Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Questioning “Cogito

It seems to me that Rene Descartes’ famous “Cogito ergo sum” begged the question.  His premise “I think” depends on his conclusion, “I exist”.   

Certainly the stream of impressions he adduces in support of his conclusion demonstrate something – but what?  A more appropriate conclusion would be along the lines of “Experience manifests, therefore something is,” or, more succinctly, and tautologically (this is not a bad thing): “Experience is, therefore something is.”  Or, to once more in this space quote the words (if not, in this case, the meaning) of the X-Files’ Fox Mulder:  “There is something out there.”

To get to the “I exist” actually requires a number of additional premises, first of all that this experience means something – that it is rule-based – and possibly even that is connected to something we might call a “real world”.  Descartes makes this connection only after establishing “ergo sum”, and then he makes it only by reference to a perfect and benevolent God – a premise that seems as improbable to me as it seemed certain to Descartes.  My own preferred premise for the orderliness of Experience is the anti-skeptical one:  “If  I don’t assume some rule-based nature to Experience, then there is no point in going on further with analysis”.  This is a weaker premise than Descartes’, but it has the decided advantage of being not false.  There is also the empirical argument, that I can test the rule-based nature of Experience experimentally, and therefore demonstrate it.  While testability is important, its importance is sometimes overestimated, since I cannot possibly subject every needed rule about Experience to my own personal set of empirical tests. 

As for the “real world”, well that’s really definitional, isn’t it?  I.e., a term of convenience more than a necessary premise.  If I can predictably alter Experience by action, and if I can generalize the rules for doing so such that some person on the other side of the planet whom I’ve never met can apply them to some experience I’ve never had, and also alter Experience to conform to the predictions, then it may be useful to introduce the idea of a “real world”, but this concept can hardly can be constructed so as to be testable (hence meaningful) beyond the definition just given.

Of course, as I have implied elsewhere in this blog (“Starting from Zero”, May 30, 2010), I do not really accept the Cartesian method of applying radical doubt to build up a whole body of knowledge about the world from a bare minimum of assumptions, let alone “clear and distinct” (hence immediate and unquestionable) impressions.  We always come to any problem with a whole theoretical structure, which we can twist, bend and otherwise alter piecemeal, but which we can never throw out en bloc to start afresh.   

Nevertheless, it can be fun, and sometimes instructive, to play with the Cartesian approach as with a game.  And then, developmentally, we do, at some point in our lives sort of start to build a world view from experience upon a base of the biologically given.  So it seems perhaps some form of the Cartesian approach may have a certain psycho-historical relevance.  But this is only more or less.  Given that the biochemical environment in the womb begins to affect development even before the brain begins to develop, there are no clear limits between “experientially derived” and “biologically given”.   It’s a problem with inherently fuzzy boundaries.    It is worth noting, to, that the psychological “program” or world view starts to develop long before the wiring of the biological “machine” – the adult brain – is complete.  Starting from zero remains problematic – in this case, because it’s hard to define the zero point.

Considering the developmental problem, I have written, before (“The house I live in”, October 24, 2009) that I think our concept of “I” or self is not inbred, but is learned from experience, and not at a particularly early point, either, which also contradicts the primacy of Descartes’ “ergo sum”.

Another way it is interesting to contrast Descartes’ “Cogito...” with modern thinking is in the nature of the self, itself.  Descartes, of course, assumed some privileged level of granularity associated with the self.  As a Christian of his age, he could hardly have done otherwise – the individual self was the level at which the soul was allocated, the soul was essentially indivisible, and was in a sense synonymous with the self, so clearly an individual was a discrete, and in an essential sense indivisible unit.  A person could colloquially be of “two minds” about something, but that didn’t disturb the essential unity – one of those two opinions had to be the “true” one (at least in the sense of “true to oneself”), and the other false.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the unitary nature of the self came under attack philosophically, psychologically and neurologically.  One good book that includes a good analysis of the nature of the self is Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.  The impression I drew from that book (consistent with others I’ve read, see note on references) is of a brain consisting of numerous centers, each evolved perhaps for one primary purpose, but co-opted to other uses, in other networks, by the opportunistic nature of evolution (see “Adaptation? Or Carpe Diem?”, November 30, 2010), with a conscious sense of self perhaps developing only rather late as a sort of supervisor circuit riding on top of this loose, collaborative network of parts.  In this analysis, to be of “two minds” about something may literally mean that two different parts of your brain produce differing explanations or predictions, or desire different goals.  There is no meaningful sense in which one of these is more “true” to your “essential nature” than the other.

But as I said in “The house I live in”, the constructed and non-atomic nature of my self doesn’t make it a useless concept.  As the wag said, and insofar as my day-to-day experience goes, I think I am, therefore I am, I think.

Useful references, cited or otherwise: Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy and Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, ch. 4; Gary Hatfield, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Descartes and the Meditations; Daniel C. Dennett Consciousness Explained; Stephen M. Kosslyn & Olivier Koenig, Wet Mind: The New Cognitive Neuroscience; Patricia Smith Churchland, Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain; Joseph M. Schwartz, The Future of Democratic Equality; John Dewey, Experience and Nature.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Adaptation? Or Carpe Diem?

A lot of the language we use to describe evolution by natural selection is borrowed from the language of design, but natural selection doesn’t work the same way design does, so the metaphors are not very apt.  Sometimes confusion results.  Examples are “adaptation” and “purpose”.  In design, a purpose pre-exists, and materials are adapted to it.  In evolution, a change (mutation) occurs, and a use may or may not be found for it.  If the change has utility, it may be by refining some pre-existing ability to exploit the environment, which looks a little bit like design (but isn’t).  Or the utility of the change may only be relative to exploiting some previously unavailable (or less available) resource in the environment.  That looks a lot less like design, and a lot more like seizing an opportunity.

For instance, an organism with splayed toes might occasionally acquire, as a genetic aberration, webbing between the toes.  In a dry environment, this alteration might be dysfunctional (“non-adaptive”) and die out, or it might be neutral, and occur from time-to-time.  To an organism dwelling on riverbanks, though, it might open new frontiers for (better) exploitation.  If there is relatively little competition for the new, riverine resources, compared to the already well-exploited resources on dry land, the mutation may spread and become fixed, other mutations (changes in leg shape, body fat, feather type, bill type) which previously would have been useless or harmful now become beneficial, and may, if they occur, also become fixed.  Speciation may occur.

This chance-and-opportunity model is not much like design.  It’s more like exploration.  In this view, ecological “niches” are less like problems waiting to be solved than like frontiers that some mutation may make available for exploitation.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Capitalism has got to go

The other night, Susan and I saw a television commercial for a new and infinitesimally improved type of contact lens, and we thought, "All the money (millions and millions of dollars) that goes into developing and marketing such an unnecessary product as this." (And this is hardly the most egregious example!)  Meanwhile, a 3 year old toddler is being gunned down on the streets of Boston. This is crazy!  It's just crazy!  Capitalism is MANIFESTLY unable to deliver resources according to need, except in the sick, twisted, circular definition of "need" put forward by capitalism's apologists.  We can pay millions for trinkets, but we can’t afford the policing, educational resources and jobs programs that would make inner city youth feel they had real life alternatives other than joining a gang and dealing drugs.  How much longer can we tolerate this monstrous system?

