Saturday, February 13, 2016

The prestige economy

Kevin Simler has written at length about the prestige or social status economy: Social Status: Down the Rabbit Hole, Social Status II: Cults and Loyalty, and Minimum Viable Superorganism. Wearing my economist/social scientist hat, Simler's ideas seem interesting; as a communist, I'm not at all impressed: the social status economy is Older Than Dirt. See, for example, Homer: the Iliad is about nothing but the social status economy. Homer begins the epic thus: "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles"; Agamemnon has diminished Achilles' prestige, and in his wrath, Achilles extracts a heavy price.

Marx himself argues in The Communist Manifesto that a positive historical material effect of capitalism was to break us from the status economy and allow material self-interest to unleash humanity's productive forces:
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

George Orwell too casts a skeptical eye at the pure prestige economy (absent even domination, the darker side of social status that Simler acknowledges). In Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver's travels, Orwell claims that the prestige economy is at least as stultifying as any tyranny:
In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.
Having lived in what was close to a pure prestige economy in the Kerista commune, I can personally attest to Orwell's opinion. Another commune member also concurs: in Afterword: What happened to Kerista?, Even Eve writes:
Every ex-Keristan I have talked with remembers numerous instances of going along with the prevailing group sentiment on an issue rather than take a contrary stand, or, worse still, without even bothering to really think the issue through independently. Often the matters were relatively inconsequential, but there were also many which were not that had major effects on the lives and minds of other people. There are memories of this sort about which many of us will probably continue to cringe for years to come . . . times we gave some innocent person a hard time for thinking, saying, or doing something that didn't synch with current Keristan doctrine ... or times we sat by and watched while some of the "heavies" [i.e. those with prestige and social status within the commune] in our tribe verbally abused someone else in the name of honesty, growth, the pursuit of "righteousness" or some other such rationalisation.

It is readily apparent (as Simler frequently admits) that the capitalist system has quite easily commodified the prestige economy, probably its easiest expropriation. If you admire someone, you buy their merchandise to advertise your admiration.

The prestige economy is certainly part of "human nature" that plays a part in politics, and as such deserves study by social scientists; indeed, I imagine that there is already a considerable body of literature on the topic. But the prestige economy is not at all, either directly or indirectly, a revolutionary tool.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

On reparations

Coates writes Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?. C.K. MacLeod pushes back from the right with The Argument for Reparations, and the Question of Justice, and Cedric Johnson pushed back from the left with An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him. I don't really buy any of these positions.

First, MacLeod's position is fatally flawed. MacLeod argues that the Civil War is a credit to white people, that we spilled a lot of our own blood in an effort to eliminate the worst kind of racial injustice, literal chattel slavery. I agree with MacLeod, but only at the most superficial level. I don't think white people need to be ashamed of the Civil War, and I don't think Coates is correct to include it as a charge against white people. But Coates' case of the injustices perpetrated by white people against black people remains overwhelming, even with the war accruing to our credit: the "blood sacrifice" at the very best atones for chattel slavery, but the list of injustices runs far longer than just slavery itself.

MacLeod then descends into nonsense. He asks, "At what point in the process are alternative theories of justice to be considered?" Um... right in your column? This sort of meta shit (in the passive voice, no less) drives me crazy. By all means, propose an alternative theory of justice for us to consider. Indeed, MacLeod does so: he proposes for us to consider that the Civil War has wiped out all need to sacrifice to correct the oppression of black people in the United States; MacLeod believes we have sacrificed enough. I've considered it... and rejected it. But in general, right here, in the public debate, which includes Coates' essay, MacLeod's, and Johnson's is where we do in fact consider alternative theories of justice.

Johnson's essay addresses only an implication of Coates' essay, an implication I'm not sure is actually justified, although it might be. (I think that the author is this Cedric Johnson, and he's probably more hip than me to unspoken implications.) But the implication is really important, and deserves to be made explicit.

