Monday, July 29, 2013

Marxism, the Taliban and Plato

Thomas Riggins

Recently Simon Blackburn, the well known British philosopher, reviewed "Knowing Right from Wrong," the new book by Kieran Setiya, in the TLS ["Taliban and Plato" TLS July 19, 2013]. The essay deals with Setiya's attempt to defend ethical realism (objective moral knowledge is possible) which Blackburn rejects in favor of ethical pragmatism (useful moral knowledge is possible). I think neither of these positions are tenable and the best way to approach ethics is from a Marxist perspective.

Blackburn begins with Plato's position in the Republic: the Good can only be understood by those intellectually elite philosophers who rule Plato's ideal state in the interests of the people. After their basic studies and military training the elite undergo ten years of mathematical training followed by five years of philosophy and begin to take part in ruling at the age of 55. This puts ethical knowledge out of the way of most people who must take on faith that their rulers have actually attained such knowledge.

We need something a little more accessible, Blackburn thinks, and the virtue ethics of Aristotle based on common sense, empiricism and "scientific" method provided a practical alternative to Plato's views in the Republic (the Republic does not exhaust Plato's views on this subject.)

 Setiya"s book deals with, and Blackburn quotes him, "a tension between two things: the need to explain our reliability so that the truth of our beliefs can be no accident, and the need to leave room for communities that are not at all reliable."

Blackburn tells us that for Plato knowledge was different from true belief-- you might have a true belief that you picked up by accident, or a  guess, but this does not qualify as knowledge. Plato demands a "logos" for knowledge claims, "meaning," Blackburn says, "something like reason, justification or some kind of method -- and reliability seems a good yardstick for soundness."  But how do we test for "reliability?"

Here is the problem. Blackburn, for example, believes (1) in equal educational opportunities for men and women and (2) this is a reliable belief (i.e., true) based on  "cultural and historical forces" operant on Blackburn. Using the Afghan Taliban as a foil, Blackburn says they deny (1) and therefore (2) as well. "We need," he says, "a view from outside: an independent stamp of the reliability of our progress."

Where to find it? An appeal to Reason won't work. Just to claim we are "reasonable" and the Taliban are not is not  an independent outside view. What move does Setiya make that could uphold Blackburn's belief as reliable? He makes an appeal to "human nature." Setiya says "how human beings by nature live is not the measure of how they should." He uses the term "life form" for "human nature" and thinks, according to Blackburn, "in a proper environment, free from neglect or hunger or abuse" their true life form will emerge "and then they naturally gravitate towards the moral truth." This implies an objective moral truth out there (or in us) waiting for the proper environment.

Blackburn seems to contradict himself by saying this view is not meant to be "universally true" but more like natural history statements such as "dogs bark" or "finches lay eggs in the spring" which certainly seem to be, in the proper environment, "universally true."  Blackburn says: "So, the idea is that as a species, in the kind of circumstance in which we naturally live, we tend to believe what is morally and ethically true."  But this is just asserting the. conclusion, there is no argument here. The Taliban could say "Fine, where we naturally live women should not have equal educational opportunities as they have different roles to play in society and this is morally and ethically true."  Blackburn's belief is not upheld. But, I think the Taliban would reject the relativism implied here and think their attitude toward education is universally true.

Blackburn sees problems with Setiya's position. When we look at history and other societies we see all sorts of, to us, strange and wicked goings on. Bertrand Russell put it this way: "When we study in the works of anthropologists the moral precepts  which men have considered binding in different times and places we find the most bewildering variety" [Styles in Ethics, 1924].

 Blackburn says this leads to "a contemporary form of moral skepticism, which argues that a capacity for ethical truth would have given no selective advantage to anybody, so that it would be a miracle if it came to predominate  as a trait of our species." But this is nonsense as it assumes that the skeptic knows what ethical truth is and that nobody ever got a selective advantage from this knowledge-- neither of which the skeptic is in a reliable position to claim to know.

Setiya seeks to avoid moral skepticism, according to Blackburn, by adopting a position he calls NATURAL CONSTRUCTIVISM and defines as follows: "for a trait to be a virtue is for creatures of one's life form to believe that it is a virtue." This will not do at all. The Taliban, creature's of our life form, believe  it to be a virtue to deny equal educational opportunities to females (they may even feel it a virtue to throw acid in young girl's faces or shoot them for going to school) but really, should we think it is a virtue just because they have these beliefs. Mind you, Setiya wants to avoid both skepticism and RELATIVISM.

