Archive for category Political thought

Human Rights

American Journalist James Foley was brutally beheaded by ISIS extremists.

American Journalist James Foley was brutally beheaded by ISIS extremists – an affront to almost every understanding of ‘human rights’ in existence.

We talk about human rights as being extremely important.  People like me who dislike war and militarism often support military action in defense of human rights.   Everyone is appalled by ISIS atrocties.   We look at the lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide as failure of the world to adhere to the “never again” promise on preventing genocide.

But what are human rights?   How are they determined?  Can we enforce them? In the West there has been a focus on political rights – free speech, liberty, freedom of association, etc.  In the third world the counter argument is that political rights are meaningless if people are starving and have no place to live.  They focus on economic rights, such as a right to food and shelter.  Others say that there are rights associated with identity and community.

Enlightenment rationalism led to the hope that if only we could find a first principle and build from there, it would be clear how to understand the world and human ethics.  Many in the West thus follow John Locke’s argument that there are natural rights to life, liberty and private property which we get by dint of being human.  To be human, one must be alive.  To be human one must be able to feed and shelter oneself.  That requires both property and liberty to go out and get the material needed to live.   This way of thinking, called liberalism, generally stops with those rights – those rights are seen as foundational, no other true rights exist.

Lockean liberalism has dominated western thought on rights

Lockean liberalism has dominated western thought on rights

That approach has a glaring weakness – namely, humans can live as human without private property.  Indeed through most of human history there was no such thing as private property.  As hunter gatherers we just took what we could get.  Property rights arose with the creation of agriculture, but most often these were collective/community rights governed by custom and tradition.  So clearly there is no objective need for private property.

More fundamental to the problem is that the notion of “rights” doesn’t exist in nature.  In nature you can do whatever you choose to do, limited only by your capabilities and the consequences of your actions.  Nothing more.  Locke’s argument assumes that there is some right to exist as a human which leads to those other rights.  But no such right exists in nature, it only exists as a human construct, a belief that life is valuable and therefore should be protected.  We have that belief for our species, but put a hungry tiger in your house and I guarantee he won’t care about your “rights.”

In nature we have no inherent rights - we're just tiger food!

In nature we have no inherent rights – we’re just tiger food!

Similarly, when we down a burger and fries, we haven’t thought about the right of the cattle to live – let alone live naturally without genetic manipulation and inhumane factory farm conditions.  Our hunter gatherer instincts show as much regard for animal rights as the hungry tiger has for our rights.   The notion of rights is a human creation, reflecting what we think ought to be followed based on our experience, empathy, and context.    This concept has practical use (hence most societies have traditional rules against theft and murder, even if they don’t talk in terms of rights) and abstract (how should humans treat each other, what is the best social order?)

If the concept of rights is a human creation, then so is every notion of rights, whether Lockean liberal, social democratic or communitarian.   This means we have the freedom to create the idea of human rights and to determine which rights we want to create, defend and hold dear.  We don’t find rights in the ether, there is no “first principle” to give us objective rights; rather, we create both the notion of rights, and what rights we choose to recognize.

humanrights

So we are free to come up with whatever notion of human rights we want, including things like a right to a paid vacation or a right to bear arms.  However, no notion of rights will be viable if it isn’t held by a vast majority of society.  And if different “isms,” philosophies and religions have different notions of rights, it will be (and has been) hard to construct a viable, effective form of human rights.

So maybe the key is to look into our hearts.  What makes us cringe?  What is something that almost everyone finds repulsive?   What acts illicit disgust and anger across cultures, and among people of diverse philosophical perspectives?   Those acts certainly include beheading, torture, rape, murder, theft and array of actions.   This doesn’t come from a rational argument, but a sense of common empathetic sentiment.   Hollywood films work world wide because the emotions of certain core circumstances transcend boundaries.

The United Nations has several human rights documents and treaties, though they remain aspirational rather than legally enforceable.   That’s a start.  As we see ISIS butcher innocents, children being used as pawns in war, women being kidnapped and used as slaves in the sex trade industry, and governments torturing enemies, it’s time to work harder to create and enforce a core standard of human rights.

Governments are the number one violator of human rights world wide - making it hard to build an enforcable system.

Governments are the number one violator of human rights world wide – making it hard to build an enforcable system.

The first step is to recognize we don’t have to ground our rights in nature, religion, or some external factor.   We work together, look inside our hearts and minds, and determine what we humans want to recognize as basic rights.  From there we can decide that we will work together to defend those rights, whether deep in Iraq or in a small town in Missouri.

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100 Years Ago

The Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914

The Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914

The war was just two weeks old.  The Germans were convinced their Blitzkrieg tactic would work – they’d dispatch the French within six weeks, then turn to the Eastern Front and defeat Russia.   They would acquire Lebensraum, literally “room to live.”   It was General Erich Ludendorff’s belief that without colonial possessions, Germany could only acquire it’s “place in the sun” by conquering and settling the vast plains of Eastern Europe and Ukraine.

The French were enthusiastic about the war when it started, but by mid-August they realized that the German machine was organized and efficient.  Their plan relied on the ‘French spirit’ overcoming the cold mechanistic Teutonic mentality.  That didn’t work.   French Commander Joseph Joffre had to re-organize the French plan – which was essentially to go on offense – to organize a defense.  It would be nearly mid-September when it became clear the Germans had failed, and the Blitzkrieg turned to trench warfare, with the lines hardly moving in nearly four years.

In the US the European war was not seen as our problem.   The largest ethnic group in America was (and still is – though by a much smaller margin) German.   The idea that the US should take sides wasn’t popular.   American President Woodrow Wilson, in fact, viewed it as a sign of American superiority that our Democratic system would remain at peace while power politics led the autocratic powers to a pointless war in Europe.

UMF was Farmington State Normal School, teaching future teachers.  Her is a 1914 student assembly

UMF was Farmington State Normal School, teaching future teachers. Her is a 1914 student assembly

On this day, Americans were more pre-occupied with their own hemisphere – namely the opening of the Panama Canal, which would allow ship travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans without having to make the daunting journey around the tip of South America.  The expanse of trade and ease of shipping promised a new economic era – not to mention that naval ships could now be moved far more quickly between the two oceans.  But the US was content to let the Europeans fight their war.

World War I would shatter the Europe of old, harken the collapse of the British and French colonial Empires, replace the Russian Czar with Communism, redraw the maps and bring in a world to be built with the use of reason rather than custom.   Royalty and nobility were replaced with ideology and raw power.   Connection to the land, one’s role in the community, and church was replaced by consumerism, industrial assembly line work and materialism as a way of life.

This was true in the US as well as Europe.  In the US in 1900 over 40% of the population was in farming, by 1990 that level dropped to 1.9%.  The US census stopped counting farmers after that, the number ceased to be relevant.

