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”.

Craziness in Paris – A long term view.

I left off my last post writing that I would consider what we could do about incidents like the one  that shook Paris to the core on November 13th,

Pundits and commentators all over television and the web are suggesting possibilities for putting an end to extremist violence from bombing Syria to hell, killing all Muslims, getting more spiritual and following the word of God, thinking positive thoughts, getting at the Saudis for funding the Islamic State, and that’s only for starters. These kinds of events bring out the most outrageous ideas in us. Most ideas about doing away with extremist violence are fear-based to be sure, and they invariably target ‘the other’ and hardly ever involve changing our own ideas or behaviours.

Frankly, I don’t think that there is currently any way of stopping extremist violence regardless of where it arises and who the perpetrators might be.

The violence that was unleashed in Paris last Friday was an expression of deep-seated contradictions and conditions in our very own social relations, relations that are now evident all over the world. In our rush to secure our continued prosperity we accept that our governments need to protect the institutions and organizations we’ve come to recognize as the underpinnings of  our prosperity, that is business and private accumulation of wealth. This has been true for centuries. There is no need to recite the litany of violence and carnage that litters our history. The underlying conditions that accounted for the slaughter of French Protestants and peasant riots in the 16th Century have not materially changed. Before the rise to dominance of capitalist productive relations in Europe the wane of the social relations around what we call the Middle Ages produced disruption and dislocations unprecedented previously, especially when combined with the terrible consequences of the Black Death in the middle of the 15th Century. Actually, the Jews were considered responsible for the plague in some quarters and ‘large groups of them were massacred.’* Eventually people were torn away from the land they had occupied for centuries and forced into labour in cities, a process that escalated tremendously after the mid-18th Century. No, mass murder and destruction in human society are not new. Ironically, as Ernest Becker points out in Escape from Evil, most murderous rampages in history were perpetrated by people with the intention of eliminating evil, that is whatever they considered might hinder the prosperity and health they determine is their birthright.

In the absence of rational and reasonable explanations for ‘natural’ disasters or man-made ones like the recent massacres in Paris, Ankara, Beirut and elsewhere, people generally resort to fantasy or fantastical explanation. The veracity of claims of blame is a victim of the fear and loathing of ‘the other’, those sub-human beasts who dare to threaten our prosperity although with our economic imperialism, colonialism and the need for capital accumulation, we have felt perfectly justified in threatening theirs. Can we really believe that the population of Africa welcomed European conquerers during the partitioning of  the African continent between 1873 and 1896 among European powers determined to make business safe for exploitation wherever it chooses to extract raw materials or exploit cheap labour? Can we not see the connection between our colonialist exploitation of peoples all over the world and their sometimes violent opposition to said exploitation? When and how do people think the countries of the Middie East were created and by whom?

I don’t know what motivated the gunmen and bombers who chose to terrorize Paris last Friday.  One explanation I cannot accept is that they were mad or insane although I wouldn’t deny that in some cases there may have been elements of madness in their actions. Madness, according to many theorists among them Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing, is socially constructed and is a label attached to people in certain contexts and situations where they ‘fail’ to conform to social norms like dissidents in the Soviet Union for instance.

I’m afraid that our individualistic explanations just don’t cut it when it comes to violence. What we are faced with in acts like those that occurred in Paris is the institutionalized acceptance of violence embedded in every aspect of our culture and social relations. We should not be surprised when we are faced with this kind of terror. In fact, I am surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.

No, I see no end to the murderous rampages that we experienced in Paris this past Friday, at least not until we completely revolutionize our social relations, especially those that create poverty and diminish people because of who they are, what they look like or believe or what ‘resources’ they may be sitting on. People will not be convinced by rational argument, either. They will react irrationally to any threat they perceive to themselves, their families, countries and the value systems that encompass them all. They define evil as anyone and anything that is ‘other’.

The only hope I have is that we may eventually come to think of evil as corporate concentration, environmental degradation and the impoverishment of vast numbers of people on this planet. I’m not holding my breath.

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*This quote is from Norbert Elias’ book What is Sociology? (New York: Columbia University), page 26

Craziness in Paris on Friday, November 13th, 2015

It’s difficult not to fall prey to the anger that tends to envelop us when we hear of the kinds of atrocities that an apparently well-coordinated number of gunmen and suicide bombers managed to pull off in Paris yesterday. Indeed, we should feel anger. Lots of people happily going about their lives on a Fall Friday evening in Paris had their lives shattered by bullets and shrapnel. So many people died. Their families will never recover from the trauma. 

There is no excusing the actions of the perpetrators of the violence that shocked Paris yesterday. Their actions were impossibly harsh and barbaric. 

Some people find easy and ready explanations for why the men involved in this massacre did what they did. These explanations generally are based on the conclusion that only madmen could do such a thing. That makes it possible to consider such  actions idiosyncratic and not rooted in the very fabric of what it means to be human. 

That’s not how I explain this kind of disturbing behaviour. These men were not mad. In fact they were willing to put their lives on the line to achieve their own personal sense of immortality but also to secure the immortality of their social and cultural values and institutions, call them Muslim or Arab or whatever, it matters little. Their main  goal was to help rid the planet of what they consider the evil of the West. The evil that is the biggest threat to their world. And it is, of course.

Anyone understanding the history of the Middle East, especially during the last few centuries of colonialism and economic imperialism, cannot but conclude that the region has been overrun by European powers for their own aggrandizement producing massive dislocation and displacement of the local people. 

Whenever people are trampled upon for the sake of capital accumulation and corporate power there is bound to be disaffection and anger. Push back is going to happen. Some people who don’t have the ‘moral brakes’ that most of us have will push back hard as they did in Paris yesterday. We should not be surprised by that, but reacting as we  have historically to such atrocities has not worked to bring the peace most of us crave. Is there anything to be done?

To be continued…