Taking a Short Break from LGP

Hello. Those who chance to browse around this site may have noticed the dearth of posts in July, not that I posted a great deal during previous months. I’ve a few items planned, nothing completed, but truth be told, for the past several months my focus has not been on philosophy. Focusing on philosophy when you are not teaching and not independently wealthy is simply not a live option.

Thus for these past several months, last month in particular and most likely for a few months to come, my focus has been on developing what is likely to be my occupation for the next 10 to 15 years (hopefully): copywriting. I am doing what I need to do in order to learn the job and do it effectively. This takes huge chunks out of my day including my writing time, meaning that there is less time for projects like this that don’t make a contribution to it … but could eventually benefit from it.

I have taken note which posts I’ve done in the past seemed to generate the most traffic: the review of Stefan Molyneux’s book The Art of the Argument rose to the top far and away (doubtless because a number of sites with far more visibility than mine discovered it and linked to it); the posts (e.g., this, and this) on the follies and foibles of contemporary academic philosophy collectively came in second, interestingly the more specific the post the better the traffic; the posts on important twentieth century philosophers, on Wittgenstein, and on “Consciousness and the Brain” also did well. Sadly, my observations on thinkers such as Leopold Kohr have done wretchedly; also on topics such as globalism. This is unfortunate, because both need a broader audience and wider discussion. The former definitely has something to say regarding the latter.

All of this is noted for future reference in any event, and comments and suggestions from readers are always welcome.

In the meantime, you (you’re still there, right?) can expect either a handful of much shorter posts (shorter than this one) or no posts at all for the remainder of summer and possibly for much of the fall. Rest assured, where philosophy is assured, I am never that far away.

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Identity Politics Has Nearly Destroyed the Humanities; Now It Is Threatening the Hard Sciences

This article by Heather MacDonald is a must-read! If you thought you could escape identity politics by going into the sciences, or possibly even into engineering, think again.

The article’s opening paragraphs spell out clearly what is happening in scientific organizations, academic or in government:

Identity politics has engulfed the humanities and social sciences on American campuses; now it is taking over the hard sciences. The STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — are under attack for being insufficiently “diverse.” The pressure to increase the representation of females, blacks, and Hispanics comes from the federal government, university administrators, and scientific societies themselves. That pressure is changing how science is taught and how scientific qualifications are evaluated. The results will be disastrous for scientific innovation and for American competitiveness.

scientist at UCLA reports: “All across the country the big question now in STEM is: how can we promote more women and minorities by ‘changing’ (i.e., lowering) the requirements we had previously set for graduate level study?” Mathematical problem-solving is being deemphasized in favor of more qualitative group projects; the pace of undergraduate physics education is being slowed down so that no one gets left behind.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that funds university research, is consumed by diversity ideology. Progress in science, it argues, requires a “diverse STEM workforce.” Programs to boost diversity in STEM pour forth from its coffers in wild abundance. The NSF jump-started the implicit-bias industry in the 1990s by underwriting the development of the implicit association test (IAT). (The IAT purports to reveal a subject’s unconscious biases by measuring the speed with which he associates minority faces with positive or negative words; see “Are We All Unconscious Racists?,” Autumn 2017.) Since then, the NSF has continued to dump millions of dollars into implicit-bias activism. In July 2017, it awarded $1 million to the University of New Hampshire and two other institutions to develop a “bias-awareness intervention tool.” Another $2 million that same month went to the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University to “remediate microaggressions and implicit biases” in engineering classrooms.

Back in the early to mid-1990s, I argued to anyone who would listen that if the preferential-admissions, preferential-hiring bandwagon was not stopped, and if the collective academic grievance industry was not exposed for what it was (at the time it was limited to English and comparative literature departments, and had crept into law schools) these movements would eventually inundate everything in their path, like successive tidal waves.

It was clear, at least to me, what was coming. I even detoured from my original intended academic career path (emphasizing history and philosophy of science, epistemology, and metaphysics) to write a book on the subject. My effort was not perfect. There were things I neglected. It was, however, researched from scratch and written on my own time without the sort of administrative support (e.g., grant money) that would likely have been available to someone on the other side of the fence and would have enabled a more complete job.

I argued, among other things, that we were dealing increasingly with a flood of people into academic disciplines, many of them already with tenure, who could not be reasoned with, arguing (incoherently) that reason itself as a “white male social or cultural construct.” Many are the intellectual equivalent of bullies who don’t care about anything except furthering their group-focused political agendas. Neither intellectual curiosity nor a desire for a better world for all of humanity is what motivates them.

The juggernaut, needless to say, was not stopped. It was not even seriously opposed. By serious opposition I do not mean holding a few seminars here and there, or putting together organizations and holding conferences once a year and putting out a journal filled with articles on how terrible things are getting in academia, as did the National Association of Scholars and a few similar groups characterized only by their utter ineffectiveness.

By serious opposition I mean putting financial resources behind the opponents, so they can get in front of and effectively use both national and social media, as Donald Trump did. Trump could do this because he’s a billionaire. Most of us are not billionaires, or anything close. The plain truth is, this is not a part-time job, or a hobby, something to be done on our own time! 

Read the above quote again. Governmental entities are now throwing millions into promoting “diversity” ideology!

I once contracted to write a piece critical of a “diversity” program in a city school district in Charleston, South Carolina. I was paid $2,000 by the organization that published my piece (long since taken down). I later learned that the author of the pro-“diversity” proposals I was criticizing was paid … are you sitting down?… $2 million!

That is the sort of thing critics of identity politics and “diversity” social engineering are up against!

Identity politics has advanced to the point where if you are known to oppose it, you will not be hired for a teaching position in a college or university, period. 

You cannot criticize it openly without tenure, or you will not be rehired, period.

You criticize it with tenure at your own peril, given at least one known case (Evergreen State) where so-called social justice warriors were successful in their efforts to drive a tenured biology professor (Bret Weinstein) off campus with threats of violence, which included protesters wielding baseball bats!

Cowardly administrators openly told Weinstein that if he returned to campus they could not guarantee his safety!

Telling the truth, or merely expressing points of view other than officially-approved ones, has thus become not merely difficult but dangerous, and not dangerous merely to individual academic dissidents but to Western civilization itself.

What happens when acceptability of scientific results starts to be dictated by whether or not it has the approval of what is become a national (and corporate) “diversity” police?

Do we want Western civilization to survive in any form our parents and grandparents would have recognized? If so, it will take organization, and it will take education: far more than it would have taken back in the 1990s!

What are we willing to do — if you are reading this, what are you willing to do — to help it survive?

I know of many authors and others who have given up, too many in fact to link to individually. Whether it is this issue, or the looming global debt bomb about which also nothing is being done, they figure the ship has sailed. They figure this is how empires gradually collapse.

Prove them wrong! This is a challenge! At present, no one I know of who stands on the side of more traditional forms of scholarship, in which truth and rationality in some sense of those terms meant something, is in a position to defend it in the way needed, with sufficient resources behind them. Having a blog and a website is clearly not enough. Writers with far more visibility than I have are unable to do it. Academic, governmental, and corporate entities are now almost entirely in the hands of the “diversity” committees and their thought-police forces.

What I would recommend doing, for educational background purposes, is returning to the original mindset that empowered the civil rights movement, a movement based on ideals of justice as basic fairness and encouraging of kindness (something today’s “diversity” crowd knows nothing about). I would also recommend abandoning materialism as a worldview, as I have argued elsewhere. One thing at a time, though. Read Dr. King’s letters, and other documents of the era, leaving aside cultural Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse, which was when things began to go off track; the Supreme Court’s catastrophic Griggs decision (1971) then threw everything into a tailspin from which it has never recovered. Read someone such as sociologist C. Wright Mills. Start with his The Power Elite (1956), to get a sense of how globalist forces looked to scholars at the time, in comparison to how those have advanced since. It is always helpful to remember that the globe’s real ruling class does not care about minority groups, it does not care about women as such, it does not care about homosexuals, it does not care about transgenders. It has no ideology other than money and power, although this does not prevent it from using ideologies, sometimes of the left and sometimes of the right, depending on what serves its purposes at a given time with a given audience.

In sum, there is no repairing this damage from the inside. The dominant organizations in the U.S. are gone. What needs to be done will require organization, education, and conversation directed from outside, including from outside of academia. It will require the eventual formation (and funding) of new institutions to carry whatever is left of Western ideas forward. If this is impossible, then we have indeed signed Western civilization’s death warrant. Given that identity politics is now affecting demographics on an enlarging scale, all we will have to do is wait for whites to become a minority group in the U.S., the one minority group with no legal protections, and then for the U.S. to end up like a much larger version of South Africa.

If you approve of ideas like these, support them! Go to my Patreon site and sign up to make a pledge. This is your civilization, too! If you want to preserve it, then do something about it! Remember, the promoters of “diversity” are receiving millions from centralized governmental and corporate entities to further their goals! A few pledges of, e.g., $25 or $50 per month won’t do much against that, but it is a place to start and it is better than nothing at all!

