Thursday, April 30, 2009


Misunderstanding Marx: Brad Delong and the Collapse of Neoliberalism

Thomas Riggins

The blogosphere has lately witnessed some interest in a lecture, "Understanding Marxism" posted by Professor Brad Delong of the University of California and a former Clinton administration official. Delong calls himself a neoliberal economist and his lecture is such a confused jumble of misrepresentations and misunderstandings of even the most elementary rudiments of Marxism that its refutation will serve the two fold purpose of clarifying some elementary ideas of basic Marxism 101 and of exposing the absolute insipidity of neoliberal thinking.

The first thing that struck me about this article, "Understanding Karl Marx" by Brad Delong, besides how poorly written it was, is how uninformed the author appears to me on both the origins of Marxism and just what Marx thought. It takes a lot of HUTSPAH to write an article when you don't yourself appear to understand what you are writing about.

Take the opening sentence of the article: "In the beginning was Karl Marx, with his vision of how the Industrial Revolution would transform everything and be followed by a Great Communist Social Revolution-- greater than the political French Revolution-- that would wash us up on the shores of Utopia." Already we can see Delong's understanding is based more on Tom Stoppard than Das Kapital.

Anyone familiar with Marx realizes that he was not the "beginning" of the theory and practice of socialism associated with his name. Both he, and his intellectual collaborator Frederich Engels, arrived at their theories based on the work of a long history of thinkers, both in economics and philosophy, that preceded them. Neither were "utopians" in any use of that term that is relevant to the history of early socialist theory or practice, nor would they have juxtaposed a communist revolution as "social" as compared to an inferior French revolution that was "political."

This first sentence is a hint of what is to come. A series of ill informed assertions and claims, without any supporting arguments in most cases, personal opinions and prejudices put forth in a pontifical manner, and value judgments dished out as if they were factual statements. I haven't the inclination to deal with all the nonsense in this garbled attack on Marx, but I will highlight a few examples of what I am referring to to give the reader some basis to evaluate my criticisms.

Delong says that Marx was "part prophet" and gives some of Marx's opinions about the future of India to demonstrate that we was a failure. This from a man who considers Milton Friedman and Lawrence Summers as two of his gurus and was caught as flat footed as were most in his profession by the collapse of the world capitalist economy.

What did Marx say about India? He said that building a network of railroads would be the "forerunner of modern industry" in that country. That this would lead to the economic development of India but it would not solve the problems of backwardness and poverty for the Indian masses. Every thing Marx said in the rather long extract Delong gives from his writings on India has come to pass. All, except one thing. Marx claimed that until socialism is established in the most industrially advanced countries (and thus is introduced to the more backward) human degradation and exploitation will continue under the capitalist system.

To this Delong replies: "Large-scale prophecy of a glorious utopian future is bound to be false when applied to this world." He follows this up with a lot of idiotic comments about the New Jerusalem and Marx's not having visited the island of Patmos (the old stomping grounds of St. John the Divine). Delong clearly thinks that human exploitation and degradation will never end in any kind of socialist future. He is perfectly content with making his own large-scale prophecy and ridicules Marx not so much for prophecy making but not seeing the future through the eyes of the Ayatollah Friedman-- the true prophet of the glorious future of the unregulated market.

He now tells us what he sees as the "three big ideas" of "Marx the political activist." All three turn out to be theoretical ideas (which were never held by Marx in the simple minded way Delong presents them) and have nothing to do with activism. Marx's activism consisted of forming the International Workingmen's Association, agitating for reforms and improvements in the conditions of the working class (and the abolition of slavery) by giving talks and speeches to worker's groups, and writing popular pamphlets and newspaper articles to raise the class consciousness of working people.

Here are the three "activist" ideas according to Delong. First, before capitalism, exploited people were hypnotized into believing their exploiters "deserved" to take their spoils, but under capitalism "naked exploitation" would be revealed and "class society could not survive." Delong thinks this "completely wrong." But Marx had no such thoughts about the exploited people in pre capitalist times, being fully aware of the numerous slave rebellions and wars against exploitation in the classical world and of the many peasant uprisings in the Middle Ages. As for the awareness of the "naked exploitation" of capitalist society, well the outcome of this is yet to be determined, but Marx was under no delusion that "awareness" alone (i.e., class consciousness) would lead to liberation. He was talking about the struggle of an entire historical epoch, a struggle that is going on at this very moment and we understand very well whose side Delong represents.

Second, the ruling class will never share the social product they control with the workers. Social democracy, which provides income relief and social benefits for the working class will "inevitably collapse or be overthrown" because the right wing doesn't believe it is just to pay workers more than their "marginal product" ( which can only mean to pay them more than the wages socially necessary to reproduce their class). This is very confused thinking. Delong means a faction of the ruling class will never share the wealth because for social democracy to be overthrown by the right wing, then the "left" wing of the ruling class would have to be in power. In a proper socialist state there would be no right wing left to overthrow the workers. But Marx cannot have thought along these lines because in his day there was no distinction between "social democracy" and "socialism." Delong is trying to read back into Marx his limited understanding of twentieth century history.

Third, Marx thought people would work in factories and live in cities, realize their common interests, revolt, and make a just society. Peasants could not do that because they were isolated in the old days and were like "a sack of potatoes which can attain no organization." Delong has obviously missed The Peasant War in Germany when thousands of sacks of potatoes from all over the place rose up to prevent themselves from being mashed, roasted and boiled. Delong tells us that working class consciousness "as a primary source " of identification was weak as ethnos and nationality were more important. He gives 1914 as an example. It is true working class leaders in most countries sided with their governments but not all. The socialist leaders in Russia and the U.S. did not, for example. But workers still thought of themselves as workers for all that. Class struggle and class consciousness still dominate many sections of the working class in different countries and defines their political struggles to this day. Here I think Delong mistook a passing phase for an enduring trend.

Next, Delong moves to "Marx the economist." Here he discusses six of Marx's "big ideas" which he classifies as the "the three goods and the three bads." Lets look at the three goods first.