The implication is this: racial justice (and by extension other forms of status injustice, e.g. sexism, or homophobia) is in some sense in opposition to socialism. I don't think anyone, Coates included, believes that socialism requires racial injustice, but they are, to some extent, different things, and at least we must prioritize.

To a large extent, I disagree with Johnson, at least as a socialist. (I am white, so I entirely cede to black people the strategic and tactical decisions about how they fight for their own justice under present conditions.) As a socialist, I welcome Coates' efforts in general to hold our feet to the fire to actively work for not just socialism but also racial justice per se. And, similarly, I welcome women's efforts, and gay people's efforts. We cannot simply ignore these kinds of issues and focus exclusively on class issues.

I also don't think that we can ignore issues of class and general economic inequality.

First, I don't think it's possible to eradicate racism under the present capitalist system. If we prioritize the fight against racism without also fighting against capitalism, we will lose both fights. Theoretical considerations aside, 21st century capitalists have so deeply adopted racism and sexism that they will never abandon them. And without the fight against capitalism as capitalism, the present capitalist class will always have more power to perpetuate racism and sexism than people of color and women will have to eradicate them.

More importantly, it is theoretically possible to have capitalism without racism and sexism, but is that what we want? If we were to truly eradicate racism and sexism under capitalism, we would liberate only 0.1 percent — or at most 10 percent — of women and people of color. The 0.1 percent ruling, and the 10 percent serving with privilege — and the 90 percent exploited — would be racially and gender-neutral, but we would still be oppressing the 90 percent. If by "justice", you mean "justice for 10 percent", then I have to say our ideas of justice are entirely incompatible.

Which is why Coates' focus on reparations is, while not completely full of shit like MacLeod, at least problematic, because reparations rely on capitalism; reparations are incoherent under real socialism.

On the one hand, a pro-capitalist presidential candidate such as Sanders should support reparations (although Sanders probably sees tactical reasons not to). To the extent that reparations would be effective under capitalism, and capitalism is what we actually have right here right now, it makes perfect sense for Coates to advocate for it. Of course, reparations will never actually happen; as noted above, the capitalist class will never abandon racism as a tool to maintain social and political control, and anything more than token reparations would entail abandoning racism. But demanding reparations does make sense: you don't get half the pie by demanding only half the pie; you have to demand all of it.

However, socialism (real socialism, not Sanders' weak tea welfare capitalism, which was already decisively defeated in 1980) obviates the possibility of reparations because it already requires radical economic equality for everyone. Under socialism, there is no one to pay the reparations. If reparations are the sine qua non of racial justice, then racial justice is absolutely incompatible with socialism.

As a socialist, I have concerns about calls for "justice" of any kind that merely demands equal access for this or that group to enter the capitalist ruling class, and the privileged professional-managerial class that serves the ruling class. Yes, a racially and gender neutral capitalist ruling class is better than a racist and sexist ruling class, but not by that much. It sure is not justice.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party

I am not overly enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders. I think he's more right — a lot more — than anyone else running for President, but he's wrong about a lot of other stuff (never mind communism or even socialism, he's wrong even about what I consider bog-standard progressive capitalist liberal stuff). If he actually runs in the general election, as the Democratic Party nominee or otherwise, I'll vote for him. I've even thrown him a few bucks, mostly because fuck Clinton.

However, even if I were to agree with him completely, even if he were an actual communist (and he's not even a real socialist), I will not join the Democratic Party to vote for him in the primaries, just as I would not join the Republican Party to vote for his nomination.

The Democratic Party has utterly, completely, absolutely lost my trust. Fuck the Democratic Party. Fuck Clinton, both of them. Fuck Obama. Fuck these triangulating neoliberal welfare-destroying union-busting embezzler-coddling drone-bombing police-murder-apologist Guantanamo-torturing assholes. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are about corporations fucking us in the ass; the only difference between them is that the Democrats are oh-so-sorry they can't use any lube. (The Republicans are buying up sandpaper: "This is supposed to hurt, scumbags.")

