Monday, August 25, 2008

Alasdair MacIntyre & Holistic Marxism

by Thomas Riggins

One of the more interesting establishment philosophers, MacIntyre has recently had two volumes of his essays and articles published: "The Tasks of Philosophy" and "Ethics and Politics." These observations are based on Constantine Sandis' review of these volumes ("Torn away from sureness") in the TLS of August 15, 2008. Some of MacIntyre's work has relevance to Marxist thought. He says for instance, as Sandis points out, that the concepts that are used to delineate an ideology (and this includes Marxism) cannot be understood free of their original contexts from which they derive their meaning. Treating them outside of this context makes them appear unwarranted or nonsensical. If we, for example, decide to adopt Marxism as a guiding light but lack the requisite background contextual knowledge regarding the origin of its concepts and doctrines, we run the risk of mixing up the ideological statements of Marxism with the ideological statements of other points of view (Liberalism, Buddhism, etc.)and we could end up with an incoherent mishmash of different points of views which will prevent us from having a proper understanding of reality.

It is the job of philosophy to prevent this from happening. We must, as Sandis says, engage "in socio-linguistic palaeontology aimed at unearthing previously hidden meanings and connections." We can then see how our concepts are related to our own tradition and to that of others. Marx, for instance, was influenced by Hegel and some of Hegel's concepts have come over into Marxism. The concept of "Reason", for example, reappears in Marxism as the concept of "Scientific Method." Lenin tends to rule out all theories that are not capable of scientific treatment (all religious explanations of reality, for instance). But, Sandis says, "MacIntyre rejects Hegel's faith in reason's ability to grasp absolute reality, substituting in its place a critical blend of Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn and W.V. Quine's more pragmatic approaches." This rejection of Hegel, as we will see, has led MacIntyre to abandon Marxism and convert to Roman Catholicism. This is always, to my way of thinking, an unhealthy sign. It does not however, negate, his contention that an ideology must be contextually understood.

Sandis reproduces a quote from the British philosopher Frank Ramsey: "it is a heuristic maxim that the truth lies not in one of the two disputed views but in some third possibility which has not yet been thought of, which we can only discover by rejecting something assumed as obvious by both disputants." This looks suspiciously like the Hegelian dialectic heuristically applied. Ramsey, along with the physicist Heinrich Hertz and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all influenced MacIntyre. He, for instance, applies Ramsey's dictum to resolve conceptual problems between competing ideologies by rejecting some of the premises of both, and especially the idea that one is "right" and the other "wrong." His application of this method is not too bright.

He rejected voting in the 2004 election seeing the difference between Bush's policies (war and more war) and those of Kerry as insignificant. He said that "when offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives." MacIntyre is completely divorced from reality here. The choice between Bush and Kerry was not "false." Only propositions can be false. It was the historic choice that our history presented to us at that time. There were also other choices: Nader, the Greens, etc. To advocate simply sitting out an election that would determine the lives and deaths of thousands of people over a four year period may not be the most ethical behavior for a philosopher to engage in.

In the early 1980s MacIntyre converted to Roman Catholicism because, Sandis suggests, he no longer thought he could make philosophical progress within a Marxist framework.The reason for this was has adoption of a view called "confirmation holism." This view says that an ideology, say Marxism, can only be understood holistically. This means its doctrines have to accepted completely and made to harmonize with one another and cannot be taken more or less generally and supplemented with doctrines from other traditions or ideologies. Sandis says, "Rationality may consequently require us to readily abandon our commitment to any world-view that comes to face an overbearing obstacle." Sandis doesn't tell us what the "overbearing obstacle" was that mandated a switch from the Marxist world-view to that of Roman Catholicism. Non Marxists, I am sure, can think of many just as non Catholics can think of the "overbearing obstacles" that prevent the adoption of that world-view. This looks like relativism, but Sandis tells us MacIntyre is trying to forge an anti-relativist philosophy.

