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.

Lessons From History IV: Nicos Poulantzas’ Final Interview

On October 12th, 1979, the journal of the Italian Communist Party, Rinascita, published what would turn out to be the final published words of Greek-French Marxist theorist Nicos Poulantzas.  He initially came to prominence as a defender (along with Louis Althusser) of a deeply problematic structuralist interpretation of Marxism.  This final interview is interesting, in 2017, the year of the100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, because it shows him to be re-thinking one of the pillars of his earlier theory:  that the state is nothing more than a programmed function of capitalist society, whose necessary and sole task is to protect capitalist class interests.

In the interview, he discusses the relationship between state and society and claims that Marxism must re-think the role that the existing institutions of liberal democracy will have to play in the transition to, and the political life of, a future socialist world.  In particular, he argues that twentieth, (now twenty-first), century Marxists have to jettison the vanguardism of Lenin’s understanding of the worker’s party.

In Marx there exist elements that are completely contradictory with respect to Lenin’s theories. Despite the criticisms of the formal character of liberties, there was always a preoccupation with the institutions of representative democracy that is difficult to find in Lenin.

This contrast between Marx and Lenin on the (at least instrumental) value of formal political rights anticipates the defense of Marx as a deeply democratic thinker decades later by August H. Nimtz Jr., (in Marx and Engels:  Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough).  Nimtz proves, by paying close attention to Marx and Engels’ political writings, that they did not regard “bourgeois democratic rights” as nothing but ideological camouflage for class violence, but as vital tools for working class  political organizationForty years on from Poulantzas’ remarks, in an era where people’s thoughts have been liberated from their heads and can be broadcast at will to the world through social media, it is even more important that the Left come to terms with political pluralism and civil and political rights.

Whatever merits Lenin’s version of democratic centralism had (and it has one that I will discuss below), the core of his revolutionary theory: the need for one working class party that will rule unchallenged, proved a disaster.  Yes, the revolution was undone by the severe depredations caused by the Civil War, foreign opposition, and, above all, the failures of other European Revolutions, but the belief that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant “dictatorship by the one party of the proletariat”  cannot be absolved of  all guilt for the catastrophe of Stalinism.  Neither one single mind, nor any disciplined collection of minds, can understand every nuance that needs to be understood by those charged with governing a complex society.  There needs to be political argument between competing interpretations of policy and programme, and those interpretations require organization outside of a single party.

Not even Stalinist dictatorship, the imprisonment and execution of millions, could destroy opposition.  It lay dormant, until ultimately exploding in 1989.  The lesson is:  it is impossible, in modern conditions, where people expect to think for themselves, that all  will arrive at the same conclusion.  There will be different interpretations of core political values and the wisdom of different policy options, and the only way to resolve those differences is through full and free debate between different possibilities.  Thus, any viable democratic socialist project needs competition between political visions. This argument has been a staple of liberal democratic critique of Marxism, and, in that respect, the liberals were right.

Even Gramsci, widely lauded for injecting a more fulsome understanding of democracy into revolutionary socialism, remained trapped, according to Poulantzas, within a Leninist worldview.  He failed to think through the real value of multi-party systems and constitutionalism (Rechtstaat):

Gramsci did not have a positive theory of the exercise of power, of the institutions of representative democracy in the transition to democratic socialism. Missing are a theory of a plurality of parties [pluripartidismo] and of the Rechtsstaat [del estado de derecho].

In the twenty-first century, the two most exciting attempts to renew democratic socialism, Bolivia and Venezuela, abandoned the language of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the practice of Leninist vanguardism in favour of constitutionalism (especially the radically democratic institution of the constituent assembly to write new constitutions).  Unfortunately, they have not successfully maintained a steady course towards socialist transformation. The problems that the Venezuelan government has faced, especially since the death of Chavez, reveal a paradox of political pluralism that complicates the picture Poulantzas was beginning to paint.

The real strength of Lenin’s idea of democratic centralism is that it insisted upon disciplined political unity.  After full and free debate (in the party) everyone was required to publicly endorse the decision chosen.  Such a demand is not undemocratic, because everyone was allowed to have their say and to choose whether to be a member of the party.  If you were allowed to make your arguments, but your side lost, and you were free to leave but chose to stay, then you were (in a curiously Kantian way)  the author of the collective act.  You could have refused to acknowledge its legitimacy by leaving, but you chose to stay, knowing you will have to publicly support it, which is equivalent to having chosen the option you did not prefer.  Since the transition to a new society will be rife with conflict, the party that is leading the transition will have to be internally unified if it is to prevail, and its prevailing is the key to securing the natural and social conditions of the robustly democratic socialist society that the majority of people are fighting for (in a revolutionary or transitional situation).

