My brain is on fire!

Since I started doing research for my blog posts on democracy and capitalism I’ve done a ton of reading and I could do a ton more. I’m scouring my own bookshelves. I’ve got a fair bit of material on the topic but I’m also mining the Gutenberg Project and the Internet Archives online. At the moment I’m reading C.B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke but I’m also glancing at many other books as I concentrate on Macpherson including another of his books, The Real World of Democracy (1965) based on the Massey Lectures. His work is superlative. What a critical mind! I have Hobbes’ The Leviathan and John Locke’s two political treatises, but I don’t have the time or inclination to wade through their work in the original, not when I’ve got Macpherson who’s done it for me already.

Macpherson’s notion of possessive individualism aims to tie together capitalism, democracy and liberalism during the 17th Century when Hobbes and Locke were active English philosophers. Capitalist industrialist production really took off in the middle of the 18th Century, but the slow breakdown of feudal social relations around reciprocity between feudal lords and their serfs started much earlier. As Macpherson notes, the possessive market society that was gaining power in the 17th Century was a model from which philosophers could derive theories and explanations of various sorts. The reality is that capitalist social relations are based on wage labour. A capitalist buys the labour power of the propertyless classes and uses it to create more capital. In order for the capitalist to be able to buy the labour power of anyone, all the anyones had to have control over themselves in order to be in a position to sell a part of themselves on the labour market. They could not sell all of themselves otherwise they would be slaves and they would not be free to enter into other relations as free individuals. Individualism is a necessary condition for participation in the capitalist market. Individual liberty is the crux of the liberal society. A worker in a capitalist society has only one thing to sell: labour power, the ability to work. That said, the freedom to enter a market must extend to everyone, capitalist and worker as well as others not necessarily bound directly by that relationship. So we’re all equal as individuals. Cool, right? Sure.

For capitalist social relations to gain ascendency in England in the 17th Century, equality was also a basic ingredient of capitalist relations because everyone had to enter the market as the owner and controller of what they had to sell. In an aristocratic or monarchical society, equality is patently unacceptable so something had to give. Seventeenth Century England saw the violent upheaval of the monarchy which was replaced by republican rule. Was Cromwell the catalyst for British democracy? Maybe. Whatever the answer to that question, it’s clear that at its most abstract, democracy is rule by the people. ‘The people’ is a highly difficult concept to pin down and the definition of who might qualify for being included in ‘The People’ has changed frequently over the centuries. In any case, democracy is not essential to capitalist society. Liberty is, however. Liberty meaning individuals free to sell themselves on the labour market is what’s important here. Once people are ‘free’ individuals, there is still the need for a sovereign to adjudicate disputes related to market behaviour and to pass laws and create mores that are required to keep society (which for Hobbes is just a collection of individuals bent on securing more power for themselves at the expense of others in the market) moving. The sovereign, in the case of liberal societies, is ‘The People’. The will of the people can be expressed representationally or directly. Note, however, that capitalist relations sit outside any definition of ‘The People’ (although business corporations have been considered legal individuals for some few decades now). So, where do contemporary countries or nation-states fit into the world of capitalist social relations? What are libertarians all about? Would they be upset if you referred to them as classical liberals? Those are questions for another blog post to answer.

For now, I need to let my brain deal with the fog that sometimes invades it making it hard for me to concentrate. Today, the symptoms of the pernicious anemia I have are a challenge. I hope tomorrow will be better.

The Trouble with Wealth

We all want to lead the good life, but what does ‘the good life’ mean? In our world it means to live a life in comfort, economic and physical security and good health. It means being a moral person. It’s hardly ever pointed out, but being a moral person in our world generally means conforming to the ideals and goals of a market economy within a system of private entreprise and possessive individualism. Morality, although it’s often thought of as a set of abstract principles detached from everyday life, is actually determined by the dominant socio-economic structures of our society. Being a ‘good’ citizen is, undoubtedly, an aspect of being a moral person, but most of us never give a second thought to the role that nations have played in our history or what roles they play in our lives now. Countries or nation-states like Canada, the US, Spain and France, are political structures that support private entreprise and that nominally employ a representative form of government that is generally believed to be democratic. I would argue that the states I mentioned above as examples are not democratic in their essence and do not act in the interests of their populations except in rare circumstances and often tangentially at that. Of course, their main objective is to convince you that they do act in your interests. Most of us believe it because we have no knowledge basis to think otherwise.

We’ve been convinced that the key to leading a good life is to get a ‘good’ job, work hard, be frugal and buy things, as many things as possible because they are often what give our lives meaning. I’ve written about this before. Do a search of my archives. I don’t want to get sidetracked here, so I’ll move on. Suffice it to say that one major ideal in our world is the achievement of prosperity with includes good health and enough wealth to lead a comfortable, secure life.

So, what are the social consequences of the drive to achieve prosperity, especially from the perspective of those who have it? Well, the achievement of a certain level of prosperity and wealth is a major moral imperative in our world. So, if you have prosperity, you are a moral person. If you don’t, if you’re poor or somehow lacking in the trappings of wealth, you are an immoral person. It’s really just as simple as that. Yes, there are exceptions and not all of us, by any means, buy into this ideology. What I am arguing is that most of our social institutions are geared to supporting private entreprise, the pursuit of wealth, and possessive individualism. So, for example, our governments are set up to treat the poor, the homeless and those with marginal physical and mental health with disdain and as objects of derision and opprobrium. Being poor carries with it shame and guilt because a person’s poverty is a clear sign of their immorality, of their incapacity to achieve the prosperity to which we all aspire. We rub people’s noses in their poverty at all possible turns.

Human life, in our world, has little intrinsic value. The value of human life is contingent on how productive we are, how prosperous we are, how clever and smart we are. Unfortunately, those qualities are much more easily achieved for some of us than for others. We do not have equal opportunity. Racist exclusion, the marginalization of women and generational inheritance of advantage all play a role in how we ‘end up’ in life.

I’m not saying that individuals have no responsibility for how they ‘end up’. They do. But the structures of our society militate against certain groups of people making them immoral even before they attempt anything. From a start of immorality, it’s very difficult if not impossible to achieve the moral objectives of prosperity and wealth.

Of course, this is all very complex. We can discuss that if you like, but, essentially, the one thought I want to convey here is the idea that poverty in our world equals immorality. So much of how we organize the world and think of ourselves and our neighbours stems from that basic principle.

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”.