The Triumph of Death

Hundreds of paintings have drawn me in so deeply that I lose track of time looking at them, thinking and feeling along with them.  Only one has terrified me:  Breughel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death, in the Prado, Madrid.  It is not the dead bodies or the skeleton army impeding the lines of escape that I find terrifying.  It is the absolute devastation of the landscape.  Guilty humanity is not only being killed for its sins, its capacity to  ever recover and return is being permanently destroyed.  The triumph of death is forever.

John Berger saw in the sublimity of this painting a foreshadowing of the Holocaust. (Portraits, p.43).  In 2018, I see Syria.  I see Syria not in the didactic message Breughel the Elder wanted to send (the wages of sin are death), but in the total, all consuming violence without remainder or promise of redemption.  There is no heaven, only hell on earth.  There is no salvation, only fire and murder.  Its great courage as a work of art is that it refuses to promise hope.

On Friday, Trump, May, and Macron launched their long promised assault on Syria, in response to an alleged chemical attack on the rebel city of Douma.  As of this writing, the attack has not been verified by any objective authority.  I am not interested in whether it happened or not.  Perhaps I am morally unevolved, but I have never understood why Syrians being suffocated by chlorine gas is a different magnitude of moral crime than Afghan wedding parties being eviscerated by Hellfire missiles, or why Israel using phosphorous munitions in the densely populated Gaza Strip is not counted as use of a chemical weapon  but the attempted murder of an ex-Russian spy with a nerve agent is.  Perhaps it is good that I have no geo-political power.  I seem to lack the keen eyesight required to detect these nuanced moral distinctions.

What I can see is an absolute contempt for human life on all sides:  major powers, jihadis, regional power brokers.  The Syrian civil war is the most brutal beating down of the democratic revolutionary aims of the Arab Spring, but they have been vanquished everywhere, the victims of Western complicity with the ancien regime and the inhuman consequences of geo-political posturing.

It is so obvious that the Western response is nothing more than posturing that criticism of it is hardly worthwhile.  What does it matter to the hundreds of thousands of victims that the missile launches were a temporary distraction from Trump Scandal-land, mass student and workers’ strikes in France, and the Brexit debacle in the United Kingdom? Critics point out the hypocrisy, the double-standards, the piles of bodies on our leaders’ doorsteps, but it does nothing to end the system that causes the crimes.

People seem bored by all of it.  The light show is not as cool as it was during the First and Second Gulf Wars.  There was no mass patriotic upsurge.  Spectators had a chance to get a fresh beer from the fridge in time for the next bit of salacious gossip about Trump.

As for raisons d’etat, they are easy to find.  Russia wants to maintain its tenuous foothold as a major power in the Middle East, the US wants to check it; Iran wants to support Assad and pressure Israel, Israel wants to weaken Iran.  We could go on and on, but who cares?  When we get right down to it, there is nothing real at stake for any of them.  Russia will not collapse if it loses its base in Tartus, America is not going to be undermined if Assad survives, Iran has no hope of seriously threatening Israel, and Israel, therefore, has nothing to fear.  The only reality is the absolute pummeling of  life and life-conditions.

I have no solutions and nothing novel to say.  I just want to remark upon the sheer, unrelenting, mad, life-destruction.  Mad, because no one can win by the strategies adopted.  Everyone cloaks themselves in the mantle of righteousness:  Assad in the cloak of formal legitimacy, the various rebel factions in whatever version, secular or sectarian, of revolutionary righteousness they prefer.  Everyone tries to try to line up whatever allies they can. Somewhere in the wreckage are legitimate revolutionary aspirations.  But what sort of future can anyone reasonably imagine if all continue with the same strategies they have been pursuing for  seven years?

Breughel saw the future.  A land laid waste, bodies piled on bodies, an army of death ready to finish off the survivors.  The advantage of art over politics and philosophy is that it communicates its truths directly:  it does not make arguments, it asserts conclusions.  You can take them or leave them, but you have to confront them.  There is no dodge, no hair splitting.  Ecce Syria:  Hundreds of thousands of people killed, millions internally and externally displaced, ancient cities destroyed, without any redeeming goal having been accomplished.  

The living can always project themselves into the future and say:  if the right side wins, peace will be restored, and a better future established.   What else can anyone say?  But death is permanent.  There is no redemption for the dead.   They cannot rise up from the grave and re-assure everyone:  “Hey, it was worth it, don’t worry, get on with your lives.”  Look at the painting again:  there is no getting on with it.

D’un tone moralistique adopté naguère en politique

Stop Me If You Have Heard This One Before

In the mid 1980’s, when I began studying philosophy and became an active socialist, the major fault line on the left ran between Marxists (and other defenders of the “Enlightenment Project”) and post-structuralist critics of “essentialism.”  The critic’s basic argument was that the Enlightenment was a Eurocentric project which falsely universalized a conception of human beings as subjects, i.e., rational, internally unified, self-determining agents, for whom freedom meant subjugation of the not-self. The “not-self” included all non-European peoples and non-conforming identities (feminists, gays and lesbians, racial minorities, etc.,) because they differed from norms assumed to be universal, but really (or so they claimed), relative to a particular discourse.

The fault line had two dimensions, theoretical and practical.  My doctoral dissertation, (revised and published as Critical Humanism and the Politics of Difference) argued that the post-structuralist critique of human subjecthood was both philosophically and politically incoherent.  Philosophically, as a critique of Eurocentric thought articulated in the name of freedom for different ways of being, it presupposes, on the part of the people whose lives express the differences, precisely the capacity for self-determination that their arguments deny.  Politically, they were also wrong to argue that struggles against colonialism or oppression asserted something radically different, or “transgressive,”  (Foucault) of the norms of freedom that had defined revolutionary struggles since the French Revolution.  I showed, by studying what anti-colonialist revolutionaries actually said about their demands and goals, that they all asserted exactly what racists had denied of them:  that they were self-determining human beings just like their oppressors (i.e, subjects of their own history).

Philosophically, I would still stand for the conclusions that I first defended more than 20 years ago.  However, these philosophical arguments have done little to re-direct “identity politics”  towards any sort of coherently unified political movement against capitalism.  Claude Lefort argued in the 1980’s that Marxists were completely misunderstanding the struggles of women, gays and lesbians, and other minorities within advanced capitalist cultures.  (see The Political Forms of Modern Society, pp. 264-272). These were the struggles of minorities who wanted to remain minorities, i.e., they wanted to be included as different, as outside the mainstream; they conceived liberation as liberation from normalizing constraints, not for the sake of participation in the wider revolution, but for the sake of being the people they wanted to be, safe from assault and attack, and free from the need to justify themselves.  The past thirty years have proven Lefort correct, at least at the level of practice, so far as political struggle in liberal-capitalist states is concerned.  There have been large mobilizations (against globalization in the  1990’s, Occupy, briefly, in the 2000’s), but these movements brought together myriad particular interests and never achieved any sort of synthetic, pro-socialist unity).

The global crisis of capitalism that began in 2008 did nothing to catalyze a new global socialist movement.  Marxist critiques of capitalism remain vital academic reference points, but do not inform the practice of any but a tiny subset of activists anywhere in the OECD countries.  There are powerful communist movements outside the OECD (in Kerala, India, and in Nepal, for example), and the project for Twenty-First Century Socialism has not yet completely given up the ghost in Venezuela, although it does appear to be near death.  During the Arab Spring, far-left groups played almost no role (as I learned first hand from talking with an older Palestinian communist at a conference organized in 2011 by the Law School at my university).