 

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Is Higher Education Undergoing a Long-Term Structural Collapse?

Is higher education in the U.S., and almost surely in the West generally, undergoing a long-term structural collapse?

The question sounds histrionic, perhaps even hysterical and would be treated as such in many (most?) mainstream academic circles. But if we see collapse as a long-term process rather than a singular catastrophic event, then there is much we can point to that tells us that, Yes, higher education is undergoing collapse and has been for a long time … for at least four decades, in fact.

We can argue over the reasons for the collapse, including whether we are looking at mere bad decisions, accidents, or whether something more malevolent has been going on, but we can’t argue over the fact of the matter: higher education is collapsing.

What makes the problem even more serious is that contrary to what a lot of tech types will say regarding online options for learning, nothing is in place to replace existing brick and mortar higher education on a large scale. I’ll make a few remarks about this last.

I probably don’t have to discuss the rise and influence of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse (that school’s most influential philosopher), so for completeness sake I limit it to two paragraphs: the institution of “affirmative action” preferences based on race and gender in the 1970s following the Supreme Court’s catastrophic Griggs decision (1971). This decision invented out of thin air the idea that “discrimination” equals a lack of proportional statistical outcomes. This being practically impossible — no society anywhere in the world has achieved it — within 15 years the emergency of political correctness to protect the idea of government-designated victimhood and preferential treatment to attempt to rectify it from intellectual challenge, as well as protect the various movements created by government-designated or self-identified victims from any kind of intellectually serious evaluation.

For any such evaluation would have to accord with objective standards of logicality, evidence that premises are correct, practicality of the implementation of ideas, etc., and by the late 1980s and even more in the 1990s, these were dismissed ad hominem as the social constructs of straight white males (sometimes straight white Christian males, although it was hard even then to maintain that Christianity had any influence in academia worth speaking of).

Less evident to those who focus almost exclusively on Frankfurt School “cultural Marxism” is the corporatization of higher education that began, also in 1971, with the Powell Memorandum handed down by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. In his statement Powell actually singled out Marcuse as a deleterious influence in academia, and also Ralph Nader. He was far less concerned, I would submit, about the integrity of scholarship and dusty philosophical conceptions of objectivity than the fact that the interests of corporations, and of corporate-dominated capitalism itself, had been called into question in the late 1960s. His Memorandum signaled the beginning of a stealth counterattack which was fueled by the rise of the neoliberalism that emanated over the next couple of decades, e.g., from the University of Chicago (founded and endowed originally with Rockefeller money, with Rockefeller and similar big business interests remaining dominant in the school’s governing ethos). Neoconservatism, meanwhile, was replacing traditional conservatism in the Republican Party and would spread to the Democratic Party during the Clinton presidency.

Arguably, neoliberalism-neoconservatism had become the dominant consensus among the elites by the mid-1990s. Utterly materialistic, driven by the desire for profit and the extension of a mass consumption ethos across the entire planet, and willing to launch various degrees of aggression against any and all who refused to fall into compliance, I would think it hard to argue against the destructive effects this ethos has had on the world — a world in which the lion’s share of jobs are meaningless, time-wasting affairs serving one overriding purpose, earning the money to pay rent or the mortgage, put food on one’s table, and keep one’s lights turned on. I often suspect this ethos, which divides families and sets people apart more broadly via pointless competition for jobs and other resources, has long underwritten the escape of many populations into substance abuse (think: opioid epidemic), and the fact that one of the leading causes of preventable death is now suicide.

Against this background, how can higher education as a serious enterprise, able to educate people not just in marketable skills, but in the ability to think critically, act autonomously, buy intelligently, and vote intelligently, possibly survive?!

Notice, first of all, how little the neoliberal-neoconservative consensus actually has to say to women and minorities. Much less whether it has delivered on promises made back in the 1960s and 1970s. The percentage of black philosophy professors back during Martin Luther King Jr.’s day was between 1 and 2 percent. What is it now? Between 1 and 2 percent. I’ve no reason to believe other academic disciplines differ significantly. Small wonder we have groups like Black Lives Matter, born not just of deadly violence by police against unarmed black kids but, on campuses, of frustration over the system’s failure to deliver on its promises. BLM wants more diversity in the form of more black faculty members. Okay. Where are universities supposed to find them? I have often noted (no one has ever responded, much less disputed the claim): the claim that African-Americans cannot find academic jobs because of rampant discrimination rests on the assumption that really there is a population of would-be African-American academics out there.

White women, as middle class as middle class can be, have received the lion’s share of “affirmative action” benefits. And if we can believe the MeToo’ers, their situation is hardly Utopian, whether in academia or in other arenas such as Hollywood! I’ve hardly investigated all or even most of the claims of sexual misconduct that have floated around for many years. How would I? There are too many, too much doubt over who can be believed, and in the effort to untangle all the he-said-she-said and try to determine the truth, nothing else would get done! But while some of these allegations are probably exaggerations and some may be retaliatory, I don’t believe for a minute that all of them are. Is there any doubt, for example, that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator … or that at least some male professors are guilty as charged?

Colleges and universities have arguably become cesspools of corruption and greed, and it is hard to believe this ethos, which includes the prevailing materialism, has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation minorities — which include intellectual minorities such as Christian and conservative intellectuals — find themselves in.

Over the past four decades or so, administrations have bloated while the population of tenured faculty has dropped. Higher education is arguably phasing out tenure as the older, tenured generation dies out and is not replaced. In a commonly cited statistic, in some institutions 70% of faculty are now adjuncts: part-timers working for starvation wages, sometimes at multiple campuses or at multiple institutions. Their efforts to conduct scholarship fade into oblivion, as between the lengthy commutes and piles of papers to grade from five or six classes (necessary, to keep those lights on and food in the freezer) consume all their time. There are cases of adjunct faculty discovered to have been living in their automobiles and sneaking into student dorms to take showers.

It is also very difficult to believe that colleges and universities do not have the money to pay their faculty living wages. The reason: the money taken in via athletic programs (in many institutions millions per year), the salaries paid university presidents and other top administrators (six figures, sometimes even seven figures at prestigious institutions), and the money spent on new buildings, new technology and facilities, new gyms and gym equipment, and on campus beautification projects. Many of these last seem intended to create and reinforce in students’ minds, almost subliminally, the mindset of a corporate environment.

The problem is not scarcity but allocation, based on intelligent priorities which support and do not work against the interests of faculty and students, as well as against the institutions themselves. Living wages for faculty might be reciprocated in many ways, as faculty have the time to do their best teaching and research, and can serve as articulate voices supporting the institution raising its visibility at national conferences … instead of having to spend all their available free time looking for their next job.

If what we see is the future of the faculty, which is more corporatization and more “adjunctification,” the most intelligent and talented are going to leave academia, because most of the skills that make one, e.g., a good philosopher, are transferable to other occupations (computer programming, app design, health care, freelance writing, copywriting, etc.). There are now many accounts of recent Ph.Ds opting to leave, or in some cases newly-minted faculty accepting one of the kinds of jobs that are now all that is available for the majority of newly-minted Ph.D.s and realize they have made a mistake.

None of this touches what has been done to students during recent decades. As administrations have bloated and faculty have been forced into decisions between humiliating conditions of servitude amidst near-starvation and departure, it is common knowledge that students are graduating with five and sometimes six figures of student loan debt.

A cynical arrangement exists: colleges and universities can raise tuition without risk because the government pays them, not the students. Administrators know the institution will be paid, in other words, and their upper echelons couldn’t care less how that money is paid back.

They do not have, as Nassim Taleb would say, skin in the game!

The students, almost none of whom have had a class in personal finance or anything close, are willing to go massively into debt in order to get that education they are told they must have in order to be employable. They are vulnerable to the wiles of predatory lenders.

Yet when they cannot find jobs that pay well enough to enable them to pay off their debt, they default; and their credit rating is ruined. When former students cannot make large purchases such as homes due to lack of decent-paying work, outstanding debt, and/or bad credit, does this or does this not hurt the economy in any sense of that phrase?

Here are a few stories of student loan debt.

In aggregate, total student loan debt is now around $1.53 trillion.

Many students, finally, should not be in college. As far back as the 1950s, we saw the rise of the idea that Everybody Should Go To College. There are, however, many, many worthwhile skills that can be developed, and trades practiced, that do not require a university degree. While it is arguable that a college education gives students the “soft skills” they need to be, e.g., intelligent voters and participants in our so-called democracy, it is equally arguable that these can be dispensed at the secondary level, or at home. A study appeared a number of years ago that showed conclusively that university students are not really learning anything! Many, of course, are there for no other reason than to get a degree in order to get a job. They are not truly suited for academic work, and should not be forced to pursue it.

In the present “bubble” environment, student enrollment has begun to drop. In some cases, where campuses have experienced PC-related disruptions, students are speaking with their feet. Others, however, may just be weighing the perceived benefits (too small) versus the very real future costs (too large). One futurist argues that higher education can only go in one direction: down. That is our inevitable long-term collapse.