1. He says Marx was one of the first to realize that periodical crises were a feature of capitalism. By gosh we are having one of them right now-- with Delong's buddies and acquaintances, Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers, "in the Hot Seats." But not to worry. Delong tells us he doesn't think that Marx is correct in holding that "financial crises [Marx speaks of crises of over production] were evidence of the long-term unsustainability of the system." Well, that's a relief. "We modern neoliberal economists," Delong writes, "view it not as a fatal lymphoma, but rather like malaria." Delong says we have the tools to save the economy these days-- they are Keynesianism, or if you don't like that, we have monetarism (Friedman). The fact that we can choose, as we "prefer" Delong says, between two conflicting theories gives the impression that neoliberals don't know what they are talking about. In any event, since crises are like malaria they are not "life threatening" but more like "occasional night sweats and fevers." Delong says we have the "economic policy quinine" [two flavors in fact] to manage the problems. I sure hope no one discovers that there are drug resistant forms of malaria. The patient just might die!

2. The second good was that Marx got the industrial revolution right, that it had the possibility to create an abundance to make a great a society where "we people can be lovers of wisdom without being supported by the labor of a mass of illiterate, brutalized, half-starved, and overworked slaves." Delong says that previous societies needed these overworked slaves to produce the surplus that the thinkers and lovers of wisdom needed to live off of. Delong is correct if he thinks Marx saw that industrial capitalism would lead to the abandonment and abolishment of slavery as the major source for the extraction of surplus value for the ruling class and that wage labor (or wage slavery) would become the new means to extract surplus value. In fact feudalism had already abolished slavery. But he is a real nit if he thinks the capitalist system which he is so enamored of, has come anywhere near doing this. Workers in the advanced capitalist countries certainly live better than they did two hundred years ago but they are not part of that "we" that Delong is part of that can sit around loving wisdom all day without depending on the labors of others. The conditions of living of most working people and especially agricultural workers all over the world leaves much to be desired. Marx thought that the possibility of abundance for the people's of the world abided in the creation of SOCIALISM not NAFTA.

3. The Third Good, according to Delong, was that Marx got a lot of the history of England right and his history of the development of capitalism 1500--1850 is still "worth grappling with." Delong agrees with Marx that "the benefits of industrialization" take "generations to kick in" while the "costs of redistributions and power grabs in the interests of market efficiency and the politically powerful rising mercantile classes kick in immediately." This is a round about way of saying capitalism benefits the elite (the capitalists) from the git-go but workers and ordinary people have to wait "generations" to get any benefits. This is the really, really, really slow trickle down theory. Well, so much for the three goods, lets look at the three bads.

1. The First Bad. Delong says Marx holds that increase in labor productivity leads to lower wages for workers therefore capitalism leads to "a combination of obscene luxury and mass poverty." Delong says this is an "empirical question" and he just thinks Marx is wrong. Yes, and Marx would agree with Delong if that is how the problem is formulated. There are issues here. Marx distinguished between absolute and relative wages and said that as labor becomes more productive its RELATIVE position with respect to the capitalist widens. An example would be the gap between the average workers pay and that of the top capitalists was about 1 to 40 twenty years ago and its now about 1 to 400! Marx talked about the ABSOLUTE decline in wages (or income) for the unemployed people who made up the reserve army of labor and others marginalized by society-- the homeless, the mentally ill, the uneducated, etc. The second issue is that Marx was writing about capitalism as it was in the 1850s-- not the capitalism of today that has implemented REFORMS to prevent this absolute immiseration of people. Reforms in large measure prompted by the growth of the labor movement and the influence of progressive demands inspired by the works of Karl Marx. So, Marx was basically correct and the First Bad is not a bad at all.

2. The Second Bad. Delong says Marx thought working for wages was bad and wanted a more humane society so people could "serve their fellow humans." Marx didn't express himself this way at all. He didn't talk about wage labor being "bad". He analyzed how capitalism functions and what its consequences were. Delong thinks he was moralizing about the poor living conditions of the workers in his day. Delong says he thinks "Marx mistook the effects of capitalism for the effects of poverty." What Delong doesn't see is that if you live under a capitalist system and have widespread poverty, that poverty is an effect of the system. Anyway, Delong is all for the "cash nexus" relations of capitalism. People who try to build society on other foundations "do not wind up in their happy place." I suppose we are in a "happy place" today. But that's life. "We neoliberal economists," Delong writes, "shrug our shoulders" and believe "there is no reason why people cannot find jobs they like [he has got to be smoking something-- they can't find jobs at all!] or insist on differentials that compensate them for jobs they don't." Really now. I don't like my job and I insist that I get paid more money as a result. After all wages are not determined by the costs of replacing labor power, but by whether or not I like my job. If I Iike it you can pay me less by the way. This guy is supposed to know something about economics?

3. The Third Bad. We are told Marx thought capitalism "was incapable "of delivering an acceptable distribution of income for anything but the briefest of historical intervals." Why? Delong thought Marx was "pushed" to that view by watching the rise to power of Napoleon III backed by a ruling class that thought democracy only lasted as long it could "pull the wool over the workers eyes" and their property would be saver under a dictatorship." This is actually a meaningless theory as Delong gives us no way to quantifiably measure what he means by "acceptable distribution of wages" or "briefest historical interval." Marx thought that capitalism functions by exploiting the labor power of workers and extracting surplus value from it. In Das Kapital he provides a mathematical formulation of this thesis which allows for the quantification and measurement of the factors involved in this process so that scientific understanding can be achieved. Delong provides only feeling, half baked opinions and vague impressions, all, very subjective, of why he "thinks" Marx is wrong. He tells us that an acceptable income distribution may be hard to maintain but Marx is too rigid in saying the ruling class is "incapable" of providing it. A counter example is Europe in the last 50 years [no U.S. example?] where the creation of "the twentieth- century social democratic mixed economy democratic state can abolish all Marx's fears that capitalist prosperity must be accomplished by great inequality and great misery." Does it now? Social democracy has mixed a great deal of Marxism into capitalism to get that hybrid economy-- progressive income tax, public education, a "well-established public safety net"-- all adopted from the demands in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, and not very high on the to do list of American shoulder shrugging neoliberals. Meanwhile, since the "Crash of '08" the working class in Europe has become mobilized to fight back against neoliberal policies which want to shred the safety net and roll back the worker's gains of the last 50 years. In the U.S. workers and their unions are also gearing to fight back against neoliberalism: you have only to look around you to see that Marx's views are so far superior to the ramblings of Delong and his fellow neoliberals that professional economists (non Marxists) are no longer to be taken seriously.