The point: an historical materialist analysis of political developments since 1968 (the last major wave of struggle in the West directly inspired by Marxist ideas that could in some sense be called socialist) has to conclude that old forms of socialist struggle and the interpretation of the connection between class position and political identity has been refuted.  Instead, identity politics remains the most vital current of struggle:  people have continued to organize around a defense of their felt identities.  Universal goals like “social justice”  and “equity” are not tied to deep structural transformation of social institutions and global economic forces, but understood as legal and attitudinal changes brought about education and struggle against specific problems that assure everyone “safe space”  to be who they feel themselves to be.

Fuck You, I Won’t Do What You Tell Me

Struggles to be different, to appear in public as the person one feels oneself to be in private, to express one’s desire and love, or one’s culture or racial identity, as one wants to express it, involved, and continues to require, tremendous courage.  Nothing is easier than to rouse violent anger against vulnerable minorities.  Struggles to change social norms and laws such that people are not menaced, attacked, or killed simply for being whomever they desire to be are essential.  If there is a real diversity of identities, then society has to allow for their free expression if it is to be in any sense socially just.

At the same time, I think the tenor of struggle has changed.  In the 1960’s, when the “new social movements:”  radical feminism, black power,  red power, chicano power, queer liberation, and the environmental movement were vital components of the New Left, they were all driven by the idea that “the system” itself had to be revolutionized.  These groups emerged in a dual context:  the stultifying conformity of 1950’s culture on the one hand, and the global wave of anti-colonial revolutions on the other.  Reaction against the first gave rise to the exuberant iconoclasm of the movements, their insouscience (“sex, drugs, and rock n roll”), their revolutionary sensuality, their creativity, their boldness.   The cultural explosion, however, was contained within a sophisticated political critique of the connections between  the fundamental dynamics of capitalism, the destruction of the environment, racism, colonial violence, the patriarchal family, repressive control of sexuality, the alienation of labour, and the meaninglessness of consumer society.  There was no one fully coherent theory that seamlessly deduced every problem from the dynamics of capital accumulation on a global scale, of course, but the different expressions of revolutionary critique  each exposed in their own way some aspect of the interconnected whole.  Marcuse’s political writings from the late 60’s to the early 70’s go some way towards a synthesis.

“Well, so what,”  a critical interlocutor might respond.  “That was then, this is now.  You yourself said above that the only conclusion that it is possible to draw at this point in time is that the old means of struggle towards socialism  are dead.  So why are you lamenting the absence of a “revolutionary”  sensibility in today’s struggles?”

It is a good question.  However, what I lament is not the passing of an arch “revolutionary sensibility.”  (I think historical contexts make sensibilities and theories revolutionary, and we are very far from a revolutionary historical context).  What I worry about, rather, is a shift of focus from systemic dynamics as the cause of fundamental social problems to the identities and character of  people as the cause of social problems, and ‘diversity” and a change of character on the part of people as the solutions.

To understand what I mean, consider the ubiquitous charge of “white male privilege.”   The term does have some descriptive value:  in a very abstract way, “white men”  do exercise preponderant power, but the idea of “privilege”  makes it sounds as if all white men have identical power that they somehow inherit upon being born as white men.  By ignoring real internal differentiation within the imagined abstraction, politically relevant differences of power are ignored.  We are left with the implied conclusion that all white men somehow rule over everyone else, and conspire to keep it that way, and that therefore their typical modes of behaviour are the real object of social struggle.

However, social reality is not composed of abstractions (‘all white men’) but real people, many of whom, even in the “privileged group” suffer poverty, ill-health, exploitation,  alienation, and the sense that life is meaningless.  Abstract categories that pay attention only to generic markers of identity completely ignore class differences that distinguish some white males from others.  Only a very small subset exercise real power in society.  Moreover, even they do not rule by fiat but according to social dynamics and structures that are more powerful and deeper than any group.  These dynamics and forces shape all identities and are the causes of oppression, exploitation, and alienation. Abstractions like “white male privilege” personalise a structural-political problem and get in the way of building a unified movement in which all oppressed and exploited people recognise the common source of their problem and invent new ways to overcome it.

I am not denying that some white men really are priviliged, but calling into question the political significance of endlessly beating that drum, or pretending that if we paid more attention to the voices of others, all problems would be solved.  To be sure, we should expand the canon, put women and other oppressed groups in positions of power, and be open to different ways of life, relationship, and self-understanding.  But this politics of diversity leaves completely unexamined the deep drivers of war, violence, structural poverty, and authoritarian politics. Merely “allying”  with one or another oppressed group around their particular issues is not enough to build the type of movement the world needs to solve those major problems.  Ally-ship might be good for the soul (it can be presented as proof that privileged individuals care about the concerns of oppressed groups), but what we require is the old socialist idea of solidarity.  Ally-ship is a giving of oneself over to the struggles of a group to which one does not belong (and that is, of course, a good thing).  But solidarity was not about giving one’s self over to another group’s cause, but members of all groups recognizing a common source of their specific problems, and building a unified movement to solve them.  Solidarity projects focused on changing the institutions, values, structures and dynamics of society, so as to make different relationships and people with different goals and values, possible.  It was not about including a diversity of voices in the existing institutions, but fundamentally transforming them.  Solidarity, in this precise sense, it what is politically lacking today.  

There is of course a moral dimension to solidarity- the goodness of commitment– but it is not about character in the abstract.  Abstract critique of character and values, or–worse– sorting rulers into good and bad capitalists (those who are inclusive and those who are suffocatingly old school in their defence of hierarchical management)– obscures the underlying structural problems.  It does not tell us how people come to be the people they are.  It ignores the social-structural factors involved in identity formation, the contextual pressures that act upon people, shaping their social position and values.  One half of Marx’s claim that people make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing,  is missing.  Unless we can explain the circumstances, we are left with voluntarism:  social change comes down to individuals deciding to change their character and commitments..

If privileged individuals try to stop acting as privileged individuals, it might make better people, but it will not on its own overcome the structural problems of racism, sexism, and the exploitation and alienation of labour.  We should remember that it was not because Marx thought that workers were necessarily “morally”  good people that he thought they held the key to a free future, but because their role in the process of production– a process upon which social life depended– positioned them to be a politically universal class (i.e., capable of solving the structural problems that capitalism generates).

He may have been wrong in so far as he thought that social dynamics would create the conditions in which all working people, regardless of nationality or identity, would come to recognise, and act on, their universal interests.  Nevertheless, subsequent history has also proven that capitalism is compatible with female bosses and turning Gay Pride Parades into big business.  That is not a criticism of Gay Pride or liberal equality, but a reminder that capitalism can become more inclusive without become less exploitative and alienating.  Work as a space safe from sexual harassment is different from a workplace governed by the deliberative decisions of the workers as a collective.  Capitalist popular culture is endlessly plastic:  it can adapt to changing values and create sitcoms with same sex or trans people as the lead actors and portray them in a positive light.  But it captures those identities within a socio-economic normalcy in which their identity is simply one amongst a diversity all pulling in the same direction as workers, parents, investors, citizens.  The underlying problem of work, parenting, family structure, economic priorities and citizenship is not touched at all.

