12 February 2012
Today is Darwin’s birthday, and therefore an appropriate time to celebrate Darwin by a mediation upon his work. No one has influenced me more than Darwin, and I always find the study of his works to be intellectually rewarding. I also read (and listen to) quite a number of books about Darwin. Recently I listened to Darwin, Darwinism, and the Modern World, 14 lectures by Dr. Chandak Sengoopta. While I enjoyed the lectures, I sharply differed from many of Dr. Sengoopta’s interpretations of Darwin’s thought. One theme that Dr. Sengoopta returned to several times was a denial that Darwin had anything to say about the ultimate origins of life. Each time that Dr. Sengoopta made this point I found myself grow more and more irritated.
To say that Darwin had nothing to say about the ultimate origins of life may be technically correct in a narrow sense, but I do not think that it is an accurate expression of Darwin’s vision of life, which was sweeping and comprehensive. While it may be a little much to say that Darwin ever entertained ideas that could accurately be called “Darwin’s cosmology,” it is obvious in reading Darwin’s notebooks, in which he recorded thoughts that never made it into his published books, his mind ranged far and wide. It is almost as though, once Darwin made the conceptual breakthrough of natural selection he had discovered a new world.
In characterizing Darwin’s thought in this way I am immediately reminded of a famous letter that Janos Bolyai wrote to his father after having independently arrived at the idea of non-Euclidean geometry:
“…I have discovered such wonderful things that I was amazed, and it would be an everlasting piece of bad fortune if they were lost. When you, my dear Father, see them, you will understand; at present I can say nothing except this: that out of nothing I have created a strange new universe. All that I have sent you previously is like a house of cards in comparison with a tower. I am no less convinced that these discoveries will bring me honor than I would be if they were complete.”
Darwin, too, discovered wonderful things and created the strange new universe of evolutionary biology, though it came on him rather slowly — not in a youthful moment that could be recorded to a letter in his father, and not in a fit of fever, as the idea of natural selection came to Wallace — as the result of many years of ruminating on his observations. But the slowness with which Darwin’s mind worked was repaid with thoroughness. Even though Darwin was the first evolutionist in the modern sense of the term, he must also be accounted among the most complete of all evolutionary thinkers, having spent decades thinking through his idea with a Platonic will to follow the argument wherever it leads.
Given that Darwin himself thought that making the idea of natural selection public was like “confessing to a murder,” the fragments of Darwin’s cosmology must be sought in his latter and notebooks as much as in his published works. As for the origins of life, narrowly considered, apart from the cosmological implications of life, Darwin openly speculated on a purely naturalistic origin of life in a letter to Joseph Hooker:
“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”
Darwin’s 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker
What has widely come to be known as “Darwin’s warm little pond” sounds like nothing so much as the famous Stanley L. Miller electrical discharge experiment.
Darwin revealed his consistent naturalism in his rejection of teleology in a letter to Julia Wedgwood, where he indirectly refers to his slow, steady, cumulative mode of thinking (quite the opposite of revelation):
“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where would one most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.”
Darwin’s letter of 11 July 1861 to Miss Julia Wedgwood
This same refusal continues to a sticking point to the present day, since, like so much that we learn from contemporary science, appearances are deceiving, and the reality behind the appearance can be so alien to the natural constitution of thue human mind that it is rejected as incomprehensible or unthinkable. That Darwin was able to think the unthinkable, and to so with a unparalleled completeness at a time when no one else was doing so, is testimony to the cosmological scope of his thought.
One of the most memorable passages in all of Darwin’s writings is the last page or so of the Origin of Species, which touches not a little on cosmological themes. Take, for instance, the “tangled bank” passage:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
Besides anticipating the evolutionary study of ecology and complex adaptive systems long before these disciplines became explicit and constituted their own sciences, Darwin here subtly invokes a law-like naturalism that both suggests Lyell’s uniformitarianism while going beyond it.
Darwin places this law-governed naturalism in cosmological context in the last two sentences of the book, here also implicitly invoking Malthus, whose influence was central to his making the breakthrough to the idea of natural selection:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
This famous passage from Darwin reminds me of a perhaps equally famous passage from Immanuel Kant, who concluded The Critique of Practical Reason with this thought:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time.”
Both Darwin and Kant invoke both the laws of the natural world (and both, again, do so by appealing to grandeur of the heavens) and a humanistic ideal. For Kant, the humanistic ideal is morality; for Darwin, the humanistic ideal is beauty, but what Kant said of morality and the moral law is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to beauty. Darwin might equally well have said of “the fixed law of gravity” and of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that he saw them before himself and connected them immediately with the consciousness of his existence. Kant might equally well have said that there is “grandeur in this view of life” that embraces both the starry heavens above and the moral law within.