Delong thinks Marx was a great thinker, almost as great as he himself, (remember the Three Goods) and now wants to figure out how he could have arrived at the Three Bads (which we have seen are really just another Three Goods, for a total of Six Goods.) All Marx's mistakes, Delong says, ultimately derive from two sources: Hegel and Engels.

Lets look at Hegel first. It appears that Delong was bored by reading the first chapter of Das Kapital (he says so) and didn't understand it all. He was especially driven to distraction by the last section on the "Fetishism of Commodities". All that Hegelian dialectic was too much for him-- especially the idea that it is "value" not real "prices" that "are the elements of the real important reality."

Delong declares, "Now I have never found anybody who thinks this way." I am sure that he hasn't. That is why what passes for "economics" in the U.S. is junk science and Delong and his tribe were caught flatfooted by the crisis of 2008. They haven't the faintest idea how the real economy works.

This is one of the reasons Business Week recently asked "What Good Are Economists Anyway?" This was the title of an article by Peter Coy in the 4-27-2009 issue. He writes "Economists mostly failed to predict the worse economic crisis since the 1930s. Now they can't agree how to solve it. People are beginning to wonder: What good are economists anyway." Coy thinks they have some value yet but you only have read Delong to realize they are mostly worthless except as propagandists for the failed free market. I agree with the housing bloger on, quoted my Coy, who wrote: "If you are an economist and did not see this coming, you should seriously reconsider the value of your education and maybe do something with a tangible value to society, like picking vegetables." A few days in the fields and Delong would know the difference between "value" and "price."

Here is how he understands it now. "Things have value not because of the abstraction that socially-necessary labor time is needed to produce them but because of the concretion [?!] that somebody somewhere wants to use it [i.e., a commodity] and has something else that others find useful to trade in turn." That is just pure idealist hogwash. The whole capitalist system boils down to somebody somewhere wants something I have and I want something they have. This is the Iranian Bazaar Model. Because Marx was led astray into his Hegelian version of the labor theory of value he "vanishes into the swamp which is the attempt to reconcile the labor theory of value with economic reality, and never comes out."

Why is Delong so opposed to Marx on this issue? Because if Marx is right Delong knows that capitalism, the system he supports, is an oppressive unjust system. If "the system forces you to sell your labor power for its value which is less than the value of the goods you make [then] human freedom is totally incompatible with wage labor or market exchange" [he should have just said capitalism-- there are markets in non capitalist systems]. Now if capitalism is unjust "that leads the political movements that Marx founded down very strange and very destructive roads." As if the capitalist movements which brought us the international slave trade, colonization, two world wars, and the present mess have not taken us down some "very destructive roads." Well, Delong tells us at this point that he has "done" Hegel and now he will take care of the Engels connection.

To make a long story short, Delong thinks that because Engels' family owned factories in Manchester, and Manchester was indeed a horrible place of dark Satanic mills in 1848, Marx got a bad impression of capitalism. But Manchester was the exception.

If Engels had lived in Birmingham Marx would have seen a different side of capitalism. Birmingham had few large factories and many workers worked from home and or worked in small establishments with the master. In other words, by looking at Manchester, the heart of the Industrial revolution in Britain, instead of Birmingham, a backwater that was lagging behind and still representative of the past rather than the future of capitalist development, Marx misrepresented the facts.

Such is how Delong attempts to "understand" Marxism. With "economists" such as this representing contemporary capitalist "thought" is it too much to hope for that we will soon see the speedy dissolution of this out of date and ruinous social formation?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Pakistan Peccadillo

Thomas Riggins

Well, we are about to evaluate the first 100 days of the Obama administration and I think, with respect to the issues of war and peace, they are abominable. There is NO EXCUSE for bombing and killing people-- especially when we have a 70 civilians to 1 "enemy" ratio. I am a good old isolationist! Obama should have laid down plans to get us 100% out of Iraq and Afghanistan in the first 100 days. We should be out by now. Instead we are, it seems, going to hang around [McCain's 100 years] with our army in Iraq and Afghanistan forever (the mission is the same we will not use the term "combat troops" anymore for Iraq-- a rose by any other name...).

There is lipstick on something-- the Secretary of State just made a "surprise" visit to Baghdad. Despite all the hoopla about the increased security due to the surge she still has to sneak into Iraq like a thief in the night and get out again lickity split. Some progress.

Now to Pakistan. There is a great image of Nero fiddling (he actually would have used a harp) while Rome burned. It brings to mind Obama's policy of increased use of drones to slaughter women and children in Pakistan in order to "save" Afghanistan. The image here is frolicking on the White House Lawn with a puppy while children are blasted to bits by executive order.

What's worse is this policy is handing Pakistan over to the despicable Taliban on a silver platter. I refer you to the Wall Street Journal of Friday April 24th and its front page story "U.S. Urges Pakistan to Repel Taliban. "Pakistan is a country of 170 million people and we are afraid the Taliban is going to take over! Forget Afghanistan-- this will give Mulla Omar THE BOMB, just what we need.

While we "urge" the repelling of the Taliban, Obama's policies of war mongering in the area are catapulting them to power. It seems we never learn anything. Here are just some quotes from the article to show what a desperate situation we are confronting-- all of which would come to an end by just a complete withdrawal from the area. What the hell is the American army doing in the middle of Asia?

Well, there was a democratic election in the country and Asif Ali Zardari won he is "still the DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED president from a party that that enjoys WIDE POPULARITY in Pakistan." But there is a problem. Zardari isn't popular with the U.S. A U.S. official is quoted: "By and large, Sharif [that is the Islamist Nawaz Sharif who LOST the election] could be in a better position to deliver what the U.S. wants." How to bring this about.

It is clear we want Sharif in charge, so how to upset the election of Zardari and actually put Sharif in charge. We will turn to elements in the Pakistani elite who live off of U.S. moola and get them to change, at the top, the CONSTITUTION of Pakistan to take power away from the President and give it to the Prime Minister, and then make Sharif the PM. The WSJ: "Such a move could serve as a DEMOCRATIC vehicle for Mr. Sharif" to come to power say members of the elite. Nasty things, these elections.