In order to get at these underlying problems it is not enough to “call out”  people for their privilege, chastise people for their sense of humour, float vacuous abstractions about what all white men supposedly think and believe, or plead for “diversity,”  “inclusivity,” and “social justice.”  Chasing right-wing clowns around campuses trying to shut them up (only to, ironically, amplify their voices all the louder) is a waste of time.  Of course, a society which includes different genders etc., should be inclusive of those genders, etc.,  but the goodness or badness of a society is not determined by whether its ruling class is monochrome or polychrome; it is determined by whether there is a ruling class at all, and how resources are controlled and utilised.   What we are lacking right now is not a clichéd call for “revolution,”  but unified movements that point at the heart of the problem:  ownership and control of universally needed life-resources by a very tiny fraction of the global population and the use of epic violence, military and police, to protect those holdings and the monetary wealth they derive from them.










Poem at 50

Now your apprenticeship is over.

Plato counsels: You have done your time,

leave the world to the young:

Repose, think.


Think?  Of what?



What am I?  A thing that thinks.

In between the thinging and the thinking,

breath, (psyche, soul).

Breath that links world and me:

Lungs expand,

change in pressure

draws the atmosphere in.

O2, (thank you photoplankton and and trees),

binds to Fe,

makes ATP,

makes me.


Is that it?

Too thin to bear the weight

of your expectations?

What did you expect?

A god to hold it all together?


[The heart beats because cardiac cells contract.

They have never heard of god, or you, even though

the sages of all ages say:

“The heart is the centre.”

But the heart’s home is where the cells are.

Even in a petry dish they contract:

an electrical switch:  +, -, +,-;

boom-boom, boom-boom;

shorter-fatter, longer-thinner, shorter-fatter, longer-thinner.

A membrane’s spontaneous depolarization

explains how the heart beat originates

in the heart itself].


The light of nature,

it turns out,

is just light,

waves of measurable frequency

propagating through space,

making room

for my time.


And if this is truth:

Matter that does not matter,

then our meanings are illusions,

but they can still be shared.


Knowing this now,

perhaps you can understand

why love for me is difficult:

I have to build it up, ion by ion,

and they are so small,

it takes time.


It’s beautiful cold tonight,

and clear.

I know you are tired,

But let’s take a walk

on these streets of my childhood.

I’ll show you the Northern Lights,

(They are rare at this latitude)

and we can pretend the stars look down at us,

and care.


If there were anything to pray to,

I would plead:

Lord, let me not think of these impossibilities,

for surely if I do,

I will stop the this vital beat

that is me.



Windsoria, March 22nd, 2018

(The physiology of the heartbeat in the parentheses is adapted from Andrew Melnyk, A Physicalist Manifesto, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 276-277).

An Essay on Frustration

A juxtaposition pregnant with political meaning:  one week after the Windsor Downtown Mission bought the building that currently houses the central library, (yes, you read that correctly), anarchists in Hamilton smashed shop windows as a performative protest against gentrification.   Two sets of dispossessed people (or people representing, or claiming to represent, the dispossessed), two opposed solutions, equally ineffective.

Only in Windsor could a massive expansion of the homeless shelter be interpreted as a good thing.  So desperate is the city for any type of “development” downtown that any transaction is heralded as “good news ” story.  I guess this move is “transformative,”  to use the lingo.  Addresses are being exchanged, (although, laughably, lamentably, no one knows where the library will end up).  But is there any other city in North America where the homeless shelter has more money than the central branch of the public library, enough, in fact, to buy the building out from under them?

This absurdity is the outcome of the privatization of poverty relief on the one hand and the fiscal starvation of public institutions on the other.  The two processes are completely intertwined:  as public investment dwindles, private charities have to assume a greater  role in poverty relief and the provision of formerly public social services.  Since they are private operations, they adopt the same growth model as businesses in the productive economy, seeking to grow and expand their operations.   Corporate sponsored foodbanks advertise on television, boasting about how much more money they raise year over year.  Private charities like the Downtown Mission raise enough money that they can become players in the real estate market.  But what is never said is that the growth of foodbanks or missions means that the problems they are supposed to solve:  homelessness and hunger, are getting worse.  However, once the growth model of the capitalist economy has colonized social service provision, bigger operations appear to be better operations.  The poor continue to suffer.

So, is there a “revolutionary”  solution?  Presumably the belief that there is underlies the protest of the self-styled “Ungovernables” who smashed up chic shop windows in Hamilton last week. Their protest against gentrification was reminiscent of attacks last year in St. Henri, a storied working class district of Montreal.

“Locke St was downtown’s first gentrified street, its ‘success story’ as Mayor Fred [Eisenberger] might say, the surrounding neighbourhoods the first to see the rent hikes that have since come to dominate so many of our lives,” the post read. “Turning the tables and finally counterattacking Saturday night helped me to shake off some of the fear and frustration that build up when you’re trapped in a hopeless situation.”

While they might work as therapy, I want to say that, politically, such attacks are useless, so I will say it:  rampaging down the street smashing windows is politically useless.

In fact, I want to say they are worse than useless, so I will say it:  they are worse than useless.  First, while the justification for the event came with the usual adolescent male  braggadocio about confronting the cops, the political reality is that spectacle-politics of this sort only strengthens the police.  Once a group has been labelled “violent”  the gloves can come off the next round.  Worse, it generates far more community opposition than it does support, and therefore for political pressure on the police to “crack down,”  (by cracking heads if there is a repeat performance).

By increasing support for repression,  groups like the Ungovernables ensure their own destruction and political irrelevance.  Either they can never appear again, or, if they do, they risk arrest.  But they will not become martyrs that inspire the masses to greater acts of revolutionary heroism, they will be forgotten in provincial jail while workers in Hamilton worry about how NAFTA negotiations will affect the steel industry.

Thus the real problems with revolutionary anger:  it  is inchoate and destructive, has no constructive economic or political agenda, and is moralistic (believing that truth lies only with good-souled militants willing to risk their own asses).  Groups motivated by anger alone have nothing to say that the vast majority of people have shown any inclination to listen to for more than half a century.  Yet, if the structural problems that the Ungovernables expose are at all tractable, the solution will require mass political efforts to build a different economy, one based-upon a value system that prioritises the satisfaction of fundamental needs.

It is true, on the other hand, that spontaneous attacks on gentrified streets remind us of the suffering that is a hidden but pervasive reality in the cool capitalist city.   It is true, as the expanding Windsor Mission proves, that there are vast unmet needs.  But these needs are only going to be met when collectively produced wealth is appropriated by the community and used to satisfy those needs.  In the short term, the fight has to be for expanded and democratized public services, fully funded through a progressive income tax system.  The idea that homelessness is some impossible problem to solve, when the materials and the know-how to build homes exists, is just an obvious political excuse to not do what is easily done.  There is a lack of affordable housing because governments do not build it.  If they were to return to building it they would not have to repeat the mistakes of the past:  soulless housing projects that warehouse the poor in self-contained ghettos.  “Public housing”  is not logically exclusive of imaginative architecture and sound urban planning.

In the longer term, beyond a re-vivified public sector, we need a left that affirms the value of creative labour and works to open up access to the beautiful as well as the necessary.  Marx warned long ago about the politics of envy and levelling.  His was a socialism of good things, art and music as well as a roof over one’s head, roses as well as bread.   One can understand a militant frustration with a world where libraries are displaced by a homeless shelter which is incapable of solving the structural causes whose effects it tries to manage.  But there is no short cut to solution, and only political argument and movement building can hope to one day solve them.