Bernie Sanders is a "radical" not because he doesn't want the plutocracy to stop ass-raping the people — he's down with that — he's a "radical" because he actually wants to use the lube. And because of that, he has zero chance at the Democratic Party nomination.

I wouldn't vote for Clinton if she were running against the zombie corpse of Ronald Reagan with cyborg sociopath Dick Cheney as his running mate and my vote would swing the election. Because fuck you: if you're going to dry-rape me in the ass, don't insult me by shedding crocodile tears about it. Do it with some fucking pride.

I won't get the chance, but with the goddamn curtains closed, I would vote for Sanders' sorry welfare-capitalist ass: lube is better than sandpaper.

But I absolutely will not put my name, in front of God and everybody, on the Democratic Party rolls, not even for the 30 seconds it would take me to vote for Sanders' nomination.

Power and Political Correctness

The always excellent Arthur Chu has a good column in Salon: Don’t blame me for Donald Trump: The liberal “p.c. police” didn’t make this monster, a response to How the P.C. Police Propelled Donald Trump by Tom Nichols. Chu is spot on; Nichols is completely full of shit.

There is a standard in academia sometimes labeled as "wallowing in complexity." (Google will give more examples.) All well and good; it's our job to wallow in complexity, to bend over backwards to find as many different perspectives on a question as possible, and treat them all as fairly serious.

The whole point of academic discourse (even the physical sciences) is to actively avoid making a shared decision. Every now and again we have to make a shared decision — we rightly can't hit on the undergraduates any more — but we try to avoid it as long as possible. This philosophy underlies the notion of academic freedom: that professional academics can resist almost any position, however widely held, without losing their jobs. Everyone has a personal bias, and the norms of academic discourse (well, the good ones) exist not to eliminate bias but to make bias more transparent and try to overcome it.

And its fine. That's what we do. Someone has to look at things from every possible angle, and explore every topic until we're sick to death of the "complexity."

Academic discourse is fine in academia, but it's not at all a universal norm, and academic discourse actively poisons real-world politics. Academic discourse is about not changing anything until we absolutely must; in the real world, politics is about changing things right now, not by intellectual exhaustion but by the exercise of power. Indeed, absent politics, academic discourse would rarely change anything in society: there is always more complexity to wallow in.

(The physical sciences tend to move a little more quickly than the social sciences, because protons and electrons, and even organisms and ecosystems, are orders of magnitude less complicated than human society. Even then, scientists typically take a generation to change paradigms.)

All societies, from hunter-gatherers to modern industrial capitalist "democratic" republics, are characterized by power relationships. I don't think there ever was a single power relationship that was ever overturned by intellectual argument or moral suasion. Chu offers an excellent example in slavery: all that argument and suasion ever did was make the slavers double down on their own intellectual and moral justifications for slavery. It took a literal war and the deaths of more than a half million soldiers (2 percent of the population) just to move from literal chattel slavery to Jim Crow, wage slavery, political oppression, and economic hyper-exploitation, and the South still hasn't dug itself out of the moral hole it dug itself into before the Civil War.

People can and do overturn social, political, cultural, and economic power relationships without actual war and killing. But these efforts still require power; argument and moral suasion are useful for gaining power, but only the use of power, the ability to inflict suffering on opponents, can actually change the social power relationship.

We must remember that existing power relationships exercise actual power, including violence and killing, to employ and preserve that power. Oppose segregation and the oppression of black people, and the police will arrest, imprison, torture, and kill you. Try to build a union and use it to secure rights already guaranteed by law, and the company will fire and blacklist you, and the national guard will massacre you. Even observe (adhering to the most rarefied standards of academic discourse) that video games often depict female characters ways that marginalize and subordinate women and you will receive fatwahs that would make Salman Rusdie paranoid. Those who hold power actually use it with no moral restraint, but only the restraint forced upon them by the power of their victims.