The rationalizers of markets claim that capitalism will reflect peoples “real” needs, as determined by their marginal utility.  That people’s “free market” decisions reflect their marginal utility isn’t really something that can be proven – it’s taken as self-evident.  And since we can’t know what is in people’s minds except by their actions (as expressed in their market behavior), the only way we have to measure people’s needs is by what the market produces.  This leads to the circularity in the argument that says market outcomes are good because the only way we can know what is good is to look at what the market produces, which, since markets satisfy peoples real needs, which can only be measured their market behavior, must be good.

The problem is that market theory fetishizes isolated, individual, decision making models, but this is not the way we make our BEST decisions.  Our best decisions are made collaboratively, after discussion and deliberation with our friends and other interested parties.  That is to say that GOOD decisions are made collectively, deliberatively, democratically.  Classical economics has built a whole theory of “optimal” resource distribution around the WORST kind of human decision making – isolated, individual, selfish, snap-judgments.

Now there’s a word for making economic decisions collaboratively, deliberatively, and democratically.  That word is SOCIALISM.  Socialism gives us a theory of resource distribution based on the BEST kind of human decision making.  Capitalism gives us a theory based on the worst kind.  And so capitalism always gives us bad results.  Capitalism gives us the things we think we need when we’re unconsciously reacting to hormonal stimuli (don’t even get me started on advertising...)  It does NOT give us the things we would REALIZE that we needed if we stopped and thought, listened to other people, and considered what our priorities really were.  And THAT leads to horrible maldistributions of resources in ways that don’t satisfy ANY of the needs that most of us REALLY feel.  As the sorrowing parents of far, far too many murdered children, in Boston and elsewhere about this nation and the world, could tell you.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Mulder Argument

The essence of mystical/magical/religious thinking, that which distinguishes it from truly philosophical thinking, may well be something that could be termed “the Mulder Argument” (after fictional FBI agent Fox Mulder on the television show “The X-Files”).  This argument is given in four words: “I want to believe.”  I’ve run across this argument in many forms.  Once, when I had backed a theist who thought she could prove the existence of her God completely into a corner, she escaped by saying, “I just can’t accept a world like that.”  Others, asked to provide any sort of justification for their claims fall back on, “I just know.”  Philosophical thinking, on the other hand, must be much more ruthless than this.  If philosophy is “love of wisdom”, than you must love it wherever it leads you.  If you don’t like the direction, learn to live with it.  I summed this up to myself, years ago, in a epiphany which I worded as: “My desires are not probative.”

Since it is very central to my view of the world that all important traits of organisms can be explained by evolution by natural selection, I have had some concerns over the question:  “How could such a false argument become so ubiquitous in the human species?”  Isn’t a trait counter-adaptive if it consistently leads one to believe things that are false?  I think I’ve finally come at an answer to these questions, and come at it through another puzzle, specifically, through trying to reconcile my own principle of the non-evidentiary nature of desire with a premise given at various places in Marx and Gramsci, vis. the philosophy of praxis, which states quite the opposite, i.e., that reality is made by humans, especially acting socially, and that in this sense, the desire, or more precisely the will, is in fact probative.

I think it all boils down to taking the correct domain for each argument.  Reality is not something that is taken passively by organisms, but is something dynamically modified by them in the course of their existence.  This is a very important insight.  Organisms alter their “environment” just as much as the environment causes modifications in organisms.  In this sense, for a thinking organism like a human, believing in something can often be instrumental to its being so.  But there are limitations on this principle.  If I believe that I will change the government, then perhaps I can.  But if I believe I can literally move mountains with my mind, or with prayer, then that will not happen.  I will have to add a liberal quantity of muscle, time and the application of earth-moving equipment to my faith, if I want to bring this result about. 

Human minds have evolved to be capable of rational thinking, but it is by no means assured that all thinking that goes on therein will be rational.  If I believe that I will change the government, or find food, or win a fight, or find a wife, then perhaps I will.  If I believe that I cannot, then certainly I will not.  It would be more rational to believe that “maybe I can, if I try hard enough,” rather than simply “I will,” but the more rational belief is more complex, and more susceptible to doubt, and may therefore be inferior to the simple (if less correct) version in many matters of practical success or survival, i.e., matters directly susceptible to natural selection.  This would be enough for evolution to select for a tendency to find your desires probative.  In order to be equally efficacious, in many practical life matters, as the irrational belief, the rational belief would have to be combined with an iron determination.  Iron logic and iron determination may be a more admirable combination than sloppy thinking and blind faith, but it is perhaps a more difficult combination for random mutation to generate.  As for the cases in which blind faith leads to an incorrect judgment, well, believing in God or not believing may in general have far less effect on the existence or non-existence of your posterity than whether or not you believe you will successfully woo your wife.

Note that I am not saying that there is a “gene” for the Mulder Argument.  I am just saying that a predilection for believing what you want to be true, however complexly coded in genes, memes and individual experience, may in general lead to some differential reproductive success.

But none of this makes blind faith a rational argument for deducing the nature of things as they are, as opposed to (within a limited domain) things as they will be.  The will to believe probably yields even more success if it is tempered with a realistic appraisal of when to apply it and when not to (and, just possibly, when it really makes no difference one way or the other).  This is essentially what Gramsci was trying to get at with his oft-cited “pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.”  Despite the theological overtones, this same insight is reflected in a quotation popular within another tradition I’ve had some exposure to:  “Oh Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change [including the evidence of your own non-existence!], the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Creating absurdity

Gramsci, in an offhand comment in Americanism and Fordism (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 279), speaks of modern society creating “absurd positions”.

The idea that society can create an “absurd position” is an interesting one, with some (to me) less-than-obvious philosophical implications.  The concept of absurdity represents a disjunction between an observed condition and reason.  Can non-social reality, for instance “create” an absurd condition?  If it does, the presumption is that the flaw is in the reasoning, not in the underlying reality, since the purpose of reason is to understand reality, and the presence of a disjunction indicates that reason has failed, in some way, to do so.

With social reality, however, the situation is different.  This is because social reality itself involves an element of reason.  Social reality is the result of the individual and collective strivings of men and women (as well as their interactions with, and constraints on them from, the non-social world).  Their strivings reflect their goals, aspirations and beliefs, and their (individual and collective) reasoning with respect to these.  These goals and beliefs and this reasoning can include contradictions both within an individual element, and between elements of the aggregate.  The aggregate, or more properly Gestalt, is “modern society”.  When looking at the Gestalt as if from outside (really, of course, from one particular “inside” vantage point), some of these contradictions become manifest, resulting in the perception of an “absurd position”.

Of course, this perception of absurdity is itself relative to a particular analysis, involving a particular set of goals, beliefs and reasoning, which may contain its own errors and contradictions.  Locating the source of an apparent absurdity, therefore, whether in the “social position” or in the observer’s reasoning, is a non-trivial problem.  I do not wish to introduce the kind of relativism that says there can be no truth to the matter – that all is just a “matter of opinion”.  But developing a definitive, irrefutable argument in support of one’s interpretation – an argument that can successfully “take on all comers” – is probably impossible.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, of course.  Striving to develop such arguments, and convincing as broad a swathe of society as possible, is part of one of the fundamental problems of politics, the struggle for hegemony.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

False Profits and Gramsci's Truth

Dean Baker’s book, False Profits: Recovering from the Bubble Economy, is a depressing book.  Not through any fault of the author.  It is an excellent book.  It is not depressing because Baker offers no hope.  He suggests technically simple and practical solutions to the economic problems he points out.  It is depressing, rather, because history and any cursory review of the present political landscape suggest that there is not a snowball’s chance in Death Valley that any of his solutions will be put into practice – or any other solutions that would really help solve what are, for most of us, the underlying economic problems.  The reason for this, like Dean Baker’s suggestions, is fundamentally quite simple:  what is best for most of us is not best for the relative few who currently have power, both hegemonic and state, on their side.

