On the question of freedom — an excerpt from the book “I and Thou”

Recently finished reading the book I and Thou by Martin Buber (1958) and I’d like to transcribe a little, beginning on page 51:

Causality has an unlimited reign in the world of It. Every “physical” event that can be perceived by the senses, but also every “psychical” event existing or discovered in self-experience is necessarily valid as being caused and as causing. Further, events to which a teleological character may be attributed are as parts of the unbroken world of It not excepted from this causality; the continuum to which they belong certainly tolerates a teleology, but only as the reverse side worked into a part of causality, and not impairing its continuity and completeness.

The unlimited reign of causality in the world of It, of fundamental importance for the scientific ordering of nature, does not weigh heavily on man, who is not limited to the world of It, but can continually leave it for the world of relation. Here I and Thou freely confront one another in mutual effect that us neither connected with nor coloured by any causality. Here man is assured of the freedom both of his being and of Being. Only he who knows relation and knows about the presence of the Thou is capable of decision. He who decides is free, for he has approached the Face. 

The fiery stuff of all my ability to will seethes tremendously, all that I might do circles around me, still without actuality in the world, flung together and seemingly inseparable, alluring glimpses of powers flicker from all the uttermost bounds: the universe is my temptation, and I achieve being in an instant, with both hands plunged deep in the fire, where the single deed is hidden, the deed which aims at me—now is the moment! Already the menace of the abyss is removed, the centreless Many no longer plays in the iridescent sameness of its pretensions; but only two alternatives are set side by side—the other, the vain idea, and the one, the charge laid on me. But now realization begins in me. For it is not decision to do the one and leave the other a lifeless mass, deposited layer upon layer as dross in my soul. But he alone who directs the whole strength of the alternative into the doing of the charge, who lets the abundant passion of what is rejected invade the growth to reality what is chosen—he alone who “serves God with the evil impulse” makes decision, decides the event. If this is understood, it is also known that this which has been set up, towards which direction is set and decision made, is to be given the name of upright; and if there were a devil it would not be one who decided against God, but one who, in eternity, came to no decision.

Causality does not weigh on the man to whom freedom is assured. He knows that his mortal life swings by nature between Thou and It, and he is aware of the significance of this. It suffices him to be able to cross again and again the threshold of the holy place wherein he was not able to remain; the very fact that he must heave it again and again is inwardly bound up for him with the meaning and character of this life. There, on the threshold, the response, the spirit, is kindled ever new within him; here, in an unholy and needy country, this spark is to be proved. What is called necessity here cannot frighten him, for he has recognized there true necessity, namely, destiny.

Destiny and freedom are solemnly promised to one another. Only the man who makes freedom real to himself meets destiny. In my discovery of the deed that aims at me—in this movement of my freedom the mystery is revealed to me; but also in failure to fulfill the deed as I intended it to be—in this resistance, too, the mystery is revealed to me. He who forgets all that is caused and makes decision out of the depths, who rids himself of property and raiment and naked approaches the Face, is a free man, and destiny confronts him as the counterpart of his freedom. It is not his boundary, but his fulfillment; freedom and destiny are linked together in meaning. And in this meaning destiny, with eyes a moment ago so severe now filled with light, looks out like grace itself.

No; causal necessity does not weigh heavily on the man who returns to the world of It bearing this spark. And in times of healthy life trust streams from men of the spirit to all people. To all men indeed, even to the dullest, meeting—the present—has come somehow, naturally, impulsively, dimly: all men have somewhere been aware of the Thou; now the spirit gives them full assurance.

But in times of sickness it comes about that the world of It, no longer penetrated and fructified by the inflowing world of Thou as by living streams but separated and stagnant, a gigantic ghost of the fens, overpowers man. In coming to terms with a world of objects that no longer assume present being for him he succumbs to this world. Then smooth causality rises up till it is an oppressive, stifling fate.

Every great culture that comprehends nations rests on an original relational incident, on a response to the Thou made at its source, on an act of the being made by the spirit. This act, strengthened by the similarly directed power of succeeding generations, creates in the spirit a special conception of the cosmos; only through this act is cosmos, an apprehended world, a world that is homely and houselike, man’s dwelling in the world, made possible again and again. Only now can man, confident in his soul, build again and again, in a special conception of space, dwellings for God and dwellings for men, and fill swaying time with new hymns and songs, and shape the very community of men. But he is free and consequently creative only so long as he possesses, in action and suffering in his own life, that act of the being—so long as he himself enters into relation. If a culture ceases to be centred in the living and continually renewed relational event, then it hardens into the world of It, which the glowing deeds of solitary spirits only spasmodically break through. Thenceforth smooth causality, which before had no power to disturb the spiritual conception of the cosmos, rises up till it is an oppressive, stifling fate. Wise and masterful destiny, that reigned, in harmony with the wealth of meaning in the cosmos, over all causality, has been changed into a demonic spirit adverse to meaning, and has fallen into the power of causality. The very karma that appeared for the forefathers as a charitable dispensation—for what we do in this life raises us up for a future life in higher spheres—is now recognized as tyranny: for the karma of an earlier life of which we are unconscious has shut us in a prison we cannot break in this life. Where hitherto a heaven was established in a law, manifest to the senses, raising its light arch from which the spindle of necessity hangs, the wandering stars new rule in senseless and oppressive might. It was necessary only to give oneself to Dike, the heavenly “way,” which means also our way, in order to dwell with free hearts in the universal bounds of fate. But now, whatever we do, we are laden with the whole burden of the dead weight of the world, with fate that does not know spirit. The storming desire for the salvation is unsatisfied after manifold attempts, till it is stilled by one who learns to escape the cycle of births, or by one, who saves the souls, that have fallen to alien powers, into the freedom of the children of God. Such an achievement arises out of a new event of meeting, which is in the course of assuming substantial being—out of a new response, determining destiny, of a man to his Thou. In the working out of this central act of the being, one culture can be relieved by another that is given up to the influence of this act, but it can also be given new life in itself alone. 

The sickness of our age is like that of no other age, and it belongs together with them all. The history of cultures is not a course of æons in which one runner after another has to traverse gaily and unsuspectingly the same death-track. A nameless way runs through rise and fall: not a way of progress and development, but a spiral descent through the spiritual underworld, which can also be called an ascent to the innermost, finest, most complicated whirlpool, where there is no advance and no retreat, but only utterly new reversal—the break through. Shall we have to go this way to the end, to trial of the final darkness? Where there is danger, the rescuing force grows too.

The quasi-biological and quasi-historical thought of today, however different the aims of each, have worked together to establish a more tenacious and oppressive belief in fate than has ever before existed. The might of karma or of the stars no longer controls inevitably the lot of man; many powers claim the mastery, but rightly considered most of our contemporaries believe in a mixture of them, just as the late Romans believed in a mixture of gods. This is made easier by the nature of the claim. Whether it is the “law of life” of a universal struggle in which all must take part or renounce life, or the “law of the soul” which completely builds up the psychical person from innate habitual instincts, or the “social law” of an irresistible social progress to which will and consciousness may only be accompaniments, or the “cultural law” of an unchangeably uniform coming and doing of historical structures—whatever form it takes, it always means that man is set in the frame of an inescapable happening that he cannot, or can only in his frenzy, resist. Consecration in the mysteries brought freedom from the compulsion of the stars, and brahman-sacrifice with its accompanying knowledge brought freedom from the compulsion of karma: on both redemption was represented. But the composite god tolerates no belief in release. It is considered folly to imagine any freedom; there is only one choice, between resolute, and hopeless rebellious, slavery. And no matter how much is said, in all these laws, of teleological development and organic growth, at the basis of them all lies possession by process, that is by unlimited causality. The dogma of gradual process is the abdication of man before the exuberant world of It. He misuses the name of destiny: destiny is not a dome pressed tightly down on the world of men; no one meets it but he who went out from freedom. But the dogma of process leaves no room for freedom, none for its most real revelation of all, whose calm strength changes the face if the earth: turning. This dogma does not know the man who through reversal surmounts the universal struggle, tears to pieces the web of habitual instincts, raises the class ban, and stirs, rejuvenates, and transforms the stable structures of history. This dogma allows you in its game only the choice to observe the rules or to retire: but he who is turning overthrows the pieces. The dogma is always willing to allow you to fulfill its limitation with your life and “to remain free” in your soul; but he who is turning looks on this freedom as the most ignominious bondage.

The only thing that can become fate for a man is belief in fate; for this suppresses the movement of turning.

Belief in fate is mistaken from the beginning. All consideration in terms of process is merely an ordering of pure “having become,” of the separated world-event, of objectivity as though it were history; the presence of the Thou, the becoming out of solid connexion, is inaccessible to it. It does not know the reality of the spirit; its scheme is not valid for spirit. Prediction from objectivity is valid only for the man who does not know presentness. He who is overcome by the world of It is bound to see, in the dogma of immutable process, a truth that clears a way through the exuberant growth; in very truth this dogma enslaves him only the more deeply to the world of It. But the world of Thou is not closed. He who goes out to it with concentrated being and risen power to enter into relation becomes aware of freedom. And to be freed from belief that there is no freedom is indeed to be free.

Let’s stop there for today, on page 58. That was a very timely piece that I’m glad to have just now reread while transcribing. Let it be known that I type up pages from books for others to enjoy, but mostly I do it for myself, to force myself to go over the words more carefully and to more deeply consider the content.

Sunday night ponderings in May on human domestication, estrogen, and the future

Domestication. It’s a topic I like talking about because it’s difficult to not see it unfolding around us. We’re becoming domesticated on a whole new level. Was just thinking about birthcontrolbirth control pills and the convenience in using them to regulate your cycle, plus certain brands reduce breakouts. Plenty of side effects accompany hormonal birth control options, and I would absolutely never recommend the progestogen-only varieties (like Depo Provera — yikes!), so it’s a trade-off. But for a lot of years birth control pills felt like a risk worth taking for the peace of mind they offered in avoiding unwanted pregnancy.

But when you really think about the concept of taking hormones to control fertility, improve the complexion, and regulate the cycle to become more predictable and convenient — that’s pure science. The latest in technology. Convenient, but with notable drawbacks, to our own bodies but also to our environments. Think of what happens to all those hormones regularly flushed down toilets, whether they are even capable of being properly filtered out in treatment plants. Some evidence suggests problems loom there. Think of how that might wind up affecting men in a round-about way. But then again, we’re exposed to so much estrogen in our environment already, as we’ve discovered with plastics and also soy (which is now in damn near everything on the super market shelves, including our pets’ foods). Estrogen everywhere. Due to this consideration alone I expect people of tomorrow to turn out a bit different than all who’ve come before. Hormones are powerfully influential on our development.

drugs_glassofwater

Just makes me wonder what tomorrow could bring. Suppose it’ll be interesting to see what this lifetime might unfold, much as I doubt it will remotely resemble what I’d like to see for us. My spirit is paleolithic, I think, having always felt obsolete. lol

We like to say that people direct their own lives, that we can take the reins for ourselves, do something different, try another way. But how? We’re deep in this labyrinth already, and it would take such radical action to retreat and head in different directions. But then again, it would be much easier for smaller groups to break away somehow if there were enough to do so around the same time. But that’s a pipe dream, right? People want this, on some level, because we can’t imagine anything different, and if we can it still doesn’t appear feasible. The floor has fallen out from underneath us and we’re clinging to the walls, trying to keep up with what appears to be the only game in town. It’s a stupid game with so many unfortunate consequences that will likely culminate in disastrous effect. But how does ONE, just one person, go against the grain? Without winding up much poorer, much unhappier, less understood by others? That’s the thing — those are the consequences. Might wind up treated as a leper. Probably will lose friends. Definitely will be criticized. How many people would willingly sign up for that? It looks like social suicide to someone who cares about that sort of thing.