Darwin did not express himself (and would not have expressed himself) in these philosophical terms; he was a naturalist and a biologist, not a philosopher. But Darwin’s naturalism and biology were so comprehensive to have spanned the universe and to have converged on an entire cosmology — a cosmology, for the most part, not even suspected before Darwin had done his work.
There is a sense in which Darwin fulfilled Marx’s famous pronouncement, from this Theses on Feuerbach, such that: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Darwin, however, did not change the world by fomenting a revolution; Darwin changed the world by thinking, like a philosopher. In this sense, at least, Darwin must be counted among the greatest philosophers.
I would be a rewarding project to devote an entire book to the idea of Darwin’s Cosmology. I know that I have not even scratched the surface here, and have not come near to doing justice to the idea. It would be a rewarding project to think through this idea as carefully as Darwin thought through his ideas.
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Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!
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14 January 2012
Yesterday in Marxist Eschatology I wrote:
Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas.
While on my other blog in Marx and Fukuyama I wrote:
With Marx, we can identify a “bend in the road” of history at which point Marx might be proved right or wrong. For some people — wrongly to my mind — this point was identified as the end of the Cold War. To my mind, it is the full industrialization of the world’s economy. Thus Marx’s thesis has the virtue of falsification.
This calls for a little clarification, since if interpreted uncharitably it might be found contradictory for Marxism to be a perennial idea and to be falsifiable, since what distinguishes a perennial idea is that it is not falsifiable — at least, not in a robust sense of falsification.
Karl Popper was the philosopher who formulated falsifiability as a criterion of scientificity (I’m not certain he was the first, be he has definitely been the most influential in advancing the idea of falsifiability, especially in contradistinction to the logical positivist emphasis on the verifiability criterion), and he discussed Marx at some length. Here’s nice summary from one of Popper’s later works:
“As I pointed out in my Open Society, one may regard Marx’s theory as refuted by events that occurred during the Russian Revolution. According to Marx the revolutionary changes start at the bottom, as it were: means of production change first, then social conditions of production, then political power, and ultimately ideological beliefs, which change last. But in the Russian Revolution the political power changed first, and then the ideology (Dictatorship plus Electrification) began to change the social conditions and the means of production from the top. The reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of revolution to evade this falsification immunized it against further attacks, transforming it into the vulgar-Marxist (or socioanalytic) theory which tells us that the ‘economic motive’ and the class struggle pervade social life.”
Karl Popper, Unended Quest, “Early Studies,” p. 45
I should point out that I agree with Popper’s arguments, and that Marxism construed in the narrow sense that Popper construed it was falsified by the events of the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s “weakest link of capitalism” theory was instrumental in the reinterpretation of Marxism that Popper mentioned. Beyond Lenin, Mao made even more radical changes by shifting the focus from the industrial proletariat to the agricultural peasant. It is a testament to the extent to which the twentieth century was not fully industrialized that it was Maoism rather than Marxism or Leninism that was the form of communism that reached the masses during the last century.
However, I think that there is a species of Marxism that lies between Popper’s narrowly conceived Marxism and the vulgar Marxism reinterpreted in the light of apparent falsification, and this is a Marxism that has been generalized beyond the historically specific conditions of the Russian Revolution, and even beyond the Cold War, which had almost nothing to do with democracy or communism and almost everything to do with national rivalry and the great game of power politics.
I have called a generalized Marxism a species of Marxism, and herein lies to clue to the distinction between Marxism and a perennial idea in the strict sense. Marxism (of one variety or another) is a species that falls under the genera of collectivist political thought. The latter — collectivist political thought — is a perennial idea, and lies beyond falsification. It is neither true nor false, but an ongoing influence, just like its implied contrary, which is individualist political thought. Individualism also lies beyond falsification, and is neither true nor false but remains an ongoing influence in human affairs.
Most forms of capitalism are individualist in orientation, though not all: oligarchical capitalist societies (like medieval Venice) had little to do with individualism. Thus a generalization of capitalism does not always lead to individualism. A generalization of capitalism, depending on its subtle differences in tone of market activity from one society to another, may lead to individualism, but it may also lead to a profoundly hierarchical crony capitalism, or to some other socio-economic formation.
Speaking generally for ideas, and not just communism and capitalism, and indeed not just political and economic ideas but all ideas, the generalization of an historically situated and therefore specific idea usually leads to a perennial idea if the generalization is sufficiently radical. The generalization of capitalism may or may not lead to individualism, but it will eventually lead to some perennial idea which lies beyond falsification, whether that idea is patriarchalism or something else. The generalization of Marxism, I think, leads more directly to a perennial form of collectivist thought, which at its greatest reach of generality is scarcely distinguishable from a vague sentimental connection to others.
