Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Revolutionary conditions

You do not — you cannot — have a revolution just because you think it's a good idea. You do not and cannot have a revolution just because you have moral qualms — however deep and well-justified by humanist principles — about the existing system. A revolution can occur only when the existing system actually fails... and fails of its own accord.

So long as the capitalist-imperialist system is managing to do a "good" job, so long as the empire is run relatively efficiently (albeit immorally), the system has little to fear from revolution. Millions of people have to be desperately unhappy with the system itself before a revolution is even possible.

I'm a revolutionary not just because I want a revolution (which I do), and not just because I'm morally outraged by the crimes of the existing capitalist-imperialist system (which I am), but because I believe the existing system will collapse, and it will collapse because of its own internal contradictions*.

*This is not "inevitablism": I don't think it's inevitable that a good socialist system will inevitably emerge from the collapse of capitalism.

It's very important to understand the distinction between sabotage and refusing to do whatever it takes to shore up a collapsing system. Sabotage is bad*; if the system is to fall, it should fall of its own accord. If revolutionaries try to sabotage the system, if they try use violence to create revolutionary conditions, then the people will justly blame the revolutionaries — not the system itself — for whatever failures ensue. And, of course, those running the existing capitalist system can and will successfully defend themselves, winning on both practical and moral grounds.

*The Western capitalist-imperialist countries spent trillions of dollars over decades to actively sabotage socialism and communism. The "elite" characters of Atlas Shrugged do not merely go on strike and refuse to support a system they disagreed with: they actively sabotage the economy, even going so far as to bomb factories.

But refusing to sabotage the system does not mean doing whatever it takes to shore up the system. There are active steps a revolutionary can take bring about revolutionary conditions without being seen (by too many people*) as active saboteurs.

*There are always those who will see anything less than slavish adherence to the status quo as treason and sabotage. The only difference between the Americian bourgeois right and bourgeois "left" is that the right is better at the narrative of submission vs. treason.

There are two main avenues to create revolutionary conditions.

First, revolutionaries must constantly expose the crimes and failures of the existing system and tie those crimes and failures to the underlying principles of the system. Racism, sexism, theocracy, wars of aggression, the oppression of immigrants, economic depression: all of these crimes and failures either have their roots directly in capitalism, or capitalism by its nature will exploit these conditions to the benefit of the bourgeoisie.

Second, revolutionaries must constantly demand full social justice: full employment, adequate food, housing and other necessities for everyone, universal medical care, universal education, etc.

It's important that revolutionaries never compromise. I don't oppose S-CHIP to cover some medical care for some children, but I will not shut up about universal medical care for everyone just to get S-CHIP. I'm pleased that a black man will soon be President, but I'm not going to shut up about the racism that's still prevalent. I don't want women and minorities arbitrarily excluded from the bourgeoisie, but merely granting equal access to the bourgeoisie is not sufficient to end sexism and racism, and definitely not sufficient to end the relations of exploitation inherent in capitalism.

As a corollary, revolutionaries must always support issues, not individual politicians. A politician must compromise, that's their job. Too many progressives, I think, get sucked into supporting individual politicians (cough Obama); they then feel compelled to justify and support those politicians' compromises, instead of continuing to demand more.

Anyone who has been paying attention for the last forty years realizes that the expedient tactic of remaining silent on larger issues to win gains on smaller issues has utterly failed. Time and again it's been one step forward, twenty steps back.

Someone has to demand the whole cake. So long as compromise is viable, revolutionaries who refuse to compromise will be marginalized. But so what? My aim is not to find a position of power within the current system. My aim is to demand perfection, so that conditions will continuously improve, one way or another.

If I'm right, if the system really is doomed to fail of its own accord, then I'm right not to compromise, I'm right to prepare for a revolution to bring about something better from the failures of the system. And if I'm wrong, if the system really can keep working, I'm still right not to compromise: I'm demanding nothing but justice: if capitalism actually can deliver justice, it will do so only because someone demands it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Israel unleashes a massacre in Gaza

Stop Thinking Like Americans!
Start Thinking in the Interests of the People of the World!

Tuesday Dec. 30 at 5 pm
Rally in front of Israeli Consulate (456 Montgomery St.)
Backed by the U.S.:

Tuesday December 30 at 7:00 pm
Emergency Meeting on the Situation in Gaza
Revolution Books, 2425 Channing Way, Berkeley
For information: 510-848-1196

Larry Everest (with research and assistance from other Revolution

Beginning mid-day on Saturday, December 27, waves of U.S.-supplied
Israeli warplanes suddenly appeared over the skies of the Palestinian
territory of Gaza in broad daylight and unleashed a deadly barrage of
bomb and missile attacks that continue as we go to press. This could
not be taking place without the approval of the U.S., for whom Israel
serves as an enforcer in the Middle East. The U.S.-supplied Israeli
F-16 warplanes and Apache helicopters attacked all of Gaza's main
towns, including Gaza City, Khan Younis and Rafah, striking more than
210 targets in the first 24 hours of what Israel threatens will be
"war to the bitter end." Police stations—located in the middle of
civilian areas—government offices, the Islamic University, and many
other sites were hit. By Sunday, over 300 had been killed—including
many civilians and an estimated 700 wounded. It was the most
Palestinians killed in a single day in decades.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Ontological argument

  1. We can imagine the greatest blogger
  2. Existence both in reality and in imagination is greater than existence solely in one's imagination
  3. Therefore, the greatest blogger must exist in reality

Ideology and dogmatism

There are two senses of "ideology": The first sense (ideology) just denotes a set of ideas consciously and intentionally expressed, related and somehow bounded. The second sense (dogmatism) denotes a set of ideas adhered to dogmatically or inflexibly. You cannot have dogmatism without ideology, something specific and bounded to be dogmatic about, so these two senses get confused.

It seems like a clever panacea to eliminate dogmatism by eliminating ideology: it's true that you can't be dogmatic without something to be dogmatic about. But this approach throws out the baby with the bathwater.

It is possible to eliminate ideology, but to do so eliminates being intentional and conscious about your moral, ethical and political beliefs. Once you become conscious of your moral beliefs, you begin constructing an ideology. Once you begin sharing your moral beliefs and trying to persuade others to their value, you begin creating a socially constructed ideology.

There is a set of beliefs underlying all social constructs: they exist whether we discuss them consciously or just adhere to them unconsciously. And there are specific moral, ethical and political ideas underlying the status quo, how we live right now. To criticize these existing beliefs, we must become conscious of them, and accept some of them on their merits, and reject others and hold something different on their merits. To be critical of the status quo, we must begin constructing an ideology.

To profess that one is "non-ideological" then means accepting the status quo uncritically. Lack of criticality is an essential feature of dogmatism, so professing a lack of ideology shares the most objectionable feature of dogmatism.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mao's Cultural Revolution

Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in China and its Legacy for the Future was written by the MLM Revolutionary Study Group in the U.S. This comprehensive paper describes the course of the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, its achievements and shortcomings, and why future movements for revolution, socialism and communism must stand on its shoulders.

Part 1: Seeding Machine for Revolution
Part 2: The Sweep of A Revolution, 1966-1976
Part 3: A Startling Theoretical Leap
Part 4: Radical Changes in Culture
Part 5: Deep Among the People
Part 6: The Winding Road
Part 7: Struggling to Liberate Women
Part 8: Conceptualizing Socialist Society
Part 9: Summing Up the Revolution

The entire work is available as a Word document: Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in China and its Legacy for the Future.