Had a couple drinks and felt like pondering out loud. Reflecting on conversations with people, wondering if indeed there is anything of major impact one can do. And honestly, a part of me says it doesn’t matter. It’s not just about influencing others the way we’d like to. If the many are going to collectively steer this ship into a glacier, either through stupidity or genuine but misguided intentions, what can be done about it? Doesn’t mean we have to conform entirely and go along with their program. No. Because life itself is the journey, and living itself is the source of redemption. When I think deeply on these sort of topics where the individual is being pulled along by the collective-run-amok, I gain an appreciation for the stories that point toward a higher purpose than simply following the herd. And by higher purpose, I’m just saying having respect for something bigger and beyond our human experience. All of life is paradoxical and filled with mystery, and there’s more to it than just our drama. We humans may indeed fail in this experiment in living, who can say? But we as individuals don’t necessarily have to. We are our own persons underneath it all, and we possess enough will to buck back when it feels right. If nothing else, we’re driven by orneriness. LoL

So who can say what the future may hold? And who can say that the most important emphasis should be placed on trying to change the hearts and minds of others? Seems to me if we really want to impact others, we’d work on our own selves. I’m trying to, much as I fail and stumble. Can’t seem to knock off getting irritated while driving. Haven’t taken time to get to know the new neighbors. Too often grumbling, complaining. Because I worry so much. But at the end of the day, what am I so worried about? That people might suffer. But perhaps that’s what’s needed to turn our lives around. Life’s tough love is letting us see how we can create hell on earth if we aren’t mindful of what we’re doing.

By John Conway

“Future Humans” by John Conway

It’s a cruel lesson that breaks my heart to witness, but I suppose such is the way of nature, and divorced as our habitats may seem, the natural world remains the ultimate game-changer.

If we choose to go along with living as domesticated pets, though in less luxury and expected to work, we will suffer what that fate entails. Perhaps there can be no other way, not until our infrastructure crumbles due to a lack of resources, or until political and economic conditions deteriorate to the point where that dream gets snuffed. I don’t know.

Maybe people will find ways to pacify themselves going into this New Age, and perhaps people of tomorrow will figure out a way to strike a new balance that my feeble brain is unable to conceive of. But it won’t be my world by then, so that is for them to create. In my lifetime I’d like to imagine how we might live smarter, more in line with what’s natural to us as people who need one another, who value relationships and reciprocity, who want to care, who aren’t content in slavery, who aren’t content being taken advantage of by the few whose only work is to manipulate and exploit the rest.

Then I wonder how it’s possible to not feel disgruntled in the face of so much disillusionment.

“The Inexorable System of Karl Marx” — PART 2 transcribed from the book “The Worldly Philosophers” by Robert L. Heilbroner

Returning to where we left off in Heilbroner’s book The Worldly Philosophers (1999, 7th ed.), in the chapter titled “The Inexorable System of Karl Marx,” picking back up on page 139:

The Manifesto, as everybody knows, was the brainchild of that angry genius, Karl Marx. More accurately, it was the result of collaboration between him and his remarkable companion, compatriot, supporter, and colleague, Friedrich Engels.

They are interesting, and, of course, enormously important men. The trouble is, they rapidly became not just men, but figures. At least until the Soviet debacle, Marx was widely considered a religious leader to rank with Christ or Mohammed, and Engels thus became a sort of Saint Paul or John. In the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, scholars pored over their works with the idolatry they ridiculed in the antireligious museums down the street. But while Marx and Engels were canonized in Stalinist Russia and, to a lesser extent, in Maoist China, they were regarded as creatures of the devil in much of the rest of the world.

They merit neither treatment, for they were neither saints nor devils. Nor is their work either Scriptures or anathema. It belongs in the great line of economic viewpoints that have successfully clarified, illuminated, and interpreted the world for us, and like the other great works on the shelf, it is not without flaw. The world have been preoccupied with Marx the Revolutionary. But had Marx not lived, there would have been other Socialists and other prophets of a new society. The real and lasting impact of Marx and Engels is not their revolutionary activity, none of which bore too much fruit during their own lifetimes. It is with the vision of Marx the Political Economist that capitalism must finally come to grips. For the final imprint he made on history was his prediction that capitalism must inevitably collapse. On that prediction, communism built its edifice, heedless of its own weaknesses.

But let us see the men.

They were very much opposites in appearance. Marx looked like a revolutionary. His children called him “The Moor,” for his skin was dark and his eyes deep-set and flashing. He was stocky and powerfully built and rather glowering in expression with a formidable beard. He was not an orderly man; his home was a dusty mass of papers piled in careless disarray in the midst of which Marx himself, slovenly dressed, padded about in an eye-stinging haze of tobacco smoke. Engels, on the other hand, would pass for a member of his despised bourgeoisie; tall and fair and rather elegant, he had the figure of a man who liked to fence and to ride to hounds and who had once swum the Weser River four times without a break.

It was not only in their looks that they differed; their personalities were at opposite poles. Engels was gay and observant and gifted with a quick and facile mind; it was said that he could stutter in twenty languages. He had a taste for the bourgeois pleasures in life, including a good palate for wine, and it is amusing to note that although he turned to the proletariat for his amours, he spent much of his time romantically (and unsuccessfully) trying to prove that his working-class mistress, Mary Burns (and later, after her death, her sister Lizzie), were actually descended from the Scottish poet.

Marx was much more ponderous. He is the German scholar par excellence, slow, meticulous, and painstakingly, even morbidly, perfectionist. Engels could dash off a treatise in no time at all; Marx was always worrying one to death. Engels was fazed only by Arabic with its four thousand verb roots; Marx, after twenty years of practice, still spoke hideously Teutonic English. When he writes of the great “chock” which events have caused him, we can almost hear him speak. But for all his heaviness, Marx is the greater mind of the two; where Engels supplied breadth and dash, Marx provided the depth.

They met, for the second time, in 1844 in Paris, and their collaboration begins at this date. Engels had come to merely call on Marx, but they had so much to say to each other that their conversation lasted for ten days. Thereafter there is hardly a product of the one that was not edited or rewritten or at least debated with the other, and their correspondence fills volumes.

Their paths to that common meeting ground in Paris were widely divergent. Engels was the son of a pietist, Calvinist, narrow-minded father, a manufacturer in the Rhineland. When Friedrich as a young man had shown an incomprehensible taste for poetry, his father had packed him off to Bremen to learn the export business and to live with a cleric: religion and moneymaking, according to Caspar Engels, were good cures for a romantic soul. Engels had dutifully applied himself to business, but everything he saw was colored by a personality in revolt, a happy-go-lucky personality that was incompatible with his father’s rigid standards. He went down to the docks in the course of business, but his observant eye took in not only the first-class accommodations “in mahogany ornamented with gold” but the steerage as well, where the people were “packed in like the paving-stones in the streets.” He began to read the radical literature of his time, and by the age of twenty-two he was converted to the ideals of “communism”—a word that then had no very clear definition except insofar as it rejected the idea of private property as a means for organizing society’s economic effort.

Then he went to Manchester to enter his father’s textile business there. Manchester, like the ships in Bremen, seemed to Engels a facade. There were pleasant streets lined with shops and suburbs ringing the city with pleasant villas. But there was a second Manchester as well. It was hidden behind the first and laid out so that the mill owners never had to see it on their trips to their offices. It harbored a stunted population living in a state of filth and despair, turning to gin and evangelism and doping itself and its children with laudanum against a life that was hopeless and brutal. Engels had seen similar conditions in the factory towns of his Rhineland home, but now he explored Manchester until he knew every last hovel and each ratlike abode. He was to publish his findings in the most terrible verdict ever passed on the world of industrial slums: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. One time he talked of the misery of the place to a gentleman friend and remarked that he had never seen so “ill-built a city.” His companion listened to him quietly and then said, “And yet there is a great deal of money made here; good day, sir.”

He was writing now—treatises to show that the great English economists were only apologists for the existing order—and one of his contributions made a special impression on a young man named Karl Marx, who was editing a radical philosophical magazine in Paris.

Unlike Engels, Marx came from a liberal, even mildly radical, family background. He was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany, the second son of a prosperous Jewish family that shortly thereafter adopted Christianity so that Heinrich Marx, an advocate, might be less restricted in his practice. Heinrich Marx was a respected man; he was, in fact, even appointed Justizrat, an honorary title for eminent lawyers, but in his day he had joined illegal banquet clubs that drank toasts to a republican Germany, and he had reared his young son on a diet of Voltaire, Locke, and Diderot.

Heinrich Marx hoped that his son would study law. But at the universities of Bonn and Berlin, young Marx found himself swept up in the great philosophical debate of the day. The philosopher Hegel had propounded a revolutionary scheme, and the conservative German universities found themselves split wide open over it. Change, according to Hegel, was the rule of life. Every idea, every force, irrepressibly bred its opposite, and the two merged into a “unity” that in turn produced its own contradiction. And history, said Hegel, was nothing but the expression of this flux of conflicting and resolving ideas and forces. Change—dialectical change—was immanent in human affairs. With one exception: when it came to the Prussian state, the rules no longer applied; the Prussian government, said Hegel, was like “a veritable earthly god.”

This was a powerful stimulus for a young student. Marx joined a group of intellectuals known as the Young Hegelians who debated such daring questions as atheism and pure theoretical communism in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, and he decided to become a philosopher himself. He might have, had it not been for the action of that godlike state. Marx’s favorite professor, Bruno Bauer, who was eager to procure an appointment for him at Bonn, was dismissed for proconstitutional and antireligious ideas (one evidently as bad as the other), and an academic career for young Dr. Marx became an impossibility.

He turned instead to journalism. The Rheinische Zeitung, a small middle-class liberal newspaper, to which he had been a frequent contributor, asked him to take on its editorship. He accepted; his career lasted exactly five months. Marx was then a radical, but his radicalism was philosophical rather than political. When Friedrich Engels came respectfully to call on him, Marx rather disapproved of that brash young man brimming with Communist ideas, and when Marx himself was accused of being a Communist, his reply was equivocal: “I do not know communism,” he said, “but a social philosophy which has as its aim the defense of the oppressed cannot be condemned so lightly.” But regardless of his disavowals, his editorials were too much for the authorities. He wrote a bitter denunciation of a law that would have prevented the peasants from exercising their immemorial rights to gather dead wood in the forests; for this he was censured. He wrote editorials deploring the housing situation; for this he was warned. And when he went so far as to say some uncomplimentary things about the Tsar of Russia, the Rheinische Zeitung was suppressed.

Marx went to Paris to take over another radical journal, which was to be almost as short-lived as the newspaper. But his interests were now turned in the direction of politics and economics. The undisguised self-interest of the Prussian government, the implacable resistance of the German bourgeoisie toward anything that might alleviate the condition of the German working classes, the almost caricaturesque attitudes of reaction which characterized the wealthy and ruling classes of Europe—all of this had coalesced in his mind to form part of a new philosophy of history. And when Engels came to visit him and the two struck up their strong rapport, that philosophy began to take formal shape.

The philosophy is often called dialectical materialism; dialectical because it incorporates Hegel’s idea of inherent change, and materialism because it grounds itself not in the world of ideas, but on the terrain of social and physical environment.

“The materialist conception of history,” wrote Engels many years later in a famous tract titled “Anti-Dühring” (it was aimed against a German professor named Eugen Dühring) “starts from the principle that production, and with production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order; that in every society that has appeared in history the distribution of the products, and with it the division of society into classes or estates, is determined by what is produced and how it is produced, and how the product is exchanged. According to this conception, the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in the minds of men, in their increasing insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the mode of production and exchange; they are to be sought not in the philosophy but in the economics of the epoch concerned.”

The reasoning is powerful. Every society, says Marx, is built on an economic base—the hard reality of human beings who must organize their activities to clothe and feed and house themselves. That organization can differ vastly from society to society and from era to era. It can be pastoral or built around hunting or grouped into handicraft units or structured into a complex industrial whole. But whatever the form in which men solve their basic economic problem, society will require a “superstructure” of noneconomic activity and thought—it will need to be bound together by laws, supervised by a government, inspired by religion and philosophy.

But this superstructure of thought cannot be selected at random. It must reflect the foundation on which it is raised. No hunting community would evolve or could use the legal framework of an industrial society, and similarly no industrial community could use the conception of law, order, and government of a primitive village. Note that the doctrine of materialism does not toss away the catalytic function and creativity of ideas. It only maintains that thoughts and ideas are the product of environment, even though they aim to change that environment.