The U.S. has given billions to Pakistan over the years to build up its army. There are 500,000 troops in the Pakistani military. The Taliban is about 7000 strong. That is about 70 soldiers for every 1 Taliban. And what do we read? "There is no guarantee the army would win" if it decided to take on the Taliban.

You have to be in sad shape if you can't lick 7000 militants with an army of 500,000. The chief military spokesman, Gen. Athar Abbas, said, "We need public support to fight militants." And guess what. With a population of 170 million people, the WSJ says: "So far, that has been lacking." Why? "Many poorer Pakistanis [about 90% of the population] find the Taliban's promises of speedy justice [stoning and beheading!] and equality [except for women] attractive." What is the Pakistani ruling class and the U.S. doing to make the godforsaken (if I may use this term) Taliban "attractive"?

It seems that the masses resent the U.S. bombing them and killing 70 civilians per militant. To wipe out the 7000 Taliban the "collateral damage" would be 490,000 civilians. A price the U.S. is apparently willing to pay. Since the 500,000 Pakistani troops are worthless, President Obama has pressured President Zardari to allow an increase in the number of drone attacks the U.S. can carry out in Pakistan.

Well that's the first 100 days on the War and Peace Front. The Domestic Front. That's another ball game altogether. But there is a link. The billions and billions spent on war can't feed hungry children or keep homes from being foreclosed.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Thomas Riggins

"TALIBAN ENLIST AN ARMY OF PAKISTAN'S HAVE-NOTS''-- blazes a headline for a story by Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah in Friday's NEW YORK TIMES (4-17-2009). Reporting from Peshawar, the authors explain how the Taliban took over a major part of Pakistan and plan to take over the country itself in the not too distant future. Here is how it happened in their own words (slightly edited to reduce length and to provide emphasis).

"The Taliban have advanced deeper into Pakistan by engineering a CLASS REVOLT that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants.... " [ They defeated the Pakistani Army, took over the Swat Valley, imposed Taliban law and order, and are heading for the Punjab and eventually the whole of Pakistan-- it only a matter of time! Why?]

"The Taliban's ability to EXPLOIT CLASS DIVISIONS ... is raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely FEUDAL." Pakistan is ruled by "a NARROW LANDED UPPER CLASS that kept its vast holdings while its WORKERS [i.e., peasants] REMAINED SUBSERVIENT...."

The feudal ruling class and its military controlled state has "failed to provide LAND REFORM and even the most basic forms of education and health care. Avenues to advancement for the vast majority of rural poor do not exist." The Punjab (no small potatoes here) "is ripe for the same social upheavals that have convulsed Swat and the tribal areas."

The Times also reports that there is a feeling in some segments of the upper class and its representatives that the Pakistani masses are ripe for revolution.

This is the blueprint that was behind the rise of Maoism and its triumphs in the last century (and more recently in Nepal). The big difference is that Maoism was ideologically based on Marxism and its program, though grounded in the peasantry, was influenced by the advanced ideological positions of a socialistically conscious working class.

This is not the case with the Taliban. The revolutionary potential of the Pakistani masses is being directed towards the establishment of a fundamentalist "Islamic" state which will keep the class relations of feudalism but spread the surplus created by peasant labor in a more equitable way.

The coming of Taliban power will end the control of the Pakistani state by the landlord class (which is rotten to the core and deserves no sympathy for either its fascistic military or its pseudo-democratic political facade) but will not really bring liberation to the Pakistani masses other than needed economic relief to the unending super exploitation they are now enduring.

The Taliban, and all it represents, is a nightmare for Western progressives. It presents us with beautiful example of a dialectical conundrum. The NEGATION of the present Pakistani state is nothing to cry over, but what forces are available for the NEGATION OF THE NEGATION as the Taliban is historically a dead end. The West, and particularly U.S. imperialism has managed to destroy all the really progressive regimes in the region--- I mean the pro-Soviet Afghan government and the former Central Asian Soviet Republics (and the Chinese are on an extended revolutionary holiday) and is engaged even now in both Iraq and Afghanistan in hopeless reactionary military adventures which only strengthen the Taliban and its allies.

Well, this is the dilemma. Are there any viable progressive forces in Pakistan? Does anyone know what their positions are and how they propose to deal with the Taliban?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Pirates' Point of View

Thomas Riggins

Who are the real pirates anyway? The poor fishermen who live along the Somali coast could make a living my taking their small wooden boats out to sea and catching enough fish to feed their families and make some money selling fish in the markets along the coast.

In the 1990s the Somali government fell apart and could no longer protect its territorial waters. The big commercialized fishing fleets moved in and began illegal fishing in Somali waters--fleets from Europe (France, Greece, Spain, Norway. etc.,) from the East (Thailand, China, etc.). They came because they had already decimated the fishing stocks of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean-- driving Tuna almost to extinction-- as well as other fish.

Now they decimated the fishing stocks off the coast of Somalia, taking advantage of the Somalis and understanding that there was no one to stop their illegal poaching. Other ships from the developed world found they could dump their waste and pollutants in Somali waters as well-- killing large numbers of the remaining fish that native fishermen were trying to eke out a living from by catching.

Their way of life virtually destroyed by the connivance of the big commercial firms and their governments the Somali fishermen were forced into "piracy" to survive. If you crush people and push them down, starve their families and destroy their environment they will fight back. They will throw your tea in the harbor, spin their own cotton or collect their own salt from sea, steal a loaf of bread from the market, or even highjack your ships and crews to get the money their communities need to survive.

As usual our only response is to shoot them-- even if they were not harming hostages (they were after money not blood). First we destroy their way of life, their ability to feed themselves, their culture, then we shoot them. It's been going on since Columbus. Metals all around-- for our heroes, everyone.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009



Thomas Riggins

These are some remarks on the new Pentagon budget proposed on Monday by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as reported in Tuesday's New York Times (4-7-2009).

It appears that Gates want's to eliminate wasteful, redundant, and obsolete programs and prepare the military for its new mission, viz., counter-insurgency warfare as in Iraq and Afghanistan rather that conventional warfare, say attacking the Russian army or the Chinese.

The defense industry is gearing up to fight the changes as its interest is not the security of the United States or the safety of the men and women in the military, but on continuing to get as much money as it can from the government to increase its profit margins.