Baker’s book, like his last one (Plunder and Blunder), has a simple premise:  the current economic crisis was the predictable result of a bubble economy based on flagrant inflation of real estate prices (specifically, for owner-occupied homes).  The bubble and the inevitability of the resulting crash were perfectly evident, to anyone who, like Baker, focused an unbiased analysis on the data.  Yet through it all, those who were supposed to be responsible for guiding our economy ignored, and even actively denied it.

What makes Baker furious, in False Profits, is that the people who failed to see the bubble, who even acted as bubble boosters, have suffered no ill consequences from their actions.  The same people have been left in charge of public and private management of the economy; the same people are reporting on the economy, and appearing as experts on television shows.  Baker minces no words.  These people should have been summarily fired.  When one of these pundits appears on television, or before Congress, to warn (for instance) on why too much deficit spending is a bad thing, Baker says the first question they should be asked is, “Exactly when did you stop being wrong about the economy?”

Class differences are clearly visible in the government’s response to the crisis.  The bailout to the banks came first and was almost infinitely generous.  Baker points out that the much-touted TARP funds were only the tip of the iceberg; huge sums were made available, for free, or virtually so, by the Federal Reserve Bank, and other government agencies, with almost zero publicity.  The result was that the financial industry, and other commanding heights of our economy were virtually made whole at the public expense.  Meanwhile, the stimulus, intended to get the real economy going again – i.e., get people back to work – was relatively miserly, and was politically difficult, at that.  Baker estimates that the federal stimulus was only about 1/10th of what was needed, based on technical measures, and in fact was so small as to little more offset the anti-stimulus of state and local cutbacks.  (I have read other estimates that say the stimulus and anti-stimulus were in fact almost exactly equal.)

Baker is at pains to point out all the “bad science” arguments put forward against bigger stimulus and deficit spending, in favor of the bank bailouts, “too big to fail”, etc., etc., etc.  The trouble is, Baker is a voice crying out in the wilderness.  The bad science is repeated ad infinitum, becoming the “conventional wisdom” (to use the term coined by another liberal economist more widely read than Baker, but almost equally unheeded).  The voice of reason never makes it to the airwaves.

I have one major quibble with Baker.  (I have a few other minor ones, but only one that is systematic.)  This quibble involves his constant implication of incompetence, “mismanagement”, and the like to those who steered the economy into the abyss.

My question to Baker is, from their point of view, where was the error?  As a class, the chieftains of the economy made sure they were made whole.  While some traders and speculators, and a whole lot of common shareholders, undoubtedly lost money, at least for a while, and some, perhaps, were ruined, the capitalists and especially the financiers as a class managed to make money throughout – hand over fist during the bubble, and at a quite respectable (if that is the right word) rate through the crash. 

Meanwhile, the economy limps along with punishingly high unemployment.  Is this accidental?  A comrade of mine highly placed in organized labor talks of labor law reform (such as the ill-fated Employee Free Choice Act) as strategic reform, in contrast to the tactical battles we usually fight.  It is strategic because it alters the terrain of the battle field, changes the balance of power between capital and working people.  (Of course, capital realizes this, too, which is why EFCA had to be defeated.)

Similarly, high unemployment is strategic for capital, because it weakens the bargaining power of the labor force, and, especially if sustained, lowers the expectations of working people.

I can’t believe that only a few left-leaners like Baker, my friends and I can see these kinds of things.  Which leads me to believe that at least some of the captains of industry (or princes of finance) saw the bubble, knew the crash would come, and calculated, all along, how best to profit through it.  Perhaps Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, for example – a very smart man, who, based on the way his company positioned itself before and in the early days of the crash, clearly had a better sense than many of the imminent risk inherent in mortgage-based derivatives.

Antonio Gramsci said, “In mass politics, to tell the truth is precisely a political necessity,”  which sounds almost oxymoronic to those who believe that politics and truth are inherently strangers to each other.  But Gramsci wasn’t talking about politics, in general, he was talking about the politics inherent, or which should be inherent, to the socialist movement.

It is all about hegemony.  Hegemony is when one class leads society, not by raw force (which would be called dominance or authority), but by winning the consent of the other classes.  We live in our society under bourgeois or capitalist hegemony.  Since the capitalist system is designed to exploit us (working people) for the benefit of those who control property (capital), the capitalist class MUST lie to win our consent.  If we knew the truth, we would rebel.  Gramsci sought to replace capitalist hegemony with the hegemony of the working class (socialism, or as he would have said, communism).  Doing this depends on telling radical truth, exposing capitalist lies, making people understand their true power and their true worth.  "The truth will set you free," although (and actually because) as Gloria Steinem pointed out, first it will piss you off.  A society that is not exploitive does not depend on, and in fact CANNOT be based on, lies.  Or so Gramsci believed.

But to win, this way, we have to get the truth OUT.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reading Gramsci

I have been reading portions of Selections of the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, as part of a book group sponsored by the Boston local of Democratic Socialists of America.  So far I have read the section on “the Intellectuals” and the section known as “The Modern Prince”.  This is my first foray into Gramsci, and I have found it somewhat slow going.

There are a number of reasons why reading Gramsci’s prison notebooks is difficult.  For one thing, they do not comprise a manuscript prepared for publication by its author, but were precisely notes by Gramsci to himself, some consciously preparatory for some future “for publication” writing, and some not.  Secondly, the thematic groupings (at least in the Selections) seem to be largely determined by the editors.  Apparently Gramsci kept several notebooks going simultaneously, and went back and forth over time between a wide array of topics.  The themes we see in published form were apparently culled from various notes, in various books, written at different dates, and given order by the editors.  Finally, Gramsci was very well-read, and intensely engaged in civic (not just political) life, and his notebooks make frequent references to European (and global) contemporary events, contemporary politics, contemporary (or recent) political thinkers and philosophers, who possess varying levels of present-day fame, as well as to specifically Italian history, especially of the Risorgimento.  Many of these thinkers and topics are not well-known to a modern, non-specialist, American reader, and, since Gramsci was making notes to himself, he was not moved to give background explanations.  (The editors’ notes in the “Selections” help some, but not enough.)

Still, with some persistence, I have found these readings rewarding.

The sections of the Notebooks that comprise The Modern Prince were, loosely, notes for a planned work on politics modeled on Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic, The Prince.  Some of the passages included in the published work clearly were directly related to this project; other’s were perhaps selected (by Gramsci? or the editors?) as at least loosely related.  (Gramsci’s planned work was to have been called The Modern Prince, which leads to some complication of terminology.  The words “The Modern Prince” may refer to the work Gramsci intended to publish, but did not complete; to the actual published assemblage of notebook sections; or to the protagonist of Gramsci’s work, which, as we shall see, was the Communist Party.)  

It may seem strange that the radical, Communist firebrand should take as a model someone so often viewed as virtually the devil incarnate.  But Machiavelli is a much-misunderstood figure.  The Prince horrifies many readers because Machiavelli seems to advocate naked violence and cruelty on the part of rulers.  Interestingly, Machiavelli never says that brutality in a ruler is morally acceptable, nor does pretend morals don’t matter.  He refers to such behavior as “bad”.  But he distinguishes between what is morally “good”, in the sense of describing the world we might choose to live in if we could, and what is “necessary” if certain ends are to be accomplished in reality.  In the ideal world, the “good” might be preferable; in the real world, “necessity” must often prevail.  Machiavelli believes, probably more than most of us would be willing to accept, that the ends justify the means.  What is almost charming about him is how perfectly matter of fact he is about this; so much so that he never even feels the need to specifically state this as a principle.