One brave WWI courier, seated far right, was so incensed by the loss of WWI that he went into politics - and instigated the second world war.

One brave WWI courier, seated far right, was so incensed by the loss of WWI that he went into politics – and instigated the second world war.

But while it may be true that rational thought finally eclipsed irrational and often tyrannical tradition, the 20th Century did not usher in an era of liberation and prosperity.   In the first half, humans using reason created ideologies – secular religions based on core assumptions and beliefs – and found it possible to rationalize all sorts of heinous acts, including war, often with the good intent of creating a truly democratic and just society.   Mass consumption and economic change led to the Great Depression, environmental crises, and humans to be used as tools, whether in sweat shops, sex trade or as consumers to be used for their disposable income.

100 years ago the modern world finally pushed aside tradition and custom, and an era of radical change, new technology, and more deadly wars began.   World War I would be the last war in which military deaths out numbered civilian ones.

Though the automobile had been invented, nearly half the country still farmed, and the main implement was the horse

Though the automobile had been invented, nearly half the country still farmed, and the main implement was the horse

A century ago today, people viewed the future with hope.  Yet for over thirty years it would be defined by war and depression, and the US would not be immune.    Now as we look forward to the next 100 years, a few lessons seem clear.

1)  Ideological thinking is dangerous and obsolete.  It led to the Second World War, defined the wasted resources and existential danger of the Cold War, and divides people along unnatural and often absurd lines.  People who might otherwise be able to practically deal with problems see the world abstractly – including other people, nature, and community.

2) War, environmental degradation, a soulless consumerism and massive global corruption the planet at this point in time.  Materially the West is very well off, but we’re a society riddled with alienation, depression, anxiety, obesity, lack of connection to nature (especially children) and a loss of meaning and community.  In the third world corruption, abuse, war, sex trade, and poverty dominate, with communities/tradition ripped apart by global capitalism.

While the “West” has been in constant transition ever since knowledge trickled into Europe from the Islamic world and in the 13th Century the Church shifted from Augustinian other-worldliness to Thomist logic, one can see World War I as the destruction of the old order, and the creation of a new, modern, rational, ideological and very materialist era.   It’s clear at this point that our way of conceptualizing and ordering reality isn’t working.  This new era is under threat from economic collapse, environmental degradation and climate change, terrorism, energy shortages, and a host of problems.  Humans are caught struggling to find meaning, and often doing so by following an ideology or doing anything to, as Erich Fromm put it, escape from freedom.

That has to change if we are to successfully navigate a future in a world that is changing at an even faster pace than it was a century ago.   There are signs of hope – the EU has started a transition to a post-sovereign interdependent political structure.   Social media is opening up new avenues of change, though that can be used for good, evil, or trivial.   But we can’t go on like we did in the past.

Across Europe people entered WWI with enthusiasm - they expected glory and victory.  They got years of trench war fare defined by lice, rats, disease and death.

Across Europe people entered WWI with enthusiasm – they expected glory and victory. They got years of trench war fare defined by lice, rats, disease and death.

100 years ago the European leaders were caught up in the “cult of the offensive,” believing the next war would be quick, decisive, and won by the country bold enough to start the conflict.  They thought they could harness 20th Century technology to expand 19th Century political structures.  Instead, the war destroyed the world they knew, and things would never be the same.   Unless we expand our thinking, we could be headed for a similar fate.

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God and Reason

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake

In a famous feud, Voltaire and Rousseau argued about the nature of God.    Both were Deists.   Deists didn’t doubt that there was a God.     Following Newton, a “world in motion” had to have a first mover.   Moreover, how could such an intricate and elaborate universe have come into being without a creator?   Beyond that, though Deists had different views.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that God was a loving God, with nature being God’s true Bible, his message to humans.   Rousseau was convinced that the worst mistake humanity ever made was to leave the state of nature and form communities, generating artificial “needs” and desires.   He would no doubt be sickened by how humanity is now literally poisoning the planet and producing genetically altered plants and animals.

Voltaire (1694-1778), the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, did not share Rousseau’s optimistic view of God.   On November 1, 1755 Lisbon Portugal had a massive earthquake.   It was as strong as 9.0 on the Richter scale, destroyed 85% of Lisbon’s buildings and killed perhaps 50,000 of Lisbon’s 200,000 inhabitants.  It inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to develop the concept of “the sublime.”

(At the same time the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was in labor – on November 2, 1755 she would give birth to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who would later be married off to the future king of France).

French philosopher Voltaire helped define enlightenment values

French philosopher Voltaire helped define enlightenment values

Voltaire, who already was suffering from personal tragedies, visited Lisbon and was sickened by what he saw.  Utter destruction, massive death, and survivors in misery.  Horrific suffering thanks to nature.   How could this be the handiwork of a loving God?  Why would God allow such misery to occur?

Rousseau offered an answer.    Nature is God’s message, and God is love.   So the problem must be humans.    God clearly doesn’t want us congregated into huge crowded cities.    People living on the country side could avoid the massive suffering caused by the earth quake.  It was a message: cities are unnatural, if humans create them and natural disaster hits, blame people, not God.

Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau inspires naturalists to this day

Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau inspires naturalists to this day

This infuriated Voltaire.   He had seen the suffering with his eyes and could not believe that Rousseau was blaming innocent victims for their peril.   But Voltaire was not sure how to respond.   Could God really be a horrific brute that reigned terror on humanity?   But if God was loving, how could he allow such suffering?

He pondered Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) explanation for the existence of evil, that of all the possible worlds that could exist, this one was the “best possible.”   Yes, bad stuff happens, but you could not have humans with free will without the potential of negative consequences.   Thinking of the scenes from Lisbon, Voltaire wondered, “is this is the best of all possible worlds?”

So Voltaire did what most writers do when stymied, he wrote.   And wrote.   The product of his work was a book called Candide, or Candide or the Optimist.   It is long, humorous, fast paced and satirical.   Candide is studying with Pangloss, a teacher who follows  Leibniz and Rousseau in saying that all works out for the best.    Within the book they even visit the scene of the Lisbon earthquake.   Candide asks if he should save a man who is drowning and Pangloss replies that he need not bother – if God wants him saved, he’ll be saved.  (Pangloss in Latin means literally “all word”).

By the end of the book Candide rejects Pangloss’s argument that all turns out as it necessarily must, for the best.   Instead, Candide says, “we must cultivate our own garden.”

That still inspires artists and thinkers to this day – click below to watch a video of Rush’s song “The Garden,” which lyricist Neil Peart said was inspired by Candide:

To be sure, there’s considerable debate over what exactly Voltaire meant.   I read it to suggest that while there may have been a creator, it’s not at all clear that the creator cares about or even pays attention to his work.   Perhaps God is out creating other worlds.  In any event, God doesn’t need our love, other humans need our love.   Rather than worshiping God or looking to him for salvation or support, we should be help each other.