The new budget is a result of new strategic thinking from the administration "making the system," as the NYT puts it, "more flexible and responsive to the needs of the troops in the way it chooses and buys weapons." Right now the troops take second place, or rather third, behind the needs of capitalist profits for the defense industry and domestic political considerations.

Gates was pretty forthright in saying economic issues and Congressional concerns about jobs (i.e., votes) would render it difficult, in his words, to "make tough choices about specific systems and defense priorities based solely on the national interest and then stick to those decisions over time." Hmmm: BASED SOLELY ON THE NATIONAL INTEREST! We will soon see the defense industry and politicians junking the NATIONAL INTEREST for their own PRIVATE INTEREST-- all wrapped up in the flag of course and presented as their patriotic duty.

Gates wants to end "the hugh cost overruns and delays that have plagued so many programs." He will be fought tooth and nail because these overruns and delays boost profits enormously for the industry.

One boondoggle Gates wants to reform is the missile defense shield. He doesn't want to end it just have it "scaled back by $1.4 billion." He might even end, or postpone ,"some of the more exotic programs." Those are ones that basically don't work but justify dumping billions into the private sector defense industries (such as schemes to shoot down inter- continental ballistic missiles).

He also wants to cut back on the production of more F-22 fighter jets, we really don't need so many and the money could be better spent in ways to actually give more support to our ground troops. But not according to the Republican House member Tom Price of Georgia. There are thousands of defense workers who would be out of work in Georgia if these unneeded aircraft were put to rest. What does Price say?

"It's outrageous that President Obama is willing [note-this is Gates' proposal, it hasn't gone yet to the White House] to bury the country under a mountain of debt with his reckless domestic agenda but refuses to fund programs critical to our national defense." The point is, of course, that an excess number of F-22s is NOT critical to our national defense. This is just pandering for votes on Price's part-- an example of the NATIONAL INTEREST being ignored, and even damaged, on behalf a PRIVATE political interest.

As for those "exotic" and ever so expensive worthless anti-ballistic missile missiles, we are told a bipartisan group of six senators (there was one Democrat!) claims that the new budget cuts to that program "could undermine our emerging missile defense capabilities to protect the United States against a growing threat."

What threat? Neither Russia nor China want to commit suicide. North Korea doesn't even have rockets that fly right, Iran doesn't have a bomb. Neither India nor Pakistan have missiles that can reach us, and are unlikely to attack us anyway. That leaves the Brits-- they won't be attacking us anytime soon. The French have been sorely provoked by the Bushites (dumping their wine in the sewers and coming up with "freedom fries") but Sarkozy loves us, so the French will behave themselves. The last possibility is the Israelis. They did attack the USS Liberty in 1967 and kill 34 of our men but I don't think they will nuke us.

Let me conclude by saying, Gates, a conservative Republican working with Obama, is not about to weaken the US military. He wants to rationalize it for the new type of warfare he sees as being the hallmark of the 21st Century-- local interventions to put down insurgencies and uppity natives. I am quite happy to see the bloated defense industry and sycophantic politicians getting the short end of the stick for a little while. But the industry will still get billions of dollars for non productive instruments of mass destruction. The best defense budget would be just enough to bring all our troops home from everywhere in the world.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Philosophy of Chi-tsang (Jizang)

Discussion Sixteen Chi-tsang [Jizang] in a series of Marxist dialogues on Chinese philosophy
Thomas Riggins

“Well Fred, are you ready to discuss Chi-tsang?”

“I read the selections on his philosophy [in Chan: Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy], but its rather confusing. I’m still sort of in a fog Karl.”

“That’s natural for anyone who hasn’t been exposed to ‘Buddhist speak.’ A real problem is that he represents a Chinese version of a philosophy that was developed in India in a different historical and cultural context than that of China.”

“That I know. Chan refers to the ‘Philosophy of Emptiness’ or ‘The Three Treatise School.’ Briefly, he points out the Chi-tsang’s school was one of the two major schools of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, that it was developed by an Indian philosopher named Nagarjuna in the Second Century A.D. and brought to China by Kumarajiva who arrived in 384 A.D. Kumarajiva translated into Chinese many Indian Buddhist texts including the three most important texts of this form of Buddhism (hence ‘Three Treatise School’).”

“And those texts were...?”

“The three are, by Nagarjuna Treatise On The Middle Doctrine and Twelve Gate Treatise and by his student Aryadeva, One Hundred Verses Treatise.”

“That’s a good summary Fred. Buddhism had been in China before Kumarajiva, but he got the ball rolling. It became very popular, powerful, and prestigious due to the unsettled political and social conditions of the times and because of its apparent congruence with Neo-Taoism which was dominant at this time: the Wei-Chin period (220-420 A.D.) we mentioned in our previous discussion.” [#15]

“OK, Karl, this needs explaining.”

“What does?”

“The term or concept which is the central point of the philosophy of the Three Treatise School, namely, Shunyata a Sanskrit word meaning ‘Emptiness’ or ‘Void’. I don’t understand what Chan means when he says this is the ‘central concept’ of this philosophy in ‘the sense that the nature and characters of all dharmas, together with their causation are devoid of reality.’ What are ‘dharmas’?”

“If we are going to play the Buddhist game I see we will have to learn some basic rules on how to play! First I’ll explain ‘dharma’ and then ‘shunyata.’ The rule book I’m using is one we have used before: The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion.”

“So you are being influenced by Wittgenstein again: Buddhism as a language game.”

“Only as a heuristic device Fred. I just want to understand what is going on and seeing how words are used, or misused, in the context of a philosophical or religious system is one way of doing so. As to whether the ‘game’ is also congruent with ‘reality’, I’ll let you be the judge, but I think as ‘Westerners’ and people committed to the Prime Directive [using logic and reason instead of faith and authority] we may be playing a different game.”

“I got it Karl. Let the game begin.”

“OK. In Buddhism the word ‘dharma’ can mean both the doctrine of the Buddha and also the law of the cosmos (Spinoza would say the law of nature) but normatively applied according to one’s karma. The dharmas are also appearances of things or the phenomena we experience as reality. In Chinese the word is ‘fa’.”

“Well, Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] explains what fa means in his Appendix and concludes that it is very difficult to translate and best left untranslated unless it means ‘the Law of the Buddha’--i.e., his teachings. ‘It connotes all things,’ he says, ‘with or without form, real or imaginary, the material or principle of an entity, something that holds on to its nature as a particular thing.’ The closest we can get in English is ‘element of existence.’ Dharma itself means ‘that which is held to.’”