Materialism by itself would reduce ideas to mere passive accompaniments of economic activity. That was never Marx’s contention. For the new theory was dialectical as well as materialist; it envisaged change, constant and inherent change; and in that never-ending flux the ideas emanating from one period would help to shape another. “Men make their own history,” wrote Marx, commenting on the coup d’état of Louis Napoleon in 1852, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past.”

But the dialectical—the internal dynamism—aspect of this theory of history did not depend merely on the interplay of ideas and social structures. There was another and far more powerful agent at work. The economic world itself was changing; the bedrock on which the structure of ideas was built was itself in movement.

For example, the isolated markets of the Middle Ages began to lock fingers under the impetus of exploration and political unification, and a new commercial world was born. The old hand mill was replaced by the steam mill under the impetus of invention, and a new form of social organization called the factory came into being. In both cases the determining framework of economic life itself changed its form, and as it did, it forced a new social adaptation from the community in which it was embedded. “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord,” Marx wrote, “there steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

And once such a change had taken place, it carried with it a whole train of consequences. The market and the factory were incompatible with the feudal way of life—even though they were born amidst it. They demanded a new cultural and social context to go with them. And they helped in that difficult birthing process by creating their own new social classes: the market matured a new merchant class, and the factory gave birth to an industrial proletariat.

But the process of social change was not merely a matter of new inventions pressing on old institutions: it was a matter of new classes displacing old ones. For society, said Marx, is organized into class structures, aggregates of individuals who stand in some common relationship—favorable or otherwise—to the existing form of production. And economic change threatens all of that. As the organizational and technical forces of production change—as factories destroy handicraft industry, for example—the social relations of production change too; those on top may find the ground cut from under them, while those who were on the bottom may be carried higher. We have seen just such an upset of the relative position of social classes in Ricardo’s day in England, when the capitalists, riding the wave of the Industrial Revolution, were threatening to usurp the time-honored prerogatives of the landed gentry.

Hence conflict develops. The classes whose positions are jeopardized fight the classes whose positions are enhanced: the feudal lord fights the rising merchant, and the guild master opposes the young capitalist.

But the process of history pays no attention to likes and dislikes. Gradually conditions change, and gradually, but surely, the classes of society are rearranged. Amid turmoil and anguish the division of wealth is altered. And thus history is a pageant of ceaseless struggle between classes to partition social wealth. For as long as the technics of society change, no existing division of wealth is immune from attack.

What did this theory augur for the society of Marx and Engels’s day? It pointed to revolution—inevitable revolution. For capitalism, according to this analysis, must also contain “forces” and “relations” of production—a technological and organizational foundation, and an architecture of law and political rights and ideology. And if its technical base was evolving, then necessarily its superstructure must be subject to increasing strain.

That is exactly what Marx and Engels saw in 1848. The economic base of capitalism—its anchor in reality—was industrial production. Its superstructure was the system of private property, under which a portion of society’s output went to those who owned its great technical apparatus. The conflict lay in the fact that the base and superstructure were incompatible.

Why? Because the base of industrial production—the actual making of goods—was an ever more organized, integrated, interdependent process, whereas the superstructure of private property was the most individualistic of social systems. Hence the superstructure and the base clashed: factories necessitated social planning, and private property abhorred it; capitalism had become so complex that it needed direction, but capitalists insisted on a ruinous freedom.

The result was twofold. First, capitalism would sooner or later destroy itself. The planless nature of production would lead to a constant disorganization of economic activity—to crises and slumps and the social chaos of depression. The system was simply too complex; it was constantly getting out of joint, losing step, and overproducing one good while under-producing another.

Secondly, capitalism must unknowingly breed its own successor. Within its great factories it would not only create the technical base for socialism—rationally planned production—but it would create as well a trained and disciplined class which would be the agent of socialism—the embittered proletariat. By its own inner dynamic, capitalism would produce its own downfall, and in the process, nourish its own enemy.

It was a profoundly important insight into history, not only for what it betokened for the future, but for the whole new perspective it opened upon the past. We have come to be familiar with the “economic interpretation” of history, and we can accept with equanimity a reevaluation of the past with respect to the struggle, say, of the nascent seventeenth-century commercial classes and the aristocratic world of land and lineage. But for Marx and Engels, this was no mere exercise in historical reinterpretation. The dialectic led to the future, and that future, as revealed by The Communist Manifesto, pointed to revolution as the destination toward which capitalism was moving. In somber words the Manifesto proclaimed: “The development of modern industry . . . cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

The Manifesto, with its rumbling, inexorable interpretation of history, was not written in Paris. Marx’s career had been brief in that city. He edited a caustic, radical magazine; he again rubbed the sensibilities of the Prussian government; and at its behest, he was expelled from the French capital.

He was married now—in 1843 he had married Jenny von Westphalen, who had lived next door to him as a child. Jenny was the daughter of a Prussian aristocrat and Privy Councillor, but Baron von Westphalen was nevertheless a humanist and liberal thinker. He had talked to young Marx about Homer and Shakespeare and even told him about the ideas of Saint-Simon despite their pronouncement as heresy by the local bishop. As for Jenny—she was the belle of the town. Beautiful and with suitors galore, she could easily have made a more “suitable” match than the dark young man next door. But she was in love with him, and both families smiled their approval. For the Marxes such a marriage would be a not inconsiderable social triumph, and for the Baron it was, perhaps, a happy vindication of his humanist ideas. One wonders if he would have given his consent could he have foreseen what was to happen to his daughter. For Jenny was to be forced to share the bed of a common prostitute in jail and would have to beg the money from a neighbor to buy a coffin to bury one of her children. In place of the pleasant comforts and the social prestige of Trier, she was to spend the years of her life in two dismal rooms in a London slum, sharing with her husband the calumny of a hostile world.

And yet it was a deeply devoted union. In his dealings with outsiders, Marx was unkind, jealous, suspicious, and wrathful; but he was a joyous father and a loving husband. At one period, when his wife was ill, Marx turned to Lenchen, the Westphalian family maid who stayed with them, unpaid, all their days, but even that infidelity—from which an unacknowledged child was born—could not undo a relationship of great passion. Later, much later, when Jenny was dying and Marx was ill, this lovely scene was witnessed by her daughter.

Our dear mother lay in the big front room and the Moor lay in the little room next to it. . . . Never shall I forget the morning he felt himself strong enough to go into Mother’s room. When they were together they were young again—she a young girl and he a loving youth, both on life’s threshold, not an old disease-ridden man and an old dying woman parting from each other for life.

The Marxes had moved to London in 1849. Expulsion from Paris, four years before, had landed them in Brussels, where they stayed (and the Manifesto was composed) until the revolutionary outbursts in 1849. Then, when the Belgian king had secured a firm enough grip on his shaky throne, he rounded up the radical leaders in his capital, and Marx went briefly to Germany.

It was the same pattern all over again. Marx took over the editorship of a newspaper, and it was only a matter of time before the government closed it down. He printed the last edition in red—and sought a haven in London.

He was now in desperate financial shape. Engels was in Manchester, leading his strange double life (he was a respected figure on the Manchester Stock Exchange, and he supplied the Marxes with a never-ending stream of checks and loans. Had Marx been a financially orderly person, the family might have lived in decency. But Marx was never one to balance his books. Thus the children had music lessons—and the family went without heat. Life was a constant struggle against bankruptcy, and money worries were a suffocating presence always.

There were, in all, five of them including Lechen. Marx had no work—except his never-ending stint in the British Museum from ten o’clock every morning until seven o’clock at night. He tried to make a little money by writing articles on the political situation for the New York Tribune, whose editor, Charles A. Dana, was a Fourierist and not averse to a few slaps at European politics. It helped for a while, although it was Engels who bailed Marx out by composing many of his pieces for him—Marx meanwhile advising by letter as follows: “You must your war-articles colour a little more.” When the articles stopped, he tried to get a clerical job with a railway, but was rejected for his atrocious handwriting. Thereafter he pawned what was left to his name, all the family silver and valuables having been sold long ago. At times his want was so intense that he was forced to sit home because his coat and even his shoes were in pawn; on other occasions he lacked the money to buy postage stamps to send his works to the publisher. And to compound his difficulties, he suffered from the most painful boils. When he arrived home one evening after writing in misery all day long in the Museum he remarked, “I hope the bourgeoisie as long as they live will have cause to remember my carbuncles.” He had just composed the terrible chapter of Das Kapital which described the Working Day.

There was only Engels to fall back on. Marx wrote him constantly, touching on economics, politics, mathematics, military tactics, on everything under the sun, but especially his own situation. A typical excerpt reads:

My wife is ill. Little Jenny is ill. Lenchen has a sort of nervous fever and I can’t call in the doctor because I have no money to pay him. For about eight or ten days we have all been living on bread and potatoes and it is now doubtful whether we shall be able to get even that. . . . I have written nothing for Dana because I didn’t have a penny to go and read the papers. . . . How am I to get out of this infernal mess? Finally, and this was most hateful of all, but essential if we were not to kick the bucket, I have, over the last 8-10 days, touched some German types for a few shillings and pence . . .

Only the last years were a little easier. An old friend left Marx a small bequest, and he was able to live in some comfort, and even to travel a bit for his health. Engels, too, finally came into an inheritance and left his business; in 1869 he went to his office for the last time and came over the fields to meet Marx’s daughter, “swinging his stick in the air and singing, his face beaming.”

In 1881 Jenny died; she had buried two of her five children, including her only son; she was old and tired. Marx was too ill to go to the funeral; when Engels looked at him he said, “The Moor is dead, too.” Not quite; he lingered for two more years; disapproved of the husbands two of his daughters had chosen’ grew weary of the bickering of the working-class movement and delivered himself of a statement that has never ceased to bedevil the faithful (“I am not a Marxist,” he said one day); and then on a March afternoon, quietly slipped away.

What had he done, in these long years of privation?

He had produced, for one thing, an international working-class movement. As a young man, Marx had written: “The philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world in various ways; the thing, however, is to change it.” Marx and Engels had given the accolade to the proletariat in their interpretation of history; now they set about steering and guiding the proletariat so that it should exert its maximum leverage on history.

It was not an attempt crowned with much success. Coincident with the publication of the Manifesto, the Communist League had been formed, but it was never much more than a paper organization; the Manifesto, which was its platform, was not then even placed on public sale, and with the demise of the revolution in 1848, the League died too.

It was followed in 1864 with a far more ambitious organization, the International Workingmen’s Association. The International boasted seven million members and was real enough to have a hand in a wave of strikes which swept the Continent and to earn for itself a rather fearsome reputation. But it, too, was doomed to have a brief history. The International did not consist of a tough and disciplined army of Communists, but a motley crew of Owenists, Proudhonists, Fourierists, lukewarm Socialists, rabid nationalists, and trade unionists who were leery of any kind of revolutionary theory whatsoever. With considerable skill Marx kept his crew together for five years, and then the International fell apart; some followed Bakunin, a giant of a man with a true revolutionist’s background of Siberia and exile (it was said that his oratory was so moving that his listeners would have cut their throats if he had asked them to), while others turned their attention back to national affairs. The last meeting of the International was held in New York in 1874. It was a lugubrious failure.

But far more important than the creation of the First International was the peculiar tone which Marx injected into working-class affairs. This was the most quarrelsome and intolerant of men, and from the beginning he was unable to believe that anyone who did not follow his line of reasoning could possibly be right. As an economist his language was precise, as a philosopher-historian it was eloquent, as a revolutionary it was scurrilous. He stooped to anti-Semitism. He called his opponents “louts,” “rascals,” even “bedbugs.” Early in his career, when he was still in Brussels, Marx had been visited by a German tailor named Weitling. Weitling was a tried son of the labor movement; he had scars on his legs from the irons of Prussian prisons and a long history of selfless and valiant efforts on behalf of the German workingman. He came to speak to Marx on such things as justice and brotherhood and solidarity; instead he found himself exposed to a merciless cross-examination on the “scientific principles” of socialism. Poor Weitling was confused, his answers were unsatisfactory. Marx, who had been sitting as the chief examiner, began to stride angrily about the room. “Ignorance has never helped anybody yet,” he shouted. The audience was over.