That is the theory.  Subsequent history has shown that the reality is different:  all the differences, even within the socialist camp, cannot be housed under a single party with unified leadership.  The unity at the top will prevent full and free debate in the party ranks below (not to mention all the people outside the party who still have an interest in future law and policy). There is no spontaneous virtue within the working class, or any other social group, that ensures that every decision it makes will be right and just, simply because of the class (or any other) identity it shares:

Indeed, it seems to me that the categories of Marxism tend to consider the problem of the relationship between the working class and political democracy as “naturally” settled. I wonder, is there not a relation between Lenin’s underlying underestimation of the importance of formal democracy and a theory that takes for granted the “spontaneously” democratic role of the working class?

It is about understanding, as experience teaches, that no class by itself, by its very nature, is destined to be a guarantor of freedom without the intervention of a conscious project to that end. It is necessary to know how to look, without illusions and hesitation, into the stratifications, the divisions, the internal complexities that characterize the working class. It needs democracy and democratic institutions not only to defend itself against its enemies, but also to “defend itself” at the moment it assumes political power. Understanding this is important in order not to underestimate, as some Marxists did, the immense work of invention necessary for the elaboration of a democratic political theory of the transition to socialism.

The only way multiple parties can be avoided is through police action to destroy them, but that sort of action destroys democracy in the name of a democracy to come, which (we know now, and Poulantzas could see in 1979) will never arrive.

However– and here is the paradox that Venezuela  above all has revealed– a gradual transition, which pays compensation for re-appropriated collective property, that allows independent, even outright oppositional  political organizations, risks being undone at any moment by organized counter-thrusts.  If socialists ‘liquidate the class enemy,’  then they militarize the struggle and indefinitely postpone democracy (but not totalitarian rule).  If, on the other hand, they try to preserve political pluralism, they in effect keep their class enemies alive to fight another day, ensuring that whatever steps towards socialism they make, through legislation and the creation of new institutions of popular power, will be precarious  and subject to legislative roll back should the government change.

There is no theoretical solution to this problem, but only a choice to be made.  Unless the socialist left can build consistent support for its ideas, realize those ideas in institutions of popular self-government that extend into economic life, and defeat, by superior results and arguments, class enemies, it will never achieve its goals.  Any sort of militarized conflict will lead to mutually destructive civil war (as in Syria).  Socialists have to win by political organization and argument, democratic struggle, international solidarity, and demonstrable  achievements.  Such success is imaginable only over the long term- and, in spite of the danger of reaction and roll-back– gradually.

The interview also touches on a problem which perhaps resonates differently in 2017 than in 1979, but is perhaps also more important now.  It concerns what Poulantzas calls the “pan-politicization”  of society. When he made this argument in 1979, his concern was that critics were treating capitalism as CAPITALISM, an omnipotent, omniverous system that ruled out any space for free activity and self-organized experimentation.

I ask myself more and more often if it is fair to say there is a political defect in our society. Are we sure we will not fall into “pan-politicism”, one of the biggest ideological illusions inherited from the history of these recent years? At its heart, perhaps, the problem consists in recognizing that not everything is political, that there are limits to the politics of “politicization”. It is necessary to adapt to thinking that spaces of freedom may exist for new collective projects, for the expression of new subjectivities that escape politics–or better, certain limits of politics.

He implies that capitalism might not be as monolithically oppressive as critics suggest.  Capitalism is a contradictory system, and social contradictions are spaces of possibility.   Capitalism commodifies life-necessities, it is true, but their life-value exist independently of commodification, and this potentially available for non-commodified appropriation and use.  Expanded civil rights and legal flexibility allow for experimentation and self-organization (co-ops, community run spaces, self-help groups, skill exchanges…).  His point seems to be that as we work against capitalism, we should not miss opportunities to live differently within it.  Not every argument needs to end with:  “if you want x, you have to overthrow capitalism.”

This point remains relevant today even as changed political conditions reveal a new dimension probably not intended by Poulantzas.  The cultural politics of outrage and censorship strikes me as a new form of over-politicization which threatens to suffocate the emancipatory vision of socialism.   All past history is marred by structures of hierarchy and oppression.  It therefore follows that traces of oppressive and hierarchical thinking can be found everywhere, from the crassest popular culture to the highest of high art.  It does not follow, as too many left wing guardians of virtue think, that art works that bear the traces of this oppression consciously endorse it, and that therefore public display should be banned because it supposedly reinforces it.