I'm still reading Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism. Based on a quick skim, part of the work seems like a justification of specific measures Lenin's ruling Communist Party and Trotsky's Red Army used to actually implement communism under extremely difficult circumstances including the violent hostility of the West, which I might or might not agree with. But I absolutely agree with the fundamental message. The bourgeois state uses every means at its disposal, including violence and "terrorism" (which Trotsky uses to generally denote the violent exercise of state power), thus there is no moral justification to deny those same means to those overturning the bourgeois state. There are always pragmatic considerations — the point of any revolution is to establish and maintain legitimacy, and revolutionaries should avoid means that legitimize their opponents or undermine their own legitimacy — but the only moral consideration is the ends.

If you approve of the bourgeois state, then it is morally coherent to approve whatever means are necessary to maintain the bourgeois state; if you disapprove, then it is morally coherent to approve whatever means are necessary to overthrow it. It is morally incoherent to condemn the bourgeois state and approve its efforts to maintain itself and condemn efforts to overthrow it. In other words, we cannot separate the judgment of the ends from the means that must be used to achieve those ends. To approve the ends but condemn the means is simply to appear sentimental while maintaining one's own power and privilege.

What is true of revolution is just as true of reform. I personally have zero confidence that substantive long-term reforms are possible under capitalism, but I might be (and hope I am) wrong, and even if I'm right, even failed attempts at substantive reform undermine capitalism. But even the tiniest reform requires the exercise of power: not asking, not even demanding, but making people change and punishing people who refuse to change. The punishment need not be violent — loss of social status is an extremely effective punishment — but it needs to be forceful.

To argue otherwise is simply to protect your own privilege behind the shield of sentimentality.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Feminism and utopian socialism

Although most of Why I Became a Feminist Socialist is incomprehensible mush, Hilary Wainwright does make some important points. It grates, I think, for a self-selected elite to simply impose "socialism" on a recalcitrant, obdurate population. The whole point of socialism is that it should not just be better for the masses of people, but clearly better, and socialism requires the enthusiastic support of the masses of people from the very beginning through to the end. And once in power, simply setting up another oligarchy will not bring about socialism: no oligarchy, however "Marxist" in its internal ideology, will ever voluntarily transfer power to the people.

I really cannot tell what Wainwright is for, but I know she's categorically against the use or capture of state power. "I rejected both the Soviet model and the Harold Wilson, Fabian model. . . . I rejected the so-called Leninist relations of state power and party power, and the Fabian understandings of power whereby the state delivered concessions and policies, rather than power coming from within ourselves." Wainwright seems to reject both a revolutionary capture of the state and a gradual reformist transformation of the state; presumably, she also rejects a perpetuation of the already existing capitalist state. We cannot, of course, build anything even vaguely resembling socialism under the thumb of the capitalist state; the capitalists will simply, and from their point of view justifiably, violently suppress anything that threatens the structure of capitalism.

The only thing left is to abandon the state entirely, and try to then build socialism with nothing that even vaguely resembles a state. But this strategy is profoundly problematic.

First, how do we abandon the state? The capitalists are nothing if not clever. The capitalist state exists not just to enforce the domination of the bourgeoisie and the subjugation of the workers; the state exists to enforce relations of domination and subjugation throughout society. Whites, especially white men, dominate and subjugate black people, men dominate and subjugate women, mental workers dominate and subjugate manual workers, etc. ad nauseam. Even if they want to reform the state, anyone with even a little bit of privilege will always support the idea of the state. The very best that socialists at the individual can do is to contract the legitimacy of the state around only those with a little privilege. But then who fights that state?

There is a problem in Wainwright's article that echoes through the infantile anarchism (including Libertarianism) in general: the distinction between the state as an institution of violence and the state as an institution of domination. But there is no objective distinction between violence and domination: violence is objective, but domination is just violence one does not like, in the service of ends that one does not like, or contrary to one's interests. Thus, racists see state violence used to end racism as domination: surely the state demands that they give up their own interests without satisfactory compensation, ultimately at the barrel of a gun. Domination is entirely relative and subjective; any "objective" construction of domination that does not equate violence and domination must rest entirely on subjective criteria. Thus, The definition of the state as an institution to legitimize domination, is incoherent. Domination is just illegitimate violence, and state violence is legitimate by definition.