The commoditization of labor

The commoditization of labor is the chief contradiction of capitalism.

Labor power is the ability to perform labor, analogous to potential energy in physics. The act of working transforms labor power into commodities; per Marx, labor power is "congealed" into commodities.

Labor power is the only item that has objective use value: the use value of one hour of labor power is precisely one hour of labor (i.e. socially necessary labor time). Labor power also has a cost: one must transform labor power into food, clothing, shelter, etc. consumed by the worker and physically necessary for their survival, ability to work, and ability to reproduce the next generation of workers. In any nontrivial economy, the cost of one hour of labor power is less than one hour. The difference between the cost and the objective use-value of labor is the surplus value of labor.

In a literally free market in equilibrium, the price (exchange value) of any commodity is its cost. If I wish to trade shoes for hats, I will give the number of shoes that can be produced in one hour and receive the number of hats that can be produced in one hour. The equivalence between labor time makes the exchange fair; that the subjective use-values of the commodities increase after the exchange motivates actually exchanging the commodities rather than keeping them.

That price equals cost in a literally free market is provable. Free market economics is analogous to thermodynamics, information theory and statistical mechanics: the difference between the price and the cost defines the entropy of a commodity; a large difference corresponds to low entropy, and entropy always increases.

Which brings us to the chief contradiction of capitalism: If labor power is itself commoditized, then the price of one hour of labor power will be equal to its cost, which is less than its objective use-value. The difference between the cost and the objective use-value of labor power is the surplus value of labor.

In a literally free market where labor is commoditized, a worker will receive zero surplus value for his labor: the price of one hour of labor power will be the minimum necessary to create exactly that one hour of labor power and not a penny more. But it is patently irrational for someone to exchange something of greater value to receive something of lesser value. The only way to make someone behave "irrationally" is to employ coercion (or fraud). It's (locally) rational to give my wallet to a mugger only because I value my life more than my wallet.

Therefore, labor cannot be a commodity in a literally free market, because the presence of coercion renders the market not literally free.

The true efficiency of a commodity (the production of a commodity) is the use-value of the commodity divided by the cost (in socially necessary labor time). The capitalist efficiency of a commodity is the profit (price minus monetary cost) divided by the monetary cost. Assuming the price of the commodity is equal to the labor cost, then a commodity is efficient under capitalism only if the monetary cost comprises not the labor time necessary to produce the commodity, but rather the true cost necessary to produce the labor power, which is less than the actual production obtained.

A capitalist economy is "inefficient" precisely to the degree that workers consume more than is absolutely necessary to produce their labor power.

A similar analysis applies to capital as well. In a literally free market, if capital is a commodity, then the price of capital (constant and variable) is its cost. In a literally free market where both labor and capital are commodities, no one receives the surplus value of labor. But someone has to receive this surplus value: who?

The allocation of surplus value is a political issue: the surplus value goes to those with the guns. Tell me who commands the police and the army, and I'll tell you where the surplus value is going. The only way that labor receives any of its surplus value is in their ability and willingness to resist coercion: every class will receive surplus value only to the extent that it is cheaper to give them some of the surplus than actually fight them.

A capitalist economy differs from a socialist economy by whether labor or capital is a commodity.

In a capitalist economy, labor is a commodity; capital is not a commodity. The price of capital is equal not to its cost, but to its objective use-value: the surplus value of the labor paid for by the capital (variable capital) and that uses the equipment (constant capital). By definition, value is surplus value under capitalism and its consumption is removed from the calculation of efficiency only if that surplus value is consumed by someone other than those producing the goods. In other words, the CEO's salary is part of the monetary cost of a commodity and reduces the capitalist efficiency of its production. Only that part of the price not paid to anyone actually contributing to the production of a commodity makes the production "efficient" in capitalist terms.

In a socialist economy, capital is a commodity; labor is not a commodity. The price of labor is equal not to its cost, but its objective use-value: someone who works eight hours a day will receive commodities that took eight hours of labor time to produce. Workers receive more use-value for their labor as the true cost of commodities decreases. Since true efficiency rises exponentially, the idealistic notion, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," can become a practical reality in the near future.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

What is Communism?

I have to hand it to BadTux: he's shown me the error of my ways:
You can define all you want, but reality simply is, and doesn't care about your attempts to change it by changing the definitions of common words [i.e. "communism"] to be what you want them to mean.
He's right, you know. If you're going to call yourself a communist, you have to do exactly what Stalin did, including wearing ill-fitting western business suits. Actually, to call yourself a communist, you have to do exactly what three generations of capitalist propagandists say that communists do; if you don't immediately start producing Soylent Green and replacing humans with emotionless pod-people, you're not a true communist.

In just the same sense, our American democracy is exactly the same as that proposed and practiced by the founders. If you're not saying and doing exactly the same as Isacc Newton, then you're not doing physics. Medicine without leeches is a fraud.

Thank you BadTux, for showing me that labels, especially political and social labels, have an objective meaning that it is dishonest to deny or change in the slightest bit.

Democratic socialism

I recently referenced the debate between Larry Everest and Norman Solomon. Solomon slipped one by me in the debate; only now has my slow mind seized on the contradiction. Solomon described himself as a "democratic socialist" to differentiate himself from Everest, a self-described revolutionary communist. But the distinction is both specious and contradictory.

All communists are (lower-case) democratic socialists. We are of course socialists in the sense that socialism is a synonym for communism. More importantly, communism requires true democracy, in the literal sense of rule of the people.

Perhaps Solomon meant to describe himself as a (capitalized) Democratic Socialist. In its capitalized sense it has a more specific meaning: It refers to those who attempt to work for socialistic reforms within bourgeois "democracy". But bourgeois "democracy" deserves the scare quotes, because it isn't democracy in the literal sense of the word (and I don't mean the specious and irrelevant distinction between "republic" and "democracy"). All western "democracies" are bourgeois class dictatorships, where the people "rule" only in the sense that they are asked from time to time to choose between competing factions of the bourgeoisie.

It's important to understand that The United States was originally founded explicitly, intentionally and proudly as a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie: only white male property owners were originally granted the franchise. The central role of the bourgeoisie in our government is deeply embedded into all of our political and economic structures. The most obvious and compelling evidence is the critical role of money in elections, to the point where the key qualification for high political office is fund-raising ability.

One of the chief theoretical problems of communism is that there are few (if any) templates and historical precedents for literal democracy. Another problem is that ordinary people are deeply brainwashed conditioned to seeing the dictatorship of the bourgeois as justified, righteous and above all normal; the people are terrified of ruling themselves. This fear of democracy is just the modern expression of slave morality, pounded into people's heads since (at least) the beginning of recorded history.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Communism and moral choice

David Schraub posts a tendentious and absurd criticism of my recent post Revolution and Reform. The criticism is ridiculous, hinging as it does on an illiterate reading of the word "palliative". It does, however, bring up — in a backhanded, oversimplified way — an important ethical dilemma of both political and philosophical interest: How do you choose, and how do you evaluate others' choices, when those choices are socially constrained?

Social constraints are more interesting than physical constraints because individual ethical choices and social constraints feed back to each other: there is a continual dialectic between the individual and the social.

Suppose we have two mainstream candidates: The "right" candidate wants to torture 1,000 babies to death; the "left" candidate wants to torture only 500 babies. There's also a "far left" candidate who doesn't want to torture any babies at all, but this candidate has no reasonably chance of winning.

