Thursday, October 4, 2012

Subject for Debate

It is not surprising that the debates fail to satisfy.  (I admit I didn't watch them.  A few minutes of Romney's wild eyes and wilder lies, and I was ready to puke, and changed the channel.  But I'm responding to the post-debate coverage I've read, both in the news media and on Facebook.)

You can't squarely and honestly address the issues facing this country unless you address the issue of class; to wit, that the rich and powerful are and have been systematically looting the working class both of this country and the world.  (This is the actual class that includes the working poor plus the bulk of that which we disingenuously refer to as  "the middle class" in our political debates.)  They have been doing this since time immemorial, generally with the full help and support of government.  This was mitigated for a brief time, due to working people's revolutionary struggles and the rise of unionism in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The post-WWII prosperity then eased the pressure (there was so much wealth to be generated, that the rich could be convinced to share).  But since the mid-70s the rapine has resumed, and steadily intensified in force.  Extreme inequality was a driving force behind the economic collapse of 2008, and our government (a milquetoast Presidency and a recalcitrant Congress) ensured that, while working people got some palliative measures (a stimulus package, payroll tax cuts, unemployment extensions), which actually lessened our pain compared to, e.g., Europe, the rich essentially got made whole, and certainly were not asked to pay for their crimes.

But neither of the major U.S. parties can address this issue, since they are both entirely beholden to the capitalist class.  Our Constitution, and our private cash-driven electoral system ensure this.  I'm not a believer in the strategy of "Down with the Elephant, Down with the Ass."  While I would love to see an effective (i.e., election-winning) "Party of the Working Class,"  I have yet to see one with a credible plan of building mass American support.  Working within the Democratic Party has been somewhat more effective in my lifetime, but frustrating also:  for all the so-called "progressives" we sometimes manage to elect, we can't seem to shake the identification of the Democrats as the kinder and gentler of the parties of the elites.  Money is too influential, leadership too powerful, and even our "progressives", once in office, are often too willing to go along to get along.

I don't have a solution.  We need an effective, yet revolutionary politics if we are ever to break the stranglehold of wealth over our lives, and I frankly can't see where that politics is coming from.  But an honest recognition of the problem has got to be the first step.

P.S. The quote above is from an old Socialist chant, "Down with the Elephant.  Down with the Ass.  Let's build a party of the Working Class."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Irrational Atheists

I've "liked" a couple of atheist pages on Facebook in the past couple of months.  But I'm thinking of unliking them.  People on them seem mostly interested in finding nasty things to say about the religious.  A common theme is to hold religious people accountable for every inane thing that is written in their holy books, as if every Christian were out there burning witches, and all Muslims spent their spare time putting non-Muslims to the sword.

Now I am absolutely convinced that reason demonstrates the non-existence of God with about the same measure of certainty that it demonstrates the annual path of the Earth about the Sun.  And because I think it is shameful to base your world view on an obvious falsehood, I think all people should be atheists.  I could make even stronger statements, but I won't at the moment, because my immediate purpose (anyway) is not to insult theists, but to argue for rationality and balance.

What I don't think (and where these so-called atheists seem to disagree) is that religion necessarily makes one a bad person.  All religions, at least in the Judaic/Christian/Muslim tradition, have some pretty horrible, immoral, anti-human things within their teachings.  But religious people, in reality, show a remarkable ability to pick and choose the tenets they will follow.  Rather amazingly, they do this even when they claim to literally following their holy books, and even when those books specifically deny them the right to pick and choose.  Many Christians, Muslims and Jews treat other people very, very badly in the name of their respective religions.  But others are entirely good people.

What I believe is that one's religion is entirely irrelevant to one's morality.  Despite their vehement protestations, I do not think religious people derive their morality one iota from the religious teachings they subscribe to.  I think they are the people that they are for many reasons - "nature" (whatever that is), their general history and upbringing, the love they had (or didn't have) as children, and other, similar things besides.  They take from their religion exactly what they bring to it.  Messages of cruelty, or messages of love, they find what they go looking for.

But I'm getting tired of atheists who just want to feel superior by ranting against the religious, and doing so in a way that eschews rational argument.  (Whenever I've posted mild suggestions to think more deeply on some topic, they have been ignored.)  I seem to have found the worst of the atheists - in the way that the "God hates Fags" folks are the worst of the Christians…, well, maybe not quite THAT bad... 

