Saturday, October 24, 2009

The house I live in

A few weeks ago, some section I was reading in Richard Rorty’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of the Mind” impelled me to attempt a moment of pure introspection, turning off any conscious thought in so far as possible, and just trying to be aware of my immediate impressions – sense impressions, and random passing thoughts viewed as an observer rather than as agent. This is not the first time I have tried such a thing. For some reason, on this occasion, the thought occurred to me that I do not directly perceive my “self”. This led me to the conclusion that I infer myself. On further reflection, I speculated that humans, as infants, learn to infer the existence of themselves by comparison with the role others play as agents of actions (causes of effects) in the infant’s environment. They see other effects, with a “hole” in the middle (no agent evident), and infer that they exist, as people like others, in order to fill the hole. The effects inferred to be caused by this “self” are associated with feelings, desires, motivations, so they infer similar feeling, motivated “selves” associated with the other agents, as well.

I offer this as of interest mainly because of the immediacy and specificity of the intuition. I make no claim to originality – if nothing else, I am reminded of the motivating insight in the c. 1972 American Zen book “On Having No Head”, as well as a few barely remembered passages on the construction of the ego in Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents”. I have long accepted the idea that our understanding of ourselves, in the sense of who we are, is constructed and reconstructed over the course of our lifetimes through social interaction and other life experience. And I certainly don’t offer the above speculations as a developed theory. They were the result of a few moments of introspection and reflection – what they mainly suggested to me was the need to do more research into other people’s views on the development of the self.

But I haven’t been able to avoid (or postpone) thinking more about this, because the nature of the self has been an important issue in several books I’ve been reading. It came up in Jean Grimshaw’s book, in her critique of some of Sartre’s ideas, it was important (from very different viewpoints) in MacIntyre’s book, and in Rorty’s, and it is important in Chapter 3 of the book I am reading now: “The Future of Democratic Equality”, by my friend Joe Schwartz, in which he critiques the ability of post-structuralist ideas, including the “fictive” nature of the self, to serve as a basis for building the concepts and institutions necessary to sustain democracy.

I guess I’ll have to read some existentialists and post-structuralists to get a first-hand understanding of their ideas. In the meantime, if I may be indulged in an argument from second-hand sources, it SEEMS to me that a false dichotomy is being drawn; i.e., if a “self” is not some natural, monist, indivisible, unchanging core of our being, then it must instead be “fictive” and “unstable”. Why? An automobile is a constructed artifact, but this doesn’t make it a phantasm, nor does the fact that it would fall apart if all the bolts were removed make it unstable.

I may not know much about the “self”, but I know a lot about houses. I built houses during my teens as a “carpenter’s helper”, working both with framing crews and finish crews; I’ve designed the structure (and restructuring) of many houses in my professional career as an engineer; and I’ve overseen at least four major remodeling projects in my role as a homeowner. To most of us who haven’t had these experiences, houses often seem the epitome of the solid, concrete, and stable. The British even have an expression, “Safe as houses”, which sums this up perfectly. But I, and others in the trade (or other “post-remodelist” homeowners) know differently.

Houses are “fuzzy” things, with uncertain boundaries, and they are in a constant state of flux. Our definition of “house” can change contextually: does it include the furniture? the outbuildings? the stove, sink, refrigerator? The house itself continually changes: we move furniture in or out, put up new curtains, paint the walls new colors. Left to itself, a house will sag, settle, decay. Termites eat the sills and other supports. A house not built properly is especially vulnerable: absent a few nails or ceiling ties, the walls can spread under the base of the rafters, causing the ceiling to crack and the ridge to sag. I’ve been involved in a few projects where houses in which this had happened needed to be pulled back together and resecured.

Houses are of course, initially constructed, and this construction is the result of a social “conversation”. The owner may have his ideas, more or less well articulated; the architect has hers; as does the contractor, and for that matter each of the many individual construction workers (carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters...) There is no unity in these differing conceptions (despite the ambition of the architect), and each makes its own contribution to the outcome. The “final” product is massively unpredictable in its details as they will stand at the moment of “completion” (an arbitrary moment in time perhaps defined by the Building Inspector making a final sign-off on the permit form). And the house immediately begins to change, under the actions of the kinds of forces described above, as well as from the grander plans of the occupants, who may decide they need a new baby’s bedroom, home office, or kitchen.