Violence by itself precedes the state. Any individual can use violence against another individual. Even technologically (there is no such thing as an impregnable defense), it is logically and physically impossible to eliminate violence. Because the criterion of domination is incoherent, we are left with Weber's definition of the state as a particular kind of institutional relationship to violence: the state is an institution (or coherently connected set of institutions) that monopolize the legitimate use of violence. (Note that Weber's definition does not entail that any violence employed by individuals who comprise the state institution(s) is necessarily legitimate; this definition entails only that all legitimate violence is necessarily employed or sanctioned by the state.) If we get rid of the Weberian state, then we must distribute rather than monopolize the legitimate use of violence. While the monopolization of violence entails some serious problems, its distribution does not seem to solve those problems; only the lunatic Libertarian fringe even tries to theorize about distributing the legitimation of violence. The infantile left-anarchists merely shut their eyes to the problem of violence, pretending, in the most literally infantile sense, that if they cannot see it, it does not exist.

The implementation of socialism will require using violence to dominate and subjugate the bourgeoisie, who themselves cheerfully use violence to dominate and subjugate every other class, especially the proletariat. We can hold hands and sing Kumbaya as much as we want (and, under certain circumstances, that's an effective tactic), but at a certain point we have to say, "Comply or die." This is a harsh truth, but it's a truth that actually exists, however much we close our eyes to it. If you are without money and hungry or homeless, the state forbids you avail yourself of food and shelter; if you do not comply, the state will, in extremis,* kill you. The socialists must say the opposite: the state forbids you to withhold food or shelter from someone in need; if you do not comply, the state will, in extremis, kill you. The capitalist state forbids the workers from seizing the means of production; the socialist state forbids individuals from seizing absolute control of the means of production.

*Of course, we usually don't want to jump right to deadly force; however, "intermediate" force requires the real availability of deadly force if the intermediate force is resisted. A person will allow the police to imprison them only because the police can and in fact will kill them if they resist imprisonment.

The difference between capitalism and socialism is not that one or the other uses or abjures some means. The difference can be only in the ends to which those means are used. All of bourgeois "morality" is simply the social, cultural, and psychological deprecation of certain means when used to overthrow capitalism; those exact same means are "legitimately" used to perpetuate capitalism. And, similarly, socialism must use those same means to overthrow capitalism, because the means of violence are, ultimately, the only means there are.

Even nonviolent dispute resolution requires a foundation of violence. I cannot negotiate with my neighbor unless, at some level, violence of some kind is available to settle the dispute; otherwise, I can just say, "Fuck you. I'll do as I please." Not everyone always says so, but some people do always say so, and everyone sometimes says so. This violence can take the raw form of a police officer with a pistol enforcing the order of a court, or social exclusion from economic life, just as deadly as a pistol. Arguably, the pistol is more honest; as capitalism has shown us, it's too easy psychologically to ignore the violence inherent in economic and social marginalization.

Fundamentally, Wainwright's supposed abjuration of state violence just promoties quietism to preserve her own privilege.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Simple truths


In The Myth of Simple Truths, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse claim a rather annoying sort of false equivalence between conservatives and liberals. According to the authors, both liberals and conservatives have reduced big complex questions to "simple truths" that are obviously right; those who deny these simple truths are not merely mistaken but stupid. But Aikin and Talisse themselves are mistaken on a couple of grounds. First, they create their own "simple truth," that questions are big and complex, and label those who deny this simple truth as foolish. Second, the authors don't give us any examples of big questions that one side or another has unjustifiably reduced to simple truths. They simply assert their position, but perhaps there really are simple truths. As Rob Corddry notes, the facts have a liberal bias. Some truths are simple, and some people can simply disregard them.