There are ex hypothesis no objective physical reasons why any babies at all must inevitably be tortured to death — e.g. they're not dying of some terrible terminal disease we're powerless to eradicate — although we can suppose there are objective physical consequences of torturing or not torturing babies to death. The choice is neither forced nor gratuitous. (This is a very different situation than the one I posed in my earlier essay: actually not torturing some babies is not a "palliative" in any reasonable sense of the word.)

Suppose further that given an accurate understanding of the physical circumstances and consequences, 40% of the population have no serious problem torturing babies, 40% are strongly opposed to torturing any babies at all, and 20% are undecided.

What are the ethical obligations of those such as myself among the 40% who strongly oppose torturing babies?

Schraub and his ilk seem to see this dilemma in very narrow terms: Anything less than unqualified support for the "left" candidate — especially support for the "far left" candidate — makes the election of the "right" candidate more likely (and I'll stipulate that this statement is objectively true). Anything less that unqualified support for the "left" candidate is therefore effectively endorsing the torture of 500 more babies. Those 500 babies are being sacrificed to the principles of those supporting the "far left" candidate.

Note that even saying, "I don't like torturing babies, but I'm going to 'hold my nose' and vote for the 'left' candidate," risks alienating the undecided "middle" and makes it more likely for the election to go to the "right" candidate.

Let's make the question even more complicated: Suppose that 40 years ago, the "right" candidate advocated the torture of 100 babies and the "left" candidate the torture of only 50. In subsequent elections the number of babies on both sides has steadily increased, with the "left" candidate typically advocating only half the baby torture of the right. And suppose further that we've seen that the candidates are indeed mostly accurate: historically when a "right" candidate is elected, we see a lot of baby torture; when a "left" candidate is elected, the baby torture goes down relative to the previous "right" government, but goes up relative to the previous "left" government.

I see the whole situation differently, in the larger, strategic context.

First, I'm primarily responsible for only my own actions; I'm less responsible for the actions of others. It is those who vote for the "right" candidate — not me — who bear the primary responsibility for torturing babies; my responsibility is only secondary.

Second, I have to ask: why is the choice being framed so weirdly? If 40% of the population is against torturing babies at all, then why isn't this option realistically on the table? And not just now, but why hasn't it been on the table for 40 years? To the extent that I narrow my choices to only the immediately expedient, I'm unreservedly endorsing the framing itself. But I oppose the frame: I want a choice not between torturing more babies or fewer, but between torturing some babies or none.

If nobody at all ever challenges the framing, the larger "strategic" context, and instead always focuses on the narrow, expedient choice, then it seems obvious that the number of babies being tortured is going to ratchet higher and higher until some physical limitation is reached: the choice then will be between torturing 100,000 babies to death and torturing 99,999 babies to death. On the other hand, because the framing manifestly exists as a social constraint, opposition will start as a minority, and will probably at some point actually push some specific election the "right" candidate by withdrawing support for the "left" candidate.

This is a complex ethical question, with — assuming an accurate understanding of objective reality — no objectively correct answer. I understand and respect — to a degree that I do not respect a "right" candidate supporter — someone who chooses the lesser of two evils and unreservedly supports the "left" candidate.

But I cannot. My ethical position compels me to try to change the framing.

It irritates me when those such as Schraub accuse me of being "indifferent" or callous to immediate negative effects that might be mitigated by expedient action. Unreserved support for the Democratic party entails support for actively oppressing and exploiting some people; support for actively pursuing the wars in the Middle East; support for actively torturing some people; support for some domestic spying; support for some censorship; support for some oppression of women, gays, immigrants and racial minorities. Less than that of the Republicans, but still some. If Schraub and his ilk wish to call me callous for foregoing expedient action, they should by the same token be called callous for their indifference towards those who still will be affected negatively even with expedient action.

I'm not a revolutionary communist because I'm enamored of some pretty idealism and I just don't care who has to suffer and die to achieve it. It's an obvious lie to impute such motives to me; Schraub escapes charges of libel only because he's a pipsqueak who lacks the power to harm me.

I'm a revolutionary communist because my conscience is deeply shocked by the crimes perpetrated by our existing political system. I'm shocked by the suffering and oppression this system entails, proven by both empirical historical evidence and theoretical analysis. I'm no longer willing to work within a system that gives me only the choices between bad and worse. I'm no longer willing to remain silent about some suffering only to avoid even worse suffering.

Just asking for a little less oppression isn't enough for me any more. I may be mistaken, but I believe that a radical transformation of society — and only a radical transformation — can end all oppression.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Power is not a toy we give to good children. It is a weapon. And the strong man takes it and uses it. If you don't go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you've got no business in the big league. Because if you don't fight, the job is not for you. And it never will be.

— "President Art Hockstader", The Best Man (Gore Vidal)

[h/t to driftglass]

Nietzsche on vanity

Vanity, trying to arouse a good opinion of oneself, and even to try to believe in it, seems, to the noble man, such bad taste, so self-disrespectful, so grotesquely unreasonable, that he would like to consider vanity a rarity. He will say, "I may be mistaken about my value, but nevertheless demand that I be valued as I value myself", but this is not vanity. The man of noble character must learn that in all social strata in any way dependent, the ordinary man has only ever valued himself as his master dictates (it is the peculiar right of masters to create values). It may be looked upon as an extraordinary atavism that the ordinary man is always waiting for an opinion about himself and then instinctively submitting to it; not only to a "good" opinion, but also to a bad and unjust one (think of all the self-depreciations which the believing Christian learns from his Church). It is "the slave" in the vain man's blood- and how much of the "slave" is still left in woman- which seeks to seduce to good opinions of itself; it is the slave, too, who immediately afterwards falls prostrate himself before these opinions, as though he had not called them forth. Vanity is an atavism.

— Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

(Yes, I know Nietzsche was a misogynist asshole. But his point is still fundamentally sound.)

[h/t to lenin]

Only in America

Himself has returned!

Let there be merriment and rejoicing in the streets, and let the ale flow freely!

Excuse me?

You know, I oftentimes say being the Commander-in-Chief of the military is the thing I'll miss the most, and coming here to Walter Reed is a reminder of why I'll miss it.

George W. Bush

Communism and bad shit

There's no doubt that the communist revolutions in the USSR and PRC entailed some bad shit happening. Communism really isn't some hippy-dippy utopia, it's a real political-economic system that has to work in the messy world of real people, many of whom are evil and more of whom are at best ignorant and at worst stupid.

Many communists really do wish we had a time machine, and we can go back and tell Stalin or Mao: Don't do this or that: you'll be more effective as communists if you don't. Communists admire (or at least tolerate) Stalin or Mao not because of their authoritarianism, but because they used their authority to do their best to implement socialism. I don't know anyone who thinks that real authoritarianism (and the unfortunate jargon "dictatorship of the proletariat" does not endorse authoritarianism) is necessary to implement socialism or communism. A socialist society without a democratic mandate from the masses is doomed to immediate failure. Stalin and Mao's authoritarianism — to the extent that it really existed and is not an artifact of hyperbolic slanderous propaganda — is not an inherent feature of socialism; it's an artifact of the contingent historical circumstances of the Russian and Chinese societies in which socialism was first tried.