Here is what MacIntyre says about the language used to explain an ideology:
"the languages-in-use of some social and cultural orders are more adequate than those of some others in this and that respect." He also says, "the existence of continuing disagreement, even between highly intelligent people, should not lead us to suppose that there are not adequate resources available for the rational resolution of such disagreement." This is supposed to escape from relativism. But a Marxist will judge Catholic positions from the point of view of Marxism, and vice versa. So I don't see how relativism is overcome.

Sandis says that the "holistic answer is simply that some practices are pragmatically far more attractive than others...." That "attraction", however, will be in the eye of the beholder. Sandis then quotes MacIntyre's "famous" definition of a "practice"-- viz., "any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended." Whew! And we must keep in mind that any given practice, say Nazism, can be replaced by one that is better. That's encouraging.

Since a better practice may always be available any particular practice I hold to must be justified probabilistically. If I think Marxism is "true" [since only propositions can be "true" this is not a good word to use]or rather the most useful theoretical system for describing social reality, then I must realize, as Sandis points out, "one must aim for truth by aiming for justification, and the latter is in principle always open to revision."

MacIntyre's ethical system is cast in a Kantian mould rather that a utilitarian one (i.e., a consequentialist one). He thinks there are some moral rules that we can never be justified in breaking. Against this view stand those who contend
"the moral polarity of any act [is] (at least partly) determined by the circumstances in which it was performed." That is that there is no universal ban on any act but each must be judged either by its results and/or motives and the context surrounding it taken into consideration.

Marx in his day didn't think much of utilitarianism, nor did Lenin of Kantianism. How should a Marxist react to this choice? Sandis indicates that MacIntyre's position is not ironclad and plausible exceptions to it have been suggested. Sandis suggests that morality may be a disposition. To paraphrase him, we might say that if "fragility" is a disposition to break at certain times and not to break at others, so morality is a disposition to act in a certain way in certain cases and not in others. He gives as an example that "an act of intentionally not telling the truth need not be vicious, for there might always be circumstances where one virtuous disposition (say that of kindness) can only be manifested if another (say that of honesty, or of justice) is not."

Marxists can learn somethings from MacIntyre. I think his views on holism are useful, as are his remarks on the coherence of our ideas and their need for justification as well as his attempt to avoid relativism. A Marxist proposition should be part of a system of coherent (non contradictory)co-propositions which can be justified by an appeal to practice and that serve the interests, broadly defined, of the working class in its efforts to abolish the capitalist system. The construction of this holistic system is the task of 21st century Marxists.

Monday, August 04, 2008


by Thomas Riggins

Attention all Marxists! If you thought class struggle was the motive force of history, as certain manifesto writers have claimed, you are sadly mistaken. A new book by Daniel Lord Smail ("On Deep History and the Brain", California, 2007) has come up with the true motive force. This book is reviewed by Steven Mithen ("When We Were Nicer," London Review of Books, 23 January, 2008)and he informs us that Smail says the motive force of history is "the manipulation of human chemistry by the substances we consume" willingly or unwillingly.

Smail's thesis is that our actions are based on the long ago evolutionary development of our neurochemistry. Smail also reverses the biology/culture relationship that holds that culture is derivative from biology. At least this is what Mithen says. We will see that this is not the case since it is going to be neurochemistry (biology) which shapes culture and history.

History doesn't really begin at Sumer. It begins way back in the Old Stone Age (the Palaeolithic) when the major neurochemical agents influencing our brain evolved. Many of these Palaeolithic chemicals are still at work today. Smail says: "What passes for progress in human civilisation is often nothing more than new developments in the art of changing body chemistry."

Mithen tells us this is not just a rehash of the "crude evolutionary psychology" of Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and others, but is a "far more sophisticated"
theory. We shall see.

Smail says human history begins way before the advent of writing five thousand years ago and the view that there was an "unchanging prehistoric past" and then "history" is wrong. Mithen, who is an archaeologist, is in tune with this view. So, apparently, is everybody else these days.

This is a terminological problem (or non problem). Marxists use the term "history" to refer to the advent of class society basically about five thousand or so years ago in the Middle East and "gentile" or "clan" society for the non class societies of "prehistoric" times. They do not believe that prehistoric societies (and what is "historic" and "prehistoric" varies in different parts of the world)
were "unchanging." Rather they were dynamic and rapidly evolving, or stagnant, depending on the physical environments they found themselves in and that they had to adapt to to survive.