Another author observes that creeping corporatization has descended even to the lower grades, and that there are objective measures for when not just a university but an educational system more broadly is simply exploiting its teachers. She predicts: either we reverse these trends, or the system will self-destruct as people avoid teaching as a career choice.

In South Carolina, where I used to live, there were already shortages of teachers in crucial subjects such as math and the sciences. This did not stop the bureaucrats from erecting ridiculous barriers to entry. I know this for fact because I ran into them. A woman I dated for a while there, having jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops necessary to jump through in order to be a teacher in that state, was then paid less than $30,000 a year. She was — what else? — a part-timer. This designation served corporate-bureaucratic purposes of keeping wages down but was not an honest measure of her work-load, which amounted to well over 40 hours per week.

With these kinds of abuses in place, is it any wonder that people leave the teaching profession?

Invariably, we face a dilemma: is education in any sense that would have been recognizable as such even 70 years ago compatible with the corporatization that appears to be inevitable in the political economy the neoliberal-neoconservative axis has served up? What adjectives and descriptions apply to this political economy? How about: centralized, consolidated, surveyed, money-focused, obedience-focused, with massive real privileges for a tiny elite and precarity outside its corporatized enclaves and gated communities.

What do we want from an educational system? What should we want? “We” here refers — I hope — to a people whose hope is to maximize personal freedom and autonomy, while living satisfying lives — as opposed to living a present-day equivalent of Hobbes’s “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

We have the technological capabilities to create such a system. There are, as I see it, three things standing in our way.

One is the fact that a truly educated people, valuing autonomy and able to think critically, will eventually turn its attention to those who are really running the show and begin to question some (or more than some) of its policies. This began to happen, at least in part, during the 1960s, which wasn’t exclusively about Marcuse, and gave rise to the fears that prompted the Powell Memo. Modernity’s ruling class did not want, e.g., its wars questioned, and although the story is longer than I can get into here (there are abundant resources available on the topic), one has to suspect that what one might call the “destruction of the American mind” was partly deliberate. Both corporations and government, working together, long ago had wanted, and possibly needed, a compliant population. They designed schools, including colleges and universities, and teaching methods, etc., that would serve up such a population.

Postmodernity’s ruling class is no different, of course. There may be a greater diversity of visible faces, lifestyle choices, etc., and a lot more hedonism, but there is no difference of overall political-economic orientation, which is inevitably about control. Unless a critical mass of common people rejects being controlled, we cannot expect things to change.

This hints at the second thing standing in the way: ourselves. Tech types, whom I mentioned near the outset, will offer online education as an alternative to the four-year college degree. Education writer and futurist Kevin Carey argues that the Internet, the “University of Everywhere,” will make the brick-and-mortar higher educational institutions we’ve been discussing obsolete, just as new technological systems have always rendered older ways of doing things obsolete.

There are, of course, abundant opportunities for educating ourselves online. That much is true. There’s Udemy.com where one will find many structured courses on a wide variety of subjects; there are at least a dozen similar sites; and obviously, there’s YouTube where we can go to learn about any conceivable subject.

The drawback, as I see it (and wrote about here): educating oneself requires behavioral skills many people do not have, as they’ve neither learned them at home or in school. These include self-discipline and time management. If you choose the route of self-education, no one — no teacher or other superior — is standing over you, telling you to get the work done, or even to get up early enough in the morning to get the day started at a reasonable hour. It is just too easy to be a layabout, in other words. Plus, if one is trying to take classes and has to work at the same time, there are likely to be problems as the two run interference patterns with one another (and think of the mother who has kids to take care of in addition!). This all calls for time management skills many people simply do not have, or could easily develop themselves. Not being able to do this should not be judged a sign of weakness, or some such. This is just reality for many people in the real world, as opposed to the world of abstract theorists where all sorts of things look good on paper.

Finally there is the problem of knowing what to view online, and how to organize it into a logical sequence, i.e., a structured curriculum. YouTube, moreover, has a lot of great videos, but also tons of misinformation. It is very easy to go down blind alleys. The Internet itself is full of myriad temptations just to surf and waste time, moreover. The person using it has to discipline himself or herself and say, I am educating myself, when learning, just as the self-employed person must say, I am at work, when working. Otherwise nothing gets done!

The final thing standing in the way is that few employers are able to think outside the sheepskin box. They look at a resume and expect to see at least one college or university degree there. Some tech corporations might be exceptions to this, as the abilities of some of the self-educated teenage whiz kids they see are obvious. In most cases, however, the employer does not want to see a list of certificates of completion of Udemy courses, or one of YouTube videos viewed. They do not have tests the person can pass to prove himself / herself, which is why self-employment might be the only route for someone able to educate himself this way. But again, self-employment requires skills the multitudes simply do not have, and possibly never will, which is why they will remain the multitudes.

Until these bridges are identified and crossed, online self-education will not be an option except for a select few.

And if higher education continues with its present trajectory and would-be students continue to speak with their feet, many lesser institutions will be forced to close, and higher education might well return to what it was over a hundred years ago: a source of privilege for the children of the elites and out of reach (because unaffordable) for everyone else.

This leaves us with a huge and largely unrecognized predicament of major proportions.

For this result, compared to what my generation grew up with (1960s, 1970s), can only be described as a collapse. And if we do not have an educated population, very soon we will not have a civilization.

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#MeToo Feminism Claims Its Latest Male Victim(s) in Academia

I don’t plan to spend as much time on this as on previous recent blog entries, if only because these kinds of situations are becoming a dime a dozen. What will be surprising is if they do not discourage more men from pursuing academic careers. I sent as many specifics as I was able to dig up to Brian Leiter, but he’s chosen to sit on them at least as of this writing, which is unfortunate since far more people are reading his philosophy everyday than read this one.

What happened is that another male philosopher has found himself relieved of his teaching job under somewhat questionable circumstances.

A reasonably clear account of Mark McIntire’s situation is here. McIntire, it is important to note, was not accused of actual sexual misconduct. Michael Shermer (History of Science, Chapman University) was the accused. What McIntire had done, probably not even knowing that Shermer had been accused of sexual misconduct, was invite him to speak on Santa Barbara City College campus. When another faculty member, a female chemistry professor named Raeanne Napoleon, blew the whistle publicly, McIntire responded with a sharply worded defense of Shermer.

Shermer, an author and editor noted for his supposed skepticism toward religion, the so-called paranormal, etc., had defended himself here, describing the allegations against him as “unseemly and suitable for tabloid trash…”  He doesn’t stop there, of course, but describes the details of some of the allegations against him and, if his account can be believed, shows them to be utterly ridiculous. Example:

…there was an Orange County conference in 2010 at which I spoke and did a public book signing. Oppenheimer quotes a woman who says that while I was sitting at a book table signing books and talking to her (in her view, “hitting on me”) I started “playing with my crotch” to get her to look at it, and apparently I did this for three or four minutes. Have you any idea how long that is? Would any man do such a preposterous thing at a public event with many people standing around, in a line to get signed books, where each exchange lasts perhaps 30 seconds at most?

The case against Shermer appears to be, shall we say, somewhat weak. He threatened legal action for defamation, but has since withdrawn the threat.

McIntire’s statement, which I’d had in front of me but for some reason was unable to locate again following a browser crash, criticized the faculty members, singling out Napoleon as she’d been the one leading the charge. He spoke of Shermer’s accusers as “calumniators” who “secreted the venom” of social justice warriors and launched “a Pearl-Harbor sneak attack” against an innocent man.

He found himself slapped with a Title IX harassment complaint, first by the Napoleon and then by three other female professors at SBCC. The complaint itself has not to my knowledge been made public, so I’ve no way to evaluate it — but are we truly to believe it is anything more than retaliation against his public criticism? In light of the prevailing ethos on campuses, and in the absence of any good reason for thinking otherwise….

The administration has (to the best of my knowledge) declined to discuss McIntire’s firing beyond statements like “the topics he chose for his course term papers and exams were too “politically charged,” his Facebook postings were inappropriate, and he failed to grasp “basic philosophical concepts.””

Failed to grasp “basic philosophical concepts”? What the dickens does that mean?

Cutting to the chase, what this looks like is the usual she-said, he said — which may well have begun with an instance of the sort of bad judgment to which we’ve all been prone from time to time (especially when alcohol is involved). McIntire looks to have done nothing except criticize his woman colleagues for accusing Shermer without any evidence beyond an inflammatory article on a website noted for its clickbait content and questionable credibility.

This is now grounds for a Title IX harassment complaint in academia?

All of this was followed by administrations doing what administrations usually do: taking the easy way out and unloading a person who has become inconvenient in the face of the dominant political tendencies of the present-day zeitgeist. The fact that Mark McIntire was an adjunct made this all the easier, and suggests that this case should be filed in with other evidence of the effects of the “adjunctification” of academia.