Well, we don't think it a virtue because our values differ from those of the Taliban and we share the same life form ( we are the same species with the same nature). But this begs the question. Blackburn has accepted female education due to the operant conditions of his culture and the Taliban reject it due to theirs. How do we escape relativism?

Setiya seems to be aware that you can't just define virtue the way he has done but he does so because he has "a certain faith in human nature." This implies the Taliban are wrong because they don't live the way our species (life form) is naturally programmed to live so, unlike us, they have not arrived at the proper ethical and moral conclusions. If you didn't already agree with the conclusion, you would never accept this argument-- if argument it be rather than just assertion.

Setiya warns us, says Blackwell, that his argument is the only way to defend moral knowledge or to have justified moral beliefs. It is "natural constructivism" based on reason and a universal human nature or, as Blackwell puts it, we may end up with "a soggy relativism" with one "truth" for the Taliban and another for those of us sharing Blackburn's operant conditioning.

Blackburn doesn't like this outcome, it "seems intolerable." He wants some justification for female educational equality, and it seems, for also thinking ill of the Taliban. If Setiya's moral realism won't work (i.e., no objective rules) he recommends a form of moral pragmatism. Blackburn's morals are more suited to our culture and useful and we (readers of the TLS and members of the culture that produced it) would shudder to live under the Taliban system-- so we definitely are going to favor female educational equality and, in fact, maintain it is the morally right thing.

Blackburn is modest, though, and admits there is a slight possibility he is wrong about this-- but this is only a theoretical possibility.  He even admits he doesn't have "the dialectical weaponry with which to topple the Taliban" and that he remains under the morality that the operant conditioning of his culture has created. He has hopes that the Taliban will change because their culture is "not hermetically sealed from ours" (the expected change appears to be one way), there will be "dissident voices"  and "stirrings of modernity" and half the population "has the burning desire to change." Cultural conditioning doesn't seem to take place among Taliban females. Can it be possible that Pashtun women are completely alienated from their men folk and none of them accept the traditional culture of their people?

Blackburn tells us the difference between realism ad pragmatism is that realism is interested in metaphysical problems regarding the nature of the "truths" of morality and seeks reliable claims as to this nature, while pragmatism does not believe this to be possible and there is no "foundation outside our ethics for our ethics to stand on."

What would a Marxist position be on these issues. I would propose a synthesis of ethical realism (there are objective ethical principals that should be followed if you want to create a particular type of society just as there are mathematical and physical laws you must follow if you want to fly to the Moon) and these laws also have a pragmatic dimension. Marxists do not believe in abstract metaphysical entities not rooted in the material world. They do not look for universal ethical principles applicable to all times and places.

The main motivating force of Marxism is to empower the working class, abolish capitalist exploitation of working people by the appropriation of the surplus value they create, and establish socialism and a world without one class or group of humans living off the exploitation of another. So there is a foundation to our ethics outside of our ethics which it can stand on. Whatever actions objectively further the interests of working people, which are determined by an objective scientific analysis of the social, political and economic forces in a given society, are morally and ethically correct. This is a materialist ethics based on forces objectively at work in a given historical period and has nothing to do with an idea such as "to be a virtue it is only necessary for members of your life form to believe it is a virtue" or a virtue is what readers of the TLS would think useful.

The class struggle is an objective fact of life and the sociological and economic laws that produce it are independent of the subjective desires or will of the people involved. Understanding these laws, such as the law of value, is possible and actions can be initiated in the real world to overcome this struggle and end it and the ethics and morals involved in this struggle rest on an objective materialist foundation independent of the human subject. This view point I think is much more realistic than that of either Setiya or Blackburn. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

For Whom the Cock Crows

Thomas Riggins

This article aims to reprise Marx's 1844 article on Hegel's philosophy of law which ends with the memorable prediction that the Germans will only become conscious of their revolutionary destiny when they respond to the "the ringing call of the Gallic cock." Well, the last time the Gallic cock was heard from was in 1968 and it was rather subdued compared to is noisy past (1789, 1830, 1848, 1871). 