The species of Marxism that I have posited — midway between Marxism narrowly conceived and Marxism generalized to the point of a vague feeling of cooperative common cause — is falsifiable, but it is not falsifiable by experiment. It is only falsifiable by history. It shares this property with other theses in the philosophy of history. This is one of the fundamental distinctions between the natural sciences and at least some of the historical sciences: theses in some of the historical sciences are falsifiable, but they are not falsifiable on demand. One can only wait and see if they are eventually falsified. With the passage of time the inductive evidence of an unfalsifiable thesis in the philosophy of history increases, but is never confirmed. Thus the philosophy of history, contrary to most expectations, is the most science-like of the branches of philosophy.
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13 January 2012
Why do I keep writing about Marx? I have already discovered that repeatedly writing about Marx confuses people. Indeed, it confuses some people so completely that if you write a long, detailed criticism of some Marxian idea, those who don’t take the time to read or don’t have the capacity of understand simply assume you’re a Marxist because you’re writing about Marx. Why not get “Karl Marx” tattooed across my knuckles, then? It’s a fun idea. People who read me, but don’t read me closely, sometimes think I’m a Marxist, while people who see me but don’t look closely sometimes think I’m a John Bircher. Really. I was in a coffee house in a trendy part of Portland some years ago having a long and detailed conversation about logic with a friend, and someone asked us if we were from the John Birch Society. I guess it must have been due to our clean-cut looks and the moral earnestness of our discussion. I once asked one of my sisters why people often mistake me for a reactionary, and she said I wasn’t “flying the flag,” and that if I wore my hair in dreadlocks and dressed the part, people would probably think differently. I realized later how right she was.
For my part, I continue to write about Marx because Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas. And so it is necessary to grapple with Marx. I might even be willing to go so far as to say of Marx what Hegel said of Spinoza: To be a philosopher, one must first be a Marxist.
I have on many occasions written about the eschatology implicit in Marx, which is a pretty straight-forward secularization of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Recently in Missing the point I used this famous phrase to describe the dead-end ritualism of mass labor under advanced industrialized capitalism, but it is just as true of Marx’s original vision. Some time ago I quoted a famous passage from Bertrand Russell to this end (Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization). This post was cited in a discussion on The Rational Responders web site. No one told me about the discussion; I found it by following the links back from hits to my post. Some seemed to agree with me, while others thought I got it all wrong, and Russell too.
It was one of the central features of Karl Löwith’s philosophy of history that modernity itself consists of a number of secularizations of originally theological concepts, and Löwith clearly implied that this rendered much modern thought essentially illegitimate. This implication was sufficiently clear that Hans Blumenberg wrote a long book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in order to rebut Löwith. Unfortunately, Löwith and Blumenberg are not well known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, so their works are little discussed. Marx seems to slot in well with Löwith’s secularization thesis, but if secularization is a legitimate historical process, what’s the problem?
I just argued yesterday in Areté and Selection that the medieval world was the direct ancestor of modernity, and if this is indeed the case, then no one should be surprised that many modern concepts of our secular civilization are secularizations of medieval concepts derived from a primarily theological civilization. This is just what happens when a theological civilization gives way to a secular civilization. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think that I will begin referring to that which preceded industrial-technological civilization as religio-philosophical civilization.
In any case, to get around to my main point of today’s post, I was thinking about Marx’s own conception of Marx’s communist millennium that would be a worker’s paradise in which:
“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism
Marx was careful to be vague about the coming worker’s paradise under communism partly because he didn’t want to held to any overly-specific predictions, and partly because he wanted to avoid being called a Utopian. In social science circles, to be called a Utopian is the end the discussion with one’s exclusion as a serious thinker. Marx knew it, dismissed other social theorists himself as utopians, and forcefully argued that communism would come about as a result of inevitable historical processes, not in order to fulfill our dreams of a more just social order in the future.
In other words, Marx’s conception of communism is closely parallel to the line I have consistently argued about the industrial revolution, and, by extension, globalization, since I have also argued that globalization is simply an extension of the industrial revolution — its continuation, and eventually, some decades hence, its completion and fulfillment.
The industrialization of the world’s economies has not come about because of utopian plans for a better, healthier, and more just society, and it did not come about as the result of the nefarious plotting of hidden powers who pull levers behind a curtain. The industrial revolution came about as an historical process that escalated due to a feedback loop of science, technology, and industry. This process is still incomplete. As the process continues its march around the globe — again, not as the result of utopian dreams or evil conspiracies — it creates what we now call globalization, as institutions that first appeared in Western Europe begin to appear elsewhere in the world. But the institutions are symptoms, not causes. People who see only the surface of things see the institutions of industrialized societies as the causes of changes; they are not the causes; these institutions follow from deep structural changes in economic organization.