More importantly, Aikin and Talisse miss the point that conversation in a democracy is rarely if ever about the truth itself; the conversation is about the good. Facts and truth (or lies and bullshit) might be used to support one notion of good or another, but the conversation is not about what is true; it's about what is good. And if the good really is good, and if one view of the truth, however farfetched, supports that good, then why not use it? And if indeed the important questions really are complex, with defensible positions on both sides, a person will very naturally pick the side that supports his view of the good. It's the good that is important, not one version of the truth or another.

From my experience in academia, there are two categories of "big questions," which academics address: questions with simple truths that are hard to find and questions with no real underlying truth, questions that have a lot of defensible positions, but no way of consistently distinguishing between those defensible positions. The physical and biological sciences are of the first kind, the humanities are of the second; the social sciences (including economics) are kind of in-between, but lean more toward the humanities.

Neither of these categories really help Aikin and Talisse. First, the "truths" of science really are simple truths, and one either accepts them or is mistaken. The force of gravity* is proportional to the product of the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance. This is as simple a truth as it gets; hard to get at, but now that we have it, it's just true. There's no nuance, there are no alternative defensible positions, at least none that matter to democracy. If you build your building without accurately taking into account the simple truth of gravity (and the simple truths of structural engineering), your building will fall down and people will die.

*Absent relativistic corrections that are small under ordinary circumstances, and more importantly don't fundamentally change the underlying relationship between gravity, mass, and distance.

On the other hand, the big questions of the humanities do not have any underlying truth. This position is not "relativism" strictly speaking, at least not truth relativism (which I assert is a contradiction in terms: by definition, "truth" is that which is not relative). Indeed it is a category error to even look for truth in the humanities. I don't mean by this position to at all deprecate the humanities; the humanities are not about trying to find the truth, they are about exploring what it means to be human, and the only truth about humanity is that we seem almost infinitely plastic. I think it is very important to talk about what it means to be human, but there's not truth about what it "really is" to be human.

The authors are trying, I think, to find a methodological explanation for the apparent polarization of the modern "democratic" republic. I think there is a methodological explanation, but theirs is indefensible (and if they

The real problem is, I think, that we are too focused the search for truth. The truth is important, but it's not everything. Most importantly, we mistake the conversation about the good for the search for the truth. These are two different, and equally important projects, but they are indeed different.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Decency, like all moral words, has a fundamentally subjective and socially constructed meaning. Decency is we think it is, and what we think it is is a product of social interaction. But just because its meaning is subjective and socially constructed doesn't mean it has no meaning. It does mean something: although we might disagree about the specifics, we can tell what is decent and what is not decent.

I think, for example, that people have to live with no home is not decent. That they have to beg for food is not decent. That they are not permitted to work — when there is manifestly much work undone — is not decent. That we are killing black people in our own country and brown people in the Middle East is not decent.

Others might think, for example, that we take from those who produce more and give to those who produce less is not decent. I disagree,

No matter: the point is not what specifically is or is not decent, the point is that the word decency does actual work in drawing distinctions about the world.

Decency is more fluid than good. I've written earlier that "I shouldn't, but ..." is incoherent. Shouldn't means don't. If someone actually does something, then they necessarily think they should do it. If they say they shouldn't but they do, then they are lying, bullshitting, confused, or so neurotic that they need the services of a psychologist, not a philosopher. Decency, in contrast, is not so rigid. Should and shouldn't come after we weigh the reasons; considerations of decency come before.

We can say, "This is not decent, but reasons." And the reasons might (or might not) be good reasons. It was certainly indecent to kill Nazis by the millions, because mass murder is, I think, uncontroversially indecent, but hey, they were Nazis. (And, I think, the analysis is symmetric: I think the Nazis and Germans believed that murdering millions of Jews, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, and Slavs was indecent, but hey, reasons.) Similarly, whether or not someone thinks the economic constraints justify the indecency, it seems relatively uncontroversial that the way we treat food animals is clearly indecent.

The goal of civilization, I think, is or should be that we create a society where we can not just always act rightly but always act decently. A goal of universal decency might be asymptotic, but we should always at least be moving closer, to make our necessary indecency always rarer and always more fraught.