Despite all of this, none of us, even we who are well acquainted with these processes, would refer to a built house as “fictive”. Nor, except in extreme (dare I say “psychotic”?) cases would we refer to it as “unstable”. “House” remains a concept, and houses things, that we would rather not do without.

So my “self” may be something that is formed and reformed continually throughout my life, by my social interactions (including those with powerful and/or repressive institutions), and by other things. It may be difficult for me to specify with precision, at any given time, just exactly what my “self” is, or what it contains. It may even be that my sense of agency is in some way illusory, because I can’t help doing what I do because of who I am, and who I am has been (and is being) constructed by forces that are beyond my control. Still, it’s a useful thing, this “self”, and it seems to have at least a certain pragmatic, dynamic stability (even if I can’t precisely define the state to which it “returns” after a “disturbance” – which is an engineer’s definition of “stability”).

So, for the moment, at least, I find I have no more desire to give up my "self" (either as a concept or an artifact) than I have to make my home permanently under the stars.

References: In the course of the above, I referred (yet again) to Jean Grimshaw’s “Philosophy and Feminist Thinking”, as well as Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”, and to: Richard Rorty’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”, Sigmund Freud “Civilization and Its Discontents”, D. E. Harding “On Having No Head”, and last but not least Joseph M. Schwartz “The Future of Democratic Equality”. It’s also clear, if I am to get a better understanding of various ideas of the self, that I am going to have to read some Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida, as well as some more up-to-date books on the psychology of ego formulation. (I’m open to suggestions...)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rights and the Common Good

I was recently interviewed, in my capacity as a member of the National Political Committee of Democratic Socialists of America, for a monthly radio program called “The Socrates Exchange”, which airs on New Hampshire Public Radio ( for schedule). The question I was asked to discuss was “Are individual rights more important than the common good?” The show’s producers told me they intended to interview a socialist and a libertarian on this, then edit the interviews into a kind of radio dialogue or debate. Since I had to order my thoughts for this interview, anyway, I thought the topic would make a good blog post for this week.

My first thought was that I was being asked, in a sense, to argue in the “language” of my libertarian opponent. Not that socialists aren’t profoundly interested in human rights. Over the past 200 years, socialists have probably fought more to expand human rights than any other single group of people –struggling to expand the franchise in the 19th Century, fighting for Civil Rights in the U.S. in the mid 20th Century, fighting for labor rights such as fair pay for a day’s work, and decent working conditions, in both Centuries, and more. But the concept of rights is not really central to a socialist analysis, in the way it is to libertarians. A socialist analysis is a dynamic analysis – we are interested in processes and forces. We are, thus, concerned with the political and economic forces which might prevent people from enjoying their rights; we are concerned with the way people organize themselves to win their rights; and we are concerned with the social and democratic process by which those rights are defined or constructed in the first place.

This matter of social construction particularly distinguishes a socialist from a libertarian view on “rights”, I think. A libertarian takes rights as prior to social construction – if not to society itself (cf. Robert Nozick “Anarchy, State and Utopia”). In fact, they take one particular right – the presumptive right of property – as prior to everything else, deriving all the rest of their political and social philosophy, and their ideal conception of the state, from this.

This priority of rights makes no historical or ethnographical sense. Our ancestors were social animals before they were humans; the idea that such a complicated conception as a right to property could arise, in a form any human society would recognize as such, in an animal perhaps less mentally developed than a macaque, strains the credulity. And the complex and varied systems of individual and collective property and use that anthropologists have found in different human groups, and even the sharing behavior ethologists have found in other primates, are simply incompatible with the kind of theoretical primacy libertarians like Nozick place on a simple “mine” and “yours” concept of property.