Instead of learning to read art critically, with an eye and ear for nuance, with the ability to detect contradiction, tension, and irony, instead of understanding art as invention, not description, and, above all to recognize the liberatory potential expressed by aesthetic form (whatever the ‘literal’ content appears to be), too much of the left– especially on university campuses-  is dominated by a philistine and censorious sensibility.  We need to leave banning art to right wing religious fanatics and the cops.  We need to remember that historically it is gays and lesbians, radicals, and iconoclasts–  Wilde, Marx, Joyce– who suffered most at the hands of a conservative state, and radicals who fought for freedom of speech and expression (the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960’s, or Toronto’s flagship LGBTQ Glad Day Bookstore, in the 1970’s and 80’s for example). The Left must stand on the side of iconoclasm, free thought and expression, appreciation for the artistic exploration of the dark side of the human character, and of beauty as a socialist value.  Socialists above all should understand that life is not always nice and safe and pretty, and defend the right of artists to spread discomfort and challenge polite sensibility.

Reality Check

On December 6th, U.S. President Trump did what the U.S. Congress voted to do in 1995:  recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and begin the process of moving the Embassy there from Tel Aviv.   The move was in keeping with the dominant trends of his presidency thus far:  it kept a campaign promise, but was an old idea he embraced as his creation; it was odiously reactionary, but more style than substance, and it left all the details about implementation open.

The reaction to Trump’s announcement is also in keeping with the pattern that has developed:  loud verbal condemnations matched by no practical actions.  Hypocritical leaders from Europe and the Arab Middle East condemned the move as the death of the “peace process,” when any sentient being knows that the peace process been dead for two decades.  Israel will not seriously bargain unless threatened by forces it cannot resist or defeat.  The vaunted “Arab Street” is not such a force, nor are heroic Palestinian youth (both forces seem exhausted after decades of struggle with little concrete achievement to show for it).  The Palestinians have affirmed their dignity by  their willingness to fight for what is right, but their valour has meant nothing to the leaders of the world.  European leaders sometimes say the right things about illegal Israeli settlements, but they have never taken any real measures to end them.  If they were serious about their platitudes, they could support meaningful sanctions, but no major politician in Europe or North America has ever even mentioned the word.  Arab leaders are perhaps worst of all:  the loudest in voice to condemn Israel, the most silent when it comes to concrete action to build a global movement against Israeli colonialism.  Palestinians have been, since 1967, mostly on their own in a fight where they need real allies.

Trump is an obnoxious, narcissistic, right-wing pandering slave of money and media exposure, but he also does what he says.  Widely vilified for constructing his own reality, he also lays bare the reality of this world.  Most other politicians pretend that things like human rights, social justice, equality, and diplomatic politesse  matter.  They do not.  The world is governed by money and political-military power, and Trump makes this clear, all too clear.  Perhaps that is the deep reason why he is so loathed by liberals (in the American sense).  His tweets are lasers cutting through decades of moralizing sediments to expose the bedrock of violence that really drives global capitalism.

They hate this exposure because it brings to light the emptiness of their words:  they ruled over the same system and supported the same substantive policies as Trump, but they couched that support in puffery about human rights and social inclusion.  Trump knows that the hymns sung to human rights are all bullshit and refuses to sing along.  Mariam Barghouti, writing for Al Jazeera makes this point clearly.

Today, we see both the international community and Arab leaders ignoring Palestinian cries for justice once again. This is evident in the dominating discourse of global and as well as Arab leaders – It revolves around the fear of another uprising, instability, and protest. There is no genuine address, in most the speeches and proclamations, to the roots of the travesty bestowed upon the Palestinian people in the form of a violent occupation.

Trump’s crime is that he lets the cat out of the bag:  European and Arab leaders really do not care about Palestinians.  More deeply and generally, they all abide by the principle that the world is ruled by those who have won the wars.  Social justice for them, as for Trump, is for each side to behave as it is in truth:  the winners rule by virtue of winning, the losers are ruled by virtue of losing.  The world has always thus been governed, but usually the rulers put clothes on this naked truth.  But the clothes do not make the man in this case:  the man underneath is a violent brute and he always ruled with an iron fist.