What I meant in my previous post, then is not to argue some specific concept of decency, but to talk about an attitude towards how we construct and implement not only our notions of decency but also when we make exceptions to decency. Hence, even when I completely agree with some religious people's specific constructions of decency, I profoundly disagree with how they construct that notion: that thus and such is decent or indecent not because we happen to subjectively feel it is so, but because God has so informed. Similarly with a monarchy, oligarchy, or even a republic: even if I agree, thus and such is decent (or we should make an exception to decency) because the king, or the bourgeoisie, or our elected representatives have so informed us... based, of course, on information only they can see.

As I noted, the specific institutions of a democracy are important, but democracy is more than just a set of institutions: indeed, no set of institutions, however carefully crafted, can be democratic if the people do not have democratic consciousness: the consciousness that the people themselves decide what is decent and when we must act indecently. Not the king, not the elite, not the trustees (and not the Party): the people themselves.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Killed by police

Ed highlights the most egregious police killings of unarmed black people in 2015, starting with 12 year old Tamir Rice, killed by police Nov. 22, 2014, whose killers will not be prosecuted.

See ?Killed by Police for a list of 1,190 people (as of Dec. 29) killed by police in 2015.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Religion and democracy

A couple of interesting articles: In Why the Left Needs Religion, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig argues that religion as religion (not just people who happen to be religious) is an essential component to left organizing, citing Christian religious doctrines and practices that are frankly Marxian. In Not God’s Politics, Susan Jacoby disagrees with Bruenig, citing the... diversity... of religious ideology on the right and left, and the propensity of Christians to impose their religion on everyone, including non-Christians. Naturally I much prefer Jacoby, and while I know many Christians I'm happy to have as allies, it is because of their politics, not their religion. But I think there's a larger point that's deserves highlighting.

We on the left should not, I think, be too focused on implementing a particular political-economic regime, e.g. welfare capitalism, social democracy, democratic socialism, or communism. The regime does matter, a lot, but the regime is not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is to change how people see the world and each other, to change our political and social psychology. A particular political-economic regime might be the consequence of that change, or might be a means to effect that change, but a change in "human nature" must be the fundamental goal of the left. I don't mean to say we shouldn't think carefully about political and economic issue at the deepest level (I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the economics and finance of communism), but these issues are not at the deepest level.

The fundamental struggle of the left is to inculcate the social psychology of democracy. We really like the word here in the United States; we are perhaps not quite so enthusiastic about the actual practice. Democracy is not about holding periodic elections, even with a comprehensive franchise and open candidacy. Democracy is not about letting people vote, it is about the people ruling. Elections are about people "choosing" our rulers; democracy is about people ruling themselves. Again, I want to say that although economic and political democracy is a regime, and requires specific kinds of political and economic institutions, the regime is not the fundamental, deepest, point; the deepest point is our social, cultural, political, and economic psychology, our consciousness.

Having sampled the Christian scriptures, the character of Jesus seems to me like a decent fellow.* But that's alarming right there: I have a favorable opinion of Jesus without believing for a second that the character or the narrative in which he appears has any sort of divine imprimatur. If you think Jesus is a decent character, why is that not enough to emulate him? What work does apotheosizing him do?

*I have much less familiarity with Islamic scripture. I wouldn't be surprised if apart from his egregious pedophilia, Muhammed (the man or the character of the narrator), given his time and place, was also rather decent. My point, though, is not the decency of the characters but the nature of religion.

The point of democracy, as an element of consciousness, is to act decently because we are decent; if we are not decent, we want to become decent.* If we act decently because some god demands we do so is to miss the fundamental point of democracy. More importantly, if we demand that others act decently not because they are decent, but because some god demands they do so, we don't just miss but actively undermine the whole point of democracy.

*What do I mean by "decent"? Good question. It's a vague word for a vague and complicated idea. I'll write more on this topic later.