Readings: Susan Haack: The Real Question: Can Philosophy be Saved?

Eminent philosopher Susan Haack posed this question in the October/November (2017) issue of Free Inquiry. The article was her response to the editor of the journal (Tom Flynn), who worried that a new religious sensibility was invading philosophy, undermining the “strict scientific naturalism”  that he believes essential, both to good philosophy and social and political progress.  Wisely and wittily, Haack dissents.  Her response exposes the difference between “strict scientific naturalism” and philosophy, eloquently vindicates the independence of philosophy from science, and shows that religious sentiment is not the main threat to the future of philosophy.  Instead, a dogmatic belief that science can solve all problems, combined with institutional pressures that valorize quantitative inputs (money) and outputs (splashy, headline-grabbing research) are conspiring to undermine properly philosophical virtues and values.  Her argument welcomes scientific insights while gently reminds of its limits as a model for philosophy, but only goes part way to comprehending the socio-economic causes of the institutional pressures she identifies.

Haack is not anti-science, but she rightly distinguishes between scientific and philosophical knowledge.  The key difference is that science is a method for accumulating knowledge of empirical regularities, while philosophy contains an irreducible normative moment.  “Evolutionary psychology, for example, might tell us a good deal about the origin of moral sentiments … but it couldn’t tell us whether, or, if so, why, these sentiments, … could constitute the basis of ethics … Neuroscience might tell us a good deal about what goes on in the brain when someone forms a new belief … but it couldn’t tell us what believing something involves.”(43).   Natural science takes things like beliefs and norms as empirical facts, and explains (perhaps) the physical causes that brought them into being.  But it cannot say whether a given norm is a good norm, or what justifies our holding one belief as true.  It cannot because philosophical problems are second order problems not resolvable by describing causal processes of coming  to be, but involve standards which are not physical artifacts but structures of meaning and evaluation.

The real issue then is that philosophy studies the natural and social worlds of material elements, facts, and causal interactions as meaningful entities, events, and relationships.  It does not require supernatural explanations to explain meaning, but it must insist that meaning is irreducible in explanation to underlying physical elements and forces.  Haack does not put the point in exactly these terms, but her defense of a properly philosophical standpoint against “scientism”  on the one hand and religion on the other clearly implies my interpretation.  “Our editor is by no means alone in supposing that, if we reject supernaturalism, we must conclude that there is “nothing but matter and energy and their interactions,” and that this means that philosophy must look to the sciences for answers.  Even if we can articulate an interpretation in which this “nothing-but”  thesis is true, the conclusion that the sciences can resolve philosophical questions doesn’t follow.  Indeed, reasoning as if it did follow exactly parallels the reasoning of religious people who, asking rhetorically, “can science explain everything”  take for granted that, if the answer is “no,” then religion must fill in the gaps, and it is no less faulty.”(42)    Philosophy thus occupies a middle space between scientific naturalism and religious dogmatism.

While she does not attempt it here, it should be obvious to anyone that thinks even for  a moment that there is no way to make the “nothing-but” thesis true.  Human beings are real, and their bodies are obviously made up of matter and energy, but our social labour creates things which are obviously real, yet not “matter and energy.”  Consider any institution.  It is not the set of buildings in which it is housed, but the rules that define its operation.  Parliament could move across the street, my university could relocate to downtown Windsor, without ceasing to be parliament or the University of Windsor.  The things that house and populate the institution are matter and energy, the institution is a set of rules and the possibilties for action those rules alone create.  “Prime Minister”  or “Professor of Philosophy” are not products of the interaction of matter and energy, but of the rules that define Parliament and the University of Windsor.  No mere state of matter and energy can explain either their existence or their powers.

And they do have powers.  As Professor of Philosophy I can teach courses and evaluate students; the Prime Minister leads the party entitled to pass the laws that govern the country.  Those laws materially affect citizens lives in decisive ways, but they are the product of institutional power, which derives from the power of social organization and social labour more generally. Neither can usefully be understood as a state of matter and energy.

Of course, in a way which is totally  banal and totally abstract, Prime Ministers and Professors, Parliaments and Universities, depend upon the material universe.  But surely neither scientific nor philosophical explanation can rest content with mere slogans.  Both require explanations that deploy concepts adequate to the object to be explained (as Aristotle long ago argued).  Human realities require concepts that can grasp the instituted, symbolic, and meaningful nature of social  life and experience.  If there really is nothing but matter and energy, why do the authors who announce this truth from the mountain tops sign their given name, even though human names are not part of the physical fabric of matter and energy?  It is because they want the social rewards that come from authorship; they want to be known as the person who cast out the darkness from their fellow citizens lives.  In other words, they want recognition for having done something good, but the good they do (if it is in fact good)  is not explicable by physics.  Their whole argument is a performative contradiction, presupposing the truth and efficacy of values that their explicit argument denies.

So how have the worshipers of science become ascendant?  Not due to the intrinsic superiority of their arguments, or for any actual “progress”  in the solution of philosophical problems, but owing to extrinsic institutional pressures, which are themselves responses to extrinsic socio-economic and political pressures.  Here, Haack’s argument is limited to effects, not causes.  She attributes the ubiquity of scientistic philosophy to institutional changes.  “Some of the problems  are the result of changes in the management of universities affecting the whole academy:  the burgeoning bureaucracy, the ever-increasing stress on “productivity,” the ever-spreading culture of grants-and-research-projects, the ever-growing reliance on hopelessly flawed surrogates measures of the quality of intellectual work, the obsession with “prestige”  and so on.”(p.40)  These are all real problems in the contemporary university. Teaching and research are now subject to assessment by a variety of “impact factors”  that all circle around the idea that both are products to be consumed: by students, other researchers, or, ideally, businesses who turn intellectual work into a priced economy.

What Haack does not do (at least in this essay)  is connect these institutional changes to socio-economic and political pressures.  Universities have never been the ivory towers they are mocked for being:  they have always reflected the contradictions of the society in which they exist.  Nevertheless, it is true that the direct role that political power and socio-economic pressure to produce commodifiable research have intensified in recent years.  Governments (like that of Ontario)  have forced universities to sign “mandate agreements”  aligning their academic mission with government policy.  Funding agencies (like the Social Science and Humanities Research Council)  increasingly demand that researchers justify their research in terms of “knowledge mobilisation”  a monstrously ugly bureaucratic term whose meaning is not entirely clear but prioritises the immediately useful over social critique and interest-based work whose short-term extra-disciplinary implications are not clear.  Enveloping all is the ultimate dogmatic conflation of the good for human life with the good for the owners of money-capital.

These social and political pressures create an institutional environment where  professional schools, better positioned to prove their “worth” by manufacturing “job ready”  students, produce advice and support to business, and create marketable commodities attract the lion share of the funding (for jobs, for graduate programs, for infrastructure).  Philosophy can no longer defend itself successfully by invoking traditional scholarly virtues, and so it tries to adapt.