No immediate good will come out of Trump’s announcement. Even though he did little more than recognize a de facto political truth, the recognition is yet another humiliation for the Palestinians.  The have endured worse and continued to fight.  There is no doubt that they will endure this slap in the face and fight anew.  But over the longer term, there is perhaps some value to Trump’s political realism.   Writing one year ago, just after the Trump election, Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud mused that Trump might prove better in the long run for Palestinians than liberals just because he is so overt in his support for Israel:

The US has served as an enabler to Israel’s political and military belligerence, while pacifying the Palestinians and the Arabs with empty promises, with threats at times, with handouts and with mere words. The so-called “moderate Palestinians”, the likes of Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, were duly pacified, indeed, for they won the trappings of “power”, coupled with US political validation, while allowing Israel to conquer whatever remained of Palestine. But that era is, indeed, over. While the US will continue to enable Israel’s intransigence, a Trump Presidency is likely to witness a complete departure from the Washingtonian doublespeak.  Bad will no longer be good, wrong is not right, and warmongering is not peacemaking. In fact, Trump is set to expose American foreign policy for what it truly is, and has been for decades. His presidency is likely to give all parties a stark choice regarding where they stand on peace, justice and human rights.

Thus far, events have proven Baroud absolutely correct.  In order to win, one must not only know who the enemy is, but what they really think.  Attempts to build meaningful support  for Palestinian liberation through cultivating ties with Western governments have failed.  Just as in the case of apartheid in South Africa, mainstream politicians can smell the money over the pile of stinking bodies, and they always follow their nose. Unless something unexpected and unforseeable at present happens in the West, the liberation of Palestine will have to be the work of Palestinians and solidarity movements built outside of and against existing governments.

Writing one hundred and fifty years ago, Marx and Engels argued that capitalism undermines all the religious and superstitious beliefs that former ruling classes employed to justify their rule.  No one can any longer believe that the king is king by the grace of god or that the ruling class is possessed of superior blood.  Money and violence rule, and the observable everyday dynamics of the world prove it to anyone who can stand to look:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Trump forces us all to look with sober senses at the real situation and our relations with one another.  He is, unabashedly, the ideal expression of the real relationship between economic and political power in capitalism.  Puffed up by the trappings of his position, he is, manifestly, a servant of money-power.  This deep truth needs to be the basis of opposition to him and the forces that created him.

Readings: John Brown: New Work

John Brown:  New Work

Olga Korper Gallery

17 Morrow Avenue, Toronto

Field of Forces

a) My Hand …

Writes me into being,

Not straightaway and all at once,

but in loops and curls.

The body of the man hides

the imagination of the child;

in old age,

the reminiscence

restores strength

to the failing body.


At the end,

one is suspended

between the light and the dark.

Endings are awful,

but human.


b) Public Service Announcement

We your benefactors have heard you,

and we have taken care:

to prevent the unexpected,

to exile the unanticipated,

to organize experience

predictably, in advance,

to anticipate the possible,

and organize it

in the interest of your happiness.


All this we have done for you.

c) The Other’s Hand

The eye

that makes the observation

is connected

to the hand

that takes the notes,

that compiles the data,

that discloses the pattern,

from which you are a deviation.


The mind

prescribes the remedy,

the hand

writes the prescription,

which restores the natural order,

by curing the affliction.


The mind

imagines the numbers,

the hand

writes the code,

that drives the apparatus

of security and surveillance,

of comfort and control.


In love for you our hands are joined

to write the rules and regulations


divide in from out,

like from unlike,

known from unknown,

us from them,

citizen from refugee,

the desired from the shunned.


Within this architecture of security

an obligatory good

has been elaborated

by us, for you.

d) Being There

Anxiety:  to vibrate out of phase

with the promised sleep

of pacified happiness.

No network application

can still the mind

that has felt

the impermanence

at the very heart

of things.


Where you are now

you cannot stay.

Being here

is a moment

of the nowhere

you will someday be,


All Photos © 2017 Olga Korper Gallery.

World Philosophy Day 2017

STEM The Tide: The Revolution Will not Be Digitized
Remarks on the Occasion of World Philosophy Day 2017
Villain’s Beastro,
Windsor, ON

1. There can be no question of skepticism about the results of three hundred years of scientific research. The issue is not whether material nature can be understood by the scientific method. Rather, the question is whether human beings and our societies and cultures are reducible to material nature, its elements, forces, and laws.

2. There can also be no question of retreating to idealist dreams of a spiritual other-world and divine origins. Not only do they presuppose what would need to be explained: how god created the world and what reason there would be for souls to become embodied, they also abstract from the limitations and challenges that make life as finite, mortal being difficult.