 

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Why Marx Now? Part 2

[Author’s Note: I received complaints that Part 1 was too long. “TLDR,” said one person: Too Long Didn’t Read. Part of me is saddened by this. I wonder if essayists such as Albert Jay Nock, or James T. Farrell, or even H.L. Mencken, succinct when the situation called for it but capable of writing far lengthier and nuanced and demanding prose than anything found on this blog, could earn livings as writers today. We now have studies showing that technology, however much it has gifted us with communications across oceans via Skype or Zoom, is also shortening our attention spans and sapping our efficiency. I noticed this back when I was teaching: students who couldn’t go five minutes without checking their phones. Many of us, the first thing we do in the morning is go to Facebook or Twitter and start scrolling aimlessly, while important work sits undone. Thus another part of me sees dramatic confirmation of what I am investigating here. The idea that we are free and autonomous agents is undercut by the fact, for fact it is, that technology affects — even controls — some of our behavior, confirming that systemic coercion in  “free” societies is as real as gravity! Shortened attention spans are just one of many factors encircling us, manifesting as a whole what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin called inverted totalitarianism, which operates by reinforcing ritualistic and submissive behaviors of various sorts. Systemic coercion is both harder to see and diagnose than overt coercion — especially by those who define coercion as overt. A Marxian worldview is conscious of this, whatever else it gets wrong; the individualistic-atomistic worldview characteristic of most Libertarians is not. The latter is therefore naïve in crucial respects. Short attention spans make us vulnerable to the machinations of powerful interests, especially economic ones. That makes discussions like this all the more important! Those who cannot make the time or maintain sufficient attention to read and mentally process four or five pages of modestly demanding material will be buffeted and ultimately controlled by forces they do not see — whether they think so or not. Having said all this, I realize it will not bring new readers to this site, and so this will likely be the last piece I write of this length and complexity — completed mainly because I like to finish what I start.]

For Part 1, go here.

At this point, let’s pass the reins of the conversation into the hands of Yanis Varoufakis, surely one of the more interesting voices to surface over the last few years. Varoufakis’s work is essential reading for anyone curious about the recent interest in Karl Marx. There are several authors and/or activists we could consult, but this being an overview and not a comprehensive treatise, I will stick with Varoufakis to keep the discussion manageable.

Who is he? Best known for his role as former Finance Minister of Greece’s Syriza Party which was elected back in 2014 to end that country’s debt crisis. The Syrizas soon found themselves on collision course with the European Central Bank. Varoufakis resigned in frustration in the face of divisions within the new government as well as ECB power-playing, as Greece became a nationwide debtors prison.

In a 2015 essay, Varoufakis described himself as an “erratic Marxist,” more recently penning a searching introduction to the new edition of Marx’s and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto issued on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth (short version here).

He’s a trained economist who avoided succumbing to the academic illness of microspecialization. He survived by looking like a microspecialist: burying the Marxian lens through which he viewed current events, teaching the charts, graphs, and equations that form the warp and woof of most academic economics. His use of the term erratic Marxist means that while he agrees with the Marxian worldview in its outlines, he challenges Marx on various grounds, and by extension most thinking about him, whether by his followers or his detractors.

Varoufakis’s criticisms of Marx are far more interesting than his areas of agreement.

Marx committed two key errors, he argues, one of “omission” and one of “commission.” The Communist Manifesto presented a worldview in outline form, forcefully and elegantly stated, and Marx spent the rest of his life fleshing it out, galvanizing a following in the process. Within that following, there would appear a few power-hungry sociopaths who knew instinctively how to use Marx’s ideas for their own twisted advantage. As Varoufakis puts it, Marx “failed to give sufficient thought to the impact of his own theorising on the world that he was theorising about. His theory is discursively exceptionally powerful, and Marx had a sense of its power. So how come he showed no concern that his disciples, people with a better grasp of these powerful ideas than the average worker, might use the power bestowed upon them, via Marx’s own ideas, in order to abuse other comrades, to build their own power base, to gain positions of influence?”

Marx’s error of omission, in other words, led to the 1917 Revolution and the Soviet Union, and eventually Maoist China and Fidel Castro’s Cuba; also the rise of sadists like Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, the Kim Dynasty in North Korea, and other hellholes that the abusers of Marx’s ideas spawned. It is important to note: the sociopaths neither understood Marx nor cared. They were politicians, not intellectuals like Marx.

The Soviet error is not hard to see, in this case. Marx stated that history proceeds in stages. At any given stage, a specific set of economic arrangements is dominant, to be destroyed by the internal conflicts these arrangements generate (this is the dialectic). The resolution of these conflicts will generate the next stage, and no stages are skipped. The Leninists — the Stalinists even more — tried to do just this: build industrialized socialism on top of agrarian feudalism without going through the industrial capitalist wealth-generating stage. Marx had never denied the wealth-generating capacities of capitalism! The sociopaths were motivated by blind hatred of it, so they did not allow it to develop. The result was totalitarianism and mass deprivation, including mass murder of those who wouldn’t comply. Mao Tse-Tung repeated the mistake, the result being a “Cultural Revolution” for which we still do not have an accurate body count!

What has been unclear until recently is that these atrocities do not refute the Marxian worldview. They happened not because Marx’s ideas were followed; they happened because those who ascended to power in Marx’s name were sociopathic monsters who couldn’t have cared less about getting him right. (What ought to truly give us pause is how the sociopaths had help from Western sources of financing, who needed an “enemy” in order to build up a military machine that would be profitable for corporate suppliers of military equipment, defense contractors, and other such types: Eisenhower’s infamous military-industrial complex!)

To sum up, Varoufakis notes how Marx erred horribly by not anticipating that his ideas would be abused. If anything, he understates the matter (as does nearly everyone on the left).

He then identifies the second of Marx’s errors, the one of “commission.” Like many (most?) philosophers before him, at least since Descartes but going ultimately back to Plato, Marx often treated abstractions as more “real” than the concrete particulars of the world we live in: this despite his “historical materialism.” Varoufakis explains: “It was his assumption that truth about capitalism could be discovered in the mathematics of his models. This was the worst disservice he could have delivered to his own theoretical system. The man who equipped us with human freedom as a first-order economic concept; the scholar who elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics; he was the same person who ended up toying around with simplistic algebraic models, in which labour units were, naturally, fully quantified, hoping against hope to evince from these equations some additional insights about capitalism.”

One result was to cede the idea of freedom to the right — eventually, and disastrously, to neoliberalism. Rationality was also ceded to the right and to neoliberals, via the left’s focus on the supposed unfairness of capitalism — the fact that it generates inequality — at the expense of a focus on its irrationality and wastefulness, its being riddled with contradictions or, as we’ve called them, tensions. This is the Varoufakis who understands these models well!

He angrily asks of Marx’s ghost, “How could [you] be so deluded? Why did [you] not recognise that no truth about capitalism can ever spring out of any mathematical model, however brilliant the modeler might be? Did [you] not have the intellectual tools to realise that capitalist dynamics spring from the unquantifiable part of human labour: i.e., from a variable that can never be well-defined mathematically? Of course [you] did, since [you] forged those tools!” He then accuses Marx of having “coveted the power that mathematical ‘proof’ afforded him….”  That being the power of finality.

Varoufakis then teases out a basic tension in Marx’s thought: “a comprehensive theory of value cannot be accommodated within a mathematical model of a dynamic capitalist economy.” For Marx to acknowledge this, he would also have to acknowledge that the profitability of capitalist enterprises is not reducible to their capacity to extract labor from workers: “some capitalists can extract more from a given pool of labour or from a given community of consumers for reasons that are external to Marx’s own theory.”

This means, further, that Marx’s pronouncements contained an indeterminacy that rendered them provisional instead of final. This Marx could not accept. “This determination,” Varoufakis concludes this part of his discussion, “to have the complete, closed story, or model, the final word, is something I cannot forgive Marx for. It proved, after all, responsible for a great deal of error and, more significantly, authoritarianism. Errors and authoritarianism that are largely responsible for the left’s current impotence as a force for good and as a check on the abuses of reason and liberty that the neoliberal crew are overseeing today.”

What are Varoufakis’s prescriptions? These are even more interesting than his criticisms of Marx. The EU is in a crisis of its own making. It could implode. Varoufakis does not advocate revolutionary action: “the left,” he says, “must admit that we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapse of European capitalism would open up with a functioning socialist system. Our task should be twofold. First, to put forward an analysis of the current state of play that non-Marxist, well-meaning Europeans who have been lured by the sirens of neoliberalism, find insightful. Second, to follow this sound analysis up with proposals for stabilising Europe — for ending the downward spiral that, in the end, only reinforces the bigots.” That is, stabilize Europe in ways that will stave off the inevitable rising tides of nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment. This means shoring up capitalism, however this is accomplished, in order to buy time: even though “I shall not pretend to be enthusiastic about it.”