I don’t think that Marx would have disagreed with me too strenuous only this, and I don’t think that he would disagree all that much with the next claim I will make. I have called the industrial revolution a macro-historical revolution, as it initiates a new stage in human history. There have only been two previous fundamentally distinct forms of human society, and these were hunter-gatherer nomadic societies, and settled agricultural societies. If communism had come about as Marx believed it would come about, then this too would have qualified as a fundamentally new form of human society, and communism would have inaugurated a new macro-historical division. The material conditions of life would have changed for the greater part of humanity. This is simply to put Marx’s idea in my terminology.
I have also argued that Marx’s theory has not really received its experimentum crusis, because the industrial revolution has even in our time not yet been completed. We cannot say that Marx was wrong in his essential argument until globalization has transformed the world entire into an industrialized economy, and then, under these conditions, no communist revolution occurs that expropriates the expropriators. People who still argue today about whether Marx was right or wrong, whether he has been refuted or validated by history, are missing the point: the conditions do not yet obtain under which Marx can be judged to be right or wrong. Thus Marxism must remain an open question for us if we are going to maintain our intellectual integrity.
Given, then, that the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy is still a live option for history, I ought to count it among the macro-historical possibilities that I began to delineate in Three Futures, where I identified singularization, pastoralization, and extraterrestrialization as historical forces that could sufficiently transform the basic organization of human societies to the point that a new macro-historical division is defined by the transformation. I ought, then, to speak of four futures, except that I am working on another possibility that I hope to discuss soon, which would define five futures — or, better, five strategic trends that suggest transformation on the civilizational level if extrapolated to a sufficient degree.
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20 May 2009
Red is the universal symbol of socialism, communism, and Marxism, but it could just as well be green, for collectivist sentiments will always remain evergreen; they represent a perennial form of thought that will always find expression in every age. While the particular form that collectivist thought takes in a given era is specific to that era, it is a perennial tendency of thought and will in every era exhibit perennial properties. Since Marxism is a particular form of a perennial feature of thought, it can be expected to be historically viable. (There is a general principle implicit in this general claim, but I will leave this for another time.)
Since the nineteenth century, Marx has been the primary source of collectivist thought, and Marx will continue to be the primary representative for collectivist thought probably for some centuries to come. Not until another thinker of comparative stature emerges in the coming centuries to re-formulate a powerful collectivist vision on a level with that articulated by Marx will Marx himself be superseded.
The continuing relevance of Marx is attested to in last Saturday’s Financial Times, in which a review by Tony Barber of three books (The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown, The Frock-Coated Communist by Tristram Hunt, and Marx by Vincent Barnett) was titled Red Alert: Communism has long been discredited — but is there still mileage in the theories of Marx and Engels?
While with the end of the Cold War it became fashionable to speak of Marx being discredited or “proved wrong,” just as today, in the wake of the present financial crisis, it has become fashionable to dust off the tomes of Marx and seek their renewed relevance to the world situation, these twin events — the end of the Cold War and the present financial crisis — ought to have no special claim on our theoretical understanding other than the fact that they are important events that happened to have occurred during our life time. Other events will certainly occur in the future that will make Marxism seem more or less relevant, just as events have occurred in the past that made Marxism seem more or less relevant. The personal perspective on history is a kind of distortion, and one must work against being too much swayed by the events of one’s own time.
In my Globalization and Marxism I argued that Marxism has still not received its experimentum crusis, and may in fact never be subject to a crucial experiment that could decisively and definitively determine the truth value of Marxism’s most fundamental propositions.
A couple of days ago in Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement I mentioned Marcuse’s post-World War Two reflections on Marxism and the probability (or lack thereof) of proletarian revolution and what Marcuse called “orthodox Marxism” (of which he apparently considered himself a representative).
The “33 Theses” referenced in the above-mentioned post makes for fascinating reading, and I hope to return to this work by Marcuse in future posts. Marcuse takes the post-World War Two condition of Europe as his starting point, and at that point it is apparent that he already at that time considers orthodox Marxism to be defeated (or, at least, not a force to be reckoned with at that time in history). The Soviet Union at that time, even for orthodox Marxists, did not seem to present any hope for leading the vanguard of worldwide proletarian revolution.
Several of the pieces in Marcuse’s Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume One, are similarly prescient; his orthodox Marxism has not impaired the rigor and objectivity of his scholarship. There is much to be learned here, still today, as there was much that could have been learned from it in Marcuse’s time that would have made the “Red Scare” that much less scary. But this is a large topic that cannot be adequately treated with an extemporaneous remark like that.