What were the political ends that Machiavelli sought?  This is a little harder to prize out of his writing than his ideas about means.  There are clues in The Prince, but the Discourses on Livy are give a better glimpse.  Machiavelli was a republican, at heart. With some oversimplification, the adjective “republican”, from ancient world through the Renaissance, can probably best be described as having a preference for the rule of law over the rule of men.  Machiavelli’s own political career had been in the service of his native city of Florence during a republican period;  he lost his job upon the return of the Medici princes (and went to prison, briefly, where he was tortured, then released).  The Prince, in fact, was at least partially written as a sort of job resume; an attempt to get back into politics in the service of the Medici. 

Machiavelli was a republican, but not particularly a democrat.  Gramsci, I think, overstates Machiavelli’s role as a precursor of Gramsci’s own mass-based politics.  Machiavelli had no particular concern, other than pragmatic ones, with how broadly the franchise of citizenship should be distributed.   His primary model was the (pre-Augustan) Roman Republic, but he didn’t think it important to copy the forms of the Romans directly; it was how effectively they achieved their ends that he admired.  He was concerned with the stability of a social system, and with a city’s greatness.  Liberty, for him, as for those in classical times, was for a people to live under their own laws without foreign rule, and preferably without a native tyrant, as well.  The closest he came to democratic thinking was strictly from instrumental concerns; he believed that a republic would be greater, and ultimately more stable, if it was based on the willing and engaged participation of the mass of the citizenry.  In the Discourses, he points out how the disruptions of the plebs in the early days of the Roman Republic forced the senatorial class to make concessions – establishing the tribunate of the people, gradually opening the other constitutional offices to plebeians – but Machiavelli believes if they had not done this, and had somehow been successful in suppressing the plebs, then Rome would never have possessed the loyal, disciplined citizen army that conquered the world.  Thus, civil disorders, producing the need to compromise with the masses, rather than being evils to be avoided, are to Machiavelli the necessary costs of greatness.

From passages in The Prince, it seems evident that Machiavelli was also a sort of Italian patriot.  He wanted to see Italy united, as were the great kingdoms of Europe such as Spain and France, in his time, and he wanted foreign rulers (French, Spaniards, Germans) out of Italy.  If, as it perhaps seemed to him late in his life, the best way to accomplish that was for Italy to be united through force of arms by a powerful but autocratic leader, so be it, and anything Machiavelli could do through his studies and writing to help the process along was for the good.

It is a mark of how progressive Machiavelli’s thinking was (if I am correct in this) that his dream of a united Italy was not actually accomplished until nearly 350 years after his death.

Gramsci clearly felt many points of  kinship with Machiavelli.  In the section of The Modern Prince on the “Elements of Politics” (p. 144 ff), Gramsci stresses the need to start from things as they really are, rather than pretend to some more ideal conditions.  We live in a world in which there are leaders and led.  We should study whether and how it may be possible to move to a world without rulers and ruled, but in the mean time it behooves us to study how to lead effectively.  Gramsci also stresses (p. 170 ff) how Machiavelli was an “active politician”, and not either a political scientist nor a diplomat.  For Gramsci, this means his concerns with politics were primarily pragmatic, unlike the political scientist, but unlike the diplomat, he also had visionary goals.  An “active politician” uses pragmatic means to move towards a vision of a different future, unlike a diplomat, who works in service to the status quo.  It is not hard to see how Gramsci identified himself, as well as Machiavelli, in this.

Gramsci was also fascinated with Machiavelli’s reference to the Centaur who taught Achilles in classic myth, which Machiavelli interprets as meaning that a ruler must combine elements of man with elements of the beast.  Gramsci identifies this with his own ideas of force and consent, which are intimately tied up with his ideas of authority (associated with force) and hegemony (associated with consent).  Gramsci seems to feel that Machiavelli anticipated his own thinking on these things; in fact, I think he was right.  The lesson of the Roman plebs, cited above, could easily be used as an example of the Gramscian idea of hegemony in practice.

Gramsci argues that Machiavelli must be understood and interpreted in the context of his own time, and not necessarily as laying down timeless principles.  In particular, says Gramsci, Machiavelli is concerned with “the moment of force” and not primarily with “the moment of consent”.  This observation is clearly tied to Gramsci’s plan for The Modern Prince, a work to be designed similarly address the needs of Gramsci’s time, in a way similar to that in which Machiavelli’s had addressed his own.

The prince of Machiavelli’s title, is, to Gramsci, a mythic figure, an ideal type constructed to serve as a model for real live rulers to emulate.  While Machiavelli’s prince may have been a suitable model for the 16th Century, Gramsci feels no single individual can bear such weight of history in modern times; the “modern prince” of Gramsci’s opus must be, therefore, a collective person, a political party – specifically the Communist Party.  The Modern Prince was to be a study of the political reality in which the Communist Party finds itself, and the character and attributes it must have or acquire if it is to play its historic role therein. 

Gramsci’s idea of the party, at least at the mythic level appropriate to The Modern Prince, differs from the conventional.  To him, the essence of the party is what he calls the “organic” or fundamental party.  There can be many such organic parties, each of which gives expression to the needs of one specific “group” (which is prison-notebook code for “class”).  These “organic” parties may be broken into numerous apparent “parties”, which would be those entities the world would generally recognize as political parties.  Even “non-party” functions such as groups of intellectuals and publishing enterprises are in fact integral parts of the “organic” party. 

The party, as the expression of a class, also expresses the “common will” of that class (and, as that class becomes hegemonic, as the bourgeoisie is now, and as the proletariat will become, the “common will” of society as a whole).  You might think that for Gramsci, if a class possesses something like a “common will”, that the party, as an “organic” party would come to express this spontaneously or automatically.  But Gramsci does not see a “common will” as something automatically existing in a class; it must be developed, and it is the party that develops it.

What is the “common will” exactly?  It is difficult to extract exactly what Gramsci meant.  In some passages, it seems it could be something as simple as a broad consensus on nationhood (or class consciousness – i.e., who does and does not make up the nation or class), along with a consensus on, or at least a hegemonic conception of, the broad structures of society, state, economy, etc.  Absent a rigid demand for absolute consensus, such a concept of the “common will” could probably be uncontroversially accepted as applying, e.g., in a modern nation such as the United States. In other places, though, he seems to have a much more extreme view, as when he says (p.133) “the modern Prince [Communist Party], as it develops, revolutionizes the whole system of intellectual and moral relations in that its development means precisely that any given act is seen as useful or harmful, as virtuous or as wicked, only in so far as it has as its point of reference the modern Prince itself, and helps to strengthen or oppose it.”  This seems to represent a system of totalitarianism hard to accept as desirable, even in theory, or as attainable, in actual fact.

In addition to the “organic” parties, Gramsci makes reference to what he calls “marginal”, “purely reformist movements (p. 157-158).  My first thought on reading this was that examples would be the environmental, feminist, civil rights, gay rights, etc. movements, which (excepting their most radical exponents) do not envision a complete restructuring of society, nor do they depend on any particular economic structure (unlike, arguably, bourgeois liberals), but rather support reforms which could, and must, apply to any overall social form.