Varoufakis more than understands the consequences of this; it means supporting the globalization of capital despite “its less desirable ramifications … unbearable inequality, brazen greed, climate change, and the hijacking of our parliamentary democracies by bankers and the ultra-rich.” The Marxian view requires this. Remember: its logic is that capitalism must “go global” before conditions for revolution will be realized. This means supporting it — even present-day neoliberal capitalism-on-steroids!  Varoufakis comments on the irony of history: the faux Marxist Soviet Union had to collapse, and China had to embrace state-sponsored capitalism, before capitalism as a system could become truly global in scope!

Marx would have understood, even if the majority of those on the left did not, and do not. What did he say, after all, about so-called free trade: for centuries now, an instrument increasing capital’s reach? In “On the Question of Free Trade” (1848), having argued at length that free trade is just the freedom of capital to do as it pleases — “the freedom of capital to crush the worker” — by driving down wages as it drives up profits, Marx concludes: “in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.”

In other words, anyone who truly understands Marx and wants what Marx claimed he wanted will do almost the opposite of what most of the left is currently doing!

An enlightened left, that is, will support every “free trade” deal that comes down the pike! It will support every globalizing agreement, every job-eliminating technological advance, everything bringing about a world where capital is everywhere and encirclement by Mammon is inescapable. It will promote, as Marx implied, whatever will disrupt cultures, destroy traditions, undermine stable systems!

This, of course, dislocates and disorients, while impoverishing and demoralizing, masses everywhere. So Varoufakis qualifies: “… the trick is to help speed up capital’s development (so that it burns up like a meteor rushing through the atmosphere) while, on the other hand, resisting (through rational, collective action) its tendency to steamroller our human spirit … we push capital to its limits while limiting its consequences and preparing for its socialisation.”

There is a crucial tension in this last. Capitalism having achieved global reach, a movement large enough to overthrow it would have to have equal reach, or the equivalent. Technology makes this conceivable, but could it take place, organized and with hope of transformative victory, with labor impoverished if not totally disoriented and immiserated? Could revolution get started with capital controlling every resource (including the Internet), so that “only two classes remain standing: the class that owns everything and the class that owns nothing …”? There will be — I presume — a small class of highly mobile entrepreneurial types who are not tied directly to the system’s authority structures and may have made out like bandits during the period of global capitalization. I know such people. Their focus, while international, is not global in scope. It is on their private projects, and on those who, e.g., have paid to be mentored so that the process is duplicated. These “cowboy entrepreneurs,” we might call them, will have neither the motivation nor the organization to further the cause Varoufakis is talking about? For one thing, they like capitalism as they understand it, and see it (as did the economists of the Austrian school) as humanity’s highest achievement. Why wouldn’t they? They have thrived in it! If all of humanity were of their mindset, capitalism might become the kind of system the Austrians and other Libertarians envisioned: a technological and cultural Utopia of everyone dealing and trading freely with everyone else of their choice. But all of humanity is not of such a mindset, which must be cultivated and is clearly not for everyone. Thus we have the capitalism we have.

Varoufakis is smart enough not to make promises, as Marx and Engels did. He writes: “Humanity may succeed in securing social arrangements that allow for ‘the free development of each’ as the ‘condition for the free development of all.’ But then again, we may end up in the ‘common ruin’ of nuclear war, environmental disaster or agonizing discontent. In our present moment there are no guarantees. We can turn to the manifesto for inspiration, wisdom and energy but, in the end, what prevails is up to us.”

Hear that? It’s up to us.

So much for economic determinacy. If what occurs is “up to us,” then indeed the Marxian view is provisional, and there is nothing inevitable about revolution. It may be likely that accelerating neoliberal globalism will make enough people sufficiently miserable that they write, organize, launch “populist” revolts here and there, possibly gum up globalism’s works sufficiently to force it to slow up … or simply separate themselves and live out their lives on the margins of society: perhaps joining the “cowboy entrepreneurs” in not caring what occurs outside their bailiwicks as they’ve concluded they cannot affect it anyway.

I have argued elsewhere that technofeudalism, not some kind of socialism, is a more plausible “end game” for the trajectory we’ve pursued for the past 30 years. I am not alone with this prognosis. It is not what Varoufakis would like, but indeterminacy makes it possible. My essay predated Brexit and the Trump election, which were predicated on the hope of turning back from the globalist brink. Both are now struggling, the former against bureaucratic entanglements imposed by the EU, the latter against Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s circling sharks in “deep state” waters as well as Trump’s inexperience with the role into which history thrust him as well as the likelihood that his presidency has been compromised.

So-called “populism,” meanwhile, has been demonized in (corporation-controlled) mass media and attacked technologically via the algorithm changes made by Google, Facebook, and other information-controlling tech giants. Thus information and ideas favorable to “populism” simply do not appear in searches or on newsfeeds. Google and the social media giants are constantly improving their algorithms. If this continues, it will gradually undercut all informed resistance to globalism, understood as I have defined it: gradual movement, via “free trade” deals, other international agreements and the organizations they create, furthered by disruptive mass migration and capital flows across increasingly porous borders, towards a centralized world state answering to increasingly interlocked global corporate leviathans — possibly in the name of recovery after economic debacle, war, or just security measures.

Also undercutting “populism” at least in the West, is its association not just with the right, but with the authoritarian right — demonized as fascist, fallacious but rhetorically highly effective!

The left has no effective “populism” of its own. Bernie Sanders and his followers (e.g.) could not overcome the globalists in control of the Democratic Party, whose 2016 anointed candidate was going to be Hillary Clinton — no matter what! Arguably, globalist technocrats control the emocrats more effectively than they control the Republicans! The Democrats have added distractions like identity-politics and gender bending, protecting the legal right of women to kill their unborn children, gun control advocacy, etc. Those with real power couldn’t care less about such things.

The reality and long-term concerted activities of globalist power elites — superelites, I call them in Four Cardinal Errors, owners of capital and controllers of more visible political elites (“the state”) — would probably seem more evident had it not been for rigorous and largely successful propaganda campaigns branding such notions as “conspiracy theories.” This makes it easy to refuse to engage them, to keep one’s head in the sand.

I have to remind readers who have stuck with me to this point that I am not a materialist, much less a Marxist. Here I part company with Varoufakis and crew. Left to their devices, they may avoid repeating the mistakes Marx made, but they will have made a different one — one made by all secular political strategists who envision a new Tower of Babel different from the old ones. As a Christian philosopher, I believe we inhabit a fallen world (Rom. 3:23). What makes us miserable is not just socioeconomic conditions, but what resides in our hearts. Changing socioeconomic conditions will not change our hearts. Any Tower of Babel must therefore fall. We are not going to save ourselves with a new political economy, “revolutionary” or otherwise.

Why Marx now, in that case? Because the secular materialist standpoint reigns supreme, at least for now. If one works from that premise in an honest effort to see where it leads, and then asks which description of advanced civilization has more verisimilitude, one that views us as autonomous individuals running around on our own, actually making our own choices, or one that looks at systems and structures, sees encirclements and the systemic coercion of persons who, e.g., have had their livelihoods and possibly their health destroyed by these forces? The former ignores all the direct experiential support of many persons that militates in favor of the latter. Marx got a few things right by drawing attention to these forces and trying to describe their role in how advancing capitalist civilization works. I hope it is clear by now that the abuses of Marx’s ideas in Soviet Russia and Red China have nothing whatsoever to do with this.

Why Marx now? Because there is no use in pretending something fundamentally structural didn’t occur in 2007-09. We can single out policy decisions such as the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 which allowed commercial and investment banks to merge operations and opened the door to creating dangerous financial instruments (e.g., credit default swaps) and abuses of the public. But these did not emerge out of a vacuum. The rise and triumph of neoliberalism in the 1990s brought with it great systemic pressure on Congress to “deregulate”: freeing the Wall Street leviathans to do as they pleased. We saw the results. We are still seeing them.

Why Marx now? Because I do not think one has to be some kind of egalitarian to think something has gone seriously awry when capitalism does not just “go global” but reaches a point in which a group of people small enough to fit comfortably into a university auditorium controls more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population. It is difficult to blame secularists for tilting left and turning to someone like Marx for ideas, given that mainstream economists seem clueless, something clearly being amiss with official statistics pointing at “recovery” (3.9% U-3 unemployment with wages barely budging). Most secularists mean well ethically even if their presuppositions are wrong. The decent instinctively reject arrangements that dehumanize human beings. They look for alternatives.

What we’ve seen since the Soviet collapse isn’t “real” capitalism, say Libertarians. It is crony capitalism. “Real” capitalism will happen only if we abolish the state and allow the free market to operate. What they cannot tell us is how they propose to do such a thing; or, assuming it possible, what would prevent corporations from recreating the state almost immediately. Could We The People prevent it? We don’t have those kinds of resources!! Could the “cowboy entrepreneurs” do it? Living on the edges where their actual contact with the state is minimal, they aren’t all that interested!