I've been told by theists that atheists "hate God".  I've always thought that was silly.  How could I hate an imaginary creature?  I don't even think that religion is necessarily evil - just silly and wrong.  (And the insistence of the religious that they have some kind of special right to be respected for their evidently untenable ideas is really annoying.)   I also, of course, find myself eternally arguing against the old chestnut that atheism is just another belief system, in effect another religion.  (Of course, in reality, atheism is just the result of an honest insistence that the same idea of reason that we apply to answering other questions in the world be applied to the question of God.)  But listening to some of these so-called atheists, I begin to see where my theist disputants got these wrong ideas about atheism.  I guess what I am is a rationalist first, and that leads me inevitably to atheism.  Atheism is a secondary, not a primary, identity.

But maybe I just need to find a better atheist group/page.  (Or start my own.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Common Good

Robert Dahl, in Democracy and its Critics, has a section late in the book where he considers at length the concept of the common good.  I had always suspected that the idea of the common good could be little more than  a reification – an concept that, given the huge diversity of human interests, could have no real content behind it.  While reading the Dahl chapter, I found myself musing on whether a conception of the common good, consistent with pluralist values, could be found.  My resulting thought experiment follows.

Take any particular polity or demos as a given.  This is not a restrictive criterion, because the process can be repeated for any given (other) demos.  Do a Senian partial ordering of people’s conceptions of the good.  (Realize that the process – discussion, dialogue – will change the constellation of preferences with which people start the process.)  By a “Senian” partial ordering, I mean a ranking of preferences such as Amartya Sen often mentions in The Idea of Justice, which he conceives essentially as in Social Choice Theory, but he frequently observes that even if we can’t get a complete ordering, so that we have a complete social ranking of all possible alternatives, sometimes we may have a clear definition (e.g., consensus) with respect to a partial ordering, and in many cases that may be, if not “good enough” at least good enough to be of some practical use.

A Senian partial ranking would mean that consensus, or near consensus on some items had become apparent.  (For instance, all may value that the community is prosperous, that child mortality rates be low, that the drinking water be clean…)  Is it enough?  Can consensus be improved?  Consider the other (non-consensual) issues.  Can some of them be packaged or bundled in such a way that the bundle will be at least acquiesced to by consensus (ranked as preferred or indifferent by all; opposed by none).  Is this, now, enough?  “Enough” means can the rest of the items be left to individuals or subgroups to pursue or decide autonomously for themselves.

If not, then no definition of “common good” applies to the group, and the only option is power politics in which different subgroups (whether minority or majority) try to dominate others.   Of course, another option available to each group is to try to sway public opinion.  The situation is dynamic.  Over time a sense of the common good may become meaningful where none was before.  Or a prior conception of the good could become no longer consensual.

Note that for this not to be arbitrary, the demos must be inclusive of all who will be bound by its decisions, and consensus must be real, e.g., not based hidden dominations like of husband over wife or boss over employee.  If there are such de facto dominations, the question of hegemonic ideas or false consciousness arises, whereby domination is so habitual that it is internalized and appears as free will on behalf of the dominated.  Obviously, situations like this are always disputable and hard to prove.

My use of the term “near consensus” also raises issues.  If people are to be excluded from consideration in a consensus process for determining the common good, there must be a “good reason” other than simple minority status, e.g., mental illness, (literal) immaturity, intentional perversity (“anything everybody else wants, I will reject”).  People with a manifest desire to dominate others, who will not accept any conception of “the good” that does not include their domination, would be another example.  Obviously such exclusions are also disputable, and the “good reason” hard to prove.

The problem of people affected by decisions of the demos, but not included in the demos, cannot always be solved (even in a thought experiment) by extending the demos.  One example is the “good” of future generations.  I don’t see any way around this other than to say that justice demands that members of the demos consider, to the best of their ability, what the wishes of those others would be, were they to be somehow included.

Remember, this is a thought experiment, and not something that could necessarily be implemented to actually define “the common good”.  But it might be argued that a legislative procedure modeled on these ideas would tend to produce legislation consistent with the underlying concept of “the good” that would have been so discovered.  Particularly if debate around proposed legislation was allowed to be open, broad and free-ranging.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Trusting each other

There is no “magic bullet” for democracy.  That is, democracy cannot reside in the institutions, alone.  The people, or a large majority of them, must take their role as responsible decision makers seriously, and they must do their job well.  This idea used to be common to the democratic movements, as in the English lyrics of “The Internationale”:  “We must, ourselves decide our duty.  We must decide, and do it well.”  Democracy requires us to have mutual respect and a sense of justice.  We must make a good-faith effort to exercise good judgment.  We must exercise self-restraint.  We must honestly weigh the good of others against our own interests.  Otherwise, democracy devolves into a struggle between different groups of “the strong” for their own immediate good, and the political quagmire the ancient Greeks called “stasis” prevails.