Voltaire’s pragmatic argument was the beginning of what is now called “secular humanism.”   It is humanist because humans are the center – we are to help others, improve the world and use reason to take responsibility for the world we construct.  It is not the best of all possible worlds, but a world in need of improvement.    It is secular because God is irrelevant.  Praising God does nothing to help feed the poor or take care of those in need.   Better to put our energy towards making the world we find ourselves in a better place.

Voltaire marked a move towards truly putting reason first for creating ethics.    We are to use reason to figure out how to make the world better, improving conditions for humans.    Given conditions in France at the time, Voltaire could correctly blame the Church and its traditions for a good portion of human suffering going on in cities like Paris – suffering that would ultimately lead the people to revolt.

Yet perhaps there is a middle ground.   This may not be the “best of all possible worlds,” but that doesn’t mean that reason alone provides meaning.   Reason only leads one to work to better humanity when you take as a goal a humanist belief that the well being of humans is the ultimate value.    Yet reason does not give us proof for that value; reason can be used by fascists, Nazis, racists, nationalists and communists to justify their ideology.   Reason is a tool, not a means to discover principles and value.  Indeed after the French revolution people who thought they shared common principles turned into bitter enemies and society broke down.

By 1793 the French revolutionaries ironically created a "Goddess of Reason" to sit in the Notre Dame cathedral

By 1793 the French revolutionaries ironically created a “Goddess of Reason” to sit in the Notre Dame cathedral

It does not have to be religious belief nor a traditional concept of God (though it can be).   But the fact we are alive in a world with no clear purpose or reason — the fact there is something rather than nothing — strongly indicates that we are only glimpsing part of reality, and not the part that tells us the “answers.”   Modern physics in fact says light is both a particle and a wave, and particles are actually just ripples in fields and not actually “stuff.”

Atheists often say that only things with measurable material consequences are relevant for understanding our world.   Yet that materialist view ignores the fact that perhaps the parts of reality we don’t experience in material terms do come through in our emotions, intuition, and inner sense.  For lack of a better word we call that “spiritual,” and it runs the gamut from magic new age crystals to Buddhist meditation and both traditional religious and non-traditional beliefs.  Perhaps we can use a “God concept” to explain whatever power gives substance to the universe.

That still doesn’t settle Rousseau and Voltaire’s dispute.     Rousseau believed that civilization muted our natural compassion.    Voltaire believed that civilization could be guided to better the human experience.  Perhaps both were right in their own way.   We must cultivate our own garden, but to do so we need to look both to nature and that voice inside, a voice that may have its origin outside the material reality we can perceive.  God?   Spirit?   Does it really matter?

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Time for Pragmatism

newengland

Notice anything interesting about this map?   The US is in a lighter shade of blue then New England, which is off colored and unlabeled.   This map is from a Republican guide to finding one’s Senators and representatives.   To the GOP New England appears to be persona non grata.

Indeed, with a few exceptions (Senators from Maine and New Hampshire) the region has become very Democratic.  New England along with the upper Northwest were the only regions where white males supported Obama in the election.

Not only that, but New England Republicans are distrusted in their own party.  They are often pro-choice, moderate and labeled RINOs (Republican in name only) by ideological conservatives.   Maine Senators Collins and Snowe voted to acquit President Clinton after his impeachment, breaking with their party.   Senator Snowe’s retirement this year was in part a reaction to all the anger and partisanship that has overtaken the Senate.   Yes, Maine has a tea party governor, but that’s only because of a three way race in which 39% could win.

Republican Olympia Snowe personified pragmatic conservatism

Former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe personifies pragmatic conservatism, she wants to solve problems and focus on the people, not a set of rules or an ideology

This is interesting because New England does not fit the usual left-right demographic patterns.   Maine is the most white and least diverse state in the union.    New Englanders are pragmatic and rather conservative.   But there is one thing that sets the region apart: ideology is distrusted.  Here in Maine the tea party governor couldn’t get his fellow Republicans to impose a true conservative agenda when they had control of both houses.  Instead they continued the tradition of trying to build consensus, often angering Governor LePage.    I supported President Obama, but voted for many Maine Republicans – it’s not good vs. evil here!

It’s a part of the pragmatism – a sense that the difficult problems we face can’t be addressed by looking to fancy theories and ideologies, but by compromising with a goal of solving problems.   In that New Englanders are more conservative than many Republicans who have a radical ideological world view – to implement ‘true capitalism’ or some other ideologically motivated “solution” to our problems.

Ideologies are seductive.  The present truths in simple terms and make seem like all you have to do to solve our problems is follow the ideological precepts.   People who want to be right, who don’t want to deal with complexity and uncertainty, often find ideologies very comforting.  They are a kind of secular religion, you can interpret the world through an ideology and avoid cognitive dissonance.    As Communism demonstrated, people can cling to ideologies even when it’s absolutely crystal clear that the evidence proves them wrong.

An example of that taken to the extreme can be seen in this over the top interview of Alex Jones by Piers Morgan:

Ideologues can ignore reality because its so complex that you can always find some other reason to explain what went wrong.   Communist ideologues blamed the West or others for making the ‘path to socialism’ more difficult.    Capitalist ideologues embrace the market, and find reasons to dismiss evidence that shows markets can be inhumane and corrupted when not regulated.

I don’t think Republicans or Democrats outside New England are all ideologues.  Rather, media plays a role to socialize people to embrace ideological thinking by creating a narrative that makes it seem natural.  Powerful corporate actors like the “Club for Growth” use money to manipulate the process and create an ideological political climate.

The classic example of media narrative is the last election.   On the right there was a widespread belief that Romney would easily beat Obama this year, a belief held by even people high up in the Romney campaign.   The narrative seemed logical: the polls over sample Democrats, Obama’s supporters aren’t as enthused, Republicans are angry and want Obama gone, the 2010 spirit still exists, the media is overstating Obama’s chances because they like him, etc.

If you looked at the evidence it was pretty clear that those arguments were weak – that the expectation had to be that Obama would win.  However, FOX news, talk radio, conservative blogs, and media outlets on the right stated that case over and over like it was a fact, and then added that the mainstream media was untrustworthy, in the pocket of Obama and even trying to demoralize the right.   In other words, rather than rationally analyze the narrative, they found excuses on why not to take the counter arguments seriously.

This happens on many issues – climate change, taxes, the economy,  guns, terrorism, the debt ceiling.   There is an ideology-driven understanding of reality that is spread by talk radio, FOX, and a host of blogs and pundits that is designed not to analyze a perspective but to promote and defend it because it is deemed true – the ideology is unquestioned.