Willich was another to be excommunicated. An ex-Prussian captain, he had fought in the German revolution and later was to become an outstanding general on the Union side of the American Civil War. But he clung to the “un-Marxist” idea that “pure will” could be the motive power of revolution instead of “actual conditions”; for this notion—which Lenin was one day to prove was not so far-fetched after all—he, too, was dropped from the movement.

And the list could be extended endlessly. Perhaps no single incident was more provocative, more prophetic of a movement that was one day to degenerate into an internal witch-hunt for “deviationists” and “counterrevolutionaries” than the feud between Marx and Pierre Proudhon. Proudhon was the son of a French barrelmarker, a self-educated brilliant Socialist who had rocked the French intelligentsia with a book entitled What Is Property? Proudhon had answered, Property is Theft, and he had called for an end to huge private riches, although not to all private property. Marx and he had met and talked and corresponded, and then Marx asked him to join forces with himself and Engels. Proudhon’s answer is so profoundly moving and so prescient that it is worth quoting at some length:

Let us together seek, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are reached, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating people. . . . I applaud with all my heart your thought of inviting all shades of opinion; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic, let us give the world the example of an informed and farsighted tolerance, but let us not—simply because we are at the head of a movement—make ourselves into the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all dissent, let us outlaw all exclusiveness, all mysticism, let us never regard a question as exhausted, and even when we have used one last argument, let us if necessary begin again—with eloquence and irony. On these conditions, I will gladly enter into your association. Otherwise, no!

Marx’s answer was this: Proudhon had written a book called The Philosophy of Poverty; Marx now annihilated it with a rejoinder entitled The Poverty of Philosophy.

That’s enough transcribing for this evening, leaving off on page 154. To be resumed another day.

[Sorry for the typos — cleaned them up 2/10/2014 and please let me know if anyone notices any I might have missed.]

Late-night doodling and thinking

Never know what I’m going to come up with…

left_right_rippling

Just playing around with the GIMP program while listening to this speech on Karl Marx’s economic views:

[Dammit, the video was removed from YT and I can’t recall the name of the lecturer to replace it.]

Since being referred to as a “Cultural Marxist” by a stranger the other day, figured I ought to brush back up on what he put forth. I get how Karl Marx’s ideas might could translate in smaller communities where people grew and raised their own foods and largely provided for their own needs. But once we expand out into an industrial or, in today’s case, a largely post-industrial setup, many jobs created are tailored to providing for a major population, which entails breaking labor down into assembly lines for greater efficiency. And those kinds of jobs tend to be monotonous and unfulfilling, hence why they’re typically relegated to lower-class workers (and often for crappy pay). Indeed even Marx agrees, as I interpret what he’s primarily referring to as the sort of worthwhile labor that directly contributes value to our lives involves those tasks required to nurture our bodies. The forms of labor people find themselves trapped in today oftentimes are positions that wouldn’t exist if not for the economic machine of such tremendous scale that currently exists.

That consideration ties in with my own view that the work we do must correspond with creating value for ourselves and others, this being one necessary component if we endeavor to live truly productive lives capable of experiencing freedom. So long as we remain dependent on major corporations to provide us with everything we need to survive, we will always be expected to play this economy’s game, from start to finish (employee to consumer); it is those possessing power within that setup who decide pricing, not what’s posing as a supposed “free market” today. They possess the drive and apparently the ability (thanks to a lack of regulations enforcement) to monopolize and oligopolize and thereby set their own rules since real competition is actively stifled. Small businesses demolished in this process was no accident — it was necessary to forge the kind of society we have now, and we’d be fools to believe its growth will halt anytime soon.

The truth about capitalism is that it is a beast that will run and run and run so long as it can. The regulators of it were supposed to be us and our government, yet unfortunately our government was formed at the same time modern corporations got their start, so there was little wisdom at that time to draw up in the Constitution on how we might best manage what turned out to be a new economic and technological age, unprecedented and unpredictable 250 years ago.

Through the immediate colluding between monied interests and those working within government, fascism began to take shape in the 19th century. It had been coming long before the two world wars, and it’s here now, and it will be closer still tomorrow.

Citizens, in such a short span of time, have grown dependent on this way of life and many can imagine it no other way. We are locked into its narrative, chasing its fantasies, dodging its pitfalls where able, and worshiping its gods of money and usury and superficiality. Money is not the root of all evil, per se. The evil here appears to be in the conformist vision that aims to bend humans to fit the machine, even if it breaks us and destroys our quality of life and disrupts the social relations that make our lives worth living. And all for what? For power. For greed. For control. To suit the ambitions of a few who aspire to god-like status above all other human beings,  and to serve whatever lunatic ideologies they operate with. But it is not they who concern me most. It is us who allow this to be.

That all said, there are plenty of spots where Marx and I diverge and head off in our own directions, as to be expected. But the lecturer is correct that Karl Marx posed questions that won’t easily go away or find resolution.

“Neil deGrasse Tyson: Atheist or Agnostic?” (plus additional ponderings)

As stated by Neil deGrasse Tyson himself: “Neil deGrasse Tyson, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic.”

I totally appreciate his explanation there and couldn’t agree more that it’s about remaining curious, so why limit ourselves with categories? Just explore life as you feel driven to. In the immortal words of Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.”

There’s so much to explore out there and within our selves. So many layers of perspective, with the macro and micro shifting accordingly, infinitely looping or cycling in whatever way that plays out (a tesseract springs to mind):

Tesseract2

How it looks to any one of us is just as we see through our own unique individual human lenses. Movements and religions provide people with an external narrative (meaning one not formed within the individual but rather one which we can adopt, as defined by others who typically came before us). External narratives are interesting to ponder on and learn from, but I can’t see myself adopting some ready-made philosophy or religion. It’s just not my bag. And even when people do, they each still experience it through their own individual lenses, and how can it be any other way?

Been doing a good bit of thinking this past week on “collectivist” mindsets and considering the role of conformity when it comes to group-adopted narratives of whatever stripe. It seems we’re becoming conformity-driven in a new and conscious way these days, partly to satisfy modern economic demands and duopolistic political ambitions, but I also I think because people are afraid to stand on their own two feet, preferring the comfort of blending in with the rest of a herd. And I think that’s a lot of why fascism comes about, not just because rich people can and do benefit off of it, but because we humans are scared of our own individuality and the responsibilities it entails (especially in relation with acknowledging our own fallibility). People feel alienated enough by new technologies and scientific understandings that have been actively uprooting traditional thought.

Or perhaps people are pushing toward greater conformity because they crave security extended society-wide to protect and shelter their relatively comfortable domesticated lives, and they don’t realize this shortcut (this trend toward fascistic conformity), in trying to fashion a better reality through seeking to politically and legally impose their ‘idealistic’ will on the rest, comes with major pitfalls that have potentially devastating social and psychological consequences. People like to assume most of us are resilient enough to bounce back from whatever experimental conditions humans strive to put in motion because we’re still here after all this time, but I do not share others’ blind optimism there. Maybe, maybe not. Depends on whether we care to focus purely on physical existence or to take into consideration the importance of quality of life tailored to our species (as opposed to us trying to tailor ourselves to suit The Machine humans have brought into existence and allowed to dominate). What is the value of an existence many wind up loathing and wishing to escape?

It’s a very weird time to be alive, but then again, when isn’t? *shrugs*

Lots to ponder…

“What created the universe, if not God?” and ramblings on constructing a personal philosophy

The1janitor’s answer to the question “What created the universe, if not God?” (at 1:45):

“I don’t know, but I’m not just going to believe the first thing someone tells me without evidence either.”

 

That pretty much sums up the default position of my own beliefs as a self-described agnostic since the mid-90s. That’s my basic core attitude in a nutshell, succinctly put.

I’d been raised as a Christian (Methodist), spending several of those years living in the Bible Belt of the Deep South, but my grandma’s Christian teachings differed a bit from what I found in churches. As in she placed a great emphasis on Jesus’s love, devotion, and ability to forgive our shortcomings as fallible people. Grandma spoke a lot about Jesus, still does, goes on and on and on, always has and always will. But there wasn’t much fire and brimstone in what she had to say. Basically she turned Jesus into a friend and an overseer, someone on our team and wanting to see us all do better, not just some chosen few. It was a simple, humanitarian take on the religion, and I got a lot out of Grandma’s way of seeing things.

Well, then I went to church and we all know what’s typically found there. Basically the screws came loose holding me in religion as soon as I hit adolescence, which then terminated my interest in organized religion a couple years later. It deserves to be stated that some self-professed “Christians” are true-blue assholes. Especially preachers, but don’t get me going off there.

But whatever. I wound up taking a decade off from giving a shit about religion is what ultimately came about. For a long time, my agnosticism basically consisted of me not really wanting to care about the issue for a spell. “God” as described by the biblical narrative is so obviously a myth that doesn’t translate into a literal reality. Plenty of atheists take pleasure in teasing Christians about this, but what real good does that do? Just makes people think you’re a jerk. I was at a point where I’d had enough of religion and competitive arguments on the matter, seeing as how they spring up everywhere and over anything.

And through not seeking religion or even something behind religion, I freed myself up to learn on what felt like a more neutral analytical platform, which proved very beneficial. Through learning about matters that don’t directly relate to religions, it brought me around to questioning the narratives we’re commonly taught, to questioning everything. Going so far that a few years ago I began letting the notion of Jesus back in a bit more, or at least the parts of the myth that strike me as most meaningful and challenging to ponder. That’ felt like the right thing to do, even as I struggle and live in contradiction to some of the values it calls into attention. But I find the myth (story, call it whatever you will) of Jesus to be so valuable in terms of navigating our social world — like the lessons it teaches about reconciliation and forgiving one another and worrying about our own damn hypocrisy and other shit we need to work on instead of focusing on everybody else’s. It’s about living simply and within our means (which is becoming damn near impossible in this money-whore economy), about sharing with one another, about caring for the downtrodden and others who may not enhance our status or offer us a direct reward.

Why? Simply because being alive is a big deal, or at least it feels like it is for us humans, and we are capable of enduring such incredible suffering, so why add to it unnecessarily? But we all do from time to time, even despite harmless intentions. That’s going to happen. Nobody is perfect. It becomes a matter of whether we’re working on ourselves to become better than whatever we were, and that’s a personal journey we each embark on — a thorny, subjective experience if there ever was one. I’m not here to preach to others who happen to stumble across these written words, but to the universe I admit my sins (again, call it what you will — I define sins differently than some) and recognize I have a long way to go. A long way, and no shortcuts have appeared so far, not real ones anyway. Setbacks are never fun, but they happen too.

But moving on from that, I’ve kinda come to blend teachings like those of Jesus with the Golden Rule (and the reversed golden rule: Do not do unto others what you would not want done to you) and things I’ve picked up from authors and a few philosophers, creating a hodge-podge of sorts. Some parts of it are set more firmly than others; some questions still free-float in orbit around the core beliefs and attitudes I wish to uphold within myself. Some items may wind up dismissed over time after proving incompatible or inconsistent with what I’m aiming to be, as to be expected as one grows and learns. This could be considered the construction of a personal philosophy, but it has no name and doesn’t need one. Just an inquiry in response to the call of living, figuring out how one wants to approach this existence and others sharing in it, what standards to set for oneself and what to aspire toward. By and large, it presents itself to me as a personalized social philosophy of sorts, because that’s where the emphasis is primarily placed: on directing myself and relating with others and on the social constructs humans created that we’re currently expected to live with (like the blessed government and economy). In my view, the ultimate goal is to create a sane society. (Notice that I didn’t say a rational society though, because I am giving up on that dream after figuring out humans aren’t terribly prone to remaining rational, much as we may like to think otherwise. But that’s another topic for another time.)