The people’s faith in each other cannot be na├»ve.  The problem of the “free rider” serves as an example.  If almost all the people in a society are good, do their jobs, and share the resulting wealth, then it will, at least superficially,  be beneficial for some people to try to take a share without working for it.   Concern about  free riders is certainly a slippery slope.  People of relative privilege may label the less privileged “free riders” (as they are inclined to do in our own, plutocratic society), so as to argue against sharing their wealth.  But despite the potential for abuse, the potential for free riders is real, so this is a slippery slope that must be navigated.  Judgment is required (see above).  But denial is not a solution.

False dichotomies and either-or decision making must be avoided.  The problem of correctly identifying free riders (for example) cannot be turned into a battle between a “right” which identifies all poor people as presumptive free riders, and a “left” which argues that abusers of social privileges do not exist.

Democracy is prey to the problem of generalizing from particulars.  One person or ten betrays our trust, so we conclude that people, in general, cannot be trusted, and design laws to limit people’s freedom of action to narrow, “safe” paths.  This leads to Byzantine, alienating laws, and ironically worsens the problem of people breaking trust, because a person who feels alienated from “the system” sees little reason, other than the fear of punishment, to commit the effort required to make it work.  Transferring the exercise of judgment from the people to the laws, limiting the degree to which people have to think and take conscious responsibility for their participation, is tempting, but is another slippery slope.  There is no magic bullet.  Taken too far, this process weakens democracy, rather than strengthening it.

Trusting people doesn’t mean believing that the people are always right.  It means recognizing, first, that laws, too, can fail.  The laws, after all, are written by some of the same people you’re deciding you can’t trust!  But more importantly, laws cannot be made sufficiently detailed to anticipate every possible situation.  The basis of law is a process of abstraction.  Prioritizing law over judgment means ignoring many of the particulars that arise in any possible situation.  This tends to separate law from justice.  Separating law from justice is alienating, and alienation (as we saw) undermines democracy.

Secondly, trusting the people means recognizing that even if the people err, it is their mistake to make.

The first of these recognitions is that no alternative to trusting the people is functional; the second is that no alternative to trusting the people is just.

This does not mean that a democracy should not establish institutions or pass laws.  (This is where I break, perhaps, with the anarchists.)  But a law should not be viewed as a once-for-all solution to a problem.  The laws should be seen as documentation of a part of the collective experience and wisdom of the past, preserved to inform the judgments of the present.  Such laws exist to prevent the necessity of reinventing the wheel – of forming all judgments fully de novo at all times.  The law should support, and not preclude , the exercise of judgment, and especially it should not preclude the recognition of cases in which the requirements of justice differ from the letter of the law.

Allowing judgment to take priority over the law may require different institutions of justice.  In our legal system, we have a (rather small) jury which is charged with considering only matters of fact, and a judge who is charged with deciding on matters of law.  Nobody is specifically charged with considering matters of justice –  if justice is thought about at all, it is assumed to be fully embedded within the law.  The ancient Athenians heard cases with much larger juries, and no judge.  The advocates for both sides were assumed to bring up relevant points of law, of which jurors were also expected to be reasonably well-informed, and the jury judged (by majority vote) with few restrictions on their scope of responsibility. 

Some kind of hybrid system may be best.  A democratic justice system may require larger juries, randomly selected, with full scope to consider matters of justice as well as matters of fact.  A panel of judges or other learned persons could serve to bring the jury’s attention to matters of law (considered, as above, as a repository of wisdom, to be used as a resource, to guide, but not to bind).  Options other than punishment or acquittal could be considered – mediation, negotiation, restitution for example.  Decisions could be made preferably by consensus, with a fall back of a majority, or super-majority vote if consensus is judged to have failed despite all good-faith efforts.

It’s something to wonder about, at any rate…


Note:  The musings in this post arose as reflections on a book I am reading, The Origins of Democratic Thinking: The invention of politics in classical Athens, by Cynthia Farrar.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Root of All Evil

The root of capitalism is the principle that the possession of property entitles you to a claim on the fruits of someone else's labor.  There is no moral justification for this.  It is on a par with "might makes right" or "the Devil take the hindmost."  Capitalism is thus corrupt at its very core, whatever social benefits it might be deemed to have in any specific time and place.

The logic of capitalism only makes sense if there is an unequal distribution of wealth.  If everybody had equal wealth, there would be no sense in property employing labor; rather, we would tend to evolve a system where men and women collectively used their property and their labor in order to socially produce things (since social production is more efficient than individual production).  Equal distribution of wealth would tend toward a cooperative society, rather than a capitalistic one.