Be that as it may, it should be blatantly obvious to anyone that a communist revolution even in an advanced industrial country such as the US would still entail some bad shit. At the very least, even if a communist government were constitutionally elected and the requisite Constitutional amendments enacted, we can be confident that the Christian fascists — who are presently armed to the teeth — would rise up in revolt. Protecting the government would require fighting a civil war. And there has never been any war conducted anywhere under any circumstances that has not caused massive civilian suffering and casualties, and has not seen war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by both sides. Furthermore, even if a communist government were to win that civil war, it would probably have to repress Christian fascist ideology — indeed it's arguable that it would be irresponsible not to do so.

Radically changing the economic foundations of a three-hundred million person country is going to cause profound dislocations, suffering and some deaths. The government will make mistakes, serious mistakes, and those mistakes will also cause real suffering and death.

In short even the best case of a communist "revolution" would entail that some bad shit would go down.

It's every individual's personal moral decision to weigh the costs of a revolution against the benefits. We've developed a lot of rationalizations ("They started it!") but we're fundamentally teleological beings, capable of predicting the consequences of our actions. We cannot escape responsibility for those consequences however well-intentioned our actions. But it's equally the case that we have some similar responsibility for not acting, precisely to the extent that we can foresee the consequences of passivity.

It's entirely legitimate — indeed necessary — to honestly and realistically evaluate the pros and cons of a communist revolution — and there will be, without a doubt, cons. And I can see how a well-intentioned, thoughtful person might say after such an evaluation that revolution just isn't worth it.

There are other criticisms, though, that are as irritating and intellectually vacuous as the criticism that all atheists are immoral, unhappy or stupid.

We do not have to do everything that Stalin or Mao did. We do not have to exactly mirror even their successes, and we're under no obligation whatsoever to repeat their mistakes. "Stalin and Mao did some bad shit, Stalin and Mao were a communists, therefore communism entails doing bad shit," is no less fallacious than if we substitute "atheist" for "communist" and focus on their repression of religion.

It's ridiculous to assert that communism failed in the USSR and PRC due only to socialism's intrinsic weaknesses or its reliance on authoritarianism. The United States alone spent trillions of dollars (back when a trillion dollars was a lot of money) threatening the USSR and PRC with global thermonuclear war. Not because the USSR and PRC were repressive or authoritarian — the US loves them their authoritarian regimes — but because they were socialist.

It's hypocritical to mock communists on the one hand for being naive idealists and criticize them on the other hand for being willing to tolerate the messiness, problems and mistakes necessary to implement any kind of change — much less radical change — in the real world. It's just as hypocritical to condemn communists for wanting to rely on state power to implement communism and tolerate the use of state power to implement and maintain capitalist imperialism. If you're against state power in principle, destroy all government power and arm the populace... and let me know how that works out for you. It's simply moronic to condemn communists for having an "ideology" while pretending that your own ideology — Austrian or Chicago capitalism, liberal democracy, democratic socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, secular or religious humanism or whatever — is just a collection of good ideas, an "ideology of non-ideology" which has to be the stupidest slogan I've heard since I stopped debating cretinists.

If you're going to criticize communism and socialism, do so on the merits. There's plenty to criticize there: every sophisticated intellectual endeavor has its share of half-baked ideas and institutional conservatism, and only sharp and direct criticism can root out error. But please, if you're going to criticize communism and socialism, please try to use arguments and evidence more sophisticated than those used by cretinists and IDiots.

Progressives and conservatives

The progressive movement in the United States is moribund. To the extent that there is mass action by people who call themselves progressives —, Daily Kos, etc. — there is little actual pressure for progress; the only pressure that exists is against only the worst excesses of neoconservatism. Where is the pressure to end the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Why are progressives celebrating the election of a president who calls for only a reduction of the occupation of Iraq — and even that reduction over a ridiculously long time frame? Why celebrate the election of a president who explicitly calls for intensifying the occupation of Afghanistan, and who makes bellicose, threatening statements towards Iran? Why celebrate the election of a president who responds to the economic crisis by appointing the people who caused the crisis to try to fix it? Why celebrate the election of a president who responds to the undermining of what little democracy we actually have by the Republican party by "reaching across the aisle" and promising cooperation with those who can just be labeled as actual traitors?

Are progressives just stupid? Well, yes, but that's not, I think, the cause of the problem. Conservatives are not just stupid, they're really fucking stupid, and batshit crazy as well, but despite these handicaps they've achieved remarkable success: They've run against peace and prosperity and actually won major victories. They've influenced the narrative so deeply that even now so-called progressives are happy with just a little bit less war and poverty, and decry anyone calling for more as naive and unrealistic.

Conservatives have done well because a substantial fraction of the ruling class has been throwing vast amounts of money to promote conservatism. Think tanks, pundits, columnists, school boards and local politicians, national politicians. The core strategy has been simple: promote a consistent ideology, and win where they can, but never compromise the core ideology to recover from a loss. Absent catastrophic conditions, this is an effective strategy for implementing an ideology; indeed this is the only effective strategy.

This strategy requires money. A lot of money. A lot more money than can be raised from the hoi polloi. Those conservative clergy — Rick Warren, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell — who depend on the support of ordinary people are small potatoes, bit players in the drama. They are powerful not just because they have a few million bucks fleeced from their sheeple, but rather because they are allied with a much more powerful general conservative movement funded by billions of dollars.

The liberal billionaires — those in a position to throw a significant amount of money at the progressive movement — are in a bind. On the one hand, I'm sure they can clearly see that the conservative movement is leading the world to a catastrophe — a catastrophe that is looming even now. On the other hand, how do they respond? To act progressively risks progressing right through towards socialism and a radical redistribution of wealth... their wealth. So they act only defensively... but no one has ever won a defensive war.

When I started this blog in 2007, I was disgusted with the progressive movement for their incompetence and cowardice. I'm now less disgusted (but no more inclined to cooperate). The progressive movement is ineffective simply because they don't have the massive funding the conservatives have. There's no selection process within the movement: money just doesn't flow to successful progressives.

Progressivism, socialism, communism... all of these movements require catastrophe. This is not to say that catastrophe must or should be engineered; even if such a thing were morally permissible (which it's not), progressives by definition lack the resources and economic ability to actively bring about a true catastrophe. But we see time and again that ruling-class based societies bring about their own catastrophes: depressions, wars, famines, plagues. Until the catastrophe strikes, progressives will always be marginalized; when catastrophe strikes, all the money and political power in the world cannot force back the reality that demands progress.

Obama and FDR

Some people have compared Barack Obama to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The hope is that Obama, like Roosevelt, will take strong, positive action to correct and recover from the current economic depression. While there are some similarities — both campaigned as "centrists" — the differences outweigh the similarities.

There are substantial differences in the political climate. Roosevelt took office in 1933, more than three years after the trigger of the Great Depression. Obama, on the other hand, will take office only months after the trigger of this depression. Roosevelt thus did not have to take the blame for the half-measures and incompetent management that inevitably follow a true catastrophe. Obama, on the other hand, does not have someone like Hoover to point to and say, "Whatever we do, we know we can't do that." (Bush doesn't count; Bush has done nothing to try to fix the depression, and it's trivially obvious that Obama cannot cause another depression.)

Roosevelt took office near the bottom of the Great Depression; whatever he did, absent gross incompetence, conditions could not seriously worsen. But even if Obama were to act perfectly — at least within the confines of the capitalist system he unreservedly endorses — just the lag between a Keynesian stimulus and its macroeconomic effects will make conditions during the mid-term elections of 2010 worse than they now are. The Republican party will use these worsening conditions to great effect: I predict in 2010 a narrow Republican majority in at least the House, if not the Senate as well.