In a nutshell, that’s what the moral/social/individual life is about. Out of this inquiry stems the sociological, the psychological, the philosophical, the existential and metaphysical, the parental, the legal and political, the economic, and, for some, the religious or ‘spiritual’. It all ties together; none stand alone because all are interrelated and in places overlapping. That is what is meant when I refer to our social world. (We can then tie in the environmental and natural since our habitat is part of who we are, which is where sciences and mathematics get introduced, leading into technologies and profound new understandings that have dramatically impacted how we experience the world in modern times. It’s all such a huge fascinating web that not a one of us could possibly cover all the ground there is within one lifetime, alleviating all concern about ever getting bored.)

It truly does help to have some sort of narrative to guide us, and I’ve come to believe its creation must be personally undertaken by each one of us. We each mold and shape what is within us, and we each are definitely primarily responsible for maintaining our own ships (in other words, monitoring and consciously guiding our own behavior and choices to the extent we are able). Because no one else can or should be responsible for managing us for us. Such strikes me as a form of slavery, so it appears we have the option of either shaping our own selves up to standards we’ve given deep introspective thought to and can devote ourselves to, or else risk being pushed by the tides or coerced into being who someone or something else determines we ought to be. We see the direction our countries are headed already, making this inquiry all the more timely and worthwhile.

But anyway, that had very little to do with that man’s video. lol  Kinda in the mood to go off on tangents this weekend. Ha! Out.

Personal conception of God

The concept of “God” as I understand this has very little to do with what Abrahamic religions have to say on the matter. Religions are mythologies, historical tales and explanation systems, and I appreciate them for whatever value they can offer as such.

In reply to my video response on atheism being dumb, someone mentioned gnostic atheists and agnostic theists and I had to go look that shit up. Still don’t care much about breaking it down to that level, but apparently it’s worth noting that yes, we humans are able to clearly realize that what’s written in the Bible or Qur’an isn’t to be taken literally, at least not in this day and age when we’re able to know better. To do so requires relying on magical thinking that defies natural law. But acknowledging that doesn’t completely demolish all value religions contain, nor does it imply that because the Christian myth of that which we call “God” is patently false that it logically follows that all possible ways of perceiving “God” must be false as well.

This word “God” has everybody hung up on either trying to defend it or to destroy it, and personally I try to stay outside of all of that these days. “God” is a word intended to point at something beyond human comprehension, so arguing over whose understanding is most accurate seems pretty pointless. For some people, the concept of “God” involves what may be described as a force of nature, not some entity in the sky that determines the direction of our lives or answers prayers or sends people to heaven or hell. I happen to agree that the biblical narrative is a fairy tale notion of “God” that does unfortunately little to advance our understanding of this ‘phenomenon’ (for lack of a better word) for people today.

People ask why folks even need a “God” to believe in, and I think that’s part of the puzzle right there. Why have religions been an important part of human history for as far back as we can study our species? Is this merely a feature of humanity to where we’re searching to infuse our lives with meaning, or is this humanity’s attempt to comprehend and make sense of a larger natural order that we seem able to experience on some invisible level, yet can’t prove or explain its existence?

In a nutshell, for me this is about a natural order of sorts, having something to do with consciousness, but I haven’t the foggiest clue how to explain to others my own exploration beyond that, just as I doubt anyone else is able to. We each make sense of living in our own unique ways, this including any and all conceptions of “God” or any other belief systems (including atheism and agnosticism). It doesn’t appear possible for any two of us to truly and completely share in our understandings, no matter how close our views may seem, because we cannot see into one another’s minds or experience living behind one another’s lenses.

Even when someone refers to themselves as atheist, that doesn’t tell you their whole story necessarily either. Because someone embraces a label doesn’t allow us to see how he or she has evolved in his or her thinking over time, nor how they may continue evolving (or devolve perhaps) in their understanding as time moves on. This is one of those matters that calls out from the center of our individuality, and there will never come a time when an “objective truth” can be said to exist here. The concept of “God” is just too big to be caged like that. Why do we feel the need to cage and label anything and everything anyway?

People’s quests for certainty is a big reason why I tend to keep my ‘spiritual’ ponderings restricted to interactions with close friends and family, because being cornered and then demanded to explain and defend the merits of one’s own rationale for believing as they do frankly gets old and isn’t particularly fruitful in this instance. If some folks want to take parts of the Bible literally, I suppose that’s their prerogative, and the only time it comes to bother me is if they expect me to believe and behave as their beliefs tell them they should. The situation is made all the more complex since some are hell-bent on forcing the rest to bow down and live according to their expressed beliefs, which is bullshit whether they’re religious or anti-religious or something else in outfield.

I would be happy if we could suspend the fighting for a spell and turn our attention to learning about religions of old (starting way back before the Big Abrahamic 3) and delve into what morals and teachings they imparted, taking into consideration the historical and cultural context to the best of our abilities. Then perhaps it will become clearer to some why religious narratives were important and why a new narrative of some kind is still needed today. Religions started off as narratives, but the narratives going forward need not be like any that came before. We can get beyond religions, this I do believe, in reference to the inflexible group-think exerting too much control over people. We can choose to journey beyond untenable limitations and explore for ourselves, and there’s no reason any new narratives that come into creation can’t allow that to be so.

It’s a tricky topic to speak on when so many people have a set way they want to look at life and aren’t too open to how others see things. For me, it all ties together, from the social realm to moral and philosophical questions; from studying the physical realm, space and time to all forms of life (sentient or otherwise); from individualism to the wider collective(s); from mathematics to language and poetry; from power to play; from love to sexual exploration — all factor into my understanding of that which I’ve come to think of as “God,” yet “God” isn’t caged by any of that. “God” is not an it or a thing or anything resembling a person. That’s my take on it, and I doubt that’s cleared up much to state this. Oh well.

There’s a feeling associated with my understanding of “God” and I can sense this in others at times, whether they be religious or spiritual or not. The way I say it is something “speaks to my soul,” and often enough it reaches me through music. Hence the gospel songs I post and share, plus plenty of songs from other genres. Music is like my church, and through listening and letting its messages and melodies move me I am brought to a feeling of connectedness on some level with others, with the wider human experiment in living and its melodrama and our striving to reach beyond where we stand in a given moment.

There’s no way to be clear on this subject, just no way at all. It truly speaks to a subjective experience in terms of how one relates with this concept and how far we decide (or are able) to follow it. I get to feeling like talk of this nature is deemed as pure crazy by some, but that relates back to us not being able to see life through one another’s eyes, leaving us forced to rely on inadequate words to point instead, and lord knows words are always up for individual interpretation. What I mean by “God” will never be what you or she or he means by “God,” at least not in any definite sense capable of being objectively understood and proven.

So around and around we go with our words and claims and arguments and so forth. We humans truly are an odd and interesting bunch.

This is a complex inquiry within each of our own selves, that is if we’re aiming to remain open to it. Then it’s made all the more complex when a bunch of us want to get together and argue over what can or can’t be or what’s idiotic to believe. What does it even mean to “believe”? I understand this to be an inquiry never headed to becoming a rigid set of beliefs cast in stone, deemed complete and no longer changeable. At least for me. Science proved to be a game-changer for humanity because its methodology and findings dramatically altered and enhanced inquiry of this nature, but scientific inquiry hasn’t done away with ‘spiritual’ inquiry, nor has scientific exploration solved (and perhaps it cannot solve) what all is being asked here. Questions remain open, and I guess my experiences with atheists have given me the impression that a number of them jumped off the train at that stage in their journeys and decided that was far enough, as if that’s all they needed or were interested in knowing. That’s fine for them, I guess, until they start dismissing people with differing views as ignorant fools living back in the Stone Age of intellectual discourse. What’s folly to me is assuming one can know everything worth knowing, and that’s it, case closed, turn the page. How is that not dogmatic thinking in its own right?

Isn’t it about striving to become better, to grow? Guess it depends on how one perceives so-called “objective reality.”

__________________________________________

[Update Sept. 29th, 2014: edited for typos and greater clarity.]

Divvying everything up

Tonight I’m thinking about all this either/or, black/white, this/that talk that’s become the norm in public discussions. Everything’s reduced down to a debate, and so many seem hell-bent on proving their “opponents” wrong or incompetent. People seem to be running around with their dukes up, spoiling for some sort of hostile confrontation that serves as an opportunity to vent their frustrations.

Often I’m reminded of the “two minutes hate” in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, imagining people gnashing their teeth behind computer screens.  lol  Sad but true. So many reasons to diss and “hate”: racial clashes, political bickering, the sexes going to battle, warring ideologies and competing economic theories, religions vs. anti-religionists, etc. Lots of bullshit keeping people distracted.

But even if this bullshit is sown among us common folk from on-high, it’s still ultimately our responsibility to face and handle it. Nobody else can do this for us, so the responsibility must lie with us, right? And that’s where the issue gets really sticky, because, much as I tend to get pretty dismissive about knee-jerk labeling of one another, underneath it all there are competing philosophies that do deserve our attention. It’s a matter of struggling to figure out where the root of so much of this lies. Where’s the ultimate source of contention? Likely there is more more than one worth considering.

One important way it does boil down is to competing ideas on centralization vs. decentralization of power. Which of those do the currently powerful seek to support? Decidedly, centralization of power. Which of those do those aiming to become powerful support? They may pay lip service to decentralization in so far as it improves their chances of seizing power, at which point they revert to supporting the centralization of power. Why? Because these types of people aim for a disproportionate amount of power, and it’s not uncommon. Part of the human condition so far as I can tell. Some take it further than others, especially those lacking empathy or desire for meaningful connectedness with other humans.  Psychopathy (or sociopathy — are we still using the terms interchangeably?) is imitated by disenchanted people who’ve been peddled nihilistic fantasies.

It’s an effective strategy, but what’s particularly interesting to me here is that while colluding interests obviously help bring this about, plenty of us unwittingly perpetuate the problems ourselves. I’ve been guilty in the past and may still be guilty in some ways now (forever fallible).  Lots of people support the status quo through what they do to earn a living — hell of a conundrum that can be difficult to avoid. Plenty of us mean well but then get caught up in ideological bias without realizing it. Takes time to figure things out, including our own thought processes. Biases are a part of life, threads woven into the fabric of our individual subjective living experience. No two lives can be identical, and the uniqueness this grants us can feel like a double-edged sword at times. A sense of alienation accompanies this relatively new marvel of individuality taken to new heights.

It helps to put it in historical perspective.  The latest major rise of individualism came about during the Enlightenment Era, heralded as a brand-new way for humans to experience living, no longer mentally or materially shackled to familial clans as had been the case up through most our species’ history. Individualism as Western people experience it is truly revolutionary, unprecedented. But what allowed this to be so? What else occurred alongside this psychological leap within human beings? Economic and technological advancements ushered in new habitats and lifestyles, opening up our choices in terms of what to buy and where and how to live. People now are given the option to isolate ourselves, to live alone, to commute alone, in some cases even to work alone,  and now (thanks to the internet) to shop alone. We can choose to learn as much as we are able alone. Porn and sexual novelties make it easier to enjoy sexual pleasure alone. Many frequently dine alone. There was a time when this sort of thing spelled disaster for unlucky members of our species who found themselves abandoned or excommunicated, because so much of living involved socializing and individuals’ needs were met through the concerted efforts of clansmembers. No one person could manage it all on his or her own.

This shift cannot be overrated for its significance in impacting human psychology, which is something we continue struggling with adjusting to. Community had always mattered, and now we appear to be witnessing its dissolution, replaced by collections of people referring to themselves as communities despite members remaining unfamiliar and distant with one another. That’s a big change. Instead of depending on one another directly, we look toward government and agencies and businesses to supply what we need, and this is very often decided through competitive and coercive rather than cooperative action.

On a side-note, I’m reminded of the scene in the movie “Network” where the newscaster is talking about people living with anxiety, retreating to their homes, clinging to their radios and toasters and begging to be left alone.