“This could also be the Vedic rita and what the Ancient Egyptians called maat.”

“Now I know what dharmas are. Here is the rest of Chan’s quote. After pointing out the dharmas are ‘devoid of reality,’ he continues, ‘Thus all differentiations, whether being or non-being, cause or effect, or coming-into-existence or going-out-of-existence are only “temporary names” and empty in nature.’”

“What this means, Fred, is that things don’t have their power ‘to be’ built into themselves-- they don’t last, they come and go. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion says shunyata ‘does not mean that things do not exist but rather that they are nothing besides appearances’. This means that things ‘arise conditionally’ not on their own. There is a very big Sanskrit word for this Fred.”

“So, what is it?”

“It's the doctrine of pratitya-samutpada (‘conditioned arising’). I again quote the Encyclopedia: ‘The doctrine of conditioned arising says that all psychological and physical phenomena constituting individual existence are interdependent and mutually condition each other; this at the same time describes what entangles sentient beings in samsara (the cycle of existence).’”

“Well its a mouthful Karl. Its also translated as ‘dependent origination’ isn’t it?”

“Yes. That or ‘conditioned’ or ‘conditional arising’ or ‘interdependent arising’ or ‘conditioned nexus’ or ‘causal nexus’ among other possibilities. You get the idea. That’s what ‘Emptiness’ really means-- ‘dependent origination.’”

“What does the Encyclopedia say about this?”

“We should note that this doctrine (pratitya-samutpada) is ‘together with the anatman [no- self or no self subsisting permanent Ego] doctrine, the core teaching of all Buddhist schools. Attainment of enlightenment and thus realization of buddhahood depends on comprehending this doctrine.’ So it is very important we get this down Fred.”

“Anything specific to the San-lun, I mean ‘Three Treatise School’ ?”

“I see you used the Chinese name. But yes, the Encyclopedia continues, ‘In the Madhyamika system pratitya-samupada is equated with emptiness (shunyata). Here conditional arising is taken to show that because of their relativity, appearances have only empirical validity and are ultimately unreal.”

“Now we can turn to Chi-tsang who represents the culmination of this school in China. He lived from 549 to 623 A.D. His father was a Persian and his mother Chinese. Too bad for Chi-tsang was the fact that he was never able to mix any Chinese elements into his interpretation of the Three Treatise School: “San-lun” in Chinese (san = three). So, Chan says, the Chinese never took to it; ultimately because it was too ‘Indian’. By the ninth century it had declined. Let’s note the three foundational views of the San-lan School: 1. Two levels of truth: This is hoi polloi truth and philosophical truth; i.e., things exist vs. ‘all dharmas are empty.’ Ultimately things neither exist nor do not exist-- dependent origination being a middle way between these two extremes.”

“An Hegelian synthesis? Being, Nothing, Becoming?”

“Anyway Karl, this is why its Indian name is the Madhyamika (Middle Doctrine) School. Now, 2. The Refutation of Incorrect Doctrines: We get to Emptiness by replacing an incorrect view with a correct one, realizing that the new view is itself incomplete so it needs to be replaced, etc., until we arrive at Emptiness.”

“Fred, that is so much like the Hegelian dialectic as it is popularized with thesis--antithesis--synthesis = new thesis, etc., culminating in the Absolute.”

“Finally, 3. Eightfold Negation which is the dialectical method of argument employed by Nagarjuna and which, as Chan says, ‘denies that dharmas come into existence or go out of existence, that they are permanent or come to an end, that they are the same or different, and that they come or go away (p.359).’ Chi-tsang uses the Four Points of Argumentation to arrive at his conclusions. These points are, for any x 1) x is; 2) x is not 3) x both is and is not; 4) x neither is nor is not. Chan doesn’t seem to approve of all this. ‘It is obvious that this approach is as nihilistic as it is destructive.’”

“What writings are we going to go over?”

“Two of them: the Treatise on the Two Levels of Truth [Erh- ti chang] and the Profound Meaning of the Three Treatises [San-lun hsuan-i]. So, from the first Chi-tsang says: ‘Ordinary people say that dharmas, as a matter of true record, possess being, without realizing that they possess nothing. Therefore the Buddhas propound to them the doctrine that dharmas are ultimately empty and void. When it is said that dharmas possess being, it is ordinary people who say so. This is worldly truth, the truth of ordinary people. Saints and sages, however, truly know that dharmas are empty in nature.’”

“OK, there are the two levels.”

“That’s right Karl. He calls this the ‘first level of twofold truth.’ The second level is to grasp that for hoi polloi things have being and non-being but for philosophers they have neither. Thus Chi-tsang says, ‘Because the absolute [truth of non-being] and the worldly truth [truth of being] and the cycle of life-and-death and Nirvana are both two extremes, they therefore constitute worldly truth, and because neither-the-cycle-of-life-and-death-nor-Nirvana are the Middle Path without duality, they constitute the highest truth.’”

“This is getting problematic.”

“Hold on, big comment from Chan coming up soon.”


“Let’s go to the third level. ‘Previously it has been explained that the worldly and the absolute and the cycle of life-and-death and Nirvana are two extremes and one-sided and therefore constitute worldly truth, whereas neither-the-worldly-nor-the-absolute and neither-the-cycle-of-life-and-death-nor-Nirvana are the Middle Path without duality and therefore constitute the highest truth. But these are also two extremes. Why? Duality is one-sided while non-duality is central. But one-sidedness is an extreme and centrality is also an extreme. One-sidedness and centrality, after all, are two extremes. Being two extremes, they are therefore called worldly truth. Only neither-one-sidedness-nor-centrality can be regarded as the Middle Path or the highest truth.’”

“Clear as mud.”

“Here is Chan’s comment. Does it help? ‘The similarity of this dialectic is strikingly similar to that of Hegel and Chuang Tzu. With Chuang Tzu, both the right or the wrong, or the “this” or the “that” are infinite series and are to be synthesized in the all-inclusive Tao. It has been said that while the dialectic of Hegel includes all in the Absolute, that of Nagarjuna excludes everything from Emptiness. This is not correct, for worldly truth is not denied but accepted as such. However, like Hegel, every new synthesis is regarded as higher, and worldly truth is therefore considered inferior. In this respect, Taoism is different from both of them, for Taoism grants equality to all things, whether worldly or not.”’