But then Gramsci argues that “at the decisive turning points” all these “movements” must merge into their “natural” (class-based) overall party.  The movements I was thinking of seem irreducibly cross-class (or, if you prefer, are not class-based).  So then I thought Gramsci meant only such phenomena as “business unionism”, which has a reformist and immediate agenda under capitalism, but which could be subsumed into the greater working class (socialist) movement in a crisis of the state (revolution).

But then where does that leave the movements I first considered?  They seem to have no role whatsoever in Gramsci’s big picture of politics.  This apparent reductionism is perhaps not surprising in an early 20th Century Communist thinker, but noteworthy, nonetheless, and unsatisfactory from a 21st Century viewpoint.

An important part of Gramsci’s thinking is wrapped up in what he calls the elements of a party (p. 152 ff). Gramsci sees three “elements” of a party:
  1. The mass element (which doesn’t really comprise a party until conscious).
  2. Intellectuals, which form a ginger group (not a term G. uses), inspiring and catalyzing the formation of a mass base, of which they then become the “generals”.
  3. An intermediate stratum, rising from the mass base (Gramscian “organic intellectuals”?), forming in effect the non-commissioned and lower commissioned  officer corps of the party.
When (2) has organically linked to a (1) possessing rising consciousness, such that (3) begins to percolated out as needed, then Gramsci believes that the historical point has been reached at which a party can no longer be destroyed (until it has played out its historically prescribed mission?)  Up until that point, it is imperative that (2) look to its own reproduction, since if (2) is destroyed (i.e., by the state authorities), and leaves no “ferment” from which it can be regenerated, then the organic mass party... what?  May never form?  Or just may be much delayed (unnecessarily delayed) in its formation?

It is hard to tell, from my so-far limited reading of Gramsci, whether he holds that the play of historic/economic forces must inevitably bring certain things about (e.g. socialism).  He certainly believes that men and women’s political actions are important in determining the pace and course of these revolutions, if not their ultimate success or failure.  A related question would be, how much does he think our actions – as opposed to inevitable historic forces – have in defining the nature of the ultimate goal, once realized?  Antonio Santucci, who wrote an intellectual biography of Gramsci, seems to feel that Gramsci had rejected historical materialism entirely, but I am not convinced that his rejection of this central Marxist tenet was in fact that strong.

Gramsci is at pains, though, to point out his differences with “vulgar” Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists, who pin their faith in inevitability, and believe that nothing need be done in the here and know to prepare for or influence events.  He frequently points to the role of the party, including the intellectuals, in preparing the road.  Thus, for example, his frequent exhortations on the need for educating the masses, for training them in party discipline as well as to lead, for reproducing (as mentioned above) the leading intellectual stratum of the party.  This emphasis on the leading/guiding role of the party stands, I would think, in particular counter-distinction to the anarcho-syndicalists, who presumably would hold that the mass base (1 above) is all that is important; that (3) will arise spontaneously from the base as needed (and fall back into it when needed no longer); and that (2) is completely superfluous.  (Despite the irony implicit in various anarchist intellectuals espousing this view.)

Recall, though, that for all his emphasis on leadership, Gramsci holds that socialist leadership must look to creating the future conditions under which under which the distinction between leader and led will no longer be necessary, or even meaningful (p. 144).  Also, he argues that the success of a socialist (communist) party can only be judged after it no longer exists.  Since parties exist only as the expression of a particular class, the party which proposes to end all class divisions will succeed only when there are no more classes to express, and hence when no parties can logically exist.

It is interesting to compare Gramsci’s idea of organic parties to the situation in the modern United States, where the hegemonic capitalist class has, in effect, two parties.  What Gramsci would see as the “organic party” of the working class seems to have minimal direct expression (marginalized groups such as DSA, a few intellectuals, the worklife-focused labor movement).  Some of what might arguably be called “organic” expressions of working class politics can be pretty perverse (the Tea Party).  How would Gramsci view the situation in which, for practical purposes, much of the political expression of the working class gets directed into the two parties of the capitalist parties?  Sometimes this expression takes forms that Gramsci would be able to recognize as direct functions of the “organic” party – labor COPES, the Mass Alliance – but, primarily due to the Constitutional structure of the U.S. Republic, the energy is focused within one of the two capitalist parties.

What kinds of lessons can I actually draw from Gramsci?  Where was he right, and where wrong?  The concept of hegemony, as he developed it, seems to be a very powerful analytic tool, but I cannot follow it quite as far as he seems to do in his more extreme definition of “the common will”.  I cannot agree (to the annoyance of some of my more traditionally Marxist friends) with his apparent reduction of all social struggle to class conflict.  Issues such as race, gender, sexuality have their own independent (socially constructed) existence, and their own importance.  Gramsci’s idea of the three elements of a party seems worth thinking about, and his ideas on the importance of education, and of creating the “ferment” that will reproduce activist intellectuals for a new generation are things to which anyone who cares about long term social change must certainly pay heed.

I’m certain that I will have more, and more detailed thoughts as my plunge into Gramsci’s thought continues.  And no doubt I will have reason to regret more than one of the hasty, early judgments presented here.


References: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds.; Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses, Penguin Classics edition, Leslie J. Walker, S.J. and Brian Richardson trans., and The Prince (Bilingual Edition), Mark Musa, editor and trans.; Antonio A. Santucci, Antonio Gramsci, Graziella Di Mauro, trans.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Starting from Zero

I’ve never read Hegel, but I recently reread Russell’s chapter on Hegel in A History of Western Philosophy as background to some early Marx we were reading for the Democratic Socialists of America Boston local’s reading group. Per Lord R, Hegel starts from the idea that “the Absolute” is “pure being”, deduces that this means it has no qualities, and finds this self-contradictory because to have no qualities is to be nothing. This is the antithesis – “The Absolute is nothing” – and leads to the first synthesis: “The Absolute is Becoming.”

What struck me is that Hegel thinks he is starting from zero, using only one premise – that reality cannot be self-contradictory – but of course he really is applying many premises: that there is something that may reasonably be thought of as “absolute reality”, that “pure being” is a meaningful concept, which entails having no attributes, that to have no attributes (or qualities) is to be nothing, that the union of being and being nothing is becoming.

It seems there is a basic flaw in a philosophy which tries to start from zero, or from some very small set of premises, building up from these by synthesis; to wit, that we cannot do it. We always, in fact, have to start with a lot. Descartes’ radical doubt leads, perhaps, to “cogito ergo sum” (more precisely, perhaps, “...something is”, but to go further, he needs to introduce more premises, “undoubting” certain things. He selects premises that purport to justify the undoubting – clear and distinct ideas, and the goodness of God – but this is basically B.S., not justified by his method, as stated.

Really, what we do, always, is to start with everything we know, or think we know, and start juggling it about. We apply reasoning (rules of inference) that feel right to us and (perhaps) we try to codify these into a system of logic. We apply various tests in doing this. What tests depends on the person and what he or she brings to the process. Examples are empirical tests (how well do these premises and this logic predict future experience) and faith-based tests (do these premises and this logic lead to conclusions that conflict with “revealed” scripture?) We can apply tests, at any time, to some of our a priori beliefs about facts, and or to our rules of inference, but each test involves accepting other facts and rules, at least temporarily and contingently. We can never test the whole shebang.

This process is irreducibly ad hoc and messy, which is no doubt what has led many philosophers to reject it, and to try and find a purer and simpler alternative. But they were deluding themselves.