3. Hence the philosophical object is the specific historical materiality of human beings, the way our individual and collective lives are at once biological and social, physical and symbolic, framed by objective forces that are nevertheless subject to interpretation and change. Grasping this specificity adequately is not only a philosophical problem: it organizes the whole field of the humanities. What is uniquely philosophical is the task of making the case, against reductionism on the one hand and idealism on the other, of the synthetic, bio-social nature of human beings.

4. Our biology both links us together in mutual need and allows us to think as separate individuals. We are drawn together and pulled apart; the meaning and value of our lives are at once collective political problems and individual existential problems. We build together and dread our deaths alone.

5. Our finitude can be lived religiously or philosophically, or it can be ignored scientifically. If religious belief cannot solve the problems of existential anxiety, the dread of uncertainty, the eventual reality of failure and loss, when it is honest it at least acknowledges them as the source of the need to question the silent heavens. “Let man, coming back to himself, consider what he is in comparison with what is; let him consider himself as lost in this out of the way corner of nature; and from this little cell he finds himself lodged … let him learn to appreciate at their true worth the world, the kingdoms, the cities, and himself. What is man within the infinite?” (Pascal, Thought 13).

6. Science makes the same mistake as the dogmas it claims to overturn. In reality a historical and dialectical accumulation of partial understandings, science oversteps its competency as soon as it weighs in on ultimate issues. The absurdity of thinking that there is an algorithmic solution to ultimate questions is as overt as the belief in a literal creation of the universe in 6 days.

7. Choice is not algorithmic but normative: what can cruel or kind, tender or ruthless mean to a machine? They are felt and cognized realties, machine intelligence is artificial because it is not a feeling intelligence aware of itself and its responsibilities.

8. Ultimate questions are those which human beings have perennially posed, in all reflective cultures: Life, death, purpose, love, hate, sex, creation, destruction, knowledge, ignorance, future, the part and the whole, the self and its community, justice, freedom.

9. Philosophy as the public exercise of foundational questioning lives now as it has always lived, nourished by these ultimate questions. Human beings apart from these ultimate questions are protein awaiting recycling. Feeling the essential importance and value of our existence depends upon being confronted with these questions. We do not reason our way to these questions as a computer grinds out solutions. They are just there one day: alone on a bus, walking in a field, looking into your lover’s eyes, alone and suicidal, deliriously happy but knowing it cannot last. “It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. … But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p.10).

10. Cut off from these ultimate questions philosophy is reduced to a loose connection of technocratic specialities that must live and die by their contribution to instrumental knowledge. In the competition between empirical disciplines and philosophy over the instrumental value of knowledge, philosophy cannot win over the long term. It will eventually be absorbed by the empirical disciplines. If it wants a future, it must confront those disciplines with the limits of their competence.

11. Those limits are: the values by which we live and ought to live, the interior life of imagination and thought, the purpose and meaning of existence, in all of their historical complexity and contradiction.

12. Once we open up this field of questions there is always the possibility that the best conclusion is nihilism: that there are no universal values, that inner life and the affections and attachments it helps us form are chimeras, that life has no purpose. Living only really begins where confrontation with the non-necessity of continuing to live has been thought through and felt.

13. Everyone must think down to this level below which there is no going deeper on their own and for themselves. The value of the history of philosophy is not to unburden each individual of the need to work down to that absolute floor. “The task of becoming subjective, then, may be presumed to be the highest task, and one that is proposed to every human being.” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 146). If any philosopher could answer fundamental questions once and for all, they would have been the last philosopher. Like Virgil leading Dante through Hades, the history of philosophy is a guide that lets us see what we need to see, but not an answer book.

14. Hence, the public value of philosophy today is that it keeps these questions alive for the whole community, in circumstances in which our politics, our culture, and our science wants to ignore them or pretend they can be answered by pointing to a chemical sequence or a string of numbers. It forces us to think the specificity of the human as an existential, historical, social, symbolic, and political reality.

15. While this task is not the preserve of an expert culture of academic philosophers, academic philosophers find their public justification as teachers of disciplined and rigorous ways of posing these questions, as interpreters of the history of answers, as creators of answers demanded by our own time, and as exemplars of the dignity of argument and reasoned defence of positions, against violence on the one hand and the dogmatism of quantifiable results on the other.

Emily Dobson,

MA Candidate in Philosophy

Philosophy, Poetry, and Dis-Orientation

In the spirit of the informality of this event, what I have to say will primarily be my own personal experiences with philosophy and the humanities. Given that these are my thoughts, feelings, and experiences, I must make a disclaimer that not everything I have to say fits into the lightheartedness of the event, but I intend to keep it as lighthearted as possible.