“It helps somewhat, but let me read to you what I think is a little clearer.”

“Go ahead.”

“This is from Alan Fox’s commentary on Chi-tsang in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. Fox quotes a passage from Kumarajiva’s translation of The Treatise On The Middle Doctrine: 'The Great Sage [Buddha] taught the Dharma of emptiness In order to overcome all views. If one persists in viewing emptiness as an existent [thing], Such a one cannot be saved by all the Buddhas.' This means that shunyata is actually only a heuristic device-- not an ontological commitment to a metaphysical reality! Buddha doesn’t want us to suffer, to have sorrow ( duhkha-Skt.), by being attached to things, so the doctrine of Emptiness is put forth to help us overcome duhkha -- it's for the ‘annihilation’ of sorrow or suffering-- what Hindus call Duhkha-Nirodha in Sanskrit. Fox says the point is to not commit to the doctrine of emptiness itself making it a new ‘thing’ or dharma. He says this is ‘emptying of emptiness’ or shunyata, shunyata, and then gives a quote of his own from Chi-tsang: 'One speaks of non-being only because there initially the illness of [attachment to] being. If the illness of [attachment to] being subsides, then the medicine of emptiness is discarded, and one finally realizes that the holy path has nothing to do with being and non-being. Originally nothing is asserted; subsequently nothing is denied.' This makes a lot of sense to me. ‘Emptiness’ is one of those ladders we throw away after we climb it, as we discussed earlier Fred.”

“Well I’m glad we figured this out. Now here are some selections from Chi-tsang’s the Profound Meaning of the Three Treatises. Chan has four selections from this work, namely selections 2,3,4 and 5. Let’s begin with number 2 “Causes and Effects.”

“Fine with me. Let’s do it.”

“Chi-tsang writes: ‘Some heterodoxical schools say that the Great Lord of Heaven can produce the myriad things, and that when they perish, they return to the original Heaven. Therefore they say that if the Great Lord is angry... living beings will suffer, and if the Great Lord is pleased, there will be happiness.... But Heaven is not the cause of things and things are not the effects of Heaven. They are imagined by an erroneous mind and are therefore called erroneous causes and erroneous effects. The objection is this: Good deeds invite happy reward, and evil influence bring fruits of suffering. For [this world] is the home of interactions [of cause and effect] and the realm of retribution. These schools do not understand this principle and therefore produce such falsehood.’”

“This is, for the time, very forward looking. The denial of a creator God is certainly advanced compared to Western thought at this time and would not clash with educated opinion in China. His views about karma are more problematic.”

“This next quote confuses me Karl. He speaks of effects without causes! ‘There are other heterodoxical schools that have exhaustively traced the origin of the myriad things and have found that they are derived from nothing. Therefore they say that there are no causes, but that if we presently look at the various dharmas we should know that there are effects....The shadow exists because of the body, and the body exists because of the Creator. But the Creator originated from nowhere. If the root exists of itself, it means that the branches are not caused by anything else. Therefore there are no causes but there are effects.’”

“Perhaps, to some, this way of thinking doesn’t make too much sense today. We can say that the branches are ‘caused’ by the root meaning no root, no branches. And it appears I was wrong to jump the gun and say that Chi-tsang didn’t believe in a Creator God. Not as advanced as I thought! But then again this may just be a metaphorical use of the word 'God'. Let’s use his notion of a ‘Creator’ then to argue that since God creates everything the things emanate from him as branches from roots, so thay are just him in another form-- so there are ‘effects’ but no ‘causes.’ This is pantheism. He means there is no completely separate independent reality (the ‘cause’) that produces another completely independent separate reality (the ‘effect’). This just seems to be an argument over how to use words!”

“Chi-tsang next considers the possibility that things exist ‘spontaneously.’ He is asked a question concerning the difference between ‘absence of cause and spontaneity (tzu-jan).’ Chi-tsang says, ‘Absence of cause is based on the fact that no cause exists, whereas spontaneity shows that the effect exists.’ This is very confusing, but he concludes with an observation borrowed from Lao Tzu. Chi-tsang says, ‘Cause and effect produce each other very much like long and short contrast each other. If there is already an effect, how can there be no cause? And if there is no cause,how can there be effect alone?’ “ What is he doing here? Does he believe in cause and effect or not?

“He doesn’t seem to be attached to a particular view Fred.”

“But I have to figure out what his view is first!”

“His view is that all four opinions-- there are effects and no causes, causes and no effects, both causes and effects, and neither causes nor effects are all wrong.”

“I’m trying to get this. I note he says the last of the four ‘perverse’ doctrines ‘is the most harmful’ because it maintains there is no fruit of actions good or bad.”

“I thought there was a problem about karma earlier.”

“I did too-- but he this is perverse because ‘It cuts off good for the present and produces an evil state of life for the future....’”

“His objection shouldn’t be acceptable.”

“Why not?”

“Because both ‘cuts’ and ‘produces’ are causal words and he is supposed to be rejecting causality.”

“He is rejecting and not rejecting, that’s what is confusing. Here is Chan’s comment: 'We see here the Four Points of Argumentation at work. The various theories on cause and effect are reduced to four: theories of ens [Greek for "being"], of non-ens, of both ens and non-ens, and neither ens nor non-ens. This pattern of thought is prominent not only in the Three Treatise School but in other Buddhist schools as well. Some Buddhist scholars maintain that, generally speaking, Western thought has not gone beyond the third stage, that of “both-and,” whereas the fourth stage of “neither-nor” has been reached in Emptiness which defies all descriptions.' But does not the Absolute in Western [Hegel] thought include all, the negative as well as the positive?”

“So we have to describe the world somehow Fred. I guess ‘causality’ is supposed to be a hoi polloi way of doing so.”

“Chi-tsang has another section, (3), ‘The Four subsidiary causes’ in which he discusses so-called causal effects of the four ‘subsidiary’ causes.”

“There are, if I remember Chan, the Active Cause (e.g., fire causes smoke, the Immediate Condition (e.g., smoke following on striking a match), the Objective Condition (e.g., the wood of the match), and the Upheaving Condition(e.g., the motion of the hand in striking the match).”