The actual process “works”, more or less, because our sensual and reasoning faculties have evolved by natural selection. If they failed badly at the task of extracting meaning from the universe, we would have become extinct, or at least these faculties would have. But this is no guarantor of “ultimate knowledge”, whatever that is. Aspects of our reasoning system may be selectively neutral, such that there is no effective, general difference in survival rates from reasoning one way or the other. These aspects, then, would not be fine tuned by natural selection. Like blue eyes and brown eyes, both may survive indefinitely in the species. I suspect this may be particularly true of the ways we construct abstract structures of meaning to explain our experience to ourselves.

Different ways of knowing can also serve the same person better or worse under different conditions. Something like what I called “faith based” learning is certainly the most satisfactory way of learning for a child, who will learn much too slowly if she must test every new factoid empirically, rather than trusting the wisdom imparted by her elders. In fact, realistically most of what we learn throughout all our lives, we learn from others whom we trust, either because of their social position as teachers, authors, or what-have-you, or simply because we believe they have no reason to lie. In complex situations, we have to apply other tests – such as when we find that the “experts” don’t agree with each other. And empirical experience is the ultimate arbiter, to which faith, for any reasonable person, must bow. Galileo’s telescope trumps the Pope.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

True Tax Freedom = Progressive Taxation

Soak the rich
'Til there are no more.
When that day comes
There'll be no more poor.

Of course, that's an over-simplification, because it is possible, in theory and at times in history, for there to be poverty w/out wealth. In our age, however, we clearly have the productive technology to adequately provide for every man, woman and child on the planet (although if the population countinues to double every 50 years, all bets are off). Poverty is therefore, in our world, the product of an unjust and undemocratic capitalist system, which orders production and distribution primarily for the needs and wishes of the well-off, and leaves immense numbers of the poor effectively w/out any voice. The solution is for people to become enlightened and rise up, throwing off the mental chains created by the lying propaganda of the Right (e.g., the concept of "Tax Freedom Day"). Progressive taxation is therefore a symptom and an instrument of the solution, and not, of course, the solution, itself.

Anyway, for me, April 15 is not so much tax day as the day my wonderful daughter arrived in our lives.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Random firings

March has been a very busy month. I’ve been doing a lot, reading a lot, thinking a lot, but haven’t had time to sit down and write a coherent blog post. So I’m going to try cobbling one together out of some of my shorter journal entries for the month. I’ve been rereading Dewey’s Experience and Nature (among other things), and much in the following musings is influenced by that. The last, however, was influenced in part by discussions at a recent DSA meeting on Monte Pearson’s Perils of Empire, and by an article by Arthur MacEwan.


Rules of arithmetic have their properties only in virtue of the abstractness of numbers. For instance, consider X&Y chromosomes. Normal human females have two X chromosomes, normal males have one X and one Y. Thus,

F: 2 ea x 1 type = 2 chromosomes
M: 1 ea x 2 types = 2 chromosomes

Abstracted to the level of chromosomes, this gives:

2 x 1 = 1 x 2 = 2

which is valid, but the practical significance of the information lost to abstraction is far from trivial.

In general, classes of things are classes only if the difference between members is unimportant, which is a function of the analysis to be performed, and the level of abstraction appropriate to that analysis.


Reality is always there, it is just-as-it-is. But knowing always involves an abstraction. There is no way to know something just-as-it-is. The notion of doing so is vacuous: there is no meaningful way to understand it. The just-as-it-is cannot be inside your head. What is in your head is a pattern of neurological activity, chemicals, electricity... This neural pattern is associated with the just-as-it-is. They are linked in experience. This linkage is knowing. It involves a process of abstraction (choice from among the full range of experience presented) and analysis (ordering and associations upon the objects of choice).


Confusion around the concept of causation may result from applying (as a metaphor) concepts pertaining to the goal-directed action of sentient things to non-sentient nature. For us, the results of our actions come at the end of a causal chain (or intermediate results come as intermediate points on the chain). We look for the same effect in nature.


When we divide the world into objects, we do so along natural lines of cleavage, but these are not the only lines of cleavage, nor do we always cleave the same reality in the same way. We parse the world into objects pragmatically, in the ways that make sense to ourselves as a species, and also relative to our objectives at a given time. Some other species, or ourselves in different exigencies, would parse it differently.


The logic of capitalist accumulation is much like the logic of empire. If you have a (political) empire (e.g., Rome), even if you don’t consciously wish to expand, there is always trouble somewhere on the border, which entails the risk of losing some part of your existing empire. Losing part of your empire is bad, so the wise course seems to be to “pacify” the unruly neighbor, which as a practical matter means extending the empire.

In an uncertain world, maintaining your existing power is a delicate balancing act – too delicate for anyone to be confident of his ability to do it precisely. The real alternatives will always seem to be either increase your power, or tacitly allow it to recede. Since the second is unacceptable, the first course is followed by default.

In capitalism, power derives mainly from the effective control over property. (Note that this may, or may not be, coincident with formal “ownership”.) The logic of power leads one to try to maximize the power under one’s control, thus corporate growth, thus capital accumulation.

Note 1: A corollary, of sorts, is that capitalists desire to increase the prerogatives of capital, e.g. vis. labor.

Note 2: This logic of capital is very different from the logic of labor. Individual laborers may wish to increase their small store of wealth (purchasing power), but this is not their primary source of economic power. An unorganized laborer’s primary power is in her skills, strength, ability to work. If she is more politically conscious, she realizes that her real power lies in her ability to organize, both into labor unions and politically. Labor unions may accumulate some significant store of funds, but their main source of power lies in the number of workers they have organized.

Note 3: I mean “power” very broadly as the ability to independently make, or at least strongly influence, decisions affecting your life and/or the lives of others.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Let ‘em filibuster

Almost since the beginning of his administration, I have had the gut feeling that President Obama’s bipartisan, compromise-oriented approach to legislation was a mistake. I have had endless debates with friends (especially my wife, Susan) about whether this approach was tactical on Obama’s part, or a function of some deep-seated, almost pathological need to “get along” (perhaps combined with a failure to grasp the profound significance of the underlying ideological differences). I do not pretend to be a political pundit, nor a psychoanalyst, so I won’t go further into the motivation debate. But certain effects seem fairly clear: Obama thought that by outreach and compromise, he could move legislation, including and especially health care reform, through Congress. The Republicans, on the other hand, although quick to decry partisanship when they are in power, saw their best advantage in sheer obstructionism, and this they did very well, helped by the rules of the profoundly undemocratic U.S. Senate.

In these private debates (as in my 1/17/10 blog post), I argued that Obama would have been better off to come out swinging. If he had seemed to be fighting for the little guy, and the Senate Republicans were obviously blocking his every move, then it would have been clear to everybody who the villains of the piece were. His legislation might have been blocked – but it was anyway! By being seen as a fighter, his chances of increasing the Democratic majority in the midterms would have improved.

At least in my small circle of friends on the Left, this idea of mine seems to be coming pretty widespread. People are, in fact, holding it forth as a model for how Obama should go forward. “Let ‘em filibuster” is a call I hear more and more often. At a recent discussion we organized for the Boston local of Democratic Socialists of America, all three panelists put forth an analysis that seemed, to me, strikingly similar to mine. They ended by saying that Obama needed to find some pieces of legislation, however small, that he could move, and push them through Congress quickly. I raised my hand and commented that, based on what they had said so far, it seemed like even if Obama couldn’t move anything through, it would be better for him to try and fail due to visible Republican obstructionism. Somewhat reluctantly (they didn’t want to give up the dream that Obama could pass something), all three panelists agreed.