This penchant for ideology-based understandings of reality is destroying the Republican party.    I do not believe John Boehner or Mitch McConnell are ideologues, but they are held captive by the fringes of their party.   Moreover, there are signs many on the left want to emulate the ideologues on the right by embracing partisan war.   That has to stop.  It is time for pragmatism,  pragmatism is the enemy of ideology.

Ideologues claim they are embracing principle, but that’s an illusion.  They are embracing simple rules.  Reality is complex and simple principles don’t work.   Context matters, it changes the meaning of every act.   Ideologues left and right will use terms like freedom, social justice, equality and even peace to give their causes the air of moral authority.  But beware any theory-driven understanding of a complex reality, and beware of those who interpret everything through their ideological lens rather than comparing and contrasting different perspectives.

Pragmatism is messy, but it’s the only way forward in difficult times.

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Money and Power

I’ve been reflecting on the economic arguments made this election cycle and find myself dissatisfied with a lot of thinking on both the left and the right.

Many people buy into a way of thinking that is essentially materialist and anti-human: that people are at base value creating mechanisms and the market correctly assigns them money according to their work and value.   This leads to false thinking on both the right and the left.   On the right, the state is demonized and the market is seen as almost magic.   On the left the rich are demonized and the the role of the state is seen as equalizing outcomes.   Both views are wrong.

Turning first to the pro-market side, many believe that taxation and efforts to expand opportunity are wrong because they “confiscate” money from those who have “earned it.”   Earning it is defined by being able to take whatever you can get away with in the market.   If one is super wealthy and the other poor, then that’s how “nature” or the “market” justly caused events to turn out.    The rich can choose to help the poor, but have no obligation.

However, no one who buys, sells, works or trades by using federal legal tender has an ethical claim on all his or her own money.   That money is provided by the government to facilitate trade and cooperation.    It brings a tremendous amount of efficiency to the system and allows people to have massively more wealth then they would without this government service.

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…

If you are part of this system that makes wealth generation possible for large numbers of people, you have chosen to be part of a collective.   You have cast your lot with a web of relationships and interactions that allow you to achieve much more than you could on your own.   Without the state, only organized crime and other thugs would have wealth and most people would be living in poverty.  Only stable functioning states bring about true prosperity for large numbers of people.So if you’re benefiting from this, your money is a result of your effort, ingenuity, and the role of effective government.   Your effort matters, but the level of your success and prosperity is due to being part of a collective.    That means that the state, through legal democratic processes, has a legal claim on a chunk of your monetary wealth.

Moreover, the role of the state must be more than just being a “referee” to make sure nobody is cheating.   Power permeates all social relationships.   If you have wealth, you can structure the game in your favor.   You’re inherently not on an equal playing field with those who lack wealth.   You can get for yourself and your progeny excellent education, opportunities, good health care and if need be, start up capital.   To get a level playing field the state must actively work to assure real opportunity for all citizens, not just those with structural advantages.    

The state acting solely in the role as umpire cannot protect a level playing field because the playing field is already made uneven by the distribution of power and wealth in society.

The winners often don’t acknowledge the vast structural advantages they are able to enjoy in the system

The rich often ignore this problem by denigrating and demeaning the poor, calling them “takers” and making it seem as if they want to live off the work of the rich rather than simply wanting opportunities to succeed.   This was seen in the latest gaffe by Governor Romney (quickly repudiated by other Republicans) that Obama won because he “gave gifts.”   At the height of perversity is the claim that the poor have the same opportunity simply by being in the same legal system, as if all the wealth and power of the rich don’t provide them structural advantages.

The left errs as well when they lose sight of the fact that the goal of government should be to expand opportunity so that everyone has the chance to succeed.    That does not mean equalizing outcomes.   It does not mean demonizing the rich or punishing success.  It only means that the winners pay a portion of what they’ve gained thanks to both government protections and their position in the system to create conditions whereby the losers and their children have the education, health care, legal protections and opportunities to succeed that the rich enjoy.

The rich will always be able to afford better colleges, tutors and equipment for their children.   Trying to level that will do more harm overall, and is not necessary.   Here the materialist delusion hits both the right and the left:  Wealth is irrelevant to success and happiness in life, so long as people have a sense of meaning and personal responsibility for their lives.

Demonizing the rich ignores the complexity of assuring initiative and reward in a complex economy

I am absolutely convinced that the wealthy are no happier or more content than the poor so long as the poor have opportunity and the chance to work to make something of their lives.   Only when poverty is so intense that basic needs are not met, or that there is no hope to be able to build a better life, does lack of wealth lead to despair.    Moreover, a psychology of dependency on government handouts damages that sense of meaning just as much as poverty can.   If the left tries to “fix” the system in a way that simply makes the poor dependent on handouts, the solution is as bad as the problem.

True wealth is far more than that which we buy and sell

Not only is it OK to have rich and poor if the poor have real opportunity and their basic needs met, it’s necessary.   As long as all citizens have access to a quality education, decent nutrition, health care without risking bankruptcy and ruin, and the opportunity to succeed, outcomes should be diverse.   The market then functions properly, reflecting the desires and preferences of the public.   The left should focus on that – true liberty and opportunity for all – rather than worrying about outcomes.

This requires an active state, but also civil society and civic engagement.   Community organizers should be more important than government bureaucrats in social welfare programs.    Most importantly, we need to recognize that money and wealth are not ends in and of themselves, nor are they key to having a happy and successful life.   The rich lose no liberty just by paying more taxes, and the poor need not have equal material outcomes if they have their basic needs protected and an opportunity to succeed.

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The World in 2112

Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican threw down the gauntlet asking people to put their psychic and analytical predictive powers on the line by trying to figure out what technology will be like 100 years from now.   So here are my 12 technology predictions, followed by four essentially soci0-cultural predictions (though I mix those into the technology predictions as well!)

1.  The electric grid as we know it will be a thing of the past.  Most homes will be self-sustaining, generating their own electricity.   Even urban centers that now suck up energy like there’s no tomorrow will only use the electricity they can generate, augmenting with high efficiency batteries when necessary.

2.  Homes will be heated and cooled by systems built into the house.    At various points the wall to the outside will be a heat exchange system that will operate much like a refrigerator, cooling the house in summer, reversing that in winter to heat the house.   These systems will be smart to maximize efficiency.

3.  The array of satellites now circling the globe will be replaced by a smaller number of extremely efficient satellites that bundle their functions so as to the work now done by many diverse satellites.   There will be satellite maintanence crews on orbiting space stations that can work to fix any glitches, as well as maintain efficiency.