One might argue that to persuade their readers to become decent is the Gospels authors' whole point, their real project. Perhaps so, but if that is their point, after almost two thousand years, they have decisively failed. And, I would argue, they have failed precisely because they have located the impetus to decency in the divine, rather than the human. I'm sorry, racist white European authoritarian neoliberal capitalism has captured a substantial fraction of nominal Christians, Christians who have in their homes an actual copy of the writings about the brown Middle-Eastern democratic communist, who say that what this brown Middle-Eastern democratic communist (supposedly) said is literally the most important thing in the world. If people actually believed what Jesus says, they would have greeted the writings of Marx with a collective, "Well, duh!" No, that's wrong: if people really believed Jesus, Christians never would have invented capitalism, and Marx would be known for his literary criticism. The fault is not in the content, so the fault must be in the location in the divine, not the human.

Democracy and communism are not about income equality or inequality. They are not about the Ministry of Planning or nationalizing the banks. Democracy and communism are about power, with the people taking power away from this or that self-selected elite, hereditary, economic, or theocratic, and wielding it themselves. Indeed, democracy is about abjuring power over others and privileging each person's individual power over him- or herself. By its very nature, no religion can ever give us that.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Science and philosophy: falsification

I'm simply going to state Karl Popper's claim and explain what it means. In further posts, I'll talk about the justification for his claim, and why we should care about the claim and its justification. If I feel like it, I'll talk about some weaknesses in Popper's case, and how they can be strengthened. However, that will require additional research that I would have to do in my copious free time. We'll see.

Popper's central claim is that a statement is scientific only if it is falsifiable. Note that this condition is necessary but not sufficient: a statement can, for example, be falsifiable and actually false, in which case it is not scientific. (Some might argue that Popper never says this, but it seems so trivial that if he really doesn't say so explicitly, it is uncharitable to believe he doesn't take it for granted.)

A statement is falsifiable if and only if there is an empirical observation that could in principle actually be observed that would render the statement false. If we do in fact observe a falsifying observation, then the statement is definitely false. However, if we bend over backwards to attempt to observe something that would falsify the statement, and we are unable to do so, we gain confidence in the truth of the statement; we can use probability theory (Bayesian or frequentist) to quantify our confidence. We can be certain that some statements are false, because we make a falsifying observation, but we can never be certain that any statement is actually true.

For example, take the statement, "Objects always fall when we drop them." This statement is falsifiable: if I drop something, and I observe it not falling, then the statement is definitely false. However, no matter how many times I drop something and observe it actually falling, I cannot be certain that things always fall when I drop them, everywhere on Earth for all time. The best I can do is say having observed things falling when I drop them many times, I have confidence in the statement, but if I were to ever actually observe a counterexample, then I would have to revise my theory.

In contrast, consider the statement, "God created the universe." The syllogism
  1. If God had not created it, the universe would not exist
  2. The universe exists
  3. Therefore, God created the universe
is certainly valid, and (2) is confirmed by observation. But the syllogism is not falsifiable: if no universe exists, we could not observe that fact. (We are part of the universe; if the universe did not exist, neither would we.) Therefore, the syllogism is not scientific: we could not in principle observe its falsity.

In principle, Popper's claim is very straightforward; in practice it's a lot more complicated. Most importantly, we cannot evaluate statements independently: all statements depend on a theoretical context, the larger structure of a scientific theory, the construction of our measurement devices, and the nature of language itself. Hence, we cannot isolate single statements for falsification; instead we can only falsify larger theoretical constructs. The best we can say if we observe something that falsifies a statement within a theoretical context, then something in the context (including the statement) is false, but we can't be sure precisely what part of the context (or the entire context) is incorrect.

For example, I'm watching the Feynman lectures. Feynman talks about observations of the moons of Jupiter that falsified Newton's theory of gravity. Instead of modifying the theory of gravity itself, scientists changed the theoretical context by adding the premise that the speed of light is finite, with a definite value.

But this ambiguity does not damage Popper's central point. Popper does not give us any guidance on how to fix problems, he merely claims that if it is impossible in principle to have this particular problem, i.e. impossible to observe something contrary to the theoretical context, then whatever it is you're doing, you're not doing science.