Can’t speak for the rest of you, but I’m mad as hell too. It’s a natural reaction to a society out of wack. Part of the problem is just that so much change has occurred so rapidly that we’re made disoriented, especially now as each decade brings a plethora of new shit to get acquainted with. Easy to be dazzled and distracted in today’s world. Difficult to discern effective courses of action from wastes of time, particularly when it comes to waging legal battles through the largely defunct ‘proper channels’. Humanity is atomized into individuals set out on our own singular trajectories, trying to connect with others when able along the journey. Some are more introverted than others and relish so much solitude;  some grow deeply depressed due to lacking meaningful connections and a sense of purposeful living.

This is where modern “collectivist” movements attract attention, providing people with something to belong to, an affiliation to identify with, and access to others with relatively similar views to debate and socialize with. The “hating” toward the “opposition” provides members of the collective in question with something to bond with one another over. That last part is very important, because that’s the glue holding together modern groups. People feel the need to collect around some common goal(s), and standing in opposition to another group of people is an easy strategy open to all sorts. Anyone willing to obstruct the goals of “the opposition” is welcome, so long as you don’t harshly critique your own group in the process. Heck of a price of admission, but when people are lonely they do crazy things such as this. People do crave to experience a sense of belonging and identity, this being integral to how one’s personhood is defined.

Looked at from that angle, is it any wonder some people flock toward “collectivist” ideologies and movements? But this word “collectivist” isn’t a bad word in my worldview, per se. Humans are social creatures, yet individualistic at the same time. Hell of a way to be, but this is what human existence consists of. The balance varies from person to person and across cultures (and subcultures), but the fact remains in place. I am unable to comprehend individualism as if in a zero-sum competition with collectivism, as if individualism could win out and utterly defeat collectivism. No, and I don’t think we’d actually want that if it were possible. But does collectivism theoretically possess the power to potentially stamp out individualism? Maybe so. Hence why I’ve come to think of it rather as a ratio than an either/or proposition. Say, 70/30 in terms of protecting individualism and catering to collective concerns. Because individualism requires safeguards to ensure it won’t be so easily overtaken by collective/conformity-minded pursuits, but those ultimately responsible for policing this and making sure the balance isn’t tipped too far are our own selves, we the individuals. Authorities will not encourage the proliferation of independent thought and action, because that’s (rightly) perceived to be a threat to their own claims to power. Citizens have so far demonstrated we’re terrific at dropping the ball repeatedly, thanks in large part to us not being able to agree on barely anything and spending so much time fighting one another.

Sometimes I have to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation we find ourselves in. Not sure how to remedy it other than to strive to distinguish 2 or 3 core principles a great many of us can agree on enough to at least respect and uphold to provide some needed framework that binds us into a collective on one level, but through each individual’s choice and initiative. This means leaving aside all the ways in which we differ in views for a moment so as to support an effort that is of potential benefit to all humans.

The idea is to create a new (well, actually based on an old attempt that we Americans failed at) framework on which new narratives that serve common people rather than merely the most parasitic among us can have a chance at existence. There likely will have to be multiple narratives since there’s no way one size will fit all. There’s plenty of room for flexibility here, if we could only agree that we, as individuals as well as the communities we take part in, want to be in greater control of our destinies rather than submit to being leashed and muzzled by others vying for the power to exploit our labor and play on our psychologies to suit their own dreams of gaining wildly-disproportionate advantage. It’s called slavery, folks, and regardless of the form it may take, it’s the same old song and dance.

Just some thoughts during a loooong night awake with a cold.  sick

On population, decentralizing power, political labeling, and control of the food supply (thoughts generated while watching and reading RockingMrE)

Thursday night I interacted with RockingMrE in the comment sections of a few of his videos. Some of his arguments I can get behind, but others are problematic for me. One being his use of the term “Cultural Marxism” to describe “leftist” political ideology. I take issue with this term because it isn’t adequately descriptive and, IMO, has very little to do with actual Marxist theory. Wikipedia describes “cultural marxism” as a spin-off of sorts, and I’d say it’s spun off far enough to warrant the application of a new term for the social and political phenomenon it’s intended to describe, for clarity’s sake. But that’s a quibble of my own, wishing that we could clean up the language so as to make it less confusing when sharing and discussing ideas, but undoubtedly few care about my opinion there.

Perhaps instead of labeling this political movement toward collectivism trumping individual rights as “cultural marxism” (as if Karl Marx hasn’t been blamed for enough already, why attach his name to ideas he never even promoted?), we might call it “Godwinism,” in reference to William Godwin. In the book The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1999; 7th ed.) by Robert L. Heilbroner, William Godwin is described as

[…] a minister and pamphleteer, [who] looked at the heartless world about him and shrank back in dismay. But he looked into the future and what he saw was good. In 1793 he published Political Justice, a book that excoriated the present but gave promise of a distant future in which “there will be no war, no crime, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Besides this there will be no disease, anguish, melancholy, or resentment.” What a wonderful vision! It was, of course, highly subversive, for Godwin’s utopia called for complete equality and for the most thoroughgoing anarchic communism: even the property contract of marriage would be abolished.

[Page 77]

What’s funny there is I can see shades of what both anarcho-capitalists (i.e. libertarian anarchists) and optimistic “leftist” or “progressive” utopians are striving for in his vision. But maybe the term “Godwinists” is already in use. *shrugs* Doesn’t matter since undoubtedly there are countless others promoting the fantasy of a technologically-advanced, collectivist utopia to rename the trend after. My gripe is it’s become doggone confusing trying to sort out all the different meanings behind words like “communism,” “socialism,” and “Marxism” to where it would be really helpful if from here on out we applied new terms to whatever we’re aiming to describe rather than drudging back up one of these popular three. Otherwise the language gets so muddy that it’s nearly impossible to track what definition any given person is operating with when tossing around these terms. My quibble, yes.

The second argument from RockingMrE that gives me pause is his claim that overpopulation isn’t a problem worth concerning ourselves with. Having now read his blog post on this subject, his explanation hasn’t assuaged my worries, and I’ll tell you why. First off, what Thomas Robert Malthus put forth isn’t such a radical proposition. As populations increase, this places a burden on the resource supply (and prompts the generation of new resources, if that is even possible). People like to look at this sort of thing from a purely theoretical perspective, arguing that so much land allotted to so many people will prove sufficient to provide for an even greater number of people than presently in existence or that through our technological advancements future humans will discover solutions to whatever may ail us over time. The first argument takes into account physical spaces and physical resources, saying little, or nothing, about people’s psychological well-being, which is a major concern for social beings like ourselves. His argument there is, in my view, unduly optimistic in placing so much faith (yes, that is the correct word to use there) in science to eventually save us from ourselves. Why do we leap to assuming that that will be the likely outcome? Because a couple hundred years of mind-boggling advancement deems it must be so, that technology can only continue to advance unencumbered and automatically to the benefit of humankind? There is not enough evidence to suggest that will indeed be the case. Because something has happened says nothing about whether it will continue to happen. Besides, we live in Western countries with infrastructures heavily dependent on fossil fuels to continue functioning. If ever there comes a day when that supply is diminished or access is jeopardized (for example, if China and/or India wind up cornering that resource to advance their own economies, or if Middle Eastern countries someday succeed in pushing us out), so much of what we take for granted will be dramatically undermined or completely uprooted. Other human beings may carry on, but those who lose out in that contest will likely starve or be forced to migrate elsewhere.

I noticed that RockingMrE is fairly quick to dismiss people who challenge his assertions on this, referring to them as “cultural marxists” (here we go again) while assuming that the only reason anyone would continue to take Robert Malthus’s ideas seriously is because the television has brainwashed them into doing so. Television is a pain in the rear in terms of spreading propaganda for people to parrot, I do agree, yet there are other reasons why people will continue to be critical of his ‘optimistic’ stance that have nothing to do with popular media (or even Malthus necessarily). And for that you can thank books. Yes, some people do still read information for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

And before I go any further, I have to say that the mention of global warming in his blog post irritated me a bit, because that too isn’t universally embraced by anyone and everyone who may be concerned with the effects of overpopulation. I, for one, am not sold on the claim of global warming either way and will remain open to all sides of the argument until enough evidence is available to sway me. Until such time, it’s not a topic I care to discuss much because people do tend to get so excited about whatever they happen to think on the matter, throwing around hyperbolic claims that we are unable to currently prove or disprove. I personally prefer instead to focus on what is more directly within my locus of control that I might have the ability to change or influence. For me, the emphasis is placed on the social sphere, and my concerns with overpopulation stem from what I’ve come to wonder about in terms of humans’ psychological and social needs for well-being and high quality of life. An increasing population places stress on individuals, partly because of how we’re expected to compete with one another in this new economic frontier, partly because I believe we each need a certain amount of space and tranquility in order to maintain our sanity. Looked at from this angle, concerns over resource depletion are problematic not only because the resources available may actually be in decline but also because these worries induce anxiety that further stresses us.

Now, on to another point RockingMrE made in his blog post, claiming that people who typically take issue with population growth are in favor of implementing some form of top-down population control. As in the State restricting the number of kids people can have (as is the case in China), I assume is what he had in mind there. He is right to be concerned about people looking to the State to solve these dilemmas for us, because unfortunately many people lack the imagination needed to consider other individually-determined alternatives (like the personal option to choose not to create more children, particularly when children already exist who need the loving support of families). It is never my own contention to support the State deciding these matters for the populace — we are capable of deciding and fashioning our own future, and whether we turn out right or wrong in the end, it is best to leave the matter in the hands of people to choose for themselves. That is my belief. If people wind up one day starving because we screwed ourselves by not heeding the writing on the wall, that will still probably be preferable to having the State police our sexual and procreative choices (or, worse yet, the State taking action to reduce the population). So, in short, I am in no way arguing in favor of the State interfering in an effort to control or reduce the human population. I am, however, arguing that we individuals will likely be better off if we take personal action to help reduce the population ourselves. I’ll break down my own view below.

In terms of reducing the number of kids we choose to have, we free up time and energy to focus on the children we’ve already brought into existence and hopefully also to actively engage with others in our own adult lives. That is arguably beneficial for all involved.

In choosing not to create any children, we free ourselves up from a great deal of the economic pressure that typically bears down on parents responsible for caring not only for themselves but also for their dependents. Alleviating economic pressure reduces stress and frees up energy to be directed toward other (hopefully productive) uses of our time. Such as taking time to study and learn and ponder. Or to create art or enhance one’s skill set. Or to try our hands at vegetable gardening so as to reacquaint ourselves with the food production process that has grown so alien to the majority of us born in the last 50 years in Western countries. It’s important that people know how to provide for their essential needs, and we’ve lost the ability to do so, by-and-large, so any effort that seeks to restore what has been lost there I view as worthwhile and necessary if we are to ever break the chains of dependence on Big Ag (a.k.a. massive corporate food production).

Also, when it comes to choosing to live child-free, our resources are freed up to share with other parents and children whom we wish to see prosper. The benefit here is that this could aid in restoring a sense of community, and also it could potentially reduce people’s dependence on the State to provide for their financial needs. In my view, it would be a positive social advancement if we could get to a point where we can work together and reconstruct and support our own communities, thereby reducing the role of the State to interfere in our families and in our financial affairs (which the government is growing determined to scrutinize and attempt to micromanage, something I take great issue with). If we dream for smaller governments restricted in scope and power, then we must take this power into our own hands and determine for ourselves the narrative we’ll willingly subscribe to. There doesn’t appear to be any other alternative than that, which can be more easily understood as breaking down into centralized versus decentralized approaches to managing our lives, which carries over to the communities we take part in. And on that I do not believe there is one right or best way to go about this, so social experimentation across several communities strikes me as ideal in order for people to figure out for themselves what will or won’t work for them. (And these thoughts can lead off on to a lengthy topic all unto itself, but I’m trying to not stray too far in this post.)