Homo sapiens arose from Homo erectus about 200,000 years ago and Mithen thinks, as do many archaeologists, that there was a radical break in human prehistory about 70,000 years ago "when the first unambiguously symbolic artifacts and body adornments are known" (Blombos Cave, South Africa). Right after this time H. sapiens began to spread out of Africa into the rest of the world. Mithen thinks that this has something to do with the final evolution of language. He also thinks, because of the "radical break" Smail may be wrong to deny some period of historylessness to the period prior to 200,000 years ago. Mithen says, "'the myth of Palaeolithic stasis' may, in fact, be the reality prior to Homo sapiens." By the tenor of his own argument, it might be the reality prior to the "radical break" as well.

Using the word "history" in a greatly expanded, and I think unhelpful manner, he says that Smail is right about "history" itself going farther back than H. sapiens. Mithin agrees that even chimpanzees and baboons "have history." This is because their current social reality is based on their past social reality. So almost everything is historical. Why stop at baboons? Why not include the birds and the bees? It is far more useful to apply the term "history" to the written or remembered record and keep the term "prehistory" for the deep past. If your group has no consciousness of "history", you probably don't have a history to be conscious of.

New problems spring up when we leave the Old Stone Age for the New-- for the period called by Vere Gordon Childe, the great Marxist archaeologist of the first half of the 20th century, the time of the "Neolithic Revolution." This is the period of about 8000 to 3000 B.C. (at least for Europe and its immediate neighbors). The previous "mode of production" had been hunting and gathering. Now we settled down to farming and soon to building towns and cities, classes, and the first state structures. So, I think, history does begin at Sumer after all. This doesn't mean prehistory is a blank. Childe call the Neolithic a Revolution because, as a good Marxist, he saw the new mode of production, large scale agriculture, as a qualitative leap and change from the hunting and gathering of the past.

This was due, as Mithen points out, to H. sapiens reaction "to the start of the Holocene some 11,600 years ago, with its warmer and wetter climate than the preceding Pleistocene." Smail calls this period "the fulcrum of the great transformation" of human history. This is exactly what Childe thought as well.

Now we come to Smails' special theory. As a result of the Neolithic's new living conditions-- humans began to settle down and give up the hunting gathering life style. At this time, says Mithin, Smail says "our Palaeolithic-evolved neurophysiology" begins to assert itself. The primate social structure, as seen in chimpanzees and baboons and based on domination "often" brought about by "random acts of violence" to keep lower ranking members of the group fearful and stressed out, begins to reappear.

This argument does not seem to hold water. Mithen points out most hunter gathers have egalitarian societies. He says the evidence is that the "majority of Palaeolithic hunter-gathers were egalitarian" as suggested, by the way, by Engels in his discussion of "primitive communism" in "The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State." So the neurophysiology that we evolved in the Palaeolithic would not have resembled the chimp-baboon model necessary for Smails' theory.

Mithen, however, finds some of this new theory fairly persuasive. Smail says the new political elites that developed to control trade and agriculture "needed to control the brains and bodies of their subordinates by manipulating their neuro-chemistry." So they ruled by relying on "random acts of violence" against their people to keep them down through fear and stress, via the head baboon, since "control of agricultural surpluses or trade routes was not enough to maintain their power base."

This is just completely unscientific speculation worthy of a vision of the Neolithic conjured up out of reading too many Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. Of course, Smail holds that the rulers were not aware of what they were doing-- Mithin says, "they were simply repeating what had seemed to work in gaining them power. Random violence is a winner every time."

There is no evidence that the political elite in the Neolithic period used random violence against their people to maintain power. This is just speculation and guess work. Mithin however says that it wasn't just physical violence. People who know about the Neolithic site of Chatalhoyuk (Anatolia: 7000 BC) will find Smail's views "particularly striking and persuasive." Why is this?