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27 April 2009
This morning on twitter I jotted down a few quick notes that partially reflect the fact that I am presently listening to a couple different books about war: Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden, by Marshall de Bruhl, and A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954 – 1962, by Alistair Horne.
As I was capturing a few thoughts about contemporary warfare, it dawned on me that my thoughts on war can be given an interesting Marxist formulation. If there is anyone who reads this forum on a regular basis you will know that, despite my clear differences with Marx, I often end up citing and quoting him, and I will further develop my quasi-Marxist reflections today.
One of the features of Marx’s thought that retains its value despite the problematic nature of so much Marxist theory is that of the distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure. There should be a name for this distinction and the view of society that it implies, but I am not sufficiently up on Marxist studies to know if there is a term that is commonly used within the discipline, so at present I will refer to it as “the economic interpretation of history”.
I wrote about this last week in relation to Joseph Campbell’s use of the phrase, and there I said that I didn’t know exactly what Campbell meant by it. Well, this is as good a meaning as any for the phrase, and indeed I think it sums up the idea Campbell meant to criticize quite nicely. We could even say (with a certain flourish) that the fundamental theorem of the economic interpretation of history is that the ideological superstructure of a society is completely determined by the economic base of the same society.
This uncompromising statement of the fundamental theorem of the economic interpretation of history is a perfect instance of reductionism as well as of constructing a theoretical absolute. Reductionism is mostly out of favor among contemporary thinkers, though it is not without its advocates, and constructing a theoretical absolute can be little different than erecting a straw man. There are obvious re-formulations of this theorem that are far less rigid, and thus far more likely to be true, or, at least, to have some truth in them. For example, we could say that the economic interpretation of history is the principle that ideological superstructure is mostly determined, or somewhat determined, by economic base. Or, hedging even more, that ideological superstructure is determined at least in part by economic base. It would be foolish to deny the latter outright, so we see that between an absolutist and uncompromising statement of a principle, and a thoroughly hedged statement there can be the difference between night and day.
But rather than conditionalize, compromise, or hedge, I would like to go in the direction of greater abstractness and generality. In other words, I would like, for the moment, to pursue an even more thorough-going reductionism, all in the interest of philosophical principle.
When thinking about it this morning, I was struck by the obvious fact that Marx’s formulation of the economic interpretation of history can be generalized. Rather than limiting our foundations to economic foundations, any social system whatever can be seen as the social base of a society, while any cultural or intellectual expression of a people is a wider field of ambition than political ideology in the narrow sense. Thus a generalization of Marx’s principle would be that social conditions determine the life of the mind. Once again, if we hedge and say, “Social conditions, at least in part, determine the life of the mind,” we have a proposition with which few will disagree.
Now, to war. War is one form of social organization. Indeed, it is a pervasive form of social organization throughout human history. There are important respects in which war is an expression of human culture. It is then to be expected that the social conditions of a society at war are expressed in the methods by which that society makes war.
Since the end of the Second World War, there was been much discussion of strategic bombing. An explicitly philosophical treatise has been written to denounce it as immoral (A. C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime?). Caleb Carr denounces it in his The Lessons of Terror. Firestorm, mentioned above, questions the utility and rationale of strategic bombing. But, if I am at least partly right, it is misleading to try to understand strategic bombing in exclusively moral or political terms. Strategic bombing is an expression of our culture.
Once we see it in this context, it seems rather obvious. Hannah Arendt is especially remembered for her argument that twentieth century totalitarianism and fascism is a political outcome of the emergence of mass man in history. I would argue that mass warfare is also a nearly inevitable historical outcome of the emergence of mass man. Today we have mass war for mass man. It may be horrific, but it is not to be treated as some kind of anomaly: this style of warfare perfectly matches the structure of society today.
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For the record, below are my Twitter posts from this morning, laying the above out with a certain succinctness:
1. Influencing policy through mass terror could have no place before popular opinion was crucial to the formulation of policy.
2. The limited war of earlier ages corresponded to the drastically limited sovereignty of non-democratic institutions.
3. Where vox populi is law, to shift the feeling or perceptions of the people, through terror or other means, is a coherent strategy.
4. Twentieth century campaigns of mass death and strategic bombing are brought into being (not justified) by popular sovereignty.
5. The ideological superstructure of modern war (mass war) supervenes upon the social and economic base of modern human life (mass man).
6. Mass war is a product of the Age of Mass Man.
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7 December 2008
Redeeming a promissory note
In Yesterday’s Marxism Lite I quoted the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm from a BBC radio interview as follows: “Globalisation, which is implicit in capitalism, not only destroys the heritage and tradition but it is incredibly unstable, it operates through a series of crises, and I think this has been recognised to be the end of this particular era,” ( “Marx popular amid credit crunch” 20 October 2008).