4.  The term “wifi” will be as obsolete as “the wireless” is to talk about radio.   Like radio, ‘wifi’ connectivity will be ubiquitous, free (paid for via advertising and subsidies), and taken for granted.    It will also be universal; a penthouse in New York and a village in Guinea Bissau will have the same access.

5.  After evidence about human caused global warming became undeniable even to the skeptics in the early 21st Century, a vast program of planting trees and creating efficient oxygen generation zones first on land and then in oceans will help to turn back the tide of global climate change and create the capacity for continued sustainable development.

6.   The most impressive technological advances will come in the cost and scope of water desalinization and even water creation.   This will be driven by intense water shortages in the mid-21st Century when global climate change becomes extreme and the new oxygen generation programs will not yet have had much of an impact.   The goal will become to have clean, fresh water for everyone by 2100, and will be achieved ahead of time.

7.   A nutrition revolution will occur in the mid 21st Century as it becomes clear that the chemical supplements used in food and food packaging had been causing massive problems, especially children.  This includes an alarming increase in ADHD like symptoms, autism, other mental problems, obesity and the weakening of immune systems.  Calling this the equivalent to how Rome drank leaded water and wine without realizing they were poisoning themselves, chemists, farmers and the food industry will become determined to turn around the “barbaric practices” of the 20th Century (which started in the 1980s).   Aided by a new global regulatory scheme, an array of ‘safe’ foods will take over.  These will range from ‘natural organics,’ grown on farms in ways similar to the early 1900s and “Repli-food,” which literally  will manufacture food out of a mix of natural materials much like the ‘replicators’ on Star Trek.   That food will be much cheaper than the ‘natural organics.’

8.   The same technology that opens the door to Repli-food will also create the capacity to construct complex materials and objects out of basic molecular raw materials.    The most important benefit of this will be the ability to manufacture synthetic minerals (compounds able to serve the same function) and other materials that will run low due to over mining (copper, zinc, etc.)

9.  Global monetary union leads to the obsolescence of cash.   Information on ones’ wealth will be kept on central banking computers and payment made through recognition software (similar to what we have as retinal or fingerprint recognition, but less invasive and more precise).

10.  Throughout the century traditional war will be replaced by what we’d call cyberwar, as a cat and mouse game will rage for decades between those wanting to disrupt the technological systems underlying civilization and those protecting them.   Actual hot war will limited to third world regions and the terror onslaught of 2030.    That wave of terrorism will not be driven by religious fundamentalism but anger about relative deprivation and the impact of global warming on Sub-Saharan Africa.   This will motivate major developments in the ability to scan for potential nuclear, chemical or biological devices.   By 2050 this technology, combined with an economic rebirth of Africa and growing prosperity, will end the great terror wave.

11.   Medical technology will advance to the point that invasive surgery will become obsolete.   A mix of genetic screening and proactive care will make most illnesses and major diseases a thing of the past.   Cancer, heart disease, flu, the common cold, and infections like strep throat will be the stuff of history books.   Back pain, head aches, migraines, and even sore muscles will be easily cured.  The elderly will talk about how painful and difficult existence had been back before medical science came of age.   This will be done almost completely without what we now call pharmaceuticals.   Using powerful drugs to address minor symptoms will be seen as one of the major errors of early medical science.     Life expectancy will rise to well over 100, though efforts to halt aging or implant brains into robotic bodies will fail completely.   Philosophers will say that the technological barrier to overcoming age and death is so immense that it seems humans are not meant to be able to cheat death.

12.   Modern physics will unify all forms of energy into one force, thereby solving the space-time paradox and uniting relativity with quantum mechanics.  This will be done via the holographic principle, meaning that all of what we see and experience is a projection of some sort.  This information will be key to the technologies mentioned above (especially replicating food and minerals, as well as medical science).   The question of what it means to be human and spirituality will rise in importance.   Religions will adapt to these developments, but weaken in the face of a ‘new spirituality’ that defies dogma.

Political Predictions

1.   The sovereign state as we know it will disappear.   Old state borders will still be known, but mostly as historical trivia.   Most of the decision making will be local/regional.   The Global Union (GU) will govern transnational issues such as money, trade, security (assuring local and regional conflicts don’t lead to war) and policies necessitating cooperation across regions.     The GU will have limited powers and full transparency will be demanded — all meetings, documents, and discussions are available in what we would call “on line.”

2.  The new discoveries in physics and the emergence of a holographic principle theory of reality will lead to a growth of non-religious spirituality which many religious people will view as an attempt to use science to create a world religion.  This will bring about a series of protests by various faiths and ultimately an agreement within the GU charter that freedom of and tolerance of diverse religious belief is a core human right.   By 2112 religious conflict will be at an historical low, though practitioners of the “traditional” religions will bemoan the weakness of their faiths.

3.  Neither capitalism nor socialism will survive the 21st Century.  In part this is because technological progress will make work as traditionally defined all but irrelevant.  So much work will be done by machine that humans will not be near as important for  producing stuff (though some will guide the automated factories, develop new software, support the global infrastructure, etc.).  At first this will lead to a large maldistribution of wealth as those who own the machinery amass large profits while human workers become severely underpaid since they will not be in demand.

Over time demands for change will grow, and as power is localized an agreement will be reached to guarantee everyone certain core basics (education, shelter, food, health care, equal protection, access to clean water, etc.)

With the localization of power, people then either work on infrastructure or within the robotic productivity realm, or on tasks within their community to earn Taurins (the global currency unit) for doing things that increase the quality of life.   Communities also reach agreement with industries to share ownership.   The wealthy remain wealthier than the rest (and those working to maintain the infrastructure and robotic industries earn the most), but competition will become less for wealth and things (since things will be abundant) and more for improving the quality of life and learning.

4.   In the US, families and communities will have a comeback with the localization of power and the shift of emphasis away from materialism and consumption.   The 21st Century will be rough, but we’ll make it to a much better 22nd Century!

Happy 2012!

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Nonsense on Stilts!

British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who had himself mummified when he died.

Jeremy Bentham, the rationalist British utilitarian philosopher, scoffed at the notion of natural rights.   “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense on stilts.”

He has a point.   People like to posit “ought” statements as having some kind of ontological status beyond that which ones’ own biases and beliefs provide.   To say “you shouldn’t kill because I think killing is bad and a lot of others agree with me and will punish you” is less persuasive than “you shouldn’t kill because nature (or God) says its wrong.”

Nature says no such thing.  Nature does not care a wit if you kill, steal, lie, cheat, or jump to your death from a high cliff.  Humans are born into the world with one “natural right” only: you are free to do whatever you want to do, limited only by your capacity to act (abilities and constraints) and the consequences of your action.   Everything else is fine with nature.

Rights like “life, liberty and property” are things we humans construct for various reasons.   For John Locke it was to give the rising middle class a way to challenge the aristocracy and set limits on government.   For libertarians it’s a convenient way to rationalize views on politics skeptical of government.    But make no mistake – those rights don’t exist in nature.