Unfortunately, as I reflect on the outcome of the recent Massachusetts Senate election, and some other thoughts about the nature and makeup of the U.S. electorate, I have come to have some doubts about at least the short-run effectiveness of this strategy.

The AFL-CIO commissioned a poll after Scott Brown’s election, which showed some very interesting results. Among other things, it showed that nearly two-thirds of Brown’s voters want him to “be bipartisan and work with Obama and congressional Democrats, rather than stick to his conservative philosophy and work to defeat the Democrats’ agenda”. Since Brown won about 50% of the total vote, this suggests that one third of the electorate makes no deeper analysis when voting than “I’m not happy with the way things are going, so I’ll vote for the other party.”

A behavioral tendency I have noticed in many voters may partially explain these results; if it doesn’t explain them, it may mesh with them to reinforce the result. In conversations with various friends and coworkers over the years, especially people who do not see themselves as particularly “political” people, I have noticed that many people apply a very simple model to the solution of social problems. Specifically, they:
  1. Think everybody sees the same problems they do, and sees these problems in essentially the same way, and, 
  2. Think that the solution to these problems is essentially technical, and that there is general consensus among experts on how to solve them (even if they, themselves, don’t understand what the solution is).
With this set of beliefs, it is natural to think that, if the party in power can’t seem to get it done, then flipping to the other party is the best solution. Maybe the other party will be more effective. Failing to understand the role and importance of ideological and theoretical differences means failing to understand that the other party may “effectively” move in a direction that does nothing at all to solve the problems you perceive, either because they are acting according to a bad theory, or because they are trying to solve a different set of problems altogether.

In a recession, for example, a worker may take it for granted that the problem is “getting the economy going again”, and that this necessarily entails restoring or creating jobs, and good jobs at that – anybody can see that! But someone else may think that the definition of “getting the economy going again” is a matter of profitability and a rising stock market. If he’s elected to office, the policy this second person pursues may not be oriented towards restoring good jobs. Or, the politician may think bringing back jobs is important, but believe the way to do it is by a supply side approach: cutting taxes on the rich, while practicing fiscal austerity by slashing social programs to “stabilize” the economy. This policy will have a very different effect on outcomes then the massive Keynesian stimulus that might be proposed by some other politician, who had a different theory as to the solution to the same problem.

But if you don’t understand these effects of ideology and theory on outcomes; if you simply assume that everybody sees things essentially the same way you do (always excepting a few “radicals” and “nut cases”), and that fixes to social problems are subject to well-understood technical fixes like designing a stronger beam or choosing the right wire for an electrical circuit; then it makes perfect sense to flip your vote whenever the party “in power” doesn’t seem to be able to “get it done”. With this kind of attitude, even such an obviously obstructionist strategy as a filibuster may have an unobvious effect – causing you to vote for the filibustering party, not because you agree with their positions, but because their successful obstructionism makes the other party seem unable to effectively govern.

In light of these considerations, I am no longer so certain that a “Let ‘em filibuster” strategy will do much for the Democrats’ electoral results in the short run. But I still think it is better for Obama to fight and lose than to just lose without a visible fight. The AFL-CIO poll suggests that the electorate is divided roughly into thirds – one third left leaning, one-third right leaning, and one third that flips one way or the other depending on which way the wind is blowing. The long-term objective for the Left (and for the Right, for that matter) must be to hold onto and firm up our base, while trying to educate at least some of the flip-floppers.

The Republicans have proved that they can pretty much block legislation any time they take a serious mind to. If the outcome for Obama’s agenda is to be losing in any case, then coming out fighting won’t make him seem any less effective. He may still lose the flip-flopping vote, but at least he’ll have a better chance of holding on to his base. This may lead to less of a debacle in the mid-term elections, and at least, as Republican obstructionism enrages the frustrated core of left-leaning people who know their enemy, it may give those of us who are truly on the Left a better base to work with in the future.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


My teenage daughter and her peers, lately, are obsessed with movies and TV shows about teenagers having babies. I have watched some of this stuff with her (probably less than I should) – episodes from “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”, part of the movie “The Pregnancy Pact”. Even her new favorite show, “Life Unexpected”, is about the (implausible) consequences of teenage motherhood in the life of the baby, now a girl in her own teens. It’s not just shows for teenagers which have these themes, either – I remember an episode of the police show “Without a Trace” which would fit completely into the paradigm discussed in this essay, and that is just one more case among many.

From what I’ve seen, these shows:

1) Present abstinence-only as a legitimate moral choice, even if, as in “The Pregnancy Pact”, they may question whether it is the best one,

2) Tend to strongly argue for keeping and raising the baby as the most legitimate choice for a teenage girl ONCE pregnancy has occurred. Abortion and even adoption are strongly devalued as choices.

Within the context of the post-birth aspects of these kids’ lives, the shows do tend to show kids trying to be mature, and responsible, working hard on their relationships with friends and lovers, their own parents, and the baby’s father. This presents positive images for their teenage audience to live up to. On the other hand, since these fictional kids tend to be so good at this stuff, which in reality is so hard, even for those of us who waited until we were in mature, stable relationships (and had decent jobs), before we had our kids, that one effect is to make the “have your baby” choice seem less fraught than, in reality, it is.

But I’m particularly concerned about the growing acceptance of an abstinence-only policy as a legitimate moral choice, even if not a necessary one. In fact, abstinence-only is a bad choice, based on a false moral premise. It has absolutely no moral benefits, and tends to produce at least two bad moral outcomes.

First, I need to distinguish between abstinence-only as a policy, and simple abstinence. It is not morally wrong for a person to be sexually abstinent, if they choose to be. But abstinence-only is a policy that says the best (or only moral) way to avoid teenage pregnancy is to remain abstinent until marriage. Since effective birth-control methods are readily available in our society, there is no rational basis for this prescription. As a policy, abstinence-only “makes sense” ONLY if you accept the implicit premise that sex before marriage is morally wrong. This is the false premise on which abstinence-only is based.

Not only is sex before marriage not morally wrong, I would argue that most people SHOULD have (safe) sex before marriage. Marriage is an important decision, involving a melding of the whole complex of life choices facing two people and (yes) often the question of bringing more people into the world, who must be raised and cared for. Such an important decision should, in my opinion, be kept as free as possible from the heady influence of overactive hormones. Separating the choice to have sex from the choice to get married results in better choices about both.

Abstinence-only, even if it “works”, acts to make kids marry before they are ready. It is worth pointing out that, even on its own premises, abstinence-only is not a prescription for preventing TEENAGE pregnancy, but only PREMARITAL pregnancy. I can see no sound reason for viewing premature marriage as a moral “good” that we should design policies to foster.

And, of course, the reality is that (as even the birth-worshiping shows admit) failure of abstinence is an all-too-likely effect of a policy of abstinence-only. The TV morality plays try to gloss over the effects of such failures by depicting the noble struggles of a few fictional teens and their loving families to make their way through the forest of problems besetting them – and, yes, in real life many families do pull through, and come out all right on the other end. I have tremendous respect for the families who, caught up in this situation, manage to make it work. But a good outcome does not prove that the original choice was good. Certainly, in almost every case, the lives of teenage mothers, and their children are much, much harder than they would have been if the pregnancy had been deferred until a better time of life. In cases where other life factors are stacked against the family – factors like poverty, racism, unavailability of strong, supportive extended networks – the affected lives can essentially be ruined, as the stress caused by one bad decision leads to further bad behavior, resulting in pain and suffering for all that might have been averted with better initial judgment.