Let’s face it. The idea of “abolishing the state” is simply absurd; and would doubtless be opposed anyway, e.g., by those who have paid into Social Security and Medicare their entire working lives and quite reasonably expect returns on what they consider an investment (not an “entitlement”) late in life: something that will be impossible if there is no “state” to administer it.

We are left with actually existing capitalism. In this fallen world, is there truly any other?

Marx and his latter-day followers help us see that actually existing capitalism is indeed vulnerable to the human weaknesses and peccadillos that brought us to this point, in which we realize that however we label the presently dominant political economy, even if we call it crony capitalism and refuse to call it real capitalism, it is as capable of generating totalitarian forms of life as its presumed opposite (socialism?). Systemic coercion is far more subtle than systematic coercion. Instead of creating conditions for the manning of machine guns, as with the minions of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc., systemic coercion encircles, so that noncompliance results in one’s eventually finding oneself unable to live a normal life. Decades ago, there were no computers, much less the Internet. Imagine trying to do business today without email! Notice, too, how Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard systemically coerce consumers into upgrading through refusing to service older editions of the one’s software and the other’s hardware, with the lifespans of each getting progressively shorter due to built-in obsolescence. Is this purposeful? Perhaps not. It keeps technical labor employed, and forces consumers to spend. Without these, actually existing capitalism falls into crisis. Is this system wasteful? Of course it is! What happens to used computers components? They go into landfills!

Ultimately we are seeing failures not just of capitalism, but of secular materialism given human nature as it is, and not what we may wish it were. There is more to life, and society, than its political-economic arrangements. Whether secular materialism is a stage an advancing civilization must go through in order to continue advancing is a very interesting question. Technological advances require great focus on the here-and-now, and on Mammon acquisition as a measure of what is working. Both make us more comfortable, moreover, and it takes a special kind of broad vision to recognize when one is trading personal freedom for comfort and convenience — not to mention collectivization. Suffice it to say, our civilization must transcend this stage, or its pretenses to have generated and preserved freedom in the face of, e.g., massive job losses and general precarity, will seem increasingly laughable — not to mention how its systems perturb surrounding ones and potentially threaten the habitability of what futurist R. Buckminster Fuller pointedly called Spaceship Earth. In this case, we see capitalism and socialism not as opposites but parts of a continuous process with secular materialism at its core. Reject secular materialism, and a range of new possibilities opens up!

But if we Christians know anything, it is that the secular world will reject us — which in arrangements like those just described consist more of efforts to hobble our capacity to earn a living and influence the conversation than through overt repression. Christianity, having been driven from public schools long ago through spurious establishment-of-religion arguments, is now banned by many corporations as “offensive” (although Muslim, Buddhist, and symbols of other religions including atheism are allowed in our “multicultural” workplaces).

My surmise, in this case: at present, technofeudalism is a more likely future, given continued secular globalist development and the lack of a coordinated, sustainable response to it. It will not be utterly dystopian: there will continue to be room on its edges for those “cowboy entrepreneurs” provided they present no threat to the power arrangements. Technofeudalism will prove unsustainable in the long run, of course, as with all Towers of Babel. It may stand until its founders’ children or perhaps their grandchildren get complacent, entitled, soft, careless, and possibly incompetent at responding to unexpected crises, e.g., a massive hurricane that leaves a devastated region in its wake, or perhaps an earthquake that levels a city of ten million people. The emperors will again be seen to have no clothes.

Then someone must rise from outside the power system, ready and able to lead when the emperors drop the ball. Such a person must be supremely focused in rejecting all the premises on which the order he is rebelling against was erected, including its metaphysical ones (materialism) and its worship of Mammon. And he must command a technology able to solve problems and supply abundance!

At present, corporate leviathans profit from scarcity. They will oppose a technology of abundance.

Mammon is worshipped in the West, because that is what its systems have required: endless growth, whether needed by humans or not, despite the finiteness of space and resources.

Only when we see Mammon tossed from its pedestal will we see the possibility of a truly humane world system that begins to eradicate poverty.

Could a world leader arise capable of all this?

A Christian will surmise at this point that the only Leader able to accomplish such a genuinely transformative and revolutionary goal will be Jesus Christ Himself.

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Why Marx Now? Part 1

Recent years have seen a surge of renewed interest in Karl Marx’s political-economic thought. For those not living in a cave somewhere, this has been hard to miss. This interest is not coming primarily from the “cultural Marxists” of academic humanities, obsessed with identity politics and likely to be viewed, once this new tendency is understood, as pseudo-Marxists. It is coming from careful and astute observers who have looked backward from the financial crisis of 2008 and charted the basic trajectory of global political economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party’s embrace of state-capitalism, and the range of irrational policies that led to the aforementioned crisis. The attention paid to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) is telling, but barely scratches the surface. One guide to a few recent works, and a few older ones, can be perused here.

Before going on, a disclaimer. I want to be sure it is clear: I am not, have not been, some kind of Marxist-in-disguise all along, “coming out of the closet” with this little essay. I maintain a Christian worldview, and I hope it is also clear: those two schools of thought, the Christian one and the Marxian one, draw from incompatible first premises (although there are a few structural similarities I will not get into here). Christianity grounds the fundamentals of reality, including human social reality, in the existence and sovereignty of a transcendent God, regards the human race as inherently sinful, and explains the failures of morality and justice in all political economy as ultimately due to our fallenness. Classical Marxism is as atheistic as any form of materialism, marrying the latter to Hegel’s philosophy (Marx’s term should be familiar: dialectical materialism). It grounds the events of history in material forces; it contends that the primary driver of history is the clash of interests between those who own the means of production and those who not: class struggle.

This essay will reject the popular claim that because the Soviet Union collapsed and the Chinese embraced a form of state-capitalism, Marx’s thought is without serious interest and that the “new Marxists” or whatever we want to call them are therefore delusional. But I will present my own take on where this conversation is going. It may well be that the trajectory of the systems set in motion throughout the course of secular modernity, given human nature as Christianity understands it, yield results very much like what Marx decreed would be the fate of capitalist civilization, mired in tensions (Marx called them contradictions) and absurdities, even if for a variety of reasons, some specifically Christian and some not, we doubt the inevitability of revolution and establishing a brand of socialism capable of leading to Communism as Marx originally envisioned it, the state having “withered away.”

One thing triggering much of the recent thought is the sense that what occurred in 2008 was a structural event, and not just the result just of this or that series of bad policies on the part of the big banks freed as of 1999 from Glass-Steagall separations (of investment from commercial sectors): an inevitable product of something fundamentally unsustainable, namely, capital accumulation as an end in itself. The “recovery,” therefore, has been (outside the privileged enclaves of Wall Street and venture capital bankrolled Silicon Valley, anyway) an illusion born as much of wishful thinking as of statistics designed to mislead (e.g., “U-3” unemployment). Many if not most of the jobs created in the wake of the meltdown have been, after all, low wage affairs, many not even full time, with little or no promise of the upward mobility of the jobs of, say, 60 years ago. The kind of relationship between employer and employee that existed then is broken, and the break looks to be permanent. There is the suspicion, moreover, that even that era was a kind of bubble, the product of amelioration resulting from fear of the attractiveness of the haunting specters overseas. The slow rise of neoliberalism from the Mont Pèlerin enclave of the late 1940s to its takeover of the Republicans in the 1980s and and the Democrats in the 1990s reversed the amelioration, set in motion processes that led inevitably to, e.g., predatory lending, to the meltdown, and to the increasing visibility of the misery the current brand of secular global capitalism has wrought.

For the most obvious recent historical development, which predates Piketty’s book, has been the “populist” insurgency, looking different in different places but overall global in scope and characterized by rejection of elite governance. It targets “globalization” (i.e., capital accumulation gone global for structural reasons: capital either creates new markets and expands into them or it dies), increasingly seen as the growing dominance over the so-called developed world by a wealthy and powerful superelite, the term I used in my book Four Cardinal Errors, centered in (relative to controlled populations) the microscopically small community of international financiers, the corporations they own, and the political classes they control as “puppet-masters.”

In this view, that is, the world’s Ruling Class, if you will, enjoyers of real privilege, is “private” and not “public.” The locus of control is the global network of corporate leviathans — to use John Perkins’s term (cf. his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, orig. 2004), the corporatocracy. Genuine locus of control does not reside with “the state, a multitude of libertarian arguments notwithstanding. The state makes the laws, and then its minions turn to the corporations for donations when they run for re-election. If they tick off their real masters, they are out of the running. The Ruling Class’s instrument of control is money, i.e., capital flows, which is systemic, rather than state-directed police power which is systematic. The latter is used only when the former fails to get the desired results.

Libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, etc., simply have this wrong, by fixating on “the state” as the root of all evil (not that it often does good as most successful politicians got where they are by being unscrupulous opportunists). It may be true enough in the abstract that were there no state, the corporatocracy would not be able to act as it has because the state is integral to it. But there is abstraction and then there is reality. The reality is that (1) the world has the state, (2) there are no practical means of abolishing it, and (3) even if there were, corporations would immediately reinvent it (what would stop them?). My contention here is that we can live in a realm of abstractions and be forever frustrated when the world refuses to fall into line with them, or we can live in the reality we have, try to understand how it actually operates, and given its actual processes and systems, move forward as best we can, incrementally, from where we are now to where we might want to be. And we have to decide what that is, realizing that “where we want to be” is not the same for everyone.

Returning to the new “populism,” while it is sometimes branded as “right wing” and sometimes as “left wing” for obvious reasons, I submit that the actual movements we see, and the impulses behind them, are neither. We should try to think outside the left vs. right dichotomous box. Arab Spring was part of this insurgency: rebellions against North African and Middle Eastern governments that ceased long ago to serve the peoples of the region, serving instead corporations and the Western war machine. The Syriza Party in Greece self-identified as “left wing.” Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., were on the other hand characterized as “right wing,” doubtless because a strong impetus behind them was skepticism about the benefits of unlimited immigration and calls for border controls, products of globalism (i.e., post-Soviet Union neoliberal global capitalism). The same is true of the current governments of Hungary and Poland who share the rejection of open borders and the hyper-centralized policies emanating from Brussels. And those candidates that have failed, such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in The Netherlands. There is additional evidence of an insurgency of Hindu fundamentalism in India. Its targets: globalization and Western materialism (i.e., again, post-Soviet Union neoliberal global capitalism).

In other words, what we are talking about includes movements hated by the “left” as well as some that identify as “left.” All indications are, this movement is not going anywhere despite a few electoral setbacks and relentless media and “lawfare” attacks (e.g., the ongoing and increasingly strained attempt to explain Trump’s victory as the product of collusion with Russia rather than the slim rejection by voters in crucial states of globalist technocrat Hillary Clinton, the Ruling Class candidate, widely and probably correctly perceived within her own party as someone who would have served capital first and everything else second).

What does Marx have to do with all this? Is he relevant today?

First, what did Marx actually say? His disciples no less than his critics have usually gotten him wrong. What he provided, more in Das Kapital (which he did not live to complete) than in The Communist Manifesto with Engels, was a painstakingly detailed description of the workings of the capitalist system of his time, a ferreting out of its “contradictions,” predictions about where it would go, and explanations why. His account was not intended as mere criticism born out of “hatred” of capitalism as conservatives and libertarians have always insisted. He understood as well as anyone that capitalism was an unprecedented engine of production, and that it had raised standards of living everywhere it had penetrated.

He saw this through Hegelian spectacles, however, in which such a system cannot help but sow the seeds of its own eventual destruction. Capitalism, he believed, produces wealth but cannot distribute it across society or otherwise make rational use of its products or of the labor whose efforts are the actual wealth creators. It tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the owners of capital, and so impoverish labor, made poorer as labor will not be hired unless the profit that can be extracted from it exceeds its cost (“surplus value”). This does not happen solely because of the capitalist’s “greed.” It happens for structural reasons. Capitalists are also locked within a system based on competition. They must compete with other capitalists for market share. At the same time, unchecked competition tends toward overproduction: more marketed goods than nonowners of capital can afford, informally known as a glut. And this leads to further contradictions — or tensions — within the system. For even the mid-1800s corporate elites had figured out that unlimited competition couldn’t be permitted. Hence they arranged to limit it, forming the first “old boy networks,” eventually licensing occupations to restrict entry, and myriad other actions to prevent unlimited competition in markets, for jobs, etc., in finite economic space.

Capital’s greatest expense, moreover, is labor. It seeks to keep labor costs down, to maximize its profits. Again, this is not about “greed.” If a capitalist does not do this, he loses the competitive game to those who do. Hence the structural incentive to drive wages down, manifested during the post-Soviet Union era (and even before) by outsourcing labor to third world countries, insourcing cheap immigrant labor (legal or otherwise; ultimately capital does not care), and ultimately replacing labor with technology (as Marx also predicted).

Labor, on the other hand, seeks to increase its income to maximize its capacity to pay living costs. It must buy what capitalists produce, or again their profits fall and the system itself falls into crisis (recession or worse). As the amelioration era of capitalism progressed, it resolved this tension at least in the short term with the credit system pioneered by the banks: encouraging labor to buy what capitalists produced with money it did not have but was promised to have in the near future: eventually financialization broke out and spread through the system like water permeating a sponge. Banks, of course, profited handsomely. When the promise of future money was not realized, however, indebtedness resulted. Today, of course, debt is everywhere: in government (the national debt being over $21 trillion), among students (student loan debt, over $1.5 trillion), etc. Arguably, a fiat currency consists of debt: promises of repayment to the banks (with interest). Were the debt paid in full, the currency would disappear. This is hypothetical, of course: existing debt is unrepayable. Yet the system subsists on spending and then spending more. The capitalist engine, after all, is churning forward, as it must, even if what is produced no longer serves any genuine human needs (think of the tech sector and ask yourself if we really need a new edition of Windows every two or three years, much less the countless games, apps, etc., that now litter the tech landscape). Advertising and myriad other devices appeared long ago in modern capitalist civilization to motivate the masses to spend money they do not have on things they do not need. The masses would personally be better off if they saved for rainy days instead of spent on advertising-manufactured pseudo-needs. Everyone knows this. Yet again, if they save in sufficient numbers, i.e., do not spend, again the system craters. If motivated to spend, the masses sense their real needs are not truly satisfied by more and more material goods; thus the capitalist system we have (is there another?) ultimately fails the test of true human satisfaction which the materialism at its root cannot supply.

According to Marx, to stave off this sense, capitalism generates a superstructure: all that is outside the productive base, including a culture which creates, cultivates, and proliferates distractions of various forms. The system does what it can, that is, to distract labor from its increasing misery. Its mass education, again structurally, slowly and surreptitiously destroys everything that could lead future workers to think critically about their situation and try, systematically, to diagnose its causes. Hence the longstanding separation of political economy into “political science” and “economics” in academia, and the encouragement of academic microspecialization to neuter subjects like history and philosophy. It eventually enstupifies the masses with mindless but extremely lucrative entertainment of various sorts (think of sports and celebrity culture), even as the technology the productive base generates, often entertaining in its own right, begins to undercut labor’s employability both by shortening attention spans and because robots and AI programs will deliver output, often much more efficiently than human laborers.

It is not that capitalism results in inequality (which Piketty stressed), that is. Rather, Marx insisted, as a system it is deeply and necessarily irrational. It is wasteful, as its products fail to serve genuine human needs. The interests of capital and labor are at odds, because the system compels them to seek different things. Capital serves itself by maximizing profit, whether as an end in itself or to stay ahead of competing capital. Labor serves capital instead of itself while “at work,” so that while “at work” the laborer is little better than a machine (he has been “commodified”), and can be himself only when not “at work.” Organizations serving real human needs may price them out of labor’s reach (think: health care); housing, too, may be priced out of reach, so that houses stand empty while homeless people crowd the streets or set up shelters less than a mile away. Capital puts labor into the corporate cubicles it supplies to do the work that generates profits, having kept wages as low as possible and stultified education so as to create worker bees instead of, e.g., historians or philosophers, while failing to make use of many real talents and skills out there (we have all heard that adage about the many writers, artists, etc., who dare not give up their day jobs!). Marx spoke of alienation: labor is alienated not just from products it never sees but from itself, often having “learned” to “make do” with what it has. Many laborers even begin to identify with the interests of capital, seeing opportunities to rise in its organizations, telling themselves they are “happy.” Engels called this false consciousness.

Though often agitating to organize workers, Marx and Engels’s view was not that labor could choose a day, time, and place to overthrow capitalism. Here is where his followers began to go off the rails. Capitalism, as an engine of production whatever its faults, would have to grow until its spanned the entire globe — until there was nowhere of significance anyone could go to escape it. As it did, it would gradually divide the world into a tiny minority of “haves” — that of the global superelite or Ruling Class whose members controlled the levers of capital — and large populations of “have nots,” who controlled less and less of their economic and ultimately their personal lives. Machines, of course, do not ask for wages. Hence, the ideal for capital is to eliminate labor: the ultimate irrationality! Prior to that, the division and rising tensions between Ruling Class and ruled over would polarize the world and ripen conditions for socioeconomic revolution and for the wholesale replacing of capitalism with a political economy that eliminated the private property at the core of capitalism and capital accumulation as the goal of global economic activity. We would at last see a political economy that addressed human needs on their own terms and put us on a course towards true freedom which is only available when such needs are met.

Leaving this last aside, and whether or not it remains a pipe dream even in our times, the necessity of the globalization of capital accumulation is the aspect of Marx’s thought missed by everyone who believes, e.g., that the failure of the Soviet Union, or the embrace of state-capitalism by the Chinese, means that Marx’s thought itself fails and is now irrelevant.