To a socialist, at least to this socialist, all imaginable rights, even the very concept of “property”, itself, are socially constructed. One thing that this suggests is a special importance for those rights which enable people to participate fully in the political processes by which all rights (including these) will be constituted, in other words, for democratic rights: the right of free association, right of free speech, right to vote, etc. Another thing that is suggested is that, unlike some imagined a priori right, socially constituted rights will be inherently contextual, and limited in scope – I may have the right to bear arms, but if I bear them so carelessly as to cause another’s death, I am guilty of manslaughter. I may have the right to free speech, but I may not maliciously cry “fire” in a crowded theater.

In fact, if rights are socially constructed, and in a democratic society, the very idea that individual rights could be set up against the common good appears as a false dichotomy. When people define a right socially, democratically, acting in solidarity, they are defining it precisely with a view to furthering “the common good”, according to their best lights. There may be a debate about how far to extend the right so as to best effect the common good, but the idea that the right should be extended beyond that point, to imperil the common good, is nonsense.

Of course, in a non-democratic, unsolidaristic society, an elite group may try to define “rights” for itself over against the rights of some other group – i.e., they are defining some special privilege which they should have, and the others not (hence the “divine rights” of the nobility, and kings.) But from a socialist point of view, when the attempt is made to define some elite privilege as a right, to the detriment of “the common good”, then it is incumbent on the non-elites to challenge legitimacy of that right.

In other words, from a socialist point of view, “individual rights” which are contrary to the “common good” are not “rights” but “wrongs”.

With regard to property, in particular, socialists not only disagree with libertarians on how the concepts of “property” and “property rights” are constituted, we disagree on how wealth is produced. Libertarians tend to focus on an individual’s role in production as legitimizing their subsequent monopolization of part of the product. Socialists understand that all property is socially produced. The idea that is possible to uniquely and precisely determine the contribution of one person to the total output is ludicrous. None of us makes it “on our own” in this life. If nothing else, we are raised, nurtured, educated by others. Our role in the production of goods and services is deeply embedded in a social matrix: we work on committees and task groups, process materials produced by somebody else, etc. (Perhaps we should exclude the fanatical few who go out of their way to live as “survivalists”. But even the most committed, hardy mountain man probably uses steel traps made by workers in a factory somewhere.)

Since wealth is socially produced, socialists believe that society should make collective decisions about how to use and distribute it. This doesn't mean society "owns" the shirt on your back. Socialists make a distinction between personal property and productive property, or capital. The ability to live a decent life requires a certain amount of non-interference by others in the basic day-to-day decisions affecting your life, and this implies a de facto “right” to “enjoy your personal property”. But accumulations of property – capital – are a productive resource that affects the lives of tens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. Decisions as to the use of that kind of property should be made collectively, with the fullest democratic participation possible of all people who will be affected.

In a sense, socialism, the kind of socialism that Democratic Socialists of America espouses, is simply deep democracy. We believe that all important decisions affecting our lives should be made with the full participation of all who are affected by them. The selfish will of the few should never be allowed to trump the human need of the many.

References: Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” is a worthy polemic on libertarian theory by a serious (even if, in this case, completely wrong) philosopher. Frans De Waal “Good Natured”, which I’ve also referenced in a couple of other posts, has a good discussion on primate sharing behavior. “Understanding Capitalism” by Samuel Bowles, Richard Edwards and Frank Roosevelt has (mostly in side bars) some interesting ethnographical information of differing property relations. It also discusses some of the other themes above, and is an excellent basic text book on classical economics written from a democratic socialist point of view.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Political economy

In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, people studied what they called “political economy” when they studied what we now call “economics”. I've occasionally heard Left activists bemoan this change in terminology as if some sense of the interconnectivity of politics and economics was lost along the way. Regarding the terms, themselves, I believe they are historically incorrect. The term "political economy" was used in the sense that we might say "public economy", that is the economy of the Commonwealth, or "polis", with the intention to distinguish it from the more domestic sense that the bare word "economy" would have carried in the 18th century, that is, the economics of households, or what we might nowadays refer to as "home economics", or, with more dignity "household management". This was the sense that "oikonomia" had to the Greeks. The use of the two-word term did not imply any insight that the power relations of “politics” were somehow inseparable from the market and production relations of “economics”.

Still, something is lost in trying to analyze “the market” as if it could be divorced from the other power relationships in society. Marxists, of course, have never believed in making this division, but the liberal economic tradition makes it central. One who broke from the mold was John Kenneth Galbraith, whose central trilogy of The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State, and Economics and the Public Purpose, as well as the excellent biography by Parker, I have worked my way through over the past few years. One of Galbraith's central ideas is that economics and politics are inseparable "in the wild", and the academic separation of these two disciplines is therefore artificial, and causes analysis to deviate from reality.

Many of the details of Galbraith’s economic analyses were seriously flawed. These flaws have been analyzed in detail by many who are more learned than I, and I won’t try to reproduce the critique, except to say that my sense is that he was too in love with his own ideas, too inclined to spin them out as logical exercises to see where they would lead, and not inclined enough to the more demanding task of empirically testing them against facts. Still, despite flaws in detail, many of his key insights, including that on economics and politics, were and are profound.

There are many reasons why economics should not be separated from politics. One is that wealth is readily translatable into other kinds of power, and not only by means which most people would consider illegitimate or “corrupt” (such as bribing officials). Money buys access to politicians, it buys media coverage (either directly, or just because what the rich and powerful do and say is interesting and “newsworthy”), it buys research to “prove” your point of view (and it pays to bury the research results when they aren’t “right”). Money buys respect. Galbraith often commented ironically that nothing produces a semblance of intelligence and perspicacity so much as the possession of wealth. Even Adam Smith commented on the “natural” deference which we offer to the “opulent”.

Differential wealth also influences outcomes in the market place. Worker and owner don’t meet as equals in the labor markets when waiting a few more weeks to strike a bargain means the owner puts off buying a new yacht, but the worker can’t put food on her family’s table. And you don’t need to accept Galbraith’s entire theory of “the planning system” in all its detail to agree that an economy where major areas of production are controlled by a few large corporations, which spend huge amounts on advertising to manipulate consumer opinion regarding products that are, otherwise, functionally nearly indistinguishable, and which arguably add almost nothing to the quality of human life, is very different from an economy in which a large number of small firms compete to provide easily understood products in response to autonomous customer demand.

Nor is the answer as simple as breaking up big economic groupings in favor of the small. Markets may, as we’ve been told, create wealth – they also create unequal wealth. Even from a perfectly fair “starting position”, in which all participants had equal initial wealth and talent, pure chance would result from time to time in some participants temporarily having more wealth than others, and since differential wealth brings the power to manipulate, the unbalance would tend to be accentuated. And, of course, a perfectly fair starting position could never be achieved, in life. (Just see Marx’s chapters on Primitive Accumulation, in Capital, Vol. 1.)

Also, Galbraith was certainly correct that the complexities of producing the goods and services demanded by our modern technologies requires a certain amount of large scale coordination, even if he missed the “right sizing” and “outsourcing” trends that radically altered his “technostructure”-dominated mega firms.

The bottom line is that an economy is not a place where impersonal forces work themselves out in a way that automatically tends to justice. It is a complex arena where people strive for advantage, where advantage translates into power, and, power leads to more power. The only intellectual stance that makes sense is to accept that the economy is inherently linked to the political, and not strive for an artificial separation.

Fortunately, it now seems more common in academia to decry, at least by lip service, the artificiality of boundaries between disciplines, than it was when Galbraith was doing most of his writing, and at least some of today’s classically trained economists recognize the importance of linking power relations to economic outcomes. One of them, in fact, is John Kenneth’s son, James K. Galbraith. I haven’t read as much of his work yet, but he seems just as bright as his father (if not quite the wordsmith – and certainly not possessed of the same level of ego), and he is much more amenable to subjecting his ideas to the discipline of empirical testing.

So there is hope that even the liberal tradition may someday join with the Marxist in recognizing that the economic is political, after all.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Keeping the lid on

This week, I’m moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, or so it may seem. But somehow, in here, there’s an underlying question which is no less puzzling to me than the “deeper” or more “philosophical” ones I’ve been playing with in my last few posts. So this week, I’m going to riff on coffee cup lids.

I bought a cup of coffee, this afternoon. The coffee was much too hot to drink when I got it. I put the cup in the cup holder of my car, and drove around for a while. The lid of the coffee cup had a hole in it, to sip coffee through. In the moving car, the coffee sloshed through the hole. By the time I got around to drinking my coffee, there was coffee all over my car, the side of the cup was wet, and it was impossible to drink without dripping coffee all over myself. So I waited until I got home, and transferred the coffee to another cup. By then, it was cold.

I first started buying coffee “to go”, I guess, in the mid-1960’s. In those days, nobody had heard of lids with sippy holes in them. A lid was just a lid. If it was a “good” lid (tight, and not too flimsy), it would keep the coffee in the cup until you got to where you were going. A tiny amount might escape from the pinhole in the top which was there to let steam out, but this was insignificant – it was only an issue, really, when the server placed the napkins on top of the cup before handing it to you, because the napkin would end up with a wet, brown spot on it. (This is still a problem!).

In those days, there was no built-in provision, at all, for drinking your coffee through the lid. The implied assumption of the lid makers was that you would keep the lid on until you got where you were going, take the lid off, and drink the coffee. Inveterate travelling coffee drinkers, like myself, learned to tear a little triangle out of the lid to sip through. This was sometimes a little difficult to do, if the lid was a really good one (i.e., tough, thick plastic. Carrying a pocket knife, as I always did, and do, helped.)

So somewhere around the mid-1970’s, I guess, someone came up with the idea of putting a perforated section in the lid, which would tear easily. At first, they would just tear out (like the old, self-made triangles), and you would throw the little piece away. Later, somebody got environmentally conscious, and the piece would stay attached – you would just fold it back, and tuck it under another part of the lid. Now to an old-timer like myself (I was in my 20’s!), this all seemed a bit effete. And I did have a legitimate beef that sometimes the tear-out that was provided was smaller than I wanted, and I had to tear it wider to drink comfortably. Still, both these changes were genuinely good ideas, and represented real improvements in the functional utility of the coffee cup lid.

Then, I don’t remember when – the 80’s? 90’s? – someone decided we should get rid of the tear off, and just put a permanent hole in the lid to sip through. Unlike lids with the old tear-back openings, these new lids would never be coffee-tight, which meant (and means!) that the coffee would start spilling out from the moment you bought it. It burns your fingers. It spots your clothes. It messes up your car. Yet, somehow, this new, and it seems to me, unambiguously inferior lid design has become ubiquitous, almost completely displacing the older, and better designs. How is something like this possible?

Does any coffee drinker actually like these lids better? Is the act of tearing back a little perforated section really so difficult for some people (or, actually, for most people) that dealing with sloshing, dripping, spilling coffee seems a small price to pay? I know at least somebody agrees with me, because I visited a coffee shop, once, where there they had small plastic lip-shaped stickers which they stuck over the holes, which you could then prize off when you were ready to drink the coffee. (Boy! I hoped that trick would catch on. Unfortunately, it has not.)

I suspect most people just don’t think about it. They just take whatever lid they’re offered, and deal with the consequences without much reflection. (They’re not persistent wonderers, I guess.)

Still, this really raises, in my mind, a question about progress. The universe, taken in the large, is not teleological, as Aristotle thought it was. It does not have a purpose, or a preferred direction toward which it tends. (At least not in the way that most humans would understand the meaning of “purpose”.) Life also, writ large, as for example in the process of natural selection, is not teleological. Natural selection “improves” the degree to which species are adapted because less well adapted organisms are differentially less successful in passing on their genes than more well adapted species, not because of some pre-ordained goal inherent in natural selection, itself. (I think the word for this false semblance of teleology is “teleonomy”.)

But individual organisms are teleological beings. We have goals, short and long term, toward which we direct our efforts, and in general, those goals involve improving our lives, according to our own lights. Human beings strive socially to carry out their goals, and human culture, which preserves the record of past successes and failures, and encodes values (mainstream and marginal), including goal-concepts, collectively agreed upon or dissident, ought to sustain some degree of telos, as well. Human cultural evolution, aka human history, ought to show some degree of something we could call progress.

So how can a really bad idea end up almost totally supplanting a good one? I wish I knew!