Roosevelt took office with a vigorous progressive and socialist movement in the US. He was under serious political pressure to move to the left. Obama takes office with a moribund progressive movement; the only external political pressure he has is to move to the right, to rescue the capitalist class at the expense of labor and the middle class. The only populist pressure he faces is to increase his support for religion and conservative Christianity. The mainstream progressives seem terrified of making even the smallest political demand on Obama: Even criticism of his choosing a misogynist, homophobic, neoconservative, religious fanatic is deprecated and dismissed as irrelevant. "Give Obama a chance!" they say, but WTF? He has his chance: He'll be President of the United States for fuck's sake. The mainstream progressives refuse to pressure him; they'll be so fucking surprised when he doesn't deliver on the tiniest bit of their agenda.

Most importantly, though, Obama faces economic circumstances fundamentally different from those Roosevelt faced. Industry in the 1930's was still incredibly labor-intensive, and the labor pool was national, not global. There was enormous room for economic growth, and economic growth then caused a labor shortage. A Keynesian stimulus (especially the enormous stimulus provided by the war of American Imperialism) paid off almost immediately, both for capitalists and for labor.

Modern economic circumstances are very different. Globalization dilutes the local effect of a Keynsian stimulus; as the French discovered in the 1980s, a stimulus at home will be spent abroad.

Furthermore, our current industrial production is extremely thorough and efficient: There is little scope to produce more goods, and there is little scope to produce goods will less labor. The only place the economy is actually expanding is in very highly skilled labor — which leaves little room for short-term benefit for the hundreds of millions of people who do not already have an advanced college degree or specialized training. And even in highly skilled labor we're reaching the point of diminishing economic returns. A Keynesian stimulus is debt, without enormous economic expansion, the debt just moves the problem to tomorrow. Both the dot-com and housing bubbles were debt-driven stimuli, and look where we are now.

Hoping that Obama will follow the mold of FDR, hoping that the capitalist class will have the wisdom and foresight to actually keep the system running requires a degree of blind faith, magical thinking and willful ignorance that would shame a cretinist.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Revolution and Reform

The other night I attended a debate between Larry Everest, revolutionary communist and author of Oil, Power and Empire, and Norman Solomon, progressive Democrat and author of Made Love, Got War.

The debate crystallized some of my own ideas regarding revolution and reform.

Norman Solomon made a good point: Revolution is years away at best, and might be impossible — we won't know for sure until a revolution is successful. Until we have an actual revolution, it is better to do what we can to work within the system for progressive change. In theory, I agree: you don't refuse to rescue a drowning person just because your efforts to have a dangerous beach closed have not yet succeeded.

But in practice, I find Solomon's position hollow. For forty years, I've watched the Democratic party cave time and again to the conservative, pro-business, anti-populist, pro-religion and sometimes explicitly fascist agenda. And this blatant appeasement has become progressively worse, culminating in the Democratic party's utter inability to thwart the agenda of the Bush administration between 2006-2008 — despite the fact that Bush is the weakest, least popular president ever; arguably the worst president in American history. Choosing the Democratic party as a vehicle to fight against the Republican conservative agenda is as moronic as betting on the Washington Generals to defeat the Harlem Globetrotters.

Worse yet, progressive Democrats have shown nothing but blatant appeasement to the conservative wing of the Democratic party — and its blatantly clear that Barack Obama represents this wing. Many progressive democrats object to criticism of the Obama administration — not because it's wrong, but because somehow Obama is so fragile that criticism might convince Obama to back away from the minuscule progressive agenda he might support on his own.

It's a fundamental rule of negotiation that you do not get what you do not demand. If you want something, you not only have to ask for it, you have to fight for it. Coming to the table ready to "compromise" is nothing but appeasement. You have to fight for your adversary to compromise, and you have to make your adversary fight for your own concessions.

This is such a fundamental point of negotiation that it becomes difficult to attribute the persistent strain of appeasement in the Democratic party and the so-called "progressive" wing of the Democratic to anything other than gross stupidity or rank hypocrisy. The Democrats are demanding nothing of the Republicans, and the progressive Democrats are demanding nothing of the party as a whole.

I was watching some political documentary a while ago, and Barney Frank (D-MA) made a perspicacious comment (which I'll have to paraphrase from memory): "Do you vote? No? Then what do I care what you think?" Left unsaid, though, is the corollary: "Will you vote for me no matter what I do? Yes? Then what do I care what you think?"

There's an important sense in which Barack Obama is actually worse than John McCain. Obviously, Obama is not an explicitly theocratic fucktard like McCain; Obama is a bright guy, and I'm sure he means well, but he knows precisely what the capitalist imperialist system demands of him, and he was supported by capitalist elite because they know he will deliver. Obama is a palliative, not a cure. A palliative is just fine when it relieves suffering while one is curing the underlying disease. But a palliative is actively bad when it removes the motivation of pain for curing the underlying condition while it worsens. And that is precisely what the Obama administration aims to do.

A McCain administration would have given tremendous impetus for progressives to actually organize. "Let's make the patient sicker," says Dr. House, "so we can diagnose the disease and cure it before it kills the patient." An Obama administration just masks the symptoms and has visibly and provably sucked the oxygen from the mainstream progressive movement.

Obama will not end the occupation of Iraq: he's said so. Worse yet, a half-assed withdrawal will be seen by the Iraqi people as a weakness to be exploited, not a victory to be consolidated. One must grasp the nettle firmly: we'll see an escalation of the war in Iraq as Obama tries to tiptoe out.

Obama will not end the occupation of Afghanistan; indeed he aims to expand it. He is no friend of women or abortion rights. He is no friend of gays. He is no friend of secularists. He is no friend of labor.

He cannot, even if he has good intentions, fix the economy. It is beyond repair. He cannot deliver universal health care: the Republican party is viscerally and fundamentally opposed, and Obama's willingness to compromise will again be seen a weakness to be exploited, which it is indeed.

Obama is no friend, no friend at all, of true progressivism, a progressivism that seeks any sort of substantive change, and not just the rhetorical window-dressing of vacuous slogans on the same old oppressive bullshit.

I'd love to work within the system for progressive change, substantive change. But it's the plain truth that even the most mild progressivism has been not just locked out of actual participation in politics, but anesthetized into a coma by vapid sloganeering. Reform is completely off the table, at least any reform more substantive than, "Hey, let's be more discreet about demolishing the underpinnings of liberal capitalist democracy."

There's just no choice but to do what we can, however ineffective, for a revolution.

Best posts of 2008

Jon Swift is rounding up the year's best posts for the blogs on his blogroll, and I've been graciously invited to participate.

Reading through the archives from the past year, I realize I've written some pretty interesting stuff... well at least I think it's interesting. YMMV

So I thought I'd list the posts I really like from the last year. Here they are.

I have to pick exactly one "best" post; If you have any suggestions, please leave them in comments.