I remarked in a note that this quote deserves a fuller exposition, so now it is time to redeem in gold the promissory note. And although I can’t do justice to all that is implied in this single sentence, I can at least make some remarks, perhaps redeeming the note in silver if not gold.
Sentimental forms of exploitation
Hobsbawm mentions the destruction of heritage and tradition wrought by globalization, and this has been a perennial theme of Marxism. In one of the many famous passages from the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes:
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. ”
One doesn’t ordinarily think of Marx as a sentimentalist, but here Marx sounds as though he prefers the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic” relations of the pre-industrial past to “callous cash payment”, and that exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions is a better thing than exploitation that is “naked, shameless, direct, brutal.” While this would be a good place for a digression on Freud concerning the future of such illusions, we will leave this for another time (another promissory note to redeem). Of all people, Marx sounds closest to Edmund Burke in this passage, even down to the metaphor of nakedness and the implied comfort of illusions; perhaps the resemblance is intentional, an allusion, as Marx had no doubt read Burke. But one would scarcely be more surprised to find Marx quoting Joseph de Maistre.
Edmund Burke, in his Reflections in the Revolution in France, similarly expressed himself on sentimental forms of exploitation thus:
“All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”
One can immediately perceive the parallelism of this from Burke with the above quoted passage from the Communist Manifesto; not only the references, but even the rhythm and cadence, are similar. This sentimental side of Marxism, apparently tolerant of feudal exploitation so long as it is modestly draped in moral rhetoric, illustrates the lengths to which Marx (and his followers) will go to make a point, but it is a mere distraction from the more significant content of Hobsbawm’s above quote.
The development of the heretofore undeveloped world
For much of the twentieth century the political left engaged in ostentatious hand-wringing over the conditions in poor countries around the world. This hand-wringing was best exemplified in dependency theory, which held that poor countries were being “underdeveloped” (instead of simply being “developed”) as part of a nefarious capitalist scheme to keep them poor. Now, some of these countries are no longer poor; certainly, many are no longer as poor as they once were. Countries like India and China have begun to industrialize, and their industrialization is changing conceptions of economic development, international relations, and indeed civilization itself.
Globalization is nothing but the long-awaited development of the undeveloped and underdeveloped world. That globalization is attended by much lamentation and gnashing of teeth in both the developed and in the un- and underdeveloped world is in itself a demonstration that globalization is no respecter of persons and is as blind as justice. The peoples of the developed world complain that jobs are being “exported” to the industrializing nation-states, while the peoples of industrializing nation-states complain about the conditions of industrialization, notwithstanding the fact that industrialization in the twenty-first century is a very different beast than industrialization in the nineteenth century.
If any political entity not affiliated with the left attempted to obstruct globalization, they would be accused of attempting to keep poor countries poor, just as when any political entity in the US points out the counter-productive character of attempting to protect politically visible jobs (by singling out particular industries for protection) such an entity can expect to be pilloried by those claiming to speak on behalf of workers.
Industrialization before revolution
Many are the economists and political theorists who have rightly observed that Marx maintained that industrialization was a necessary preliminary to communist revolution. Marx himself was lukewarm about the enthusiastic Russian reception of Das Kapital, because Russia, being not yet industrialized and lacking an industrial proletariat, was not primed for revolution like heavily industrialized Western Europe. Lenin made some revisions to Marx and attempted to legitimize revolution in Russia from a Marxist theoretical perspective. Mao later went much farther, and made the obviously non-industrialized Chinese peasant the basis of his revolutionary movement. If Marx was right, and we can take him at his word, the communist revolutions in Russia and China were premature revolutions, and had Marx seen them he might well have predicted their failure.
If, as I have stated above, globalization is nothing other than the extension of the industrial revolution to regions of the world previously untouched by it, and if Marx was right that communist revolution must emerge from the industrialized armies created by the factory system, then globalization must precede any genuine communist revolution. Hobsbawm said that globalization is implicit in capitalism, but he might just as well have said that globalization is implicit in Marxism. In other words, Marx may yet be right, and he may yet be proved right at some distant point in the future, but the conditions under which Marx might be proved right (or wrong) have simply not yet obtained.
Marxism and its experimentum crucis
It is easy to imagine a point in time when all the world is industrialized, and Africa has followed in the footsteps of Asia’s present capitalist development (and, in a sufficiently warm world, Antarctica as well). At such a point in history, the world entire would be ripe for revolution, as financial crises today that are limited to the industrialized and developed world would at that time involve the whole world. When industrialization is world-wide, the mechanisms employed today to stabilize developed economies may no longer function and we could yet see escalating crises of the kind predicted by Marx. But this has not yet happened; it cannot happen until the entire world has industrialized, and the process by which the world is industrialized is globalization.