Fortunately for those who read this pre-Communist Manifesto work of the young Marx (he was 25 when he wrote it) it has many useful ideas packed into its 13 pages that are still of interest today even though no one is expecting the Gallic cock
to make any ringing calls in the foreseeable future. Its greatest call remains that of 1789 which inspired the Russian, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Revolutions as well as the Cuban and  which is echoed today in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now for Marx's ideas and how they relate to today's struggles. There are revolutionary movements at work in the contemporary world and some of the ideas expressed by Marx in relation to the French and German movements of the early nineteenth century can be applied to them. There are three areas where revolutionary ferment is currently occurring--  the MIddle East  and Africa where we see revolutions and counter revolutions breaking out in several different countries, Latin America where several countries are now led by pro socialist and/or progressive governments inspired by the Cuban revolution and threatened by US imperialism, and in south east Asia where both India and Nepal have active revolutionary movements based on exploited peasants and indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately in some of these areas, especially in the Middle East and Africa, there are armed groups and political organizations whose ideological roots are allegedly   based in religion and a fanatical commitment to creeds which do not reflect objective reality (this is also true in Europe and especially the U.S. where dogmatically fundamentalist  ideas fuel many in the Tea Party and the core of the anti-choice movement which rejects Roe vs. Wade and treats women as objects to be manipulated for political gain.)

This essay by Marx  ("Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction") maintains that the fight to improve the world involves a fight to criticize religion since we will not be able to focus on the real world and its problems if we spend our time engaged with a false world such as the one conjured up by religion. This essay is admittedly dated but still of some interest today.

This work is justly famous as the source of the quote that "religion is the opium of the people." While opium may be able to supply some relief from an intolerable reality we can't expect people doped up on opium, spiritual or otherwise, to be involved in schemes for rationally based world improvement. We will get to the full quote in a minute. First, I want to note that in 1844 Marx thinks the basis of all criticism of the basic world order is the criticism of religion and that in his day this criticism has basically been completed-- at least in western Europe (Germany in particular). "Man makes religion, religion does not make man."  

Marx is right of course for the Western world in general and large parts of Asia (China, Vietnam) religion is no longer a major factor in people's lives (except in a pro forma sense or within fringe groups or in backward areas). Unfortunately this battle has not yet been won, or even joined, in large areas of the Third World. Religion thrives on oppression and only by simultaneously fighting oppression, and furthering progressive education, will religion wither and the people flourish. The following is Marx's full quote on this issue:

Religion "is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma."

He continues: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

Finally, he says: "To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion."

These three quotes form the basis of the materialist outlook on religion. But what is the difference between illusory happiness and real happiness? If a person is experiencing "happiness" what more is there to say? If we take an example from current history and say that the members of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, being at heart members of  a religious organization, are living in an illusory world and the Egyptian people demanding their removal from power was an example of the demand to abandon illusions about the nature of the problems facing Egypt and the existing state of affairs  then, it would seem, the only justification for this action would be to revolutionize the state of affairs (i.e., the social, economic, and political status quo) to such an extent that religious illusions would no longer have any traction in that society. 

But who is to decide who is delusional? In the first place, rather than speaking of illusory versus real happiness, it would be better to speak of a feeling of happiness based on a false belief about the nature of reality and one based of a true belief about the nature of reality. You may feel (temporarily) happy taking your laetrile for that lump but you would be better off having it removed.

As for who decides, Marx was very specific (in 1844) as to whom this responsibility devolves. It is the role of philosophy in service to history. We will have to allow Marx to use this Hegelian way of expressing himself: while critical of Hegel he had not yet completely liberated himself from Hegelian ways of expressing his ideas. He says: "The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics." 

Marx may have thought this battle was over in the Germany of his day, but it is still raging here in the USA: one only has to read the the statements made by right-wing US politicians on the issues of a woman's right to choice, or on the food stamp program, or on sex education or on social welfare and "entitlement" programs to see how retrograde religious references are put forth to justify reactionary and even quasi-fascist social policies. And it is not just in the United States. Every day you can read in the papers how all over the planet religion is used to crush the human spirit, attack enlightenment,  retard scientific understanding and further the goals of fascism, militarism, and imperialism. Although they are an important influence, all the religious progressives and pacifists in the world will not stem this backward tide of religious fanaticism without robust secular movements and political parties that are able to rally millions of oppressed people to fight against it. 