Rationality is not enough
Libertarians are retards
Say no! to abortion rights
How to sniff out bullshit
Agnostic and/or atheist
Tolerance and multiculturalism
What is this "election" of which you speak?
Metaphysical objectivism
Objective sensory input
On Forgiveness
Defining knowledge: Justified true belief?
Are you really religious?
Religion as literature

Fine Tuning
Process Reliabilism
Thought Experiments
I might be wrong
Ted Koppel is an idiot
Health care and wages
Enforceability and ethics
On labels
More on abortion and misogyny
Falling for propaganda

Progressive Conservatism -or- A brief guide to political ideology
The argument from moral knowledge
Peter Hitchens' hypocrisy and stupidity
The Paradox of Motivation and MESR
I shouldn't, but I will
The transformative power of atheism
Good religion?
Cherished beliefs
Thank God I'm an atheist
Theistic arguments
Special ethical systems
The inferiority of theistic morality

Defining racism
Intelligent Design
Property -or- The myth of the free market
Theistic morality and objectivism
"Deeper" atheism
Subjectivity, relativism and preference
Contra moral objectivism
Progressivism and socialism
Whining and complaining
Whining about discrimination
Naturalism and Supernaturalism

Unreasoning hatred of Bill Clinton
Pragmatism and the whole story
Ethics and free will
Misogyny and the democratic party
Enemies of science
The atheist critique of theology
The metaphorical interpretation of religion
Explaining color to the blind
Movement politics
We should not embrace moderate religion
Modal logic
Why the conservatives are winning
Catastrophe and revolution
A Critique of Communism
Atheism and reasoning
A Critique of Capitalism

Intentional Communities
Gun Control and the Second Amendment
Consensus, truth and reality
Absolute morality
Right-wing crap
One more time
The imprimatur of truth

Culture, metaphor and religion
First principles, redux
First principles of political philosophy
Offense as the foundation of ethics
Taking offense
It's the overreaction, stupid
On Speciesism
Should he do it?
Relativism and truth
Reasons and causes of belief

Pessimistic ramblings on reform
Communism and free markets
Religion and the Democratic party
Pragmatism and principle
Government interference
Market forces
More on peppers
Right for the wrong reasons
On rationality
Tainted peppers and spilled hot coffee

Reform or Revolution
Atlas Shrugged and Christian Eschatology
The reification of the collective
Slippery slopes

Private property
Reliable belief-producing faculties
To the Republicans and neo-cons
What we don't have
Junkie logic and codependency
Intuition and scientific thought
Just because I can't prove it
John Haught's intellectual and moral bankruptcy
It ain't socialism
The moral failure of figurative theology
Objections to socialized housing
Socialized Housing
Respect? Don't hold your breath
Communism and totalitarianism
Atheist or Agnostic
L'etat, c'est moi

Feminism, racism and communism
Skeptical epistemology
Reliabilism part 1
Picking and Choosing
Is atheism foolish or wise
Catastrophe, atrocity and ideology
Proposition 8 and universal human rights
Socialism is not enough

What makes altruism good?
Materialism and Empirio-criticism
Atheism in a nutshell
Ethics and law

Monday, December 15, 2008

Inching towards socialism

Robert Reich inches towards socialism.


I can't blame Dr. Craig Blomberg for this vapid display of intellectual incompetence that ought to embarrass a high-school sophomore. He's a Christian, and he's spent a lifetime learning how to bullshit himself, and he probably can't tell the difference anymore. Commenter Russ nails this lightweight to the wall.

Please, gentle reader, keep this in mind: this is the best that the highest levels of Christian "scholarship" can do: A mishmash of Sunday-school platitudes riddled with logical and argumentative fallacies, lacking even the hint of a carefully reasoned thought.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What makes altruism good?

Alonzo Fyfe asks What Makes Altruism Good?, and concludes that the atheist is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, Alonzo is correct, "[T]he arguments for the existence of intrinsic values are substantially identical to arguments for the existence of God."

On the other hand, the only alternative is an "absurd" subjectivist account:
One option is that the atheist will defend some sort of strict subjectivism – the type that says, "I don't like rape; therefore, rape is wrong." At which point the theist will simply respond that, "This means you can make rape perfectly legitimate simply by acquiring a fondness for raping others. Slavery, genocide, the torturing of a young child are all legitimate if the agent doesn’t feel bad about enslaving others, slaughtering people, or torturing young children."

Alonzo correctly notes that attributing ethical beliefs to evolution just pushes the problem around.
Either altruism is good because it has an inherent, intrinsic quality of goodness built into it (or it produces something that has intrinsic goodness like evolutionary fitness), or it is good because we have evolved a disposition to be altruistic.
On the one hand, where does this mysterious intrinsic quality of goodness come from? On the other, had we evolved a disposition to rape, then rape would be good.

The theist is, however, on the horns of the exact same dilemma, as Socrates argued in Euthyphro. The theist just moves the problem around without solving it by attributing ethics to God just as the evolutionary biologist moves the (philosophical) problem around. The dilemma is fundamental; it does not differentiate between theism and atheism.

But the dilemma is not really a dilemma: The subjectivist horn is typically presented incorrectly. Alonzo makes the key fallacy explicit: "I don't like rape; therefore, rape is wrong." This is a non sequitur fallacy: the conclusion cannot follow from the premise. We cannot deductively conclude an objective property from a subjective property; we are adding something in the conclusion (objectivity) that is not present in the premise (subjectivity).

We could use the scientific method: We can hypothesize that rape really is wrong and therefore we don't like rape. But this simplistic scientific hypothesis is quickly falsified by the fact that some people (i.e. rapists) actually do like rape. We must come up with some hypothesis that explains the fact that most people don't like rape but some people do, and how to tell the difference between such people.

One obvious feature of objective physical truth is that the truth is true and knowable regardless of how people feel about it. Nobody likes childhood leukemia, but it is manifestly real. Everyone — at least everyone who has tripped and taken a bad fall — would prefer that gravity be variable and subject to our will, but it keeps pulling us towards the Earth regardless of our convenience. And yet we see nothing like that in our ethical beliefs: There seem to be no ethical beliefs — at least no secular ethical beliefs — that are strongly held contrary to the desires at some level of the majority of people.

Oddly enough, it is the bizarre, seemingly arbitrary religious ethical beliefs that give the strongest support for objective religious ethics. We must, for example, execute our disobedient children by stoning regardless of how disgusting and barbaric we believe such an action to be. But Socrates' argument still stands: this view doesn't make ethics objective, it just makes ethics a subjective property of God. The theist hasn't eliminated subjectivity, he's just concentrated the subjectivity in a single agent.

The way out of the dilemma is to say, "I don't like rape." Full stop. There's no "therefore". The theist's objection falls flat: "If I liked rape, I would like rape, duh. But it's a fact that I don't like rape." If we all liked eating pie, we would eat pie; most people do in fact like eating pie, and most people do in fact actually eat pie. No problem.

We can also observe that major changes in our legal and ethical beliefs are preceded by a change in subjective attitudes. We did not eliminate slavery until after people started to subjectively find slavery to be abhorrent. (And after the economic benefits of slavery became irrelevant.) We are now in a struggle to extend basic civil rights to gay people, and this struggle is driven by the fact that people's subjective attitudes towards gay people have changed: Those people fighting for gay civil rights are just those who no longer find homosexuality abhorrent.

Eliminating the "therefore" means that our socially constructed ethics, morality and law do not fundamentally reflect an understanding of how society "should" be; they are, rather, an expression of what people actually want (and an understanding of how we can best satisfy our desires constrained by physical reality and imperfect knowledge).

Furthermore, there's a feedback system: Our prior social constructions influence (in complex ways) what we presently want, and what we presently want influences (in complex ways) our future social constructions. these social constructions are therefore dialectical: Everything is "bouncing around", not just unfolding in a linear, easily predictable way. Rather we see conflicts (contradictions in Marxian terminology) between social constructions, actual desires and changes in our understanding of objective physical reality. These conflicts, and their resolution, drive changes in the social constructions of ethics, morality and law.