Haack is absolutely right to remind everyone of the importance of those virtues.  “In an environment like this, an environment of perverse incentives that reward, not the truly serious, but the clever and quick-witted, the flashy, the skillful self-promoter, and the well-connected, it is no wonder that the very virtues that good intellectual work and perhaps especially good philosophical work, requires– patience, intellectual honesty. realism, courage, humility, independent judgement, etc.– are rapidly eroding.”(40)  Once those virtues are gone, they will never return because they must be cultivated, and they cannot be cultivated in a younger generation if they are absent in the older generation.

But they also require institutional protections like job security, academic freedom, and tenure– all institutional safeguards which are being rapidly and deliberately destroyed.  The intellectual virtues alone cannot save these institutional protections, only political action can.  And there are not enough professors anywhere to save these protections on our own.  The future of philosophy, along with all other real intellectual and creative work, depends on building political alliances with people outside the academy, which in turn depends on explaining the social, not money-value, of tenure, academic freedom and so on.  To people outside the academy, many precariously employed and working poor, these unique features of academic labour appear to be baroque luxuries of a privileged and not very hard working caste.  As difficult as it is to defend philosophy within the academy, it is even more difficult– especially in an age of rising right-wing populist assaults on “elites”–  to defend the academy outside its walls.  We had best put our heads together to find a way.

Moralism and Moral Criticism

I wish there were a God and It would appear as soon as any politician offered “thoughts and prayers”  to the victims and survivors of a tragedy whose causes the politician had the power to address.  It would say:  “I do not actually “look”  like anything. “Made in my image”  means you have the power to solve your own problems.  No one wants or needs your hypocritical prayers, so stop pontificating and address the causes.  Oh, and by the way, you served the wrong master in life.  You will be going to hell.”

I would gladly spend eternity burning with the likes of Marco Rubio if only I could see his face when he was confronted with his hypocrisy.  Alas, we are all fated for death, oblivion, and the atomic recycling yard.

That there will be no final judgement does not mean that we should not render moral judgement while on earth, but this poses the problem of what “moral” judgement means, what its basis is, and what its goals are.  The danger is that moral judgement collapses into moralism, because moralism leaves the social causes of preventable harm unaddressed.

Let us call “moralism”  any position which, a) assumes, without argument, that there is right and wrong, b) that individuals have a responsibility to internalize the rules that define right and wrong, c) that all social problems result from a failure to internalize these rules, and, d) since, according to b), it is the individual’s responsibility to internalize the  rules of right and wrong, there are no real social problems, but only individual failures.

People with something to hide always assume a moralistic posture. Moralism  is a smokescreen behind which to hide one’s own complicity with the pattern of causes that lead to the atrocity.  An “evil” character is invented to draw attention away from the real causes.  Let me keep picking on Marco Rubio to illustrate my point.  In order to hide the fact that he is major recipient of funding from the National Rifle Association, (NRA), Rubio argued (as everyone beholden to the gun industry and lobby in the US argues after every mass shooting) that gun laws would not have prevented the atrocity, because “the bad guys”  don’t obey laws.

The argument studiously ignores the statistical evidence that the harder that it is to acquire guns, the less the bad guys have guns, and the less likely homicide by gun violence is.  But that is not the real problem.  The real problem is that the moralist failures to ask the crucial question:  how does someone become a “bad guy”  in the first place?  And why do “bad guys”  feel the need to deal with whatever problem plagues them by killing someone (either a specific person thought to be responsible for the problem,  or random strangers).

Moralists, even self-professed “Christians”  like Rubio, who would otherwise eschew scientific explanations, typically cherry pick psychological science to help them answer the question.  In the hands of the moralist, the function of psychology is to take the focus away from social patterns and structures and locate the gaze firmly on the character of the individual.  Hence responsibility for all problems can be laid at the feet of bad individuals who failed to internalize the rules of right behaviour, and responsibility for all atrocities can be laid at the feet of bad individuals who failed to internalize the rules of right behaviour because they are mentally ill (“sick,” as The Donald might say).  The mental illness is not invoked to exonerate the person, but only to explain the greater scope of violence and depth of depravity.

Magic shows have persisted even into the age of quantum mechanics because human beings are easily distractable.  While your attention is diverted, the magician performs the trick.  Even if you know what is happening, it hard not to be led to the conclusion the performer wants to lead you toward.  Moralists are like magicians:  they divert our attention from the real problems.  They are successful not because they are talented performers (although some are), but because social and cultural patterns that have persisted over decades or centuries develop their own momentum, and are profoundly difficult to change.  My revolutionary friends are no doubt lamenting right now:  that is the very principle of conservatism!  It is, and it is not.  I do not (like the conservative) value long standing practices just because they are of long standing. I am simply noting a universal fact of history.  True revolutions are very rare, they arise only where it is impossible to live in the old way any longer, and even then older mindsets and patterns of behaviour persist for long periods after the revolutionary event (or, like Orthodox religion in Russia, return after long periods of repression).

The point is not that nothing can ever really be changed.  Clearly, long established patterns can change, and for the better, as I will argue below.  But changing them requires long persistent effort.  In a world with multiple demands on our time, where economic pressures force most people to have to worry about work and saving, and where the next crisis is just a mouse click away, mobilizing significant numbers of people for significant amounts of time against deeply ingrained beliefs and patterns of action is very difficult.  As commentators in the US have been saying, if Sandy Hook did not change gun culture, nothing will.

They do not say that to support gun culture, but to acknowledge how profoundly it marks a large proportion of the US population.  So, while Rubio and others are obviously nothing more than paid apologists for gun manufacturers and sellers, his moralistic distraction will probably work.

If it is going to fail, then the sort of political,mobilizations that the student survivors have launched will have to attract huge numbers.  Moral criticism is an essential part of the mobilization.

There are two essential differences between moralism and moral critique.  First, moral criticism explains individual character and motives by reference to a social value system and a structure of political, economic, and cultural power.  Second, it de-legitimates the ruling value system by exposing the ways in which it systematically harms people, typically, by subordinating the satisfaction of their needs to the goal of its own perpetuation.  Whereas moralism distracts us from the causes, moral criticisms exposes the complicity of the moralist with the ruling value system.  Moral criticism thus always leads to demands for fundamental change.  Moralism, by contrast, is an attempt to prevent change.

In comparison with moralism, moral criticism sound positively amoral.  It talks about  dollars and cents, points out the economic interests that benefit from the ruling values, and unmasks hypocrisy and cynicism.  It leaves exalted talk of God and evil for Church.  It gets its hands dirty, and does not worry about souls.  It is true that guns do not kill people, people kill people, but when they kill people with guns, they are using a product whose combined sales reach into the billions of dollars.  How long would manufacturers care about gun rights if there were no money to be made?  And if there were no money to be made, there would be no money to spend to buy congress members, and thus no gun lobby, and no NRA.

Of course, that picture is far too simplistic.  There is a gun culture, and a deeply ingrained ethos of “Kill Thy Enemy” in America.  But:  (and people outside of America forget this fact too often):  a majority of Americans do not own guns.  They are as appalled by gun violence as everyone else, and feel hurt and embarrassed when they have to answer questions from their friends in other countries about “what is wrong with Americans?”  Gun culture is real, but it does not drive the bus.  Money drives the bus.  If no one could buy a machine gun for personal use, machines guns for personal use would (eventually) disappear.  Canada is very far from the peaceful society it portrays itself as being, but one would have a very hard time getting an automatic weapon to unload on concert goers from a hotel window.