Another advantage of focusing one’s life on matters not pertaining to raising kids (which also can apply to people who’ve already successfully raised their children into adulthood) is that time and energy can be freed up to tackle what all we have going on these days, nearly all of which requires serious and diligent consideration. I am arguing that we need adults taking up the challenge of sorting out what’s happening here and why and also to propose ideas on how we might effectively circumvent the status quo or however otherwise bring about productive change. Parents’ involvement is obviously needed in this inquiry as well, but unfortunately many claim to not have much time to spend on it, hence why I direct my talk toward those who aren’t yet parents or are considering not having any more children (or who now have an “empty nest”). Plenty of what we’re faced with today isn’t appropriate for children to take part in, though unfortunately plenty of kids wind up exposed to so much of it anyway (thanks again, TVs and Internet — parental controls do exist, though they don’t do much good if hardly anyone uses them). My point here is that these are adult topics primarily pertaining to adult relations, decided ultimately by adults through learning, voting, exercising purchasing power, raising arguments in the public square to influence the minds of others, or whatever other efforts that might prove useful. Either way, the goal is to free up time and energy so as to be able to take action as needed.

Now, I realize I’ve responded to more than RockingMrE’s one blog post, having watched several of his videos last night, one having been on the topic of anti-natalism. So I’m responding to a mix of what he’s put out into the world, not limited to the topic of overpopulation alone since I see so many of these topics as overlapping and interrelated. But returning to the topic of overpopulation once again, I’d like to invoke the social theory of David Ricardo now.

In that same book by Heilbroner, on page 79, it states:

David Ricardo, an astonishingly successful trader in stocks, was soon to outline a theory of economics which, while less spectacular than Malthus’s inundation of humanity, would be in its own way just as devastating to the prospects of improvement held out by Adam Smith.

For what Ricardo foresaw was the end of a theory of society in which everyone moved together up the escalator of progress. Unlike Smith, Ricardo saw that the escalator worked with different effects on different classes, that some rode triumphantly to the top, while others were carried up a few steps and then were kicked back down to the bottom. Worse yet, those who kept the escalator moving were not those who rose with its motion, and those who got the full benefit of the ride did nothing to earn their reward. And to carry the metaphor one step further, if you looked carefully at those who were ascending to the top, you could see that all was not well here either; there was a furious struggle going on for a secure place on the stairs.

That’s another interesting way to look at so-called “progress.”

Picking back up on page 88 in this chapter concerned with Malthus and Ricardo:

Although Malthus and Ricardo disagreed on almost everything, they did not disagree about what Malthus had to say about population. For in his celebrated Essay in 1798, Malthus seemed not only to elucidate the question once for all but also to shed a great deal of light on the terrible and persistent poverty that haunted the English social scene. Others had vaguely felt that somehow population and poverty were related and a popular if apocryphal story of the day concerned an island off the coast of Chile where one Juan Fernandez landed two goats in case he should later wish to find meat there. On revisiting the island he found that the goats had multiplied beyond reason, so he then landed a pair of dogs who also multiplied and cut down the goats. “Thus,” wrote the author, a Reverend Joseph Townshend, “a new kind of balance was restored. The weakest of both species were the first to pay the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives.” To which he added: “It is the quantity of food which regulates the number of the human species.”

But while this paradigm recognized the balance that must be struck in nature, it still failed to draw the final devastating conclusions implicit in the problem. This was left for Malthus to do.

He began with a fascination in the sheer numerical possibilities contained in the idea of doubling. His appreciation of the staggering multiplicative powers of reproduction has been amply supported by other, later scholars. One biologist has calculated that a pair of animals, each pair producing ten pairs annually, would at the end of twenty years be responsible for 700,000,000,000,000,000,000 offspring; and Havelock Ellis mentions a minute organism that, if unimpeded in its division, would produce from one single tiny being a mass a million times larger than the sun—in thirty days.

But such examples of the prolific power of nature are meaningless for our purposes. The vital question is: how great is the normal reproductive power of a human being? Malthus made the assumption that the human animal would tend to double its numbers in twenty-five years. In the light of his times this was a relatively modest assumption. It necessitated an average family of six, two of whom were presumed to die before reaching the age of marriage. Turning to America, Malthus pointed out that the population there had in fact doubled itself every twenty-five years for the preceding century and a half, and that in some backwoods areas where life was freer and healthier, it was doubling every fifteen years!

But against the multiplying tendencies of the human race—and it is inconsequential to the argument whether it tended to double in twenty-five years or in fifty—Malthus opposed the obdurate fact that land, unlike people, cannot be multiplied. Land can be added to laboriously, but the rate of progress is slow and hesitant; unlike population, land does not breed. Hence, while the number of mouths grows geometrically, the amount of cultivable land grows only arithmetically.

And the result, of course, is as inevitable as a proposition in logic: the number of people is bound, sooner or later, to outstrip the amount of food. “Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance,” wrote Malthus in his Essay, “. . . the human species would increase in the ratio of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 516, etc. and subsistence as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10; in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be incalculable.”

Such a dreadful view of the future would be enough to discourage any man: “The view,” Malthus wrote, “has a melancholy hue.” The troubled Reverend was driven to the conclusion that the incorrigible and irreconcilable divergence between mouths and food could have only one result: the larger portion of mankind would forever be subjected to some kind of misery or other. For somehow the huge and ever potentially widening gap must be sealed: population, after all, cannot exist without food. Hence among the primitives such customs as infanticide; hence war, disease, and, above all, poverty.

And if these are not enough: “Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to provide subsistence . . . that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. . . . But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success still be incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.”

No wonder poor Godwin complained that Malthus had converted friends of progress into reactionaries. For this is truly the doctrine of despair. Nothing, nothing can rescue mankind from the constant threat of drowning under its own weight but the frail reed of “moral restraint.” And how dependable is moral restraint against the great passion of sex?

. .

Was Malthus right?

As recently as the early 1970s the general outlook for world population growth seemed to confirm the prescience of his expectations, at least in the less developed portions of the world. In those years demographers spoke of a possible world population of 20 billion—five times the population in 1970—if the momentum of population growth went unchecked for another fifty years.

Today the pendulum has swung somewhat to the other side. In fact, thinking on the population problem has always swung between poles of opinion: it is striking that Malthus himself was much more sanguine in a second edition of his famous essay published only five years after the first, pinning his hopes on the belief that the laboring classes would learn to exercise voluntary “restraint” by postponing their age of marriage.

Today’s cautious optimism is based to a large extent on technological breakthroughs, especially the so-called Green Revolution which has raised crop yields dramatically in countries like India. India today produces enough foodstuffs to be a modest exporter. Hence, although agronomists still hold their breath each year until the crops are in, the terrible prospect of global famine, brought about by Malthus’s arithmetic of supply and demand, is no longer regarded as a realistic prognosis. Horrified TV watchers in the 1980s who saw pictures of skeletonlike human beings in Ethiopia and the sub-Saharan belt were not witnessing Malthus’s predictions come true, but the consequences of localized conditions, such as droughts and inadequate transportation networks.

Nonetheless, more is needed to set aside the Malthusian specter than an increase in food production. Even if global famine no longer seems imminent, experts warn that population pressures are still immense. […]

Perhaps more important, we must not forget that Malthus was right in claiming that population growth, proceeding exponentially, inherently has the capability of swamping increases in agricultural productivity. Thus there remains the necessity to master the demand side of the equation as well as the supply side. What is required is control over the production of children as well as food.

Is worldwide population control possible? The answer seems to be a surprising yes. It is surprising because demographers have long doubted that the nations worst afflicted with the population “disease” could surmount the barriers of peasant ignorance, organized religious opposition, and political apathy. Now a more sanguine outlook prevails. During the last years, countries as different as Mexico and China have switched from indifference or outright hostility to an enthusiastic endorsement of birth control. Even India, long the despair of demographers, has made a determined—indeed, at times a ruthless—effort to introduce planned parenthood.

And the effort has begun to pay off. In the years 1970-1975, despite the prevailing gloom, the rate of growth of population slowed down for the first time in history. The growth of population has not yet stopped by any means—U.N. experts predict that today’s world population of some 5 billion may grow to between 9 to 10 billion before it levels off. But at least and at last, the growth rate is slowing down, and the leveling may come sooner than was imaginable only a decade ago. The trouble is that the victory will not be equally shared. In Europe, for example, we already have something close to ZPG—zero population growth, except for immigration. Fifty years hence, the United States own population, today roughly 275 million, may well number over 390 million, including some 800,000 immigrants. This is a total that will surely add to urban crowding, although it is not likely to overstrain total resources.

But in the poorest parts of the world, where food is scarcest, the forecast is not so reassuring. Birthrates are slowly dropping there, too, but more slowly than in the West, and from a higher starting point. The Malthusian specter will not disappear for a long time.

Curiously, Malthus himself did not aim his shafts at those parts of the world where the problem is so severe today. He was concerned about England and the Western world, not about the continents of the East and South.

It’s a good book and was received as gift from a family member a few years back. In it, Heilbroner summarizes the views put forth by several economists, a number of whom I was previously unfamiliar with. At a later date I’d like to transcribe more from it. But for tonight that suits my purposes and provides a glimpse into what Malthus claimed and why. His thoughts were arguably logical, though I realize many people continue to hinge their hopes on future innovations coming to the rescue. And on that note, one thing I find very interesting are unforeseen variables, as in the unintended side effects or consequences that spin off from any and every action, whether positive or negative or a mixed blessing.

One such case that springs to mind pertains to Big Ag’s innovations in pesticides and genetic modification of crops. Or at least that is presumed to be the culprit behind the mysterious die-off of thousands of honeybees relied on to pollinate our nation’s fruits and vegetables. A recent New York Times article (March 28, 2013) shares the latest news and points with suspicion toward the role new neonicotinoids (“the nicotine-derived pesticide that European regulators implicate in bee deaths”) may play in this fiasco. At this juncture the matter isn’t settled, so we can’t say with certainty what’s going on. I merely offer this as one example of how noble scientific advancements can be accompanied by unintended consequences that may themselves prove disastrous (as the honeybee die-off potentially could, especially when compounded with droughts and other factors impacting crop yields).

I remain open to the possibilities, seeing no reason to embrace optimism or pessimism going forward. The situation simply is what it is, right or wrong. My concern lies chiefly with us being able to partake in lives worth living, which in my view involves us taking actions to regain and reclaim control over that which we can reasonably assume greater responsibility for, which I figure will go a long way in mending our social relations by requiring we learn to cooperate (even if that does entail groups separating off and going their own way so as to allow space between those unable or unwilling to find common ground).

The more I’ve considered our economic, political, and social options, the more important does food production appear to be, because in that lies our greatest dependence on State and corporate powers-that-be. When the food supply was severed away from being under the common people’s control, it set in motion a series of events that have culminated in us being rendered no more powerful than pets begging for someone else to provide what we need to get by. The population size becomes especially important in this scenario because modern farming practices have created conditions that allow for population expansion, yet people then become dependent on this new system because, as is commonly stated, we now could not generate enough food through the use of older techniques to be able to sustain this many of us. That sets us up with a circular dilemma that apparently cannot be remedied so long as this many people exist; and if the modern food producing system fails to perform as expected, we all go down with it, having no alternative source of food to turn toward that could sufficiently maintain more than a small percentage of us. That’s quite a stranglehold to wake up and find ourselves in. Welcome to the 21st century, folks.

At least that’s how it’s come to appear from where I sit. And that’s enough typing on here for one evening.

People vs. the State vs. Major Corporations — What might the future hold in store for Americans?

“Is Government Inherently Immoral? Stefan Molyneux debates Tom Willcutts”:

Having watched this clip once already with plans to run through it a 2nd time, I have a number of thoughts to share at this time. While I’ve enjoyed several of Stefan’s videos on topics pertaining to childhood development, in this conversation I lean closer to Tom Willcutts’ views and will try to explain why.

Never completely understood the anarchist position despite trying many times in the past. They basically wish to abolish or somehow completely undermine and make obsolete any form of government, starting with the present one. And what seems to confuse people who do not identify as anarchists is that the message put forward typically says little about what will happen next. As in doing away with government being one step in a process, but then what? In the above debate, Stefan does attempt to address what he believes will occur, arguing that the “free market” could run and provide much of what’s currently being controlled by Government. The common Libertarian stance, or, more accurately, what I’ve come to plainly refer to as the neoconservative stance.