Behind the religious facade stands a more this worldly enemy. Marx writes that once the other worldly illusion has been mastered we must focus on the reality of this world and the real roots of oppression and human self-estrangement. "The relation of industry, of the world of wealth generally, to the political world is one of the major problems of modern times." A 170 years isn't so long after all as our world today faces exactly this problem-- from the Koch brothers to the Occupy movement, to big oil and pollution, to the European economic crisis and the war against working people, to the world wide faltering of capitalism based on domination by banks and financial institutions, and third world exploitation-- it is all based on struggle over which countries and which classes are going to control industry and the world of wealth.

As this struggle intensifies we can expect the world to become a more and more violent place. The past century may have been only a prelude of things to come. We read in the papers that Japan plans to rebuild its military, the US is building up its forces in the Pacific (aimed at China) and moving into Africa, NATO is carrying on wars of aggression far from its home bases and preparing for interventions any where that may threaten Western dominance. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Honduras, Haiti, Libya, Egypt, Syria (to name just a few of the most recent examples) no country is safe from Western intrigue, drones, outside interventions, or externally manipulated civil wars  whenever the economic interests of the US and its allies and puppets are seen to be at risk.

Marx realized that journalism alone, philosophy and criticism alone, would never be able to change this situation or be able to overthrow the world system of human exploitation. "The weapon of criticism cannot, of course," he wrote, "replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses."  This is why Wiki-Leaks and people like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and  Edward Snowden  along with other whistle blowers and investigative reporters must be silenced, for governments and their toadies know that once the people are informed, once they realize that the theories of their own governments are that information and democracy must be restricted (fascist policies introduced) in order for them to carry out their repressive domestic and international polices, they will fight back (or so they think) to ensure their rights and lively hoods.

A revolution in thought must precede a revolution in deed.  Marx thinks there must be a material basis for any revolution. "Theory can be realized in a people only insofar as it is the realization of the needs of that people." People around the world are becoming more and more aware of their real needs which are the exact opposite of those they are told about by capitalist governments and their hand kissing mainstream media. They need jobs, peace, education, housing and clean air and political parties and movements that truly represent working people and their allies, not bombs, drones, military interventions, no fly zones, fossil fuels, austerity and bank bailouts, and capitalist and fake socialist and labor parties that betray them.

A political revolution, such as we see in Egypt, or the "Arab Spring" in general, is only a partial revolution. Marx's thinking here is conditioned by the experiences of 1789 and 1830 in France. What are these partial revolutions based upon Marx asks [a complete revolution would change the social relations and economic base of a country-- 1789 rather than 1830-- or even 1776.] His answer is that a "part of civil society emancipates itself and attains general domination; on the fact that a definite class , proceeding from its particular situation, undertakes the general emancipation of society."

In Egypt in 2011, for example, it was the middle class in alliance with the workers and peasants and some elements of the big national capitalists against  the military dictatorship headed by Mubarak and representing compradore capitalists in alliance with US imperialism and its puppets (e.g., the EU).

"No class of civil society can play this role," Marx says, "without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative; a moment in which its demands and rights are truly the rights and demands of society itself; a moment in which it is truly the social head and social heart."

It was Mohammed Morsi and the political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that emerged in 2012 as the general representative of the forces that brought down Mubarak-- it claimed to represent the incarnation of the most general (and contentless as it turned out) demand of the revolution: "Democracy" as incarnated in free and fair elections. Unfortunately for the Brotherhood its anti-democratic  and dogmatic nature soon came to the fore as it tried to impose its sectarian doctrines on the rest of the revolutionary movement, of which it was only one component, while relying on the military to maintain it in power.

This is why a merely political revolution is only partial. In Egypt one "tyrant" was removed from power, and a would be tyrant was also expelled from office-- both by the Egyptian military reacting to millions of people in the streets demanding rights and freedoms which are the norm in stable bourgeois democracies. The real rulers in Egypt remain the military-- the same military that installed Nasser-- and the economic and social relations remain the same. To what extent they will allow bourgeois democracy to take hold in Egypt remains to be seen. One thing we can count on is that all the forces of US imperialism will be marshaled against the Egyptian masses and their democratic aspirations.