So moral criticism gets down to social causes.  Instead of pontificating, it aids mobilization by exposing the problem.  All social problems may be understood, morally, in terms of harm and damage:  to either or both of life-conditions and living things.  Mass shootings provide a vivid illustration:  death is the end of all possible life-value for the person who dies.  Death as the natural end of life is inevitable, and not a harm when it comes at the end of a fulfilling life of personally enriching experience and contribution to the community.  Death prior to that point, as the consequence of preventable disease or random violence, is an irreparable harm, since the person cannot be brought back to life. Unlike the case of willing self-sacrifice, they did not chose their own death so as to save more life.  Hence, an actually moral ruling value system would prioritize the protection of health and life over the social causes of disease and random violence.

That means, concretely, curtailing the “rights” of organizations that cause the harm.  Inevitably, regulation will be denounced as a violation of freedom.  But it is actually a gain for freedom.  Freedom presupposes life:  early death is an absolute negation of the freedom of the dead person.  Having a right to consume a potentially deadly commodity is a limit on one way of acting in freedom, which– unlike death– does not preclude another way of actingIf you can’t swing your sword, you can beat it into a plowshare, and become an organic farmer.

“But I want to shoot guns, fuck organic farming,”  my AR-15 toting friend rejoins. Relax, friend, it is just an example. The deeper point is that changing the social rules we live by can force people to change, but the changes are good if the outcomes better protect and enable life.  When I was a kid in the 1970’s in Northern Ontario, drinking and driving was commonplace, not taken seriously, a real part of the culture.  People joked about how pissed they were driving home the night before.  Tougher enforcement and public campaigns have changed the culture, and drinking and driving is much rarer, and not something anyone would brag about.  No one, including people who used to drink and drive, would argue that the old situation was better just because people used to laugh about it.

Because we are free, we can change ourselves.  Democratically deciding to change the rules we live by is an act of freedom.  Moral criticism participates in this act of freedom by taking its stand on the principle that right is that which protects and enables life, and that legal rights and cultures both have to answer to this higher court.  It thus exposes the causes of socially pervasive harms, rather than masks them, as the hypocritical moralist does.

The (Politically) Repugnant Conclusion

In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit famously explored problems of identity, the temporality of obligation, and, in that light, the happiness of future generations. The “repugnant conclusion” concerns possible human futures.  If we adopt a crude utilitarian summing of average happiness, then the “best”  future for humanity could be one in which there is a huge number of mostly miserable people. So long as those people prefer their rubbish lives to death, the addition of an enormous number of small tokens of happiness could lead to a greater sum of happiness than a future of a much smaller number of ordinarily happy people.  Arithmetically considered, the sum of the value of the happiness of a huge number of mostly but not totally miserable people could exceed the more complete happiness of a smaller number of people, and so, without countervailing argument, it would seem to follow that the best future for humanity is a world overflowing with wretched but not yet suicidal people.  “In each of these lives there is very little happiness.  But, if the numbers are large enough, this is the outcome with the greatest total sum of happiness.”(p. 388). The conclusion is repugnant for obvious reasons.

Parfit’s thought experiment came to mind recently while I was reading a report from the Brookings Institute.  The report showed that while there has been job growth under Trump, almost none of it has occurred in those districts that voted Trump.  Of most significance:  the (de) industrial districts of the mid-West, those districts to which Trump promised renewed investment and a revitalization of manufacturing have seen no or negative job growth.  Technologically and culturally dynamic major urban areas, especially on the coasts, i.e., those parts of the country that were overwhelmingly Democrat, have been home to all the jobs.

The spin will be:  that’s creative capitalism for you.  Venture capital follows young, hip, tech-savvy entrepreneurs to the big city cauldrons of innovation.   While that picture is not completely untrue, it also masks the other side of the high-tech economy:  precarious or low paid labour in bars, cafes, call centres; low-paid back-breaking labour cleaning, maintaining, and repairing the built environment on which high tech industries depend.  Dynamic population growth sends housing costs soaring at the same time as older problems of inadequate or expensive public transit, lack of access to health care, and class and race divides in access to education persist.

Nevertheless, the economic and cultural dynamics are clear:  the old industrial cities of the American mid-West are not going to regain their power as the workshops of the world.  Even if it is a complete myth that cities are full of nothing but upwardly mobile, well-educated, tolerant, multi-cultural youth, there is an element of that story which is true.  And it is the element of truth that gave rise to my “politically repugnant conclusion.”

The Politically Repugnant Conclusion:  a significant fraction of the American working class will become permanently alienated from the emerging culture of diverse and dynamic urban life and turn backward and inward, shielding themselves emotionally from economic forces they cannot control with xenophobic and racist ideologies, and blindly supporting right-wing movements even when it is objectively clear that those movements have neither the power nor interest to restore the economic basis of the former heartlands of American industry.

There is a corollary:  Left-wing politics will be increasingly dominated by the interests of young urban professionals.  It will embrace a politics of diversity, and cultural, economic, and technological dynamism, and be forced to see the nostalgic fraction of the working class as the enemy, and permanently turn its back on them.

The first part of the corollary is not repugnant:  if left wing politics is rooted in the historical materialist premise that human beings make their own history, it has to change as that history changes.   Thus, any left politics with a future is going to have to find a language and a program that speaks to contemporary cultural and technological realities. Those of us who grew up without smartphones might not need them to manage our social lives, but young people who have never seen a curly, tangled phone cord do.  A workerist politics of nostalgia (a grossly caricatured and dishonestly expressed version of which was central to Trump’s appeal to a large fraction of white mid-Western workers) is not going to work.

But think through the repugnant political conclusion to see what might conceivably happen. Well-educated young people flock to the major cities.  Urban culture valorizes multicultural spaces over ethnic uniformity, sexual and gender fluidity over fixed sex and gender roles, the self-organizing communities of cyber-space over rigid family structures, “the melting into air”  over “all that is solid.”  The left, to the extent that it wants to articulate a progressive agenda, will have to re-invent itself around the demands that elevate the social and legal conditions for fluidity, self-organization, mobility, and diversity over the demands for social protection for obsolete ways of life.  And that will mean saying “farewell” to a large fraction of the working class in a way quite different than that intend by Andre Gorz.

We can already see this process at work in documents like the LEAP Manifesto and Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future.  The LEAP manifesto asks us to imagine a post-carbon economy in which environmental integrity takes priority over profits, while Srnicek and William’s warn the left that lingering traces of technophobic nostalgia will condemn it to irrelevance.  They argue instead that the left must see the computing and robotics revolutions as material conditions for a new emancipatory vision centred on:  free time, play, diversity, and democratic self-governance.

I have been critical of aspects of Srnicek and William’s argument elsewhere, but I agree with them that the left can only look forward, not back. Hence the repugnant conclusion: Unless a language to counter the appeal of Trumpite populism can be found, the chasm between  the values of younger workers (and even those in precarious employment share the values of fluidity, diversity, and playfulness) and that fraction of older workers who believe the snake oil being sold to them by Trump, will only widen.   The danger is that everyone will fall into it– except the capitalists who can only benefit from intra-working class conflict.