They can’t.  They are based on human concepts and definitions, all of which are constrained by context and linguistic sloppiness.   Context means simply that the same ‘concept’ has different meanings depending on what the situation is.   One might posit a nice rational focused definition of theft: taking from someone something that belongs to that other person.   But whether you’re stealing from a man who otherwise doesn’t have enough to feed his family or taking food from a rich Nazi to save a Jews’ life changes the essential nature of the act.

This leads to the first “bullshit” aspect of claims of natural rights – the idea one can define a right abstractly and ignore how context shifts the essential meaning of and nature of any act.

Now, I don’t swear much – either in print or in speech – so let me define bullshit here.   Bullshit is an absurd and arbitrary claim that rests on fancy sounding rationalizations and justifications put forth sometimes with righteous indignation.   You can usually tell “bullshit” arguments by how they are defended.   For instance, deny natural rights and many will respond in an appeal to emotion, or appeal to public opinion:  “Oh, really, you say you don’t have a natural right to your property — if someone comes and tries to take it, will you just say ‘oh, I have no right, so you can take it.”

Such an illogical argument is absurd on its face — just because a right isn’t natural doesn’t mean I won’t assert my own claims and defend them.   I just don’t appeal to some kind of mystical natural justification.   I won’t defend my property because of some natural right, I’ll defend it because I’m not going to let people take my stuff!   I don’t need any fancy justification for that.   Moreover, saying there is no natural right to “life” does not mean one thinks murder is OK.   It just means we see those “rights” as humanly constructed, and often for good reason.   The ‘argumentum ad populum” bit seems persausive because that’s the reason we constructed those rights — most of us think they should exist.   Whether nature provides them is irrelevant.

The most common bullshit way to try to argue against context is the use of a vague definitional justifier.   “You shouldn’t take life unjustly.”   ‘Unjustly’ is a magic word here, meaning ‘anything contextual that I arbitrarily define as just killing can be dismissed.”   Unjustly can be defined by other similar abstract efforts to delimit a term, creating confusing complexity that hides the underlying bullshit upon which such an argument stands.     Words like ‘valid, just, legitimate, etc.’ are like big neon signs saying “bullshit alert!”   It’s all fancy ways people try to make it sound like their opinions represent not just their own particular take on reality, but some deeper truth that they have uncovered thanks to their superior intellect and moral integrity.

This is not to say that John Locke is completely wrong (though his view on epistemology has also been brushed aside into the ash heep of history).   Rather, he just had too much residual scholasticism in his way of thinking.   Instead of debating how many crystal spheres make up the heavens, now there is an effort to trace human rights – or ‘ought’ statements – to the nature of reality — or for Locke the nature of British reality in the 1600s.

The point is not that the rights posited as natural are to be ignored or thrown out — on the contrary, I believe most of them should be put forth as rights to be defended and protected at all costs!   Not because we have discovered them in nature but because as thinking humans we have decided we believe putting forth those rights is good for society and reflects what we value.    And if lots of other people value them, then all the better.    They don’t need to be from nature, being from humans is good enough.

The problem with the “from nature” argument is that people with different views try to use that as a way to dismiss all other perspectives and rationalize not doing the hard work of actually making arguments and defending their beliefs.   “It’s nature, yada yada yada,” hands over the ears.

The other problem is that we shouldn’t see it as a cheapening of rights to take credit for them as human constructs.  Heck, we’ve constructed all sorts of things, nature didn’t give me this computer or a Boeing 747.   We built them, using the raw materials of nature.   Using the raw materials of human existence in a social context we’ve constructed systems of rights. Let’s be proud of them as our creation, not some kind of gift from nature!    This also makes it easier to deal with context, we’re not trying to impose as perfectly as possible an abstract rational dogmatic ideology — we’re deciding how we want our world to operate.   We can choose the terms, limits and contextual impact.

Those who point to nature as the source often claim they support liberty, but what can be more limiting of human freedom than to say we’re not free to construct our own systems of rights?    Why should I slavishly devote myself to some set of rights “from nature” rather than use my imagination to develop what I think should be considered rights, and then work with others to persuade them and actualize those rights?   The only reason anybody would want to limit that freedom is authoritarian- they want to impose their view of rights on everyone.   The imposition may be intellectual rather than political, but such dogmatism is inherently anti-intellectual.

So do we have rights to life, liberty, property and a host of other human rights that most of us view fundamental?   To the extent we’ve built political systems to protect these rights we have them; to the extent we believe those rights should exist we are free to act politically to build them!

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Building Systems

It started with the mathematicians and the scientists  — Galileo, Descartes and Newton.  The idea that the universe could be conceptualized as a system following universal and natural laws created a world view that threw medieval thought and Aristotelian scholasticism in the trash heap of history.   Instead of a world of particulars there were universals, the same laws of physics apply everywhere in our space-time universe.

Before long such thinking was applied to human behavior, yielding both powerful insights and dangerous dogmas.   Giambattista Vico’s theory of history published in Scienza Nouva (1725) is one of the first, yielding a theory of historical evolution and class struggle that influenced diverse thinkers from Karl Marx to James Joyce.   Building systems to explain human behavior created a new way of thinking that would change the world.

Adam Smith, author of "The Wealth of Nations"

Adam Smith was a moral philosopher whose 1758 book Theory on Moral Sentiments brought him to prominence, but his system building classic Wealth of Nations changed everything.  It showed both the power, and the potential pitfalls, of system building.

Throughout history merchants knew that if you increased the supply of something while demand stayed steady the price would drop.   The “law of supply and demand” was part of the practical knowledge of doing business throughout history.   Yet Smith took and it formalized it into a law and along with notions like the importance of the specialization or labor created a systemic view of market economics which came to be called capitalism.   He published Wealth of Nations in 1776 and it became a smash hit.   It described the workings of the industrial revolution, and for the first time argued that as individuals pursued their self interest they would inadvertently yet in a very real way be promoting the public good.   The idea that individual self-interest was not bad (greedy, selfish, etc.) but rather good (it allowed the market to create prosperity and adapt) was knock out stuff.

Of course, if you read Smith carefully, you see that the system builder recognized that his system was not self-sustaining and perfect.  Unlike Newton’s mathematically precise world, markets are human constructs and do not operating magically or naturally.   Smith argued that the wealthy can collude and circumvent markets, exploiting labor and using their power to benefit themselves.   Self-interest has limits, if capitalism is to work.   Indeed Smith skewers the wealthy of his day, often with rhetoric that is more fitting for Occupy Wall Street than the University of Chicago.