It means, furthermore, that, e.g., so-called cultural Marxism fails, as if its architects in the Frankfurt School did not read their hero very well if they read him at all.

Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, etc., after all, appear to have believed Marxism had failed as a mere economic philosophy. Hence their efforts to merge Marxian analysis with other philosophies (i.e., Freudian psychoanalysis). To succeed, Marxism had to “capture the culture.” Indeed — and it is one of history’s great ironies — economic Marxism hit a roadblock that would remain as long as the Soviet Union stayed in business. Marx did not anticipate the resilience of capitalism, which would adopt amelioration: efforts to minimize labor’s suffering by permitting unions to organize and bargain with capital for better wages, working conditions, etc.; instituting minimum wage; attaching benefits such as Medicare to wages and developing other safety nets;  etc. Cultural pseudo-Marxism has contributed to further destroying Western education and culture while not touching capital’s actual power arrangements. Identity politics, after all, amounts to ethnic minorities, feminists, homosexuals, and now transgenders, agitating for proportional representation on capital’s corporate boards instead of challenging capital’s legitimacy. Over a quarter century of identity politics has utterly obscured the real sources of women’s and minorities’ misery, and made a critical and careful discussion of Marx’s actual diagnosis of the present moment magnitudes harder!

As the leaders of the new interest in Marx doubtless self-identify as leftist, we find ourselves proposing that there are not one but two “lefts”: the old economic left consisting of Marx himself, Engels, and the few who understood him; and those struggling to recover his actual contributions, determine their relevance, and discuss their applicability today … and the academic / cultural left that followed the Frankfurt School through Marcuse and people ranging from Malcolm X to Gloria Steinem to present-day identity politics, in which tribalism is the solution and the “tribe” of straight white Christian men the collective villain (not capital or the process behind it!), both historically and in the present.

The latter dominates academic humanities today, and is another reason they cannot be taken seriously. The former barely exists, in or outside academia. The academic left (or more accurately the cultural left, as it now extends far beyond academia) has become, probably unintentionally through a combination of group-focused myopia and general carelessness, an enemy of the former that tries to read Marx with an eye to understanding him, staying close to what he actually said. Its purveyors would be promoting quite different things otherwise! We will see this in Part 2.

[To be continued next week! If you believe essays such as this are worth your time, please consider becoming a Patron and supporting them; you can also make a one-time donation via PayPal.] 

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Brian Eno’s “Music For Installations”: New Collection Released This Week (A Music Post)

With Music for Installations, British composer and musical innovator Brian Eno has checked in for 2018. Eno is one of the most influential figures in modern popular music, having begun his career around the start of the 1970s with the “glam rock” outfit Roxy Music, deciding within a couple of years that the life of the “rock star” was not his cup of tea, and then beginning the solo career that led to such masterpieces as Another Green World (1975). Soon he became one of the most in-demand producers in the industry (producing records for Robert Calvert, Devo, Talking Heads, U2, Laurie Anderson, James, Coldplay, and many other groups and artists of varying visibility; he has also collaborated with the likes of Robert Fripp, David Byrne, Rachid Taha, Paul Simon, Karl Hyde, and most recently, Kevin Shields, putting in appearances on long-players by countless others).

This massive collection consists of either nine vinyl records or six CDs, depending on your preference. I’ll focus on the CDs because that’s what I ordered (since at the moment, alas, I don’t own a functional turntable). Eno composed, or arranged, all of the material on these records or CDs for use in his visual art installations for which he has become well known in art communities all over the world. Three of the CDs contain material that has been available in the past, but only on limited edition releases initially available only to attendees at the installations and very hard to obtain otherwise (a few copies showed up on eBay). These include Lightness: Music for the Marble Palace (premiered for the first time at The State Russian Museum at St. Petersburg, 1997), I Dormienti and Kite Stories (debuted at The Roundhouse in London, 1999, the former done alongside Italian painter, sculptor and set designer Mimmo Paladino), and the more recent Making Space, initially available only at Lumen London or at exhibitions of 77 Million Paintings. Speaking of which, also included here is a selection from that, his constantly shifting “generative art” production which premiered in Tokyo at the La Foret Museum in 2006.

The rest of the material, including tracks like “Kazakhstan” (listen to a 4-and-a-half.minute excerpt here), is previously unavailable in any form, making this collection worth having even if you have some or all of the others (in the opinion of this long time Eno-watcher); none, incidentally, have been available on vinyl  before.

There are two editions, moreover. There is the standard edition, and a collector’s “deluxe” limited edition. The latter comes with previously unseen exhibition photographs as well as a 64-page booklet featuring a new essay by Eno.

Eno said in a statement back in 2006, “If you think of music as a moving, changing form, and painting as a still form, what I’m trying to do is make very still music and paintings that move…. I’m trying to find in both of those forms, the space in between the traditional concept of music and the traditional concept of painting.”

Now in case casual readers are wondering, what is this doing here, on a philosophy blog? Why is a philosopher writing about, and promoting, a box set of CDs by Brian Eno. Let me address this. Eno has said on a number of occasions how he was influenced to think about art following a remark he attributed to the mother of a girl he was dating as a teenager, someone who had taken a liking to him and would influence him. What she asked him was, in effect, why someone as obviously bright as him was “wasting his time” at an art school (Ipswich). The question was clearly a turning point in his life, for as he put it later:

“ … it set a question going in my mind that has always stayed with me, and motivated a lot of what I’ve done: what does art do for people, why do people do it, why don’t we only do rational things, like design better engines? And because it came from someone I very much respected, that was the foundation of my intellectual life.”

Eno has since noted elsewhere that while those in the sciences, or engineering, have a pretty good consensus on the point to what they are doing, if you ask ten different artists about the purpose of art in human life, you might get ten different answers.

It struck me, upon reading those words, that the same kinds of questions could, and can, be asked about philosophy. Why have certain people been driven to do it? What does philosophy do for them? Is it rational to do it in a science-and-technology based civilization, when it doesn’t produce anything of truly commercial value? Does it contribute anything essential in society? My answers to the last two questions have always been a resounding Yes, that philosophy — perhaps like art — has a job to do in civilization, although if you ask different philosophers what that job is, again you’ll get a range of answers. This kind of question, though, became the foundation for my work in progress, What Should Philosophy Do? (a few preliminaries elsewhere on this blog).

What Eno does in his installations is to set up CD players at various locations around the installation, program them to play tracks of different lengths at random, some of the tracks silent, so that what results could play, in principle, for thousands of years without repeating exactly. What’s the point? He wants us thinking about time, including deep time, as a means to long-term thinking in the present. As one of the co-founders of The Long Now Foundation, he is an advocate of thinking about and planning a future our children and grandchildren and their grandchildren will find livable.

In other words, and in sum, Brian Eno’s artistic and musical activities, as well as his thought as reflected in his essays, are surely relevant to a wide range of thinking about philosophical activities in the world, as reflected in our essays. Eno does not get everything right, but the fact that he has Israel’s number is enough for me to think carefully about my judgment when I think he gets something wrong (as with world government and universal basic income).

All that aside, Eno’s musical output alone opens up a tremendous space for creating the kind of personal environment many of us like to have when we set fingers to word processor: music that is often more suited to filling a background without distracting us from our work. For this reason I’ve always recommended his best albums of quiet instrumental material that have been commercially available all along, such as Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) or On Land (1982) or Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983) (composed to accompany the National Geographic special on the moon landings entitled For All Mankind, finally issued on VHS in 1989).

 

Music for Installations Official Release, May 5, 2018.

Track Listing (CDs)

DISC ONE : Music From Installations
01: Kazakhstan ( 20:33 )
02: The Ritan Bells ( 17:05 )
03: Five Light Paintings ( 19:56 )
04: Flower Bells ( 18:49 )

DISC TWO: 77 Million Paintings
01: 77 Million Paintings ( 43:57 )

DISC THREE : Lightness – Music For The Marble Palace
01: Atmospheric Lightness ( 30:40 )
02: Chamber Lightness ( 25:00 )

DISC FOUR : ‘ I Dormienti’ / ‘Kite Stories’
01: I Dormienti ( 39:42 )
02: Kites I ( 8:07 )
03: Kites II ( 14:29 )
04: Kites III ( 7:34 )

DISC FIVE : ‘Making Space’
01: Needle Click ( 4:09 )
02: Light Legs ( 3:38 )
03: Flora and Fauna / Gleise 581d ( 3:56 )
04: New Moons ( 4:03 )
05: Vanadium ( 1:56 )
06: All The Stars Were Out ( 3:53 )
07: Hopeful Timean Intersect ( 5:13 )
08: World Without Wind ( 5:24 )
09: Delightful Universe ( seen from above ) ( 7:33 )

DISC SIX : Music For Future Installations
01: Unnoticed Planet ( 7:45 )
02: Liquidambar ( 6:55 )
03: Sour Evening ( Complex Heaven 3 ) ( 8:12 )
04: Surbahar Sleeping Music ( 18:16 )

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