A Note on Indiscretion

In the ever widening circle of judgement about sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, it seems to me that a useful moral distinction has dropped out of our social vocabulary:  the indiscretion.  Unlike the violence of sexual assault,  the indiscretion is not criminal.  Unlike sexual harassment and misconduct, it violates informal, not formal codes of conduct.  Unlike both, therefore, it is not a fit subject for public declamation, censure, and punishment.  Its solution has been effective in restoring social connections for millennia:  the sincere apology. The sincere apology must be distinguished from the public apology to whole world, which is always an exercise in public relations.  An apology is not meant to restore a public reputation, but to acknowledge a wrong to the person(s) who was/were wronged.

Sexual violence remains an all too prevalent danger for women.  Sexual harassment likewise.  These are public, political problems that have to be dealt with through the criminal justice system in the worst cases, and through formal censure, education, and demonstrated personal transformation in the less serious.  The criminal justice system has numerous problems, of that there is no doubt, but there is no better existing alternative.  (For an example of what can go wrong when ‘revolutionary’ alternatives are tried, review the abominable way in which the Socialist Workers’ Party in the United Kingdom tried to handle rape allegations against a leading male member.  It shatteringly failed the young female comrade who made the allegations and effectively destroyed the party).

However, not every unasked for and unanticipated sexual advance is assault or harassment.  Some are unproblematically accepted; others are awkwardly received, or ambivalently accepted, or rejected.  I would argue that these define the field of indiscretions.   They should rightly be classed as private and interpersonal.  Yes, the personal is political, but it does not follow that everything personal is political.  Unless we are willing to descend (as it appears we may be)  into a moral totalitarianism in which every tiny little bone from every skeleton in everyone’s closet can be exhumed by anyone at any time– which will prove a social catastrophe  for everyone- we should all insist upon, and respect in others, a space in which indiscretions can be privately dealt with.

Isn’t this just an excuse for men to get away with bad sexual behaviour?  No, because there is no hard and fast scientific definition of the different categories of sexual misconduct.  It is always up to the object of the advance to decide how problematic it is.  The philosophical issue seems to me to make sure that the moral vocabulary is available that allows a distinction to be made, by women who have been victims, between cases that require formal response and those that can be handled by private discussion and apology.  Where there is any question of criminal behaviour, the solution is not an internet trial, but a real investigation and appropriately rendered judgement.   Legal rights are not the whole solution to social problems, but do we really want to return to a world in which moral condemnation based on hearsay takes the place of formally constituted investigations and  procedures?  We should know all too well what happens when groups of people appoint themselves judge, jury, and executioner.  The results have never been pretty or progressive.

I suppose a person who has never thought, said, or done anything untoward is a logical possibility.  I do not think I have ever met one, and I know I do not want to live in a world that thinks that it is possible to eradicate indiscretions.  The only way to do that would be to eliminate all spontaneity from sexual interactions:  anything unplanned can be unwanted, so unless everything has to be planned in advance, it is impossible to avoid behaviors that might turn out to be indiscretions.

Let whomever is without indiscretion cast the first meme.

The Use and Abuse of Ethics

Ethics should be the most comprehensive field of philosophical inquiry.  The term derives from the Greek ethos, which can be translated as “way of life.”  Since the human way of life involves necessary interactions with nature and society, demands both physical and symbolic activity, physical and emotional relationships, and decisions about self and social governance, the ethical problematic involves everything, from ecological considerations, to the place of science in our relationship to nature, to economics, problems of gender and sexuality, race, political organization,religion and spirituality, art, interpretation and meaning, and individual existential crises about the meaning (or lack thereof) of their own existence.  Moreover, since the only way to understand ways of life is to study them, and to study them we have to look to history, ethics makes clear the diversity of forms of life.  But within that diversity, it also discloses (if we know how to look for them) certain commonalities, core natural and social needs which, though they may be satisfied differently, are shared, baseline human realities.

However, unity amidst diversity is a problem I will explore another day.  I want to focus on two ways in which “ethics”  is bastardized and its politically radical implications stifled today.  In standard usage, ethics does not refer to a holistic form of life, but professional rules and standards.  Hence, ethical behaviour is reduced to rule following within a strictly delimited professional domain.  “Unethical”  behaviour, by contrast, is reduced to transgressions of these standards, and is often synonymous with being “unprofessional.”  When it refers to more than just unprofessional behaviour, unethical action is still typically confined to an individual violation of another individual’s legitimate expectations of treatment, given the rules that define the professional “code of ethics.”

Of course, professional standards are important and have their place, especially in a world where professions are defined by often complex bodies of knowledge.  In cases of law or medicine, for example, those who need a lawyer or doctor but are not fully versed in the complexity of the legal system or scientific medicine rely upon their lawyer and doctor to be honest with them, to have their best interest at heart, and to provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions.  So there is no question of simply doing away with professional standards and codes of conduct.

Nevertheless, this restricted use of ethics emphasizes its repressive aspect.  Ethical codes are primarily invoked when they are violated:  they are mostly lists of what not to do (even if they are phrased in affirmative rather than negative language).  Ethics, in the sense of ethos, however, is not primarily about what not to do, but how people live.  Ethical philosophy is thus life-affirmative:  it studies the way people actually live, in the comprehensive sense of “live”  given above.

At the same time, ethics is not anthropology.  It is not a dispassionate study of different ways of life interested in the details for their own sake, or for the sake of discovering deeper patterns, but a critical inquiry into the normative problem of how we ought to live.  Diversity may seem to rule out an answer to that question.  An unthinking cultural relativism might conclude:  everyone ought to live in  accordance with the standards of the culture into which they are born–  bad news for women born into sexist cultures or racialized subaltern groups born into racist cultures.

I think that there are not terribly difficult ways to avoid the problem of cultural relativism without imperialistically ignoring difference.  Societies claim not only to be, but to be good. All claims to goodness demand some attempt to legitimate available positions and opportunities, their openness or closure, as in the interests of the members of society.  Ancient slave societies did not say that they were unjust because slaves had no choice about where they worked; they claimed to be just because those who were slaves were constructed as subhuman instruments who could no nothing more than work for a master.  Had slaves never revolted, perhaps this argument (familiar from Aristotle’s Politics) would have worked.  But the so-called slaves themselves eventually did rebel (most famously in Rome, led by Spartacus)  thus proving, by their self-activity, that the philosophical justification of slavery as good was really ideological justification for slave holding.

This example shows us the general way in which ethics can be critical without being perniciously ethnocentric.  All societies justify themselves by intrinsic standards of legitimacy, but these justifications can also be found wanting by subaltern groups within them.  Over time, we see a general pattern of struggle emerge across eras and cultures:  people who are constructed as not having a certain need (say, women, for education)  eventually re-interpret themselves and reject that construction.  Once a group recongises deprivation of a core need as a harm, they realise that they have been oppressed, and begin to fight back against the oppressive structures and their justifying ideologies. Conservative elements will of course respond that the demands are unnatural abominations, but these are transparent attempts to hold on to their own power.    The demand for change is a demand to open space for individual activity, not wholesale destruction of the culture (its language, art, etc).

These struggles are of course political and economic, but they are not about institutions in the abstract, but how people live, and how they might live differently, and better.  Hence, they are ethical struggles par excellence.  Normative inquiry into  the problem of how we ought to live is thus essential to social change and ethics, properly conceived, is thus also critical.