The humanities continue to give me perspective and direction in my life. Since we are here for World Philosophy Day, I will say in respect to Philosophy that it has helped to unify and strengthen some of my values and beliefs, and that, through philosophy, I have been able to find means by which I can contribute back to the community. This contribution comes in a way that I am inherently predisposed: through writing, asking questions, and rewriting.


The humanities allow for a level of freedom, creativity, and play that STEM fields lack. I have found Philosophy to be a space in which I can let myself breathe because I know there might not be answers to the questions I have right now, but I can still seek them out without being told to stop. And I can play with the questions and ideas as I go, taking them in and adding my own voice to them. You can’t necessarily do that in STEM. When we think everything will eventually fit into concrete categories with well fitting labels, when we think the world is a 10,000 piece piece puzzle just waiting for humanity to put the pieces together and display it, the creativity and play suffocates.


I believe a large part of what it means to be human exists in creativity and freedom to think and play with ideas and images. Humans are meaning bestowing creatures: we find and give meaning to things. The humanities teach us not only the history and ways in which we inscribe meaning into the world, but they teach us how to bestow our own meaning. Which is why a solution to the world’s problems does not exist in STEM as a solitary or even primary saviour. We cannot fix global crises by pretending that STEM has a value-neutral foundation or by moving further away from what it is to be human.


This is where things get a bit more personal, so I’ll begin with a definitive statement: If I had majored in a STEM field, I would not be where I am today. I mean this in more than the obvious fact that I wouldn’t be up here speaking or doing an MA in philosophy. I mean more so that I probably would have dropped out of university a few years ago.


My relationship with STEM fields has always been in tension. I have a habit of taking in information and regurgitating it beyond what is necessary; I’m relatively good at memorizing. There were a lot of examples that created a basis for public school educators and my parents to believe that science came naturally to me. While I enjoy learning about the world, my passion has always been centered around reading, writing, and interpreting the world instead of trying to map it. Yet somehow I fooled everyone into thinking I wanted to pursue a career in science.


When you’re a kid about to enter high school, adults around you want you to start building a solid plan for the rest of your life. Start thinking about a career and what kind of job you’re going to do to function as a perfect cog in the economy machine. When you’re from a working-class family, your parents push you to do better in school and figure out a plan so that you can work, take sick days when you need to, and find comfort in being able to retire at 65. So I knew in grade 8 when I had to write an autobiography describing the type of adult life I wanted, that I wouldn’t get away with saying that I wanted to be a big name author without some kind of negative feedback. Instead, I coupled the strongly emphasized desire to be a writer with a made up desire to become a marine biologist. I mean made up in the most removed sense; I was and still am incredibly wary of large bodies of water that have creatures with sharp teeth or beaks. But I was so confident in this fictional autobiography that when it came time for the arbitrary graduation awards that my school handed out, I was convinced that I would receive the English award. I thought the consistent emphasis that marine biology was a backup career for writing would be evidence enough that English was what I intended to do. I was so devastated when I received the science award instead that I stubbornly further committed myself to a career in English.


So that’s why I started university with an intended BA Honours in English Literature and Creative Writing. But in grade 12 I was also fortunate to take a course in philosophy. I failed the course with a 12%. Yes, 12%. I took it again the following year, passing with a 53.


How did I end up here, halfway through an MA in philosophy, with a BA[H] in English and Philosophy, when I barely passed high school philosophy? High school me didn’t have the work ethic for philosophy, but my exposure in high school led to taking a minor in philosophy in first year and then switching to a double major the next. I took grade 12 philosophy a second time because it affected me like English had. In both I was allowed to engage with the material in a way that was almost completely my own. Both gave me a direction beyond the unstructured idealism I had of just writing stories.


I was glad to have not enrolled in a STEM field because in university, both English and Philosophy gave me the perspective and foundation I needed to stay in school. I was very sick during my first year of undergrad and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease the following summer. At the end of my second year, I underwent major surgery to attempt to bring my Crohn’s into remission. It was, thankfully, successful, but all 5 years of my undergrad were filled with family problems, toxic relationships, and major depressive episodes. If I had been a STEM major, I may have been lucky enough to have understanding professors like the ones I have met in the humanities, who have always been more than willing to work with me so that I could get through each semester. However, in STEM I would not have been able to reach an understanding of myself and my situation outside of a framework that values productivity above individual lives.