“You remember correctly Karl. Chi-tsang says about these that ‘If the Four Causes exist of themselves and are not produced by something else, then the myriad things, too, must not be produced by the Four Causes, and should fall into the condition of having no cause at all. Therefore if things are produced by something else, the process would be unlimited, and if there is a limit, there is no cause. From these two points, one may not believe in the existence of causes or effects.’”

“He is attacking an Indian view of Buddhism-- the Hinayana’s Abhidharma School which developed well before the Mahayana version of Buddhism subscribed to by Chi-tsang. This other school held to the reality of the dharmas and to the reality of causation.”

“Here, Karl, is a comment about that by Chan: 'The problem of causality is one of the most important in Buddhist schools. It is central in the Three Treatise School, because its basic concept of Emptiness is untenable unless causality is rejected. The four causes here remind one of Aristotle and Scholasticism. They also underlie the fact that all Buddhist schools think of plurality of causes and effects instead of the one-to-one relationship between cause and effect. They, of course, all reject the First Cause. It is also interesting to note that the argument against the First Cause here is practically the same as that advanced by the Taoists. As the Shadow in the Chuang Tzu asks, ‘Do I depend on something else to be this way? Does this something on which I depend also depend on something else?’"

“Hmmmm. Sort of like Aristotle I think. Aristotle’s causes are a little different. His ‘final cause’ is lacking here.

Also I would hardly call the reference to the Shadow an ‘argument.’ If anything it is the prelude to the reason the notion of a ‘first cause’ was developed. If we treat the the arguments against causality so seriously that Emptiness would be rejected without them are we not taking the ladder too seriously? Doesn’t the whole concept of conditioned arising involve causality of a sort?”

“Its all very mind boggling Karl.

“Well, I think Oliver Leaman’s summary in Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy explains what is going on quite nicely.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“As follows-- his comments on Nagarjuna’s views on causation: ‘Nagarjuna rejects all theories of causality that do not acknowledge the way in which everything that we take to be reality is interlinked. Causation as understood by most of the theories he attacked distinguishes between causes and effects in the sense that one side of the relation, the cause, is more real than the effect, since the latter emerges out of the former and might be regarded as part of it. Dependent origination implies that nothing has any stability or priority, and so leads to the notion of emptiness.’”

“That backs up what you said. What does Leaman say about ‘emptiness’?”

“I hope this helps. Leaman says the following: ‘Nagarjuna accepts that in absolute terms all arguments are empty, but on the relative level it is acceptable to use them to show that one cannot stay at that level if one is going to make progress.... The doctrine of emptiness should be used to cure ourselves of belief in the absolute reality of what we experience, and then it also should be expunged from our conceptual system, in just the same way that the Buddha after enlightenment was reluctant to speak and teach anymore. The paradoxical strategy of claiming that everything is empty is none the less impossible to state, since it it is self-refuting. But its supporters have a point in arguing that although the argument cannot be proposed, it could still be valid, although not once stated. In any case, one could always hold the emptiness doctrine as applying to the nature of reality, but not as describing our experience of the material world.’”

“What good is a philosophy that doesn’t explain our experience of the world?”

“This is not a philosophy Fred. It violates the Prime Directive of philosophy which is to base your views on the outcome of reason and logic. I have no idea what Leaman means when he says an “argument’ that cannot be stated can still be ‘valid.’ Validity is a property of argument forms and an ‘argument’ that cannot be stated has no form. We are in the world of religion and mysticism here and philosophy must make way for faith. This type of argument is itself empty and I would say meaningless.”

“That is harsh Karl! But now we can better understand Chan’s selection number four from Chi-tsang--i.e., ‘Existence, Nonexistence, and Emptiness.’”

“I’ve had my say. Let’s get back to the text.”

“OK. Chi-tsang is replying to objections to Nargarjuna’s version of Buddhism. He is trying to explain the dialectic by which everything seems to be denied-- no causes or non-causes, no existence nor non-existence, etc. ‘The idea of nonexistence is presented primarily to handle the disease of the concept of [absolute] existence. If that disease disappears, the useless medicine is also discarded. Thus we know that the Way of the sage has never held to either existence or nonexistence.... Once perverseness [holding one sided views] has been stopped, correctness will no longer remain. Therefore the mind is attached to nothing.’ Chi- tsang then quotes a verse from the Madhyamika shastra:

The Great Sage preached the Law of Emptiness
In order to free men from all (personal) views.
If one still holds the view that Emptiness exists,
Such a person the Buddhas will not transform.

Finally Chi-tsang says, ‘If the mind is attached to something, it is bound to it and cannot be emancipated from birth and old age, sickness and death, sorrow and grief, and suffering and distress. Therefore the Lotus Scripture says, “I (the Buddha) have used an infinite number of convenient means to lead sentient beings and to enable them to be free from various attachments.”’”

“This last sentence shows the primarily religious rather than philosophical inspiration of this treatise.”

“Finally we come to the last selection, number five, ‘Substance and Function.’ Here is a true dialectic I think. We get some insight and refrain from dogmatism-- both philosophy and religion can benefit from this attitude. ‘[T]he true nature [lakshana -Skr] of all dharmas is entirely inexplicable in speech and unrealizable in thought [Kant!]. As it has never been either absolute or worldly, it is therefore called substance..... Although it is neither existent nor nonexistent, we are forced to speak of it as absolute and worldly. Therefore we call it function. It is regarded as correct because this being both absolute and worldly is not one-sided or perverse. Therefore we called it correctness in function.... Things are produced by causes and therefore have dependent existence. That is regarded as worldly. But dependent existence should not be said to be definitely existent, nor should it be said to be definitely nonexistent. This type of dependent existence is far from the two extremes and therefore is called correctness. Worldly existence being what it is and absolute nonexistence also being what it is, dependent nonexistence should not be said to be either definitely nonexistence or definitely existent. It is far from the two extremes, and is therefore regarded as correct....’”

“Well, I think we have a good idea of what this school is trying to teach. The Madhyamika is, however, only one of the two major schools that the Chinese elite supported from the Fifth to the Seventh centuries A.D.”

“Let’s meet tomorrow for lunch and discuss this other school. the Yogacara, and its greatest Chinese representative Hsuan-tsang (Xuanzang).”

“OK Fred, see you then.”