I’ve explored the Libertarian Party and libertarian political ideology for more than a decade now, giving up on the LP when Bob Barr was nominated as its presidential candidate in 2008. What I saw clearly happening throughout the G.W. Bush administration was that “Libertarianism” became all the rage, associated with everyone from Ron Paul to this country’s founding fathers to members of Bush’s Cabinet. Suddenly everyone wanted to identify as a libertarian of some sort. That’s all fine and good, except that the message being loudly promoted became one of “neoclassical” economic theory popularized by the teachers within the University of Chicago’s School of Economics (e.g., Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, etc.), which originally was informed by positions put forth by the Austrian School of Economics. My familiarity with Austrian School economics isn’t extensive, but I remain relatively open-minded to the debated ideas stemming from that camp.

It’s the Chicago School of Economics that I take greatest issue with, having learned enough about it to smell the rats involved. Milton Friedman was an egoist possessing little empathy, and his teachings reflected that in their calculating manner. He was part of the social engineering project, whether he clearly understood that or not (though I believe he did, as evidenced by his involvement in helping shape U.S. foreign policy in ways detrimental to countless persons living in countries in South and Central America — read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism to learn more). What I personally witnessed around me was a growing number of people coming to parrot that neoconservative language taught by people like Friedman that political insiders and prominent businessmen in the 1980s onward repeatedly appealed to.

(Quickly, let me also say this: call it “neoliberal” or “neoconservative,” it doesn’t really matter much since both labels point to what essentially amounts to the same movement, confusing as that is. Apparently we in the U.S. refer to it mostly as “neoconservative” because of its militaristic approach, whereas outside of our borders “neoliberal” is the term used when the IMF and World Bank impose their new-age form of economic colonization. Language confusion certainly doesn’t help when people are first aiming to learn about these topics, but for whatever reasons that’s how it currently stands. To see a more detailed breakdown, check out this link.)

So taking this whole trend into consideration, which has been moving in this direction for several decades already within academe and political circles, now expanding into the American mainstream, we see a number of Friedmanite utopians running about today preaching the gospel of this version of the “free market.” The problem with this is the naivete involved, as if the corporate world were some sort of godsend intended to replace all forms of government for the betterment of humankind. But that is a fantasy narrative being peddled to members of the public severely disenchanted with our government’s shenanigans. Please make no mistake: I too am extremely disenchanted with my government and what it has devolved into throughout the 20th century. Americans have lost the reins and have a monster now in our midst that aims to control so much of what we do and how we do it, to the point of diminishing our quality of life. But the thing is that major corporate players have been involved and intermingled from day one in what’s become of the U.S. Government. Politicians apparently tend to be be very weak-minded and status-driven individuals who respond when money talks. Major corporations have played within markets and political spheres all across the globe for as long as they’ve been in existence.

The United States declared its independence the very same year that Adam Smith published his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith was considered one of the key pioneers of political economy, which for him spun off from his studies of moral philosophy, so we need to understand that economics as we think of it today was in its fledgling phase when our country was being formally founded. Or, more accurately, being wrestled out from under the control of Great Britain through engaging in the Revolutionary War, which lasted until 1783. While corporations technically have a lengthy history dating way back, what we think of as modern corporations got their start beginning in the late 1700s as well. While the United States was expanding its territories and figuring out how to manage this brand-new form of government, corporations continued ‘evolving’ over in Europe (as well as in the U.S., though stricter regulation existed in the 19th century to limit how corporations could be used, taking into consideration the ‘public good’). So we see our government coming into being alongside this evolving notion of corporations, and that’s very important because it wasn’t long before these entities came to increasingly intermingle and dramatically affect one another.

I’m not a historian and won’t pretend to be one, but these are thoughts that run through my mind when pondering what’s happened to peoples in the U.S. and abroad in modern times. Understand that history is absolutely relevant when any economic theory’s merits are being discussed. I personally need to ponder from the historical vantage point, to the best I’m able to understand times so long ago, because otherwise it’s too easy to take things for granted, as if it couldn’t be another way. People express that attitude all the time, as if nothing that came before matters today. We seem to think modern times sprang from a vacuum, as if the social realm is inconsequential compared against anything that can be measured and empirically observed and calculated. And that right there is a big part of the problem I take with neoconservative economics — dubbed as the “rationalist” approach.

“Rational.” I’m growing to dislike that word because of how it’s used to dismiss that which can’t so easily be broken down into technical language and then quantified, which is what various schools of economics aim to do today, economics no longer being viewed as a social discipline (which it is). Anything predicated on human behavior and choices will be fickle business — unless, I guess, if it were possible to determine human behavior and shape people’s choices. Sound familiar? It should, because that’s what advertising and marketing has aimed for for nearly a century.

This issue is so much bigger than corporate power on its own precisely because our government has gone along with the schemes hatched by the business world. They’ve been attached at the hip for a long time already (though government has dropped the ball in regulating businesses in the 20th century, a task our government wasn’t originally set up to do and that few Americans can agree on how or if it’s even proper for lawmakers to attempt to do), and what this has done is it’s allowed select corporations to grow to never-before-seen size and scope and for the few largest to corner markets in the most important and popular sectors. What we eat comes from major corporations. How we farm today is decided by major corporations. As is where we shop and what is available for us to buy, and to a sad extent what we’ve come to value (as well as devalue). Heck, not even water is off-limits when it comes to corporate control. Government has allowed this to occur, but that genie is out of the bottle today and flexing its power across the globe, especially in poorer countries where governments easily cave to financial incentives.

People sometimes argue that if government were removed from the equation, we could contend with corporations directly. Well, we could contend with corporations right now, yet so few of us seem interested in doing so. Many (if not most) people are relatively content so long as they have a job and a home and tasty foods to eat and several creature comforts and toys. This topic goes back to my thoughts on human domestication, which I haven’t fully laid out a position on (not even sure that I’m capable of doing so just yet), though a couple of my videos broached a couple angles to that topic. So when talk begins about how we’ll simply do away with government, which is intended to be an organization controlled by the people, and on our own confront corporate power (that few people seem interested in taking on in a serious way, especially if it will result in them having to make major sacrifices, and it will), I have to wonder how we think we might accomplish this.

The libertarian, anarchist position put forth by a few people I’ve watched debate argue in favor of some sort of corporate utopia where we the people vote with our dollars and boycott companies that violate what we deem sacred. In theory I love the idea, but when burdened by practical concerns I become very wary. What might’ve been a decent idea back a hundred years ago or before might not translate so well into this new age where we the people have become utterly dependent on the Corporate State to provide us with what we need and want, younger generations not having been taught the skills necessary to produce our own food or clothing or shelter. A further obstacle is in place now because corporations own most of the materials we’d even need to get started, meaning they ultimately determine the price we wind up paying for anything and everything (nevermind their “free market” big talk — if it came down to the citizenry seriously challenging the Corporate State, we’ll find out how shallow that lip service really is). Then there’s the issue of Americans working for these corporations, dependent on them for income. Then we have to look at the property rights problem, because undoubtedly corporations claim more land than we realize and will likely buy up whatever is abandoned by government (another concern is foreign citizens and companies buying up American agricultural land and houses at a substantially increasing rate in recent years).

In a nutshell, there’s a lot here to consider, so assuming that corporations will be easier managed (and hopefully dominated) once government is out of the picture doesn’t delve into the complexities of this situation. Government, at least theoretically, is intended to be bent to the will of the people. Corporations are intended to be bent to the will of the market, but once a few dominate the market and have already successfully done away with most small business competition, how are people now effectively planning to go up against them? Dollars are their currency, not necessarily ours, because they do the price setting and they also determine people’s wages. We may possess the labor and skills they seek, but corporations can also rather easily draw from labor pools all throughout the world, effectively undermining rebellion in any one particular country. This is what we’re up against. We lack an infrastructure that isn’t corporate-dependent, and their executives are well-aware of that. We the people lack a means of feeding ourselves, doctoring ourselves, and thanks to so many citizens’ passivity we probably no longer have access to the weaponry needed to stand a fair chance at defending ourselves.

People want to talk about militaries and private security forces, believing we the people will somehow be able to afford that as well, nevermind that corporations stand in a much better position to be able to afford such defense. And again, they can draw from foreign paramilitary pools that we Americans cannot access, which then could potentially gain a united front of corporations access to sophisticated weaponry. (Think: Israel.) People don’t want to hear this, and I’m sorry, but I am trying to be realistic. That doesn’t mean I favor the government, especially not as it stands now, but I happen to know that corporations aren’t in any way by their design intended to be concerned with what is actually in the public’s interest. They are profit-driven, first and foremost, and shareholders of publicly-traded companies have also lost control of the reins, leaving so much up to the whims and desires of the executives and fat cats hidden behind these legal fictions. Corporations are an economic vehicle, and without any regulations in place to limit them they will grow, expand, dominate, and suppress competition whenever able. Kings of the concrete jungle, you might say.

People like Stefan speak of arbitrators as if that will prove an effective alternative to the courts and juries of today. Much as our courts are screwed up and in serious need of an overhaul, hiring arbitration services won’t likely produce fairer results, especially not when corporations have the money to spend and we the people do not. They will form alliances with arbitrators and likely will come to decide for us, printed somewhere in their mountains of small print, which arbitrator will be used in the event of a dispute. You don’t want that, but how will you refuse if you remain in the situation as we do now where we are dependent on corporations for so much? Most people won’t be willing to accept unemployment as a condition of rebellion — keep that in mind, because they will become your snitching enemies, your competitors, they and various foreigners driven by desperation and/or blind desire for the “good life,” the so-called “American Dream.” Because of their support, the system will go on and will grow outside of the bounds of what we can imagine today (as scarily alluded to in the recording played back of Stefan’s vision of corporations cutting off people’s credit and bank access after being accused of a crime).  Don’t expect much pity from these people.

So what then is the solution? That’s a damn fine question. I do not know. How do we take on the corporate setup and bring it down to where it is manageable and answerable to the will of the public and its consumers? I believe this is where government can be worthwhile, depending on how diligently we manage it, which Americans have proven poor at thus far.

The question of whether government is inherently immoral troubles me. It nearly seems irrelevant when the bigger question is how to manage civilization. Because that’s apparently what people want, right, civilization? If so, a form of governance, however limited in scope and power, will prove necessary in order to allow this many people to all inhabit one geographical area in relative peace. Whether we like it or not, laws must be established, though I personally believe we have way too goddamn many and not enough that are clearly worded and of actual value to common persons. The rise of civilizations hasn’t wound us up to where we humans in general are rising up so much as a relative few have risen to extraordinary power that allows them (and the corporations they hide within) to exploit the many. The major difference between civilization today versus centuries ago is the incredible advancement in technological innovation and sophistication. That too is largely cornered and controlled by major corporations where not under the domain of universities and our government. In the absence of a government I believe it is naive to assume the government’s and universities’ share would be relinquished to the people. It would help to hear how people think they’d go about ensuring that did occur, because simply assuming and wishing and praying isn’t enough, not when major corporations wield as much power as they currently do.

This is an interesting topic, partly because it forces me to see the potential benefit in the role of government despite our failure at maintaining the project that’s been underway for over two centuries in this chunk of land staked off and named the U.S.A. It was a new idea and we did lose control over it, largely due to people being kept busy working and being easily seduced by the promise of easier living and being dazzled by the assorted offerings that have sprung into existence over the last 150 years (not to mention the propaganda generations have been raised up on via education curricula and media outlets), culminating in so many today being blinded by science to where they can’t see anything but technologies and petri dishes and mathematical concepts and statistics and other sorts of abstractions. We’re losing touch with reality, yet eagerly are chomping at the bit to refashion current reality into fitting some vague ideal claimed as capable of maximizing the “good” for the greatest number of people. A utilitarian’s paradise. Long on banter about technical in details, while short on appreciation for our social and psychological needs. This is what anarchism is showing me, and it disturbs me, because whether people like Stefan are able to understand this or not, they will play right into the hands of corporate power if they endeavor to go that direction without any institutional backing of their own.

There’s so much more that can be said on this topic, and I’d love to continue on, but I’ve tuckered myself out typing this at the moment and will have to leave it to be picked up another day.