Here again threats loom.  Case in point:  Israeli philosophy professor Asa Kasher who has authored a proposed new code of academic conduct for Israeli universities. This code of conduct is a pretty clear effort to squelch dissent on Israeli campuses and to prevent, in particular, the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement from gaining any traction there.  Specifically, it is part of a wave of anti-BDS measures designed clearly to criminalize dissent and opposition to Israeli colonialism and apartheid.  For good measure, Kasher has also recently argued  that Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi should stay in prison for fear she might slap soldiers again. Tamimi had the temerity to slap a fully armed thug invading her home!  But more generically, it is part of a wave of “civility codes”  that institutions, from corporations to universities, are trying to impose on workers. These codes are always justfied in apple pie terms:  the need for respectful workplaces, etc.  In reality, they are thinly veiled efforts to increase management power to control dissent and opposition.

Kasher is thus only an extreme example of the danger that seemingly benign or even progressive ethical codes, codes of conduct, anti-bullying protocals, etc., can have.  Since these codes have to be administered, they invariably give more power to the authorities:  the very groups who preside over deeply unjust societies.  Historically, however, most struggles against oppression:  against slavery, against patriarchy, against exploitation, have been struggles for self-determination, against the bosses, the police, the authorities; struggles not for more repressive enforcement of the rules, but for different rules, whose willing internalization creates different people, who can govern themselves and establish mutually affirmative, respectful relationships with others always treated as moral equals.

But we live in a fearful age that lacks imagination and confidence, an age in which too many people want to be told what to do rather than decide collectively how to live together as free individuals, an age in which too many people are afraid of the unanticipated encounter, an age which too often confuses moralistic rigidity with social criticism.  As the example of Kasher shows, people who think they are struggling for freedom and justice best be careful of what they wish for, if they wish liberation can be achieved by repressive behaviour codes imposed from above.

As ye suppress, so shall ye be suppressed in turn.

Misunderstanding and Mystifying Democracy

The New Year:  a time to turn our backs on the mistakes of the past and look with hopeful spirit to the future.  But of course, we kid ourselves.  No celebration of an arbitrary point along our unending orbit will change us.  The clock will strike 12:01, and we will have another drink, light another cigarette, eat more empty carbs, and lose our temper when we get home drunk.  But it is all good:  reason to endure the next 365 days so that we can promise ourselves to be better the next year.

And the political mirrors the personal.  The holiday season is a time to note lessons learned, opportunities missed, and above all, to renew the faith in the sustaining illusions of the liberal-democratic world.

No political system mistakes fictive idea for social reality better than liberal-democracy. Consequently, no system’s propagandists have a greater capacity for poetic pomposity.  Liberal pundits are particularly susceptible to bathetic sentiments at this time of year.

The deeper the contradiction with reality, the sweeter the melody sung to the idea. One in particular caught my ear.  As his country sinks ever more undeniably into a plutocratic police state, David Brooks composed “The Glory of Democracy”  and shared it with a grateful world longing- as always-  for America to show us the way.

He channels the spirit of Thomas Mann’s The Coming Victory of Democracy (published in 1938, two years after the world’s “democracies” sat out the fight against fascism in  Spain and paved the way for Hitler’s aggression and the Second World War).  Mann was a great novelist but shows himself to be a bad historian.  He argues that democracy is premised on “the infinite dignity of individual men and women,” but ignores the fact that, to the extent it exists in any form, it was the product of the struggle, not of individuals, but groups (workers, women, the oppressed of the colonized world), i.e., those thought barely human by the aristocrats and bourgeoisie.  Their fights were for more basic needs:  control over the resources upon which their lives depended and their traditional lands, time away from merciless toil in Blake’s “satanic mills,” homes that were not overcrowded and disease riddled death traps.  They fought with collective political power.

Mann makes an all too banal mistake for such an eminent artist, confusing the liberal principle of individuality with the democratic value of collective self-determination.  The individuality that Mann champions, if it is to be more than the private conceit of the wealthy and educated, must be a social achievement.  The fundamental condition of democracy, (rule of the people, which always meant, going back to Plato, rule of the most numerous, the poor), is control over the lands, waters, productive enterprises, and social wealth those enterprises produce.  Yet this collective control over life-sustaining and enabling natural and social conditions is exactly what liberal individualists from John Locke to Friedrich Hayek and on into the 21st century have railed against as totalitarian.  

From the struggle in ancient Athens of small farmers and labourers against the traditional aristocracy, to the Diggers in the English revolution, to the sans cullottes in the French, from the African-American soldiers in the American Civil War to the militants of the Viet Cong and ZANU-PF, from Women’s Liberation fighters, Queer revolutionaries, Black Power Militants, to indigenous Idle No More activists, the struggle for democracy has been lead by people whom the educated and elite regarded as beneath dignity, a generic mass fit only to work and reproduce.  Their dignity was an achievement, born of collective struggle, for social control over the institutions that decided whether they could access what they needed to live or not.  Democracy does indeed involve the dignity of individuals, but as an achievement of collective power directed against the ruling elite’s base:  their control over what everyone needs to survive.

Without that collective control, “the individual’s daily struggle to to be better and nobler” is nothing more than ideological fodder for capitalist self-help manuals.  Democracy does not do away with those struggles, it makes their successful resolution possible by ensuring that everyone has access to the material means without which self-realization is impossible.  But individual self-realization grows out of democratic self-determination, and democratic self-determination depends upon collective control of the resource bases our lives depend upon, the enterprises that  transform those resources into life-serving goods, and the political institutions that determine the laws and policies under which we live together.   Unpacked, that is what Marx meant when he argued that “the individual is the social being.”  And– since it undercuts their power at its base–  it is exactly what the ruling elites and their platitudes about individuality do not want to hear (or, if they are forced to hear it, denounce it as “the road to serfdom”).

Herbert Marcuse was much closer to truth of today in 1972 when, in response to the Nixon catastrophe, he wrote “The Historical Fate of Bourgeois Democracy.”  Cutting straight through the platitudes about individual dignity and the triumph of the human spirit, Marcuse reveals the dark truth:  at best, “democracy” is little more than mobilization of the masses against their own economic interests, and at worst, turning their primal instincts towards cheerleading the violent destruction of racially demonized others, at home and abroad.  He is talking about Nixon, but he could be talking about Trump today:  “In free elections with universal suffrage, the people have elected (not for the first time!)  a warfare government, engaged for long years in a war which is but a series of crimes against humanity,– a government of the representatives of the big corporations …. propped up by a Congress that has reduced itself to a yes-machine, … a government that’ was elected with a considerable labor vote.” (p.168, Collected Papers, Vol 2).  If we substitute the War on Terror for the Viet Nam War, the vote for Trump was a vote for the exact same policies and values as the vote for Nixon.

America remains a deeply divided society, split into an conservative faction driven by nostalgia for a mythical time when Blacks and women knew their places and workers did what they were told for fear of opening the door to the communist threat, and a diverse, progressive, mildly socially democratic, tolerant but self-satisfied and smug, cosmopolitan-liberal, educated urban group.  The later is more internally divided than the former, which explains why, at the level of policy, the conservative faction has advanced its interests much more successfully since Nixon’s time.  As in 1972, the radical left is not a meaningful part of the conversation.  It tails social movements but cannot find the words and policies it needs to make itself relevant again. At just the moment where a credible radical alternative is needed, we have nothing to say that anyone wants to hear.

And thus the world slides towards the authoritarian nightmare Marcuse worried about 50 years ago.  The coming victory of democracy is no more guaranteed now than it was in 1938.