Because, at this site "we find horrendous wall paintings and sculptures showing decapitated people and monstrous animals." This is very emotive. Lets give a more scientific formulation. Here "we find strange (to us) wall paintings and sculptures showing headless people and large unknown mythological animals. We do not know what the purpose of these images was. Perhaps it was religious." This is not the conclusion of Mithin.

He simply asserts that these images show "a culture of suppression through terror, with-- no doubt-- a priestly caste benefiting from these visions of a Neolithic hell." Terror was used to "attack the body chemistry" of the people {evolved during the baboon Reign of Terror)to make them fearful and afraid of those "intent on maintaining power." These speculations are completely without merit.

From the Neolithic we advance into the historical period proper. Since our neural states "are plastic and thus manipulable" we find that "new forms of economic, political and social behaviour emerge during the course of history." The six most important vis a vis our neurochemistry have become also the most important for human culture. The six are "religion, sport, monumental architecture, alcohol, legitimised violence-- and sex for fun." At least random violence is not on the list. These six are the "most effective in moulding and manipulating our body chemistry."

So the Romans had it down with bread and circuses. First put the subject population under stress, then provide relief which advantages the ruling class. "What better way," Mithen notes, "for elites to build and maintain their power than to create stress within a population by a culture of terror and then very kindly to offer the means for its alleviation by arranging such events." Examples today would be professional sports, movies, and especially great events such as the Olympics. Mithin quotes Etienne de la Boetie who in 1548 referred to sporting and theatrical extravaganzas as "tools of tyranny" and "drugs for the people."

Methods used by others to influence or control our brain and body chemistry Smail calls "teletropic mechanisms." Those we use on ourselves are "autotropic." Mithin points out that it "is far better for those in power to be in control of their subordinates' body chemistry than to leave it to the subordinates themselves." This is why many religions, for example, as ruling class tools, reject such autotropic mechanisms as masturbation, sex for fun, alcohol, and recreational drugs. The state, in fact, seeks to regulate and control autotropic mechanisms as far as possible.

The plot thickens. The world historical change from the Middle Ages to our modern world may be better explained by the manipulation of neurochemistry than by Marxist theory. The European discovery and use of tea, chocolate, coffee, and tobacco allowed people to regulate their own brain chemistry, for these items are all autotropic. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the struggle between autotropic and teletropic mechanisms. Smail is credited with Mithin's comment that the "Making of the Palaeolithic relevant to the drinking of tea is no mean feat."

Two quotes from "On Deep History and the Brain" sum up the argument and bring us to the book's grand conclusion. "We can finally dispense with the idea, once favored by some historians, that biology gave way to culture with the advent of civilisation. This has it all backward. Civilisation did not bring an end to biology. Civilisation ENABLED important aspects of human biology, and the drama of the past five thousand years lies in the fact that it did so in ways that were largely unanticipated in the Palaeolithic era." The second quote is "we need not dig only in the dusty topsoil of the strata that form the history of humanity. The deep past is also our present and future."

What Marxist would disagree with this first comment. It only says that human potential has been increased by the inventions of civilization and that these inventions were not foreseen in the Old Stone Age. What Smail means is that the brain chemistry that evolved in the Old Stone Age was not adapted for the changes that lay ahead, it being oriented towards the teletropic. But we have already seen that H. sapiens in the Palaeolithic was largely egalitarian (primitively communistic) and so autotropic. The evolution of our brain chemistry fits into any type of society it would seem. As for the notion of the "deep past": it is of course true that we are the product of evolution, of animal ancestors and that this heritage remains with us today and forms part of our nature. Who, since Darwin, would deny that.

The question remains, how are we best to understand history, the rise of capitalism, the contradictions of imperialism and the way to overcome them and proceed on the road to socialism? Historical Materialism, the theories of Marx, Engels and Lenin are still to my mind the best methods to use to answer these questions. It is true that candy is dandy, and that chocolate, masturbation, and alcohol are handy autotropic devices, but they won't replace class struggle and the analysis of the means and modes of production as ways to change the world. Political power does not grow out of a Hershey bar.