So capitalism arises only in an unequal society; its essential logic guarantees that.  The logic of the working-out of capitalism increases the initial inequality.  If you have only a small amount of property, it is very difficult to make it grow.  Generally, only your constant labor can keep it from shrinking.  If you have a large amount of property, however, it is very difficult to PREVENT it from growing.  The process of being paid for the use of your property returns the borrowed property plus a dividend, over and over again.  The more property you possess, the larger the dividend.  If the amount of property you possess is very large, it becomes virtually impossible to spend the dividend.  Even if your wealth is a bit smaller, only a modest amount of self-restraint is necessary for savings.  So the wealth of rich people grows and grows.  Yes, it is possible for a wealthy person to "go bust" because of bad investments.  But it doesn't happen very often.  And even a wealthy person who, with great fanfare, has  "gone bust",  generally has more residual wealth than a person who wasn't rich to begin with.  Squalor turns out to be relative.

Capitalism is inherently incompatible with democracy, because capitalism concentrates concentrations wealth, and wealth is inevitably power. There is no way to decouple the relationship of wealth and power.  Regulatory tinkering, such as campaign finance rules, can only act as an impediment, an inconvenience to the wealthy when they act to assert their money-power.  Capitalist countries, then, even with republican governmental forms, tend to devolve into de facto oligarchies.  This process can be resisted only by constant vigilance, to limit accumulation of wealth, to restrain the free political exercise of wealth, to balance people power against money power (unions and voter empowerment campaigns).  This vigilance is a lot of work.  When we have won some improvements, "we the people" tend to slack off.  The capitalists never do.  The differential rewards for them - the incentives - are just too immediate and great.  Thus, when times got somewhat better in the postwar period - at least in Europe, the U.S. and Canada - the people became complacent, and in the mid-1970s the capitalists, with their neoliberal/Reaganite/Thatcherite agenda, counter attacked.  And so, here we are today, with economic inequality and poverty at record levels, with a stagnant economy, but with many capitalists declaring "recovery" despite the fact that so many remain unemployed, many, many more underemployed, and almost all of us economically insecure.

So it turns out that not money, but private capital is the root of all evil, arising only in conditions of inequality, sustaining and promoting inequality, and undermining democracy.  Ultimately, if we want secure and just economies, we need to decouple property and income, by recognizing that all capital is socially constructed, and must be socially owned. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Democratic Decisions

We have no popular model of genuinely collective decision making in our society. Our social theory and practice are dominated by two models of social decision making: one in which a paternalistic authority makes decisions for all of us, and one in which each individual makes “private” decisions on his/her own behalf.

We impose a vague sense of democratic accountability on the authoritarian decision making model, but it is ill-fitting. In the first case, it is imposed on models actually developed in top-down, monarchal or aristocratic societies. In the second case, we elect a small group of people and give them a very broad charge. When it comes down to any individual decision on any given point, there is no reason to expect that the views, desires or opinions of any particular voter are in any way represented. Also, in practice, the small group of elected appoint a larger group, who appoint still more, etc., until we reach the people who actually make and implement decisions. By the time we get down to the person actually deciding, the trail of accountability back to “the people” may be highly attenuated.

A “good” paternalistic decision maker will make decisions in “the people’s interest.” But it is his/her own judgment that is involved – the people are not directly represented. We may introduce a further “democratic” element by requiring public hearings – but the hearings are advisory only, not authoritative. (One is reminded of the role of the Duma or Parliament as first introduced under absolute monarchs.) Similarly, in individual choice (the other model), we may choose to consult with or listen to others, but it is our choice.

What is missing is some form of truly participatory social decision making, where the people get together, debate and discuss fully in direct, unmediated conversation (with no imposition of anyone’s editorial judgment), and then collectively make – whether by consensus or majority rule – binding decisions which affect all. (Before I get corrected, let me acknowledge that it is not true that there is NO application of decision making that approaches this model. Small, New England town meetings, and some meetings of some voluntary organizations, for instance. But it is not a model that has a significant role in our hegemonic social theory and practice.)

It is exactly this space that the Occupy movement, with General Assemblies and other horizontal democratic structures, is trying to fill. It is not surprising that it sometimes works badly – we have no experience with it! (But this is something that can be corrected with practice, and willingness to learn from experience and adapt.) And it is not surprising that many both within and without the Occupy movement are uncomfortable with it – it doesn’t fit our customary conceptual arrangements. But the people of the Occupy movement are making an earnest and heartful effort to provide an alternative model of decision making that our putative democracies sorely need and lack.