Globalization is thus a precondition of a sufficiently catastrophic crisis that a communist revolution could unfold as predicted by Marx. After the initial industrialization of western Europe, followed shortly thereafter by the industrialization of North America and Japan, it seemed that the rest of Eurasia and Africa would follow in sequence. But industrialization stalled; while some industries were established in Asia and Africa, society was not transformed by an industrial revolution, and industry after the model of Europe remained economically marginal throughout much of the world. Near the end of the twentieth century, when China began to industrialize in earnest, it seemed again as though the rest of the world would follow in sequence, and this may yet happen, but it is too soon to judge.
So, Marx may yet be proved right. But there is a twist. Depending upon the direction that history takes, Marx’s theories may never be tested properly because the conditions under which they could be tested may never obtain. Firstly, and most obviously, if the world never fully industrializes, the conditions under which communist revolution ought to take place will never obtain; hence, Marx’s theory can never be exposed to its experimentum crucis. Secondly, by the time the developing world industrializes, those economies that were initially transformed by industrial revolutions may have already transitioned to post-industrial economies (e.g., information societies), so that the economic and industrial infrastructure of the world remains uneven and global economic crises do not play out as they would under globally uniform economic and industrial infrastructure. Thirdly, and (in my view) more interestingly, if human civilization establishes itself off the surface of the earth, and industrialization has the indefinite extent of known space into which to expand, the potential infinity of the human future will defy any “complete” industrialization, and hence, again, the conditions needed to test Marx’s theory the way he himself interpreted it may never obtain. An “open” future can never converge on an historical totality of industrialization, therefore the conditions under which communist revolution can take place and be successful would be pushed further and further into an indefinite future, never to be realized.
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6 December 2008
Perhaps instead of speaking of “Marxism Lite” I should frame my views in terms of “zombie Marxism,” for it seems that the spectre of Marx, hovering over Europe this past century, is to be disinterred from his tomb at Highgate Cemetery, propped back on its feet, reanimated, and made to walk stiffly to and fro so that all the world may gawk at this stupor mundi. More than a month ago the BBC website ran the story “Marx popular amid credit crunch” (20 October 2008) noting an uptick in sales of Das Kapital. The publisher is quoted as saying, “There’s a younger generation of academics tackling hard questions and looking to Marx for answers,” and the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm is also quoted from a BBC Radio 4 interview: “Globalisation, which is implicit in capitalism, not only destroys the heritage and tradition but it is incredibly unstable, it operates through a series of crises, and I think this has been recognised to be the end of this particular era,” (1)
I find myself thinking about Marx again not so much because of the current financial panic, but rather because I am currently listening to Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography, by Francis Wheen. In fact, I have already listened through it once entirely, but as with most audio books that I take in, I will listen to it at least two or three times to make sure I get the full benefit of the text. A second “reading” often makes plain that which escapes a first reading. The author is apparently of the same mind as Hobsbawm as regards the value and veracity of Marx’s work. Indeed, I heard the author, Wheen, interviewed on the radio recently, making the same conclusions regarding Marx and the present financial crisis that where of the substance (in so far as there was any) of the BBC story.
While it is obvious from the tone of the work that Wheen is an uncritical Marxist sycophant, the more damning charge is that Wheen has failed to do honor to Marx by treating him rigorously and objectively. Such “Marxism Lite” apologetics ultimately do more damage to Marx the thinker than any number of diatribes from the John Birth Society, because a real critique would appreciate Marx’s insights at their true value, and not at an artificially inflated (or deflated) value.
A clear-eyed and clear-headed exposition of Marx would take Marx at his word (or rather at his words, as his corpus is vast) and consider his essential doctrines both in the light of subsequent experience and subsequent political and economic theory. This Wheen fails to do. There are some matters concerning which Marx was unambiguously wrong, and other matters on which Marx was right, and equivocating on this score is simple dishonesty.
Among Marx’s fundamental doctrines, ideas that we find time and again throughout his writings, we must include the labor theory of value, the impoverishment of workers, the maintenance of a reserve army of the unemployed, the latter leading to the factory system itself creating “industrial armies” of the organized proletariat, the prediction of escalating financial crises that become more severe with time, financial crises leading to greater concentration of capital and greater monopolies, and ultimately the expropriation of the expropriators by the mobilization of said industrial armies.
If there is any one feature that vitiates Marx’s work more than any other, it must certainly be Marx’s use of the labor theory of value. No serious economics in our time bothers with the labor theory of value. It is quite simply outmoded. It is not “out of fashion”; it has been superseded by a superior theory of value. Classical political economy struggled with the problem of value, and Marx was part of that struggle, as were Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, and the Mills. Once the theory of diminishing marginal utility was formulated, there was no longer any need for the labor theory of value, and economics moved on to other problems.