We as a society try to pretend that STEM fields are not influenced by values, but they are just as heavily influenced by an underlying value system that holds profit above workers, productivity over sustainability. Meaning and humanity are forfeit when we work to live to work. I know myself well enough to say with certainty that I would not have lasted an entire undergraduate degree in STEM because it was only through the humanities that I could see myself as a human being with real limitations that no amount of caffeine could remove.


STEM cannot fix the world’s problems because they forget that they are built on and swayed by a dominant value system. Their forgetfulness results in not questioning the extent to which these values may and do cause harm. Some like to think that, eventually, we can use STEM fields to instruct us on how to regulate and account for the things that lead into the global problems we are seeing today. They don’t realize that no amount of regulation is going to fix a system that, at its very foundation, uploads money as having ultimate value. You cannot regulate the foundation out of a inherently harmful system. But the humanities provide means to actively question values and dominant systems and try to push beyond them while reminding us of our own humanity.


I cannot convince my body to do go past its limitations. I cannot remove these limitations anymore than anyone else can; as living, embodied beings, we are inherently constrained by our limits. But through the humanities I have been able to understand these limitations in a way that gives direction to my creative and philosophical work. There is a strong confliction in me between the emphasis on productivity in our society and the understanding that value can and does exist outside of one’s ability to produce. I have been able to bring the former into perspective through studying the humanities. I have given voice to this conflict in my creative and academic work, like many others. Giving voice to this conflict and actively critiquing the ruling-value system is how we begin to find a solution to the world’s problems, not through STEM fields in isolation.

What is Academic Freedom?

Like all liberal rights, academic freedom cuts both ways politically.  Much of the controversy that it engenders is a function of one side wanting to claim as its exclusive property a right that by its very nature is two-sided.  The growth of the  alt-right in the wake of Trump’s election and the return of arguments over political correctness (first time tragedy, second time farce) to North American campuses has made a public issue of what in less fraught times would be studiously ignored by everyone outside of academia.

In Canada, the main fault line today is the University of Toronto, and in particular Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson’s one man campaign against pronouns.  Cloaking himself in the mantle of “science,”  he has argued that there are no biological or social grounds for using genderless pronouns when referring to trans people, and has accused his opponents of violating academic freedom in their critical responses to his position.  Recently, he has upped the ante.  Building on his popularity as an alt-right icon, he has promised to start a web site to expose left-wing “cult”  classes on campus.  As he told CBC radio:

“We’re going to start with a website in the next month and a half that will be designed to help students and parents identify post-modern content in courses so that they can avoid them,” he told CTV’s Your Morning in August.

“I’m hoping that over about a five-year period a concerted effort could be made to knock the enrolment down in postmodern neo-Marxist cult classes by 75 per cent across the West. So our plan initially is to cut off the supply to the people that are running the indoctrination cults.”

[Colleagues at the University of Toronto are alarmed.  Not only is this a gross failure of collegiality– we are supposed to criticize each other but not call each other names and try to destroy one another’s classes– but they are also worried– legitimately– that in the ionized political atmosphere that prevails today, being singled out on this website could make them the targets of violence.  I will leave these legitimate concerns to one side and use the example as a lens to examine the real meaning and value of academic freedom].

So, parents, before you start worrying that your child will go to U of T and come home next Thanksgiving in saffron robes singing hymns to Lord Krishna, let me decode Prof. Peterson’s invective.  “Post-modern”  was a term that was au courant when I was graduate student, more than 20 years ago.  Today, um, not so much.  “Neo-marxist” is even older.  Its referent– if it ever really had one– would be figures like Herbert Marcuse who, in the 1960s, tried to re-formulate Marx’s critique of capitalism to account for the ways in which the working class had been absorbed into the system.  So his terms of abuse are a bit out of date,  but hey, he is a psychologist and not a practitioner of the dark arts of Anthropology or English literature (two disciplines which have, according to the good doctor, been taken over by cult leaders).

What actually troubles him is that some disciplines have the temerity to challenge the authority of empirical science,  to expose its historical entanglements with very unscientific hierarchies of power, and to defend interpretive approaches to the problem of truth that take into account self-understanding, context, culture, and history.  In other words, students in these classes have the opportunity to think critically– the very opposite of cultish indoctrination.

Supporters of Peterson will say that academic freedom gives him the right to expose what he regards as unscientific dogma; his critics can rejoin that academic freedom gives them the right to teach methods and content critical of the western canon and natural science.  The truth is that academic freedom gives both sides the right (subject to key limitations that I will discuss below) to make whatever arguments they think need making.  Like the right to free speech, academic freedom is a formal right that protects the expression, in an academic context, of politically opposed positions.  Attempts to capture it by either the left or the right will always fail, because it protects expression, not content.