The problem is clear:  human system building simplifies a myriad of variables into a model that works well, all other things being equal.     Because human behavior is variable across cultures and time, any system that generalizes by definition has limited applicability.   Moreover, due to complexity the simplification is a good starting point for basic principles, not for claims of universal truth.   Smith understood this.

But those who came later made the fatal flaw of turning systemic thinking into ideology.   Theories of how reality work came to be grasped with a religious zeal as being the truth.   That rationalized looking at the world abstractly.   Perhaps the best example is the response of Great Britain to the Irish potato famine of 1846-51.    The Irish were starving in droves (over a million perished) but a libertarian philosophy led them to rely on the market rather than to intervene.   To this day when there are crises people say “individuals can help if they choose.”   That sounds good in theory, but in reality not enough ever choose to do so.

Once you embrace a system as an ideology, you lose the capacity to recognize that the system itself is an imperfect model of reality that doesn’t always work.   One further interprets reality through the system, and finds reality always fits ones’ ideological world view.   With a complex reality that one can interpret in a variety of ways, one can always support ones’ pre-existing view.  If one holds on ideology with a kind of religious fervor, there is never any reason to doubt one is right.

System builder Karl Marx

Karl Marx, writing 50 years after Smith, admired Smith’s work and considered him his “favorite economist.”   Most importantly, Marx (who also admired Vico) tried his hand at system building.   Like Vico he tried to explain the broad flow of history, using the tool of the dialectic borrowed from Georg Hegel, the German Philosopher he had studied.   Hegel’s dialectic was used to examine ideas, Marx used it to examine economic history — historical materialism.   Like Smith Marx used his system to look at how the economy functions, getting an explanation of why capitalism was leading to sweat shops and working class misery rather than prosperity.

Marx’s system suffered all the flaws that Smith’s did, perhaps more so due to the methodology of relying on the dialectic.  Moreover, Marx was not just a theorist like Smith, but a political activist who hated the poverty and misery he saw in the working class.   This led him to make a fundamental error: he extrapolated his system into the future without supporting his vision with evidence.

Marx’s insights on how capitalism function are still used today by people analyzing the political economy.   They’ve been altered and updated, but like Smith, his theory has proven resilient.    Both Smith and Marx – as well as others – have contributed to our capacity to make sense of how the economy functions.   But Marx’s extrapolation into the future imagining a perfect class free society without any exploitation led to horrific abuses of power by revolutionaries determined to achieve this just and utopian future.

System building leading to ideology is dangerous and misguided.    Ideology leading to dreams of utopia and a desire to make that utopia real are dangerous.

Ideology is not the same as having a perspective and a set of beliefs.   Everyone needs perspective and beliefs to make sense of the world, but you don’t need ideology.   Ideology comes from taking a systemic representation or model of reality and using it as the framework through which to interpret reality.

The systems are themselves not bad; they are useful.    In fact, Smith and Marx both provide useful systems that are not in contradiction to each other, even if they focus on different factors as relevant in different contexts.    It is useful to understand, try out and explore the potential and limits of a lot of abstract systems of thought, efforts to model and make sense of reality.   The danger comes when one mistakes the system for a true representation of the actual laws of nature.   The mistake intensifies when the ideology is grasped with a religious fervor so that the holder of the “one true ideological belief system” sees battling the others to be just and necessary, just as the religious soul might believe she must defend the one true faith.

Now is the time to step back from ideological delusions.   Building systems is a good thing, they help us understand, analyze and try out theories about how reality works.   But all systemic thought has limits, and the sophisticated thinker can try out different systems and explore where they lead, not needing to think he or she has the one true world view.   Moreover, humans construct culture and worlds; how the world changes, even human nature, is somewhat malleable in light of those activities.   As we move forward into the 21st Century job one must be to shed ideological dogma and think creatively about the transformations taking place.

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Greece: Sovereignty and Democracy

European leaders reacted in horror, markets were panicked and a crisis brewed in Greece.   Why?  The Prime Minister had the audacity to put the agreed upon EU bailout plan up for a referendum vote.   The Greeks might actually get to vote on the issue, and they might not follow the dictates of big banks, big money and big government.

One “dirty little secret” of globalization is that it erodes state sovereignty and increasingly puts decision making power in the hands of a wealthy elite connected to global finance and the largest corporations in the world.   This has been a relatively recent phenomenon.   Before the 80s when regulations limiting the ability of capital to travel across borders with ease, only a few powerful actors were truly global in their investment and corporate structure.   Moreover, even if they could travel the limits on communication, information and control of distant parts made such ventures both risky and pricey.   Domestic economic activity was its own world.

In those days France and Italy could have expansive and inflation-friendly monetary policies while Germany and the Netherlands could limit inflation with tight monetary policies.   French and Italian capital had little capacity to leave their inflationary home for a more stable German investment.

That also meant that states were in control of their domestic regulatory and taxation regimes.   If a state wanted to enforce tough environmental standards, it could.   If it wanted to require companies offer benefits, or insure greater labor protections, it could do that too.   States didn’t have to, but at least in the advanced industrialized world it was up to the democratic organizations that comprised government.   The people through democracy made those calls.

As capital globalized and the technology revolution made control over distant and remote sites easier and ever cheaper, everything changed.   An embrace of laissez faire economics meant a dramatic reduction in regulations, allowing capital to go wherever a profit was to be made.   That meant pressure on states to downsize their regulatory structure, limit taxes on corporations, and do whatever they could to create a “business and investment friendly” environment.

By the 90s France and Italy had to give up their inflationary policies as capital was fleeing to find more stable currencies.   To get investment, they needed to mimic Germany and the Netherlands.   Absent the capacity for separate monetary policies, the common currency became possible.    This is what Thomas Friedman called ‘the golden straight jacket’ – states have to do things that bring investment and growth, otherwise they sink.

Friedman saw this as good, but it has two side effects.   First, it moves us away from the Westphalian system of sovereign independent states and towards something new — but we have no clue yet as to what it will be.  The idea that sovereignty is being eroded seems less obvious if you’re a big powerful state — but the current crisis is bringing home even to the US and China the limits of what a state can do.   If states are losing sovereignty and new international actors are gaining control — big finance, large corporations and to a lesser extent international organizations (e.g., the WTO) and non-governmental organizations — how will states respond?   How will the diverse power conditions be reflected in a world that is no longer the realist ideal of independent sovereign billiard balls interacting?

Secondly, for democracies this also means a real loss of democratic control.   Publics can demand tougher environmental standards, but governments will see that this will drive away investment and be forced to say no.   People can believe in hope and change, but if power is not really in the hands of the government, all politicians can do is make promises and hope they can persuade “big money” to look kindly upon their interests.   This has been evident for decades in small states (see Peter Katzenstein’s “Small States in World Markets” from the early 80s), but with globalization it increasingly limits large states.