We no longer need ask that evolutionary psychology* give us a philosophical justification for our ethics, we need only ask this science to give us a causal explanation of why we actually have some of the desires we do in fact have. Likewise, we're equally freed from drawing philosophical conclusions from our causal history: If we evolved to have certain desires, those desires will have in the past influenced our present social constructions. But if our desires have changed, if they are in conflict with our present social constructions or our understanding of physical reality, the causal history is irrelevant to the dialectic. In just the same sense because we evolved to die relatively young does not now mean that our present desire for long life is somehow immoral.

The atheist's desire for an objective morality is nothing more than a holdover from our theistic days, the desire to disclaim personal responsibility for our actions.

The "horns" of the dilemma resolve into simple truth and falsity, between an scientific understanding of psychology and sociology on the one hand and mysticism and bullshit — theistic or atheistic — on the other. We humans are beings with desires. Rationality is shared; nothing else but our idiosyncratic desires define us as individuals. And we are all stuck in a room with each other: We have no choice but to engage in negotiation and propaganda to try to live together as best we can.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Coming to Power

Phoesune speculates about The Future Civil War where a revolutionary communist government — implausibly led by yours truly — might come to power.

Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Sunsara Taylor at U of MN on "Away With All Gods"

Sunsara Taylor at U of MN on "Away With All Gods"
On a crisp November evening at the University of Minnesota, a surprisingly large crowd gathered in a basement auditorium to hear from Sunsara Taylor, an unapologetic Revolutionary Communist and militant atheist. Hearing the views of a communist isn't as shocking as it may be in other arenas of the public; however, it isn't often that a communist will admit that they are also an atheist. Sunsara Taylor is not ashamed of either her Revolutionary Communism, or her atheism, as she presented Bob Avakian's book, "Away With All Gods, Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Implementing Communism

Part I: Setting the stage

This series is entirely hypothetical, to explore how one would implement communism under more-or-less realistic circumstances. I place myself as the decision maker not because I have any real ambition to hold such a position, but only to avoid the rhetorical awkwardness of placing my own ideas in the mouth of a puppet.

Let's say that after a period of profound civil unrest and violence (perhaps an actual civil war), I have at least the opportunity of greatness thrust upon me: I inexplicably find myself the head of a revolutionary government that has — at least temporarily — seized power by virtue of having the only remaining disciplined army that can effectively enforce its decisions. There is no democratically elected government for me to hand over the reins of power: I can either exercise the power I have, turn it over to another non-democratically-elected leader, or allow the country to devolve into chaos. For better or worse, I choose to exercise power.

I'm faced with the following material circumstances:

The material productive capacity of the country has been substantially reduced, but still remains in good enough condition that I'm fortunately not faced with the sort of desperate material poverty faced by the Russian and Chinese revolutionary governments.

I'm also not faced with the implacable hostility of a well-organized and prosperous capitalist-imperialist enemy. China and Europe are the only remaining powers that might form an a dedicated enemy, but both are cautiously neutral, preoccupied with their own crises. I do not have to face — as did Stalin and Mao — an imminent invasion or nuclear war. Plus, I still have access to the existing US nuclear arsenal, making the country more-or-less invasion-proof.

I therefore have considerably more latitude in my decision making. I can be reasonably confident that one bad decision won't starve millions, nor must I put everything else on the back burner and whip the population to stave off an imminent war.

Politically, I'm in a much more precarious position. Although my government does have state power, I do not have full democratic legitimacy. The only social advantage I have is the lack of a plausible alternative. I have the enthusiastic support of about a third of the population, the passive acceptance of another third, and the active hostility of a third.

I have internal organizational issues as well: While I have the enthusiastic support of my own organization, it has ipso facto the characteristics necessary to seize state power. Some of these characteristics (including too much enthusiastic support) are not conducive to actually running a government.

The remainder of this series will explore my ideas and conjectures for what I would specifically do organizationally, politically, economically and socially in such a hypothetical situation.

Materialism and Empirio-criticism

I'm currently reading Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticism.

I'm about a third of the way through the book. Lenin has devoted this portion of the book to demonstrating that the "empirio-critical" school of philosophy — which criticizes late 19th and early 20th century materialism — is at best nothing more than an elaborate restatement of Berkeley's subjective idealism; at worst it's hypocritical and sometimes mendacious. Lenin's scholarship is meticulous and his analysis is incisive, direct and bullshit-free. It remains to be seen if he offers good positive arguments for materialism.

The fundamental issue hinges on existence, and what precisely we mean by this word.

The subjective idealists have a good point, a point that deserves careful consideration. It is uncontroversial that all of our knowledge fundamentally rests on a foundation of subjective experience, and nothing but subjective experience. Therefore, any concept of an objective, material reality must posit something extra, something we cannot derive from the subjective foundation of our knowledge. The materialist must "bite the bullet" and admit that yes, we are indeed adding something extra to our subjective foundation.

But the subjective idealist must bite his own bullet: he must account for our overpowering and unshakable intuition of naive realism. This intuition might have as little veracity as our intuitions about the existence of God, but naive realism cannot simply be ignored and dismissed as irrelevant.

The subjective idealist, from Berkeley to Mach, says that our "epistemic project" is to organize and predict our subjective experiences, that all "scientific" theories discuss nothing but our subjective experiences. All well and good; even a materialist such as myself will agree to thus restrict our epistemic project.

However, the way in which we organize and predict our experience becomes relevant. If subjective idealism is to be different from materialism, the components of our underlying understanding of experience cannot have certain properties: notably properties that are stable and consistent independent of our subjective experience. Subjective idealism as an ontology must call all properties properties of the mind.

And not just the mind in general, but the individual's own conscious mind: subjective idealism entails solipsism. Pushing any properties to the "subconscious" mind, or the mind of God, or the absolute ideal — anything other than the individual's own conscious mind — adds something extra to our conscious experience. Furthermore, whatever "extra" we add must have the exact same properties as the materialist's objective reality: the materialist intentionally attributes to objective reality the minimum necessary to account for our subjective experience. Any move away from solipsism, and either the materialist and the faux subjective idealist are talking about exactly the same thing and the controversy is merely a choice of label, or it is the subjective idealist who is adding even more than the materialist to individual subjective experience, demolishing his fundamental argument from parsimony.

So the difference between the subjective idealist and the materialist is not epistemic: both must admit the subjective foundation of our knowledge. The controversy is ontological: about what kinds of properties to attribute to the components of our organization of our experience.

Subjective idealism says that the components of our subjective organization of the world, our mental objects, are "bundles of sense impressions" and nothing more. This characterization works well enough as a metaphor; one must charitably assume that the subjective idealist is well aware that our mental processes are more complicated than simple "bundling". And, of course, given that the materialist must admit to the subjective foundation of our knowledge (if not our ontology), she must approve of the idea that our mental objects have a lot to do with our sense impressions. But it's all too easy to take a metaphor literally.

There are some aspects of my experience that I am never surprised about. When something appears red, I never think, "Wait! that's not how red appears!" When I remember something, I never think, "Wait! That's not how I remember it." I just see the color red; I just remember what I remember. If I don't see something as red, I just see it as green or blue or fuchsia; I don't see it as the "wrong" kind of red.