Marx, in this essay, thought a complete revolution would have to be led by a class whose emancipation would free both itself and all other classes-- by abolishing class differences. Of course, he is talking about 1844 Germany and the working class was very small and just beginning to develop so any coming revolutions would be bourgeois democratic in nature and not socialist. Yet Marx thought that only a full fledged socialist revolution, one demanding the abolition of private property, would actually be able to free human beings from exploitation and oppression. That day has not yet dawned but, if Marx was right about the role of criticism in the development of human self consciousness and the struggle for freedom, we can conclude that the role of religion and the religious consciousness will play an insignificant part-- indeed will be a negative rather than a positive ingredient in the self liberation of humanity from its self imposed fetishes and idols.

What then does Marx think will replace religion as the moving force in advancing historical progress.  He said it would be philosophy.  In his day what we call science was more or less considered a part of philosophy-- natural philosophy. So if we think of Marx as thinking that the road to liberation will be guided by a materialist  philosophy based on scientific understanding we will not be misguided. The section of humanity that will traverse this road is that of the working people, including agricultural workers, and especially industrial workers who will finally be able to put the economic resources of the planet, the common property of all not the few, to work  for the common good.

This day will come, following Marx, when scientific philosophy finds its material weapons in the working people and they find their spiritual weapons in scientific philosophy.  But whether it will be the Gallic cock or some other whose ringing call proclaims this day remains to be seen.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Stop and Frisk: What Mayor Bloomberg Really Thinks About Minority Youth

Thomas Riggins

New York City Mayor Bloomberg, speaking before last Sunday's gay rights parade, tried to defend his position supporting the NYPD's massive stop and frisk program directed against minority (mostly Black and Hispanic) youth. His remarks were so out of line that the New York Times wrote an editorial (7-2-13) criticizing his "loopy logic" and U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries (Dem. N.Y.) was moved to say his comments "were sad, disrespectful, hurtful, and quite unfortunate."

The mayor dismissed the concerns of the minority community that they were being disproportionately stopped by the police and were, in fact, being harassed by the department. The fact that only 9% of the stops in 2012 involved whites was not seen by the mayor as in any way evidence that the minority rate was overly disproportionate. In fact he thought too many white people were being stopped and they were the ones who should be complaining about disproportionate treatment. His reason was that only 7% of the 2012 murder rate was due to white people (this was the only crime statistic he gave).

It may come as a surprise to many New Yorkers that the problem with the NYPD is that it is harassing white people not minorities, but that is Bloomberg's position. He is reported as maintaining (Wall Street Journal, 7-1-13) that "The numbers are the numbers, and the numbers clearly show that the stops are generally proportionate with suspects' descriptions and for years now critics have been trying to argue that minorities are stopped disproportionately." The numbers show not enough minority youth are being stopped and too many white folks are. "The numbers don't lie," the mayor said. 

Well, if that is the problem in New York-- harassment of white youth by the police, I don't understand what the mayor has against a federally appointed monitor to make sure the NYPD is not violating people's constitutional rights. The federal monitor would at least clear the mayor and his police commissioner Ray Kelly of discriminating against minority youth and thus undermine the charges of racism in high places.

But the mayor also thinks a disproportionate amount of crime is due to minority youth so if they were disproportionately stopped they would really be proportionally stopped because they would be being stopped proportionally to the percentage of crimes they were responsible for and not in proportion to their population with respect to the disproportionately stopped white people. I hope this is clear. It means whatever the mayor does will turn out to be ok, except for being unfair to white folk.

Here is the mayor's view on minority youth. He said the politicians running for mayor would rather try and get votes  "than help us get out of this terrible situation where a disproportionate percentage of the crime is committed by a group of young kids that just don't have any future."

And why don't minority youth have any future? Is it because of the mismanaged educational system where the mayor would rather fight with the teachers than work with them to improve educational opportunities? Is it the lack of adequate after school programs and summer jobs, and employment training opportunities? Is due to slum housing and rent gouging of the poor? Could the NYPD and the mayor by targeting millions of minority youth as potential criminals because they "have no future" except crime be sending that very message to them-- no future for you!

I think it pretty clear that the mayor and his police commissioner have written off the majority of Black and Hispanic youth and are subjecting them to an unjustified program of stop and frisk harassment. The city council has just passed a bill creating an independent inspector general to check on abuse of power by the police. The mayor says he will veto it. The mayor should ask himself-- if the NYPD isn't doing anything wrong, what's the worry?