That is a crisis for democratic political theory and democracy in general.   If power no longer resides with the people and if it is exercised by global actors pursuing agendas that are not focused on the general good of particular states, how long will people tolerate that without getting angry?   But even if people get angry, what alternative exists?  How can people impact global actors outside of state reach, lacking transparency and pulling the strings of governments both on the left and on the right?

Enter Greece.   Big money sees a threat.   Big European banks could be threatened by a Greek default.   CDS exposure (credit default swaps) in US banks could create contagion that might bring down the global financial system.   A Greek default makes Italian, Spanish and Portugese defaults thinkable.   Bond yields will rise there, and the crisis will expand (with increased exposure of both European and US banks).   Even China would be hurt badly by such events as it would decrease global demand for their goods.

So “big money” gathers to fix the problem.   Banks take a 50% haircut on bond exposure.   Governments vow to recapitalize the banks and fix Greek debt.   The Greeks are ordered to engage in massive austerity programs likely to enhance the recession that has already dramatically lowered their standard of living.    The Greeks don’t like it, but their government like all governments has to respond to the demands of big money.   The people are irrelevant.

And then, to the shock and dismay of elites everywhere Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou says that the Greek people have a right to vote on this.

Blasphemy!   Sovereignty is being asserted!  The Democratic right of the citizens to say no to global corporate finance and the nexus of big government and big money is proclaimed!   Chaos, panic, how could he do such a thing!   From Wall Street to Geneva to Frankfurt to Athens pressure is exerted, threats are made….how dare the Greeks assert sovereignty and democracy, don’t they know what’s at stake?

Yes, they do.

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London Burning

We live in an era of immense prosperity and security.   We can travel freely on foot or in a vehicle without worrying that we’ll be mugged or forced off the road by a gang of thieves.   Women can be out and about in most places without fearing assault, even children are generally safe – for all the fear of molesters and predators, it’s very rare that a child missing for awhile in Walmart or on the street isn’t returned safely without incident.

We don’t notice how secure our lives are because we worry about what could go wrong.   People do get mugged, even in nice neighborhoods.   Children are molested, women are raped, and people get carjacked.   Terrorists fly planes into buildings.   Yet if you look at all of this, especially with a dose of common sense (avoid obviously dangerous situations) the probability that we are going to suffer any of these is tremendously low.   People react in fear when seven people get sick from bad peanut butter — in a country of over 300 million.    From Japan to Europe to the US, we have more prosperity than anytime in history — and thus more security.

How thick is the veneer of civilization?   How deep does our 98% voluntary compliance with the rules and norms governing society penetrate?   Those with a really positive view on human nature tend to believe that people are good and naturally cooperate.   That describes the case in small close knit societies, but large mass social organizations (cities, states, etc.) security seems to require prosperity.   It’s too easy to rationalize looting, violence and theft if you can get away with it and be relatively invisible.

Consider what’s happening in Somalia, Uganda, and the Sudan.   Even small tribal communities with deep cultural bonds can fall into a spiral of violence when conditions go bad.   Darfur started with a drought.   Once violence and instability begin, they feed on themselves and grow.   At that point raw force is necessary to impose stability.  That requires a denial of basic freedoms and a powerful authority — what Thomas Hobbes would call a leviathan.

Hobbes would know.   He was born April 5, 1588, in a time of fear.   Less than two months after his birth the Spanish Armada took off towards England.  When baby Thomas was five months old people feared the Spaniards would decimate the British navy.   That didn’t happen — Britain’s defense became the stuff of legend — but it symbolized the world Thomas was born into.  On the continent the bloody “thirty years war” would start when he was just 30 years old; for most of his life Europe was mired in war, disorder and disease.  When the British civil war broke out when he was 54 years old he had seen enough to write The Leviathan, published in 1651 when Hobbes was 63.   In a world defined by war, fear and rebellion, the only way to maintain stability and protect civilization, he argued, was through a powerful authoritative state with a monopoly on force.

Hobbes is often used as a foil for those who value individual liberty over the state (he is also used to provide the name for a comic strip tiger).    And indeed, given the prosperity and stability of the last sixty years, we in the industrialized West cna be forgiven for thinking that security and voluntary compliance with social rules is the norm.   A powerful state scares us, leads us to protest, and is seen as a danger by people on both the left and right.

The reality is that human nature is capable of a variety of behaviors.  Given the right conditions we can be peaceful, cooperative and act out of both self- and other-interest.   Given other conditions we can be rivals who nonetheless maintain a sense of ‘fair play’ as we compete.    Under certain conditions something can also trigger a descent into barbarism, including the riots that have gone on for five days in London.

We seem to expect barbarism from places like Rwanda or Somalia.   Perhaps its a twinge of racism, perhaps its a kind of cultural chauvinism.   When it hits closer to home, as in London, it becomes far more worrisome — it reminds us that all of what we see abroad can happen in the industrialized West.    We are not immune from violence, we haven’t transcended the negative aspects of human nature.

We can debate the resilience of social stability.   Just as we may have too benign a view of human nature due to the times in which we live, Hobbes’ view erred on the negative side due to the times in which he lived.   Clearly even in impoverished regions communities often operate very well, with individual self-interest sacrificed for the greater good.   One of the challenges of western civilization is that due to individuation we now have placed a premium on self-interest.    For the first time, a successful civilization has been built around the idea of individual freedom and putting loyalty to self often above duty to society.   This is a noble experiment that relies on a fragile balance.

When there is no sense of social solidarity, it’s easy to “defect,” to break from the rules and expectations and try to benefit yourself — or give into emotional passion.  In such a case, two things keep order — a viable threat of force, or prosperity.   If the system creates prosperity and opportunity people realize that it’s in their interest to maintain it.   Instead of anger at “the man” or government, they are angered when people threaten unrest — if the comfortable way of life is threatened.

We are now facing an economic crisis as severe as that in the 30s.   That crisis crushed the veneer of civilization so that one of the most cultured and stable cultures engaged in war and mass atrocities.   Are the London riots a wake up call — a reminder that if we can’t solve our economic problems the whole core of a civilization we’ve come to take for granted is under threat?   Could this symbolize the possibility of the unthinkable — a breakdown in western civilization?   Is our greatest foe not Islamic extremism or communism, but our own greed and short sightedness?

The riots in London and a few years ago in Paris may be anomalies — outbursts of emotion and anger that dissipate when finished.   It does finally seem calmer in London, Manchester, Liverpool and a number of smaller cities to which the violence had spread.   Or it could be a warning of what might be to come if we can’t come together and repair the world economy.  Unlike Paris in 2008, these riots spread to other cities and were not the doings of a local ghettoized population.   We don’t need to agree with Thomas Hobbes to take the warning seriously.

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