The power of what we think is true or: Marx was a dumbass, everybody knows that! With a commentary by Paul Whyte, political scientist and former colleague.

-This is a blog post which appeared here on November 17th, 2015. A former colleague at NIC, political scientist Paul Whyte, wrote a response to the post below but for some technical reason was unable to leave a commentary. I respect his knowledge of Marx and his capacities as a teacher so I’ve decided to repost my November 17th post with his comments in tow. 

Please read his comment if nothing else. They follow my post. 

 

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.

Paul Whyte’s comment:

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.

I too taught – actually alongside you for close to 30 years! Our disciplines were different [mine were Political Science and Introductory (Western) Philosophy] but shared a common past and crisscrossed each others field of expertise. We were, and still are, passionate about knowledge and driven to explore and share with others, primarily students and colleagues while working, but quite frankly anyone who so much as feigned an interest in the things that captivated us. I write also -surprise, surprise! [cheap seque to invite you to check out my new blog site at paulswhyte.com]. Whether our individual efforts prove to be in vain is really for others to judge and regardless of the answer, we/I must admit we were driven to it and not for any accounting of the number of ‘conversions’ we made [and not even for the fame and fortune!].

   “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” K.Marx

It is true to acknowledge the existence of a dominant ideology within society, but freedom of thought arises from the critical analysis of those underlying oftentimes philosophical thoughts and values, questioning their truth especially within a historical framework. History is littered with ‘dominant’ ideologies that were transformed and/or deposed. It may also be true for example as you state “that there is no absolute truth” but that itself is a historically contingent claim. Our inability [to date] to assert ‘an absolute truth’ does not necessarily negate its existence, but simply denotes only our present limitations to human knowledge.

The trajectories of our academic careers are remarkably similar. My early exposure to the writings of Marx, limited like every other English-speaking student/scholar of our generation by the sheer lack of translations of much of his work into English (now it is all available) was nevertheless profound and revelatory. My appetite became voracious leading me to graduate schools in the UK and a lengthy dissertation on Marx’s theory of revolution and the SDF in late 19th c. British politics.

I concur wholeheartedly with your statement about the gains that accrue from a lifelong practice of reading and research. The list of authors whose paths I have crossed now seems legion. Has my earlier career’s affection, and more importantly, affiliation to the Marxist viewpoint wavered – yes many times; altered – not fundamentally; been abandoned – never. Marx’s detailed and nuanced historical materialist conception, particularly as applied to industrial capitalism, seems more accurate today (as you say) in the expansion of globalization and the widening income inequality gap.

I likewise see Marx as an optimist about the unfolding of human history. The class struggle is at the very core of his theory and ‘projections’ about its “inevitable” disappearance [in a future communist society] still strike me as essentially correct. Where I think I depart from you, and many others as well, is in the hope or assertion that such a transformation can ultimately be achieved by peaceful and democratic means. Greater “participatory democracy” might be an advance on the current situation, but I am reminded of the earlier hope placed in the trade union movement to significantly change the overall conditions of the many in a capitalist economy, and we both know how that has turned out.

You are right to state that peoples’ material interests are foundational, and consequentially that their ideas are forged within the context of their particular class affiliation. Most are blinded/hoodwinked from this truism by a dominant ideological lens, representing as Marx said

  “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling    material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” [German Ideology]

This creates for our time promotion of the merits of possessive individualism and the fruits of capitalist accumulation. 

Take courage and write/speak on because as one of Canada’s greatest contemporary troubadours [Bruce Cockburn] said so eloquently, “but nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”.

Yeah, Broncos are diminished, give life to the Seahawks!

Ernest Becker 7: Broncos are Diminished: Give Life to the Seahawks!

This is my seventh post in this series and I’m only on page 12 of Becker’s Escape from Evil.  Better pick up the pace or I’ll still be at this in October!

So, poor Broncos.  Diminished.  Humiliated.  Oh well, there’s always next season.  That’s the beauty of organized sport in our day.  It’s never finished.  There is only symbolic death…but, boy, do people take these things seriously.  Because we are symbol-creating beings we tend to take our symbols seriously.  We attach ourselves to a particular cause, team, political ideology or habit and we hang on for dear life.  And then, we fight.  We need others because we can’t impart life to ourselves.  We need others to compete against to prove how worthy we are of immortality.  But competition isn’t always and only about defeating our opponents and our opponents would not benefit from our complete annihilation.   No, we have mechanisms to hold up, to protect our enemies from complete deflation.  We need them and they need us.  We help each other. But we do this daily too in countless ways and not against any perceived enemy. We help each other save face.

I think here of the work of Erving Goffman, in which he showed with such consummate art how people impart to one another the daily sense of importance that each needs, not with rivalry and boasting, but rather with elaborate rules for protecting their insides against social damage and deflation.  People do this in their own interpersonal encounters by using verbal formulas that express proper curtesies, permit gentle handling, save the other’s ‘face’ with the proper subtleties when self-esteem is in danger, and so on.

…It is only in modern society that the mutual imparting of self-importance has trickled down to the simple maneuvering of face-work; there is hardly any way to get a sense of value except from the boss, the company dinner, or the random social encounters in the elevator on the way to the executive toilet.  It is pretty demeaning – but that’s not Goffman’s fault – it is the playing out of the historical decadence of ritual.  Primitive society was a formal organization for the apotheosis [the ascent of man to god like status] of man.  Our own everyday rituals seem shallow precisely because they lack the cosmic connection.

 The moieties stood for these opposing yet complementary principles.  The world was divided not only into sky and earth but also into right and wrong, light and darkness, power and weakness – and even life and death.

 …Modern man has long since abandoned the ritual renewal theory of nature, and reality for us is simply refusing to acknowledge that evil and death are constantly with us.  With medical science we want to banish death, and so we deny it a place in our consciousness.  We are shocked by the vulgarity of symbols of death and the devil and sexual intercourse in primitive ruins.

 We don’t want to be reminded of death and if we are, we deny it any real significance via an immorality project.

The Egyptians hoped that when they died they would ascend to heaven and become stars and thus enjoy eternal significance in the scheme of things. This is already a comedown from what primitive social groupings enjoyed: the daily living of divine significance, the constant meddling into the realm of cosmic power.  I said that primitive society was organized for contests and games…but these were not games as we now think of them.  They were games as children play them:  they were actually aimed to control nature, to make things come out as they wanted them.  Ritual contests between moieties were a play of life against death, forces of light against forces of darkness…If death and disease were overtaking a people, then a ritual enacted reversal of death by triumph of the life faction would hopefully set things straight.

Not sure if this has anything to do with the Super Bowl.  But enough for today.