In order to understand academic freedom as well as its real value and importance, it is important that we not treat it as an abstract value but as a collective agreement right.  Academic freedom does not appear in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  While it might usefully be thought of as a species of free speech, the only documents that formally assert it and are able to protect it are faculty collective agreements (and, sometimes, University Senate by-laws).  Here are the relevant clauses from the Collective agreement between my Faculty Association and the administration of the University of Windsor:

10:01  The fundamental purpose of the University and its unique contribution is the search for new knowledge and the free dissemination of what is known. Academic freedom in universities is essential to both these purposes in the teaching function of the University as well as in its scholarship, research, and creative work.

10:02  Each member shall be free in the choice and pursuit of research consistent with the objectives and purposes of the University and in the publication of the results, subject only to the normally expected level of performance of her/his other duties and responsibilities.

10:03  Each member shall have freedom of discussion.  However, in the exercise of this freedom in the classroom, reasonable restraint shall be used in introducing matters unrelated to her/his subject.  The University shall not require conformity to any religious beliefs, doctrines or practices.

10:04 The University shall not impose supervision or other restraints upon, nor will it assume responsibility for, what is said or written by a member acting as a private citizen.  However, as a person of learning she/he shall exercise good judgment and shall make it clear that she/he is not acting as a spokesperson for the University.

As should be clear,  the main purpose of academic freedom is not to protect marginalized political positions of whatever ideological stripe, but rather to ensure that research and teaching are unconstrained by administrative, economic, or political power.  The relevant contrast is not between left and right, but between truth and power:  academic freedom is necessary because the discovery of truths depends upon the free exercise of intellect, including its critical exercise against any and all authorities who would try to block the dissemination of certain truths that undermine their legitimacy.

The main threat to academic freedom is university administrations themselves, and the social, political, and economic forces that batter at the walls of the university demanding that research and teaching serve their interests.  That said, academic freedom itself protects Marxist economists and business professors, radical feminists and defenders of traditional marriage, nationalist historians of the First World War and post-colonial critics of imperialism.  So long as there are competing political positions in society they will be represented in academia.  All attempts of one side or the other to use academic freedom to de-legitimate the other side contradict the very value to which they appeal.

That said, there are two very good reasons for social critics to defend academic freedom even though it also protects the right of their opponents to attack them.   First of all, alt-right fantasies aside, the university is not ruled by neo-marxist cultists.  Boards of Governors are stuffed with business people, and senior administrators increasingly identify their role with that of a CEO.  While there are a few dogmatic leftists teaching, there are no neo-marxist cultists running universities.  Ordinary market forces are a much bigger threat to the existence of Anthropology and English Literature than Peterson’s website will ever be.  The totalitarian drum beat of jobs, jobs. jobs, abetted by administrators who design budgets that de-fund the arts and humanities (as well as basic research in the sciences)  in favour of commodifiable research, are rapidly shifting the university away from social criticism and toward conformity with money imperatives.  Academic freedom can be an important value basis for the critique of institutional degeneration.

Second, the left has to learn how to win arguments again.  We need to convince opponents that the world is wrong and stop being satisfied with patting each other on the back for our moral purity.  That means a willingness to engage the intellectual enemy and prove that we have more coherent and comprehensive understandings of the world, that we can expose their contradictions and one-sided constructions, and that we have a convincing program that can build multi-faceted majority support.

The only real and legitimate constraint on academic freedom is the truth that our research and teaching ought to serve.  Where there are contrary positions, both cannot be true, but to decide between them generally requires argument.  Argument is not ad hominem insult; criticism is not dogmatic rejection of whole fields of social and cultural research.  Moreover, truth is not the preserve of the natural sciences.  To be sure, natural scientific understanding of the elements and laws of material reality are of essential importance, both as intrinsically valuable achievements of the human mind, and also as essential contributors to collective health and well-being.  But science does not exist in a Platonic realm of ideas free from political and economic power.  Nor are the laws of material nature sufficient to understand human history, society, and culture.  There is no value free way to study values, and no way to fully understand human history, society, and culture without studying values.  That ensures that there will be disagreement.  Academic freedom is essential to ensuring that those disagreements are resolved by superior evidence, reasons, and argument, and not by campaigns to de-legitimate those disciplines with the historical competence to compile, evaluate, and articulate the evidence.