There are, however, other aspects of my experience that I'm regularly surprised about: As I move through the world, I have sense impressions I've never had before: The position of other cars as I drive, the specific locations, colors, smells, textures of trees and bushes when I walk in the woods and so forth. I'm constantly being — in some sense — surpised by the my experiences. I have sense impressions I've never had before: my mental objects as "bundles of sense impressions" do not actually include those new sense impressions. And yet these surprising sense impressions "fit" in various different ways with my pre-existing mental object. They are both surprising in one sense and (usually) unsurprising in another sense.

There are only three choices:
  1. These regularities are already part of my conscious mind and my conscious mind is imposing the regularities on my sense impressions
  2. My conscious mind is randomly creating regularities and imposing them on my sense impressions
  3. These regularities are independent of my conscious mind, and I'm consciously discovering them.
We can exclude the first: If these regularities were already part of my conscious mind, I would be aware of them before I had any sense impressions at all: I could never be surprised by a sense impression. We can exclude the second: There are too many higher-level regularities to the regularities for them to be random. Which leaves only the third option: These regularities must be independent of my conscious mind. The label is irrelevant: whether I label these regularities as "subconscious", the mind of God, the absolute ideal, objective reality, a Cartesian demon, I'm committed to some sort of externalism: my mental objects have properties independent of my conscious mind. And once I'm committed to externalism I might as well be committed to materialism, since materialism is defined to be the minimal externalism necessary to account for the independent properties of my mental objects.

Once we view the debate between subjective idealism and materialism as a debate about the kind of ontology we mentally construct, evidence starts pouring in to support materialism.

My mind constructs elaborate causal histories for my experiences, causal histories that extend billions of years — the same sorts of years that I directly experience — before my earliest memories. I simply cannot appeal to randomness or pre-existing conscious thought to account for the construction of these elaborate causal histories.

My experiences do not automatically conform to my convenience or pleasure; indeed they rarely do so, and never do so without performing what — are from a position of subjective realism — elaborate and pointless rituals. I wish the subjective experience of tasting coffee, I have to experience filling the coffee pot with water, getting the can of coffee down from the shelf, etc. Worse yet, to have the experience of having a coffee pot, I have to go to work, earn money, take that money to a store, etc. Again, I can't appeal to randomness to account for these elaborate rituals.

We are constantly flooded with experiential evidence of externalism and thus materialism. There is simply no way to construct an ontology without giving my mental objects the properties of independence, of the capability to surprise.

Atheism in a nutshell

The position of strong atheists — myself included — is that we know that no God exists as confidently as we know any moderately complicated but well-established scientific theory, such as evolution or quantum mechanics.

If one objects to strong atheism it is either just because we are confident, or because we assert a degree of confidence that is not warranted by the actual facts. To object to confidence per se entails epistemic nihilism. If one objects that the confidence is not warranted by the facts, then only the substance of the argument is relevant.

The whole argument is complicated (again, much like a moderately complicated but well-established scientific theory) but it can be briefly summarized.

There are two classes of definitions of god: empirically falsifiable and metaphysical. I adopt Popper's general stance that there's nothing inherently disreputable about metaphysics per se (although there can be bad metaphysics just like there can be bad scientific theories).

The falsifiable definitions of God are actually false: they either make predictions that are definitely falsified by experience (e.g. the Problem of Evil) or they are over-elaborated and overcomplicated restatements of ordinary natural science and fall victim to Occam's razor.

The metaphysical definitions of God either require presuppositions at least as controversial (if not more controversial) than simply assuming the existence of God (e.g. the Ontological argument) or are (again) over-elaborated and overcomplicated restatements of metaphysical naturalism and again fall victim to Occam's razor.

The analysis is somewhat complicated by the sheer number of patently invalid arguments for the existence of God. Invalid arguments demonstrate nothing per se (nb. the fallacy fallacy). However, valid arguments ought to drive out invalid arguments; when one position is riddled with invalid arguments, that's strong evidence that there are no valid arguments to drive out the invalid.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Political respectability

Pretty much every idea*, however stupid, false or abhorrent, deserves political (i.e. legal) respectability. No one ought to be punished in a strictly political sense for saying just about anything. Political respectability, at least in a free society, deserves to be taken for granted. The assumption of political respectability goes not only to the expression of ideas, but the criticism of others' ideas: just because I criticize an idea does not mean I advocate withdrawing political respectability from that idea. This position stands in contrast with the ethical criticism of actions: to criticize an action entails advocating withdrawing political respectability for that action and making it illegal.

*With the usual exceptions of libel, slander, conspiracy and shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

Because of this principle I tend to find criticism of how someone says something to be tedious and irritating. If someone says something, they said what they wanted to say the way they wanted to say it. If you want to say something different in a different way, just say what you have to say in the way you want to say it. The whole framing debate fills me with aggravation and nausea; people such as Nisbet and Mooney simply do not understand freedom of speech in any deep, philosophical way.

Ethics and law

As a general rule, ethics should be translated into law. If you believe something is ethically compelled, then why not force people to do it? If you're not willing to force people to do something, then in what sense are you saying it's ethically wrong as opposed to merely not to your taste?

Let's take rape and the oppression of women in Islamic countries, for example. I'm completely uninterested in people who fiddle around with the Koran and try to prove that Islam is not misogynist. I really don't give a shit one way or the other what Muslims think their imaginary friend thinks. I will be convinced that Islam supports the rights of women when they make and vigorously enforce laws against sexual and physical assault against women. Until then any talk about the rights of women in Islam is at best just so much bullshit and at worst contemptible hypocrisy.

Contrawise, if you think abortion is wrong, you should try to make it illegal. Period. End of story. If you don't want to make abortion illegal, then why talk about how abortion is some sort "tragedy" or social loss? If it's just that abortion is not to your taste, then just shut the fuck up (metaphorically speaking) and don't have one; it's none of your goddamn business whether a woman has an abortion. (Actually, talking about how abortion is a tragedy is an end-run around the law mechanisms, attempting to use force in the form of social ostracism to replace the courts and formal legal mechanisms.)

This pretty much goes for all our ethical intuitions. The best we can do with our law is make it match our ethical intuitions; and the only thing that separates our ethical intuitions from our tastes and preferences is our willingness to use force. I don't intend a superficial translation of ethics to law: there are various levels of abstraction and complicated considerations necessary to most effectively map our ethical intuitions to law. But at the end of the day, law must follow and reflect our ethical intuitions, and some belief is an ethical intuition if and only if one desires it be mapped into law.

There's one glaring exception, though: freedom of speech. Even though our ethical intuition may hold that certain kinds of speech are really abhorrent and ethically objectionable, we have to permit all speech. And this principle goes beyond merely the tolerance of other people's abhorrent speech to permit our own abhorrent speech. If you want to speak merely for the pleasure of hearing your own voice, you can talk in private.

Law and law enforcement is the socialization of the individual, unilateral use of force. In order to socialize the use of force, though, there has to be a non-coercive mechanism at some level to actually perform the socialization. We cannot decide as a society how well our law matches our ethical intuitions unless we can communicate those ethical intuitions to each other, especially when those intuitions contradict present law. Without near-absolute freedom of speech, the law cannot change. What becomes illegal would become unspeakable.

So the way to manage speech is "upside down" compared with how we use speech to manage actions. When managing speech, we must have the freedom to say whatever we please, and criticize what anyone else says without implying we wish to make that speech illegal. Ethical criticism of an action however, always entails that the speaker, explicitly or covertly, advocates making that action illegal.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Revolution, food riots in America by 2012

Revolution, food riots in America by 2012:
Gerald Celente, the CEO of Trends Research Institute... says that by 2012 