Can Marx be faulted for his use of the labor theory of value? Can anyone be held intellectually liable for not making a breakthrough? In Marx’s case, I think he can be faulted. Both Marx and his supporters up to the present day have made a point of saying that he was the best read man in political economy of his time. But several over economists working around the same time independently hit upon the theory of diminishing marginal utility. William Stanley Jevons first presented a paper outlining the theory in 1862. Karl Menger published his version in 1871, and Walras in 1874. Marshall, who didn’t publish his magnum opus until much later, had been thinking about marginal utility for decades. Besides these explicit statements of the theory, there were many antecedents that the interested reader is invited to research. All of this occurred during Marx’s working life, and he chose not to inform himself of these developments.
I do not doubt for a moment that a version of Marxism could be formulated employing the theory of diminishing marginal utility, but the fact that not only did Marx not do his, all his expositors and commentators down to the present day have continued to reiterate his labor theory of value, however Byzantine it becomes. But there is a reason for this willful obscurantism. Marx and the Marxists want to employ a labor theory of value because they want to maintain that the worker does not get the full value of his labor, and that he is “swindled” out of the surplus value he creates. And what is the “full value” of anyone’s labor? The very idea abounds in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.
But this, at least, is certain: if a man tells me that he can manufacture just as good a computer from vacuum tubes as anyone can assemble from integrated circuits because a vacuum tube can accomplish any switching task as well as a transistor, then I know that man is a fraud. Whether he is seeking to deceive others or is simply deluded on his own account is another question entirely.
Another perennial Marxist doctrine that deserves examination is the development of class consciousness among the proletariat. This is of particular interest because it not only interested Marx, but every generation of Marxists to the present. The contemporary left makes much of the idea that elite classes possess class consciousness while the workers do not seem to possess anything similar. Chomsky in particular takes a keen delight in quoting the business press to illustrate what he takes to be class consciousness among the wealthy and the business class, pointing out the lack of similar class consciousness among workers, with a sotto voce implication that worker class consciousness has been suppressed or discouraged.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is pure garbage. The working class does possess class consciousness, but it is unrecognizable as such by the intellectuals who presume to speak on behalf of the workers. Marx was never a member of the working class. Chomsky certainly is not part of the working class. And such men as these can never understand the working class. And the class consciousness of workers is not expressed through unions either. In their day, unions performed a valuable function in obtaining basic protections for workers. Now such protections are no longer negotiated industry by industry, but are written into law and are the object of inspection and enforcement in all industrialized countries. The union movement has been weakened by its own runaway success.
There is a quite funny scene in the Italian film Caterina in the Big City (2003), when in a class discussion of skinheads and squatters a student stands up to assert that all the communists are rich and have degrees and are doctors, lawyers, and directors, while the common working people are rightists disenfranchised by the system. It is both true and surreal. As we all know, many a truth is spoken in jest.
It would not be difficult to document the class consciousness of workers. A well-formulated sociological study backed by extensive interviews, the questions of which were formulated with the assistance of people who were not career academics but who had actually (like me) spent their lives performing wage labor would be sufficient to at least bring out the outlines of the worker’s attitude to his world and the place of workers within it. Again, one thing is certain: that class consciousness does not express itself as a desire to overturn the system in which the workers earn their living, and it does not express itself through revolutionary action. One must be pragmatic to make a living working in an industrialized society, and pragmatic people know that reform, and not revolution, is what improves lives across the board.
Wheen’s book avoids hard questions such are posed by the above considerations, instead opting to emphasize the outrage and the indignation that have always won Marx an audience with the angry and resentful who feel they are entitled to more than they have. It is sad, but predictable. Marx’s “big ideas” have, to date, proved to be plainly wrong and are only kept in circulation by devoted disciples who are not interested in the truth or in improving the lot of mankind, but in perpetuating an ideology. Nevertheless, Marx deserves our respect as a thinker, and if the edifice he spent his life constructing cannot be inhabited today, many of its stones can be used in new construction.
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(1) This quote from Hobsbawm deserves a fuller exposition, but I hope to come back to this later as it doesn’t fit in with present concerns.
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Note added later: Francis Wheen, the author of the above mentioned book commented on my Historical Causality, taking offense at my having called him an “uncritical Marxist sycophant” (which, I will admit, is rather strong language). I eventually (much later) responded to Wheen’s comment in A Flagon of Vinegar.
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Another note added later: in note (1) above I suggested that I would return to the Hobsbawm quote used in the text; I have done so in Globalization and Marxism.
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