world as labour becomes an increasingly smaller component of capitalist production. The general public tends to cling to the notion that the nation-state is a means of controlling and promoting economic production and jobs in the face of growing finance capitalist expansion. People don’t think using highfalutin terms like I use here. They do, however, know that their world of work has become more and more precarious, tenuous and fragile. They know that little by little jobs ‘Canadian’ jobs are being eliminated by automation and exportation. They don’t know that there are no “Canadian’ jobs, just jobs in the capitalist world. They have also been convinced that having a job is the way to happiness. Anyone in their right mind knows that ‘work’ is not often a means of acquiring happiness, whatever that means.

Employment is alienating, no matter how we cut it. Work, however, is a different thing and humans by their very nature are producers of goods, makers of things (homo faber).

As we get squeezed between the need to pay our rents and mortgages and the increasingly insecure labour market, something has to give. The tension brought on by ‘austerity programs’ and ‘structural adjustment programs’ imposed on debtor countries by the World Bank and other transnational organizations in cahoots with national governments will be released somehow. Can you say ‘open rebellion’ and ‘violence in the streets’? Trump’s disaffected followers are just the spark that could ignite and then fan the flames of violence in America. People will find scapegoats upon which to heap their fears because they have no idea who their real enemy is.

Part of this theme revolves around the nature of capital and the evolution of social, economic and cultural systems. This form of evolution has been a major theme in my teaching practice.

I just might pick up this theme again in future blogs.

How could I leave out sex? Of course I will deal with sex and its role in our lives in future blog posts, but I want to also consider aspects of our language around sexuality and the pornography industry in particular. Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty? And what do we make of the fact that we are born between shit and piss? How do we  culturally and psychologically address the mess that happens in labour with the wonderfulness of babies and their eventual and necessary deaths?

Contradictions abound in our cultural creations around sex and sexuality. We love the act of sex and lovemaking, but we are supposed to do it in very prescribed ways between approved partners. Tell that to teenagers with sex pheromones bleeding out of every pore of their bodies and it becomes ludicrous. Bodies will trump social rules more often than we would like to consider. Of course, sexual mores have become increasingly lax over the last few decades, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve completely vanished.

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

by Roger JG Albert

[I published this post in November of last year on another one of my blogs now defunct. I thought I’d publish it again, because I think it is relevant now.]

I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.

Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything. 

I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things. 

For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another. 

He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation. 

 

Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin. 

Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter. 

One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven. 

Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker.  His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.

It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around. 

Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago. 

We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.