The morality plays paint a choice between evils, with teenage pregnancy, birth control, abortion and adoption all seen as ills to be weighed in the balance. But birth control is not an evil. It is a simple solution to a practical problem. Birth-control, not abstinence, is the moral choice for avoiding teenage pregnancy. And if birth control (or abstinence) fails, an early abortion or a “morning after pill” is clearly a reasonable and legitimate moral choice. As third tier possibilities, later abortion and adoption are both perfectly legitimate choices, in many cases better than bearing and raising a child for which you are not ready.

Abstinence-only, in short, is a moral position that makes sense only in the context of a Christian dream world, where the imagined word of God trumps the real-life needs of men, women and children. But sex is a normal, human act, not a sacrament, and premarital sex is not a sin. Birth control is a practical solution to an age-old problem, and is not in any way morally problematic. Insisting on a policy known to produce bad outcomes for real human beings, when a simple solution is available, is morally wrong.

In the real world, abstinence-only is not just an irrational or impractical policy. It is an immoral choice. And it should be shown to the world as such.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Elections and myth

I write on the eve of a Massachusetts election which may, unfortunately, be an historic one. After winning the primary, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Martha Coakley, seems to have taken the general election for granted; now, surprisingly, she finds herself in a neck-and-neck horserace with Republican Scott Brown. If Brown wins, the Senate Democrats will immediately lose any hope of breaking a filibuster; health care reform (even in its current, deformed state) will be finished, and so will any future initiative that President Obama is likely to make. It will also probably foreshadow further Democratic losses in the midterms, and likely a one-term presidency for Barack Obama. (Brown will be a one-termer, too. The progressive machine in Massachusetts will gear up belatedly, and almost certainly oust him in the next election; but a lot of damage will be done, by then.)

If Brown wins this election, it will be a wake-up call to the Democrats, but one which, like a den of opium addicts trapped in a fevered, collective dream, they probably won’t hear. The message they will hear, the message they always hear in their deluded dream state, is that when the other side wins, the Democrats need to become more like them. What the people will really be saying is: they need to be different.

Obama rode in like a hero, in the election of 2008, like a knight in shining armor for many Americans. We have two kinds of folk-tales about heroes. A hero can storm the palace gates, free the imprisoned damsel, and all will live happily ever after. Or a hero can make a vain last stand, selflessly sacrificing everything in the struggle for righteousness, fighting to the bitter end for the people, never giving up while life remains. Either type of hero wins our loyalty, our admiration, and our love. What a hero cannot do is make nice with the forces of evil. A hero cannot give in, give away everything, even in a spirit of compromise, while winning only crumbs, or nothing, for the people in return. We have a word for that kind of behavior, and it is not “heroism”. It is “betrayal”.

Unfortunately, when we feel betrayed, we don’t always act in the most rational manner. When we are jilted by our lover (to switch my metaphor), we may not choose to be cautiously celibate until a more trustworthy candidate comes along. We may, instead, troll the bars to find some even less reliable lover “on the rebound”. This is especially true if our last lover acted in a way which has made us feel of potential partners that in some sad sense “they are all the same”. Thus, the American voter. If Brown wins, it will not be because the majority of voters who jump ship to vote for him have really understood and agree with his positions; most people in Massachusetts do not. It will be because they are feeling hurt, betrayed and jilted by the Democrats, and they want to show them a thing or two.

I may be accused of elitism for analyzing the electorate on the level of fairy tale and romance novel, instead of a hard calculus of interest and agency. Perhaps the charge is just; it is true that I think most people think politically on a level of myth and passion, and not by a rational consideration of costs and benefits. Of course the forces of interest and agency are always there; but between them is interposed an analysis, and the analysis is not always sound.

This is often as true of self-conscious, politically active, over-intellectualizing “lefties” as it is of the man or woman in the street. We are as likely as anyone else to want politicians to act, out of principle, as if they were our knights in silvered armor. We want politicians who refuse ever to compromise; but of course, we also want these finely principled men and women to prevail.

The trouble is, this assumes that there IS a principled choice – that absolute victory is possible. In politics, absolute victories are likely to be the victories of a Stalin, or a Pol Pot, and even then, they don’t last forever. (I rather suspect that if any politician managed to kill off all the people who disagreed with him, he would find himself all alone – and then start arguing with himself.) People are, and always will be, contrary and cooperative, greedy and selfless, stupid and smart. Differences of opinion, conflict, error are eternally and necessarily the stuff of politics, and compromise and back room deals are part of any political solution.

So should we just wash our hands of it? Refuse to have anything to do with such a dirty business? As Howard Zinn said, in the line that went into the title of his memoirs, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” a deliciously mixed metaphor by which he meant that you cannot NOT make a moral choice in politics; abstention has consequences as surely as a vote, a failure to act, when action is called for, leaves us as guilty as those who acted, yet made the wrong choice. There is no redemption in taking the moral high ground, if ceding the ACTUAL ground leaves people really worse off than if you had compromised. The great irony of politics is that unshakably holding the principled position is NOT the principled position.

The problem is one of strategy, and strategy is a problem of analysis of probable outcomes. Did you compromise too soon, and therefore give away too much? Did you compromise with the wrong people, when some other compromise might have won you a better ally, and a coalition strong enough to force a breakthrough? If you had refused to engage, and spent more time building your power, would you have eventually have been able to win a better resolution? Or would you only have given your enemy, also, more time to regroup? How many people would have been hurt while you waited, and would it have been worth the cost?

History can look at the outcomes, and decide if they were good or bad. It is much harder to decide if they were good or bad relative to the actual possibilities of the moment.

Nevertheless, I fear that President Obama did the wrong thing by starting his backpedalling, his compromising, his search for bipartisan solutions, so early in his term of office. He would have been better off (I think) to draw a line in the sand, and fight, vocally and aggressively, for whatever was best for the people. If he made compromises, he should have done so from a position of strength, and made certain that he really got some quid pro quo.

Obama should have done that not because compromise is an evil to be rejected on principle, but because, in this case, compromise was bad strategy. He might have lost these battles, but if he had played a bold role, struggling against the unrelenting Republicans, he might have stayed a hero. He might have convinced people that what was needed in Washington was MORE progressive Democrats, to break the gridlock, and not that it made no difference either way, because all politicians in both parties were after all the same. He might have been our Zapata, our Leonidas at Thermopylae, our Roland at Roncesvalles sounding his horn; instead, I fear he has come to be seen as our Benedict Arnold.

The political pundits do not agree with me. To them, losing is always bad, and anything you can call a victory, no matter how Pyrrhic, is always good. Perhaps they are right. In particular, they might be right as regards the career of the particular politician seen to be losing. But then, self-sacrifice is part of the nature of being a Roland – of being a hero. I’m pretty sure we won’t make a meaningful change for the better in this country, until we manage to elect some politicians who have more faith in the power of myth than does the typical Washington insider. And who knows? If they hold out courageously in the pass, they might be pleasantly surprised and find out that the grateful people call up the cavalry just in time.

Postscript, footnote, or what-have-you. I write the above, of course, as if Obama really wants to be a progressive President, but is constrained by circumstances, which (also) he may or may not have misjudged. This is one of the accounts currently being told to explain Obama’s behavior in office. Another is that he is in fact merely another pro-business neoliberal, who pretended to believe in community empowerment (which perhaps he really believed in, in his younger days), in order to win his own place in history. I make no pretense to knowing enough about the man, Obama, to know which of these accounts is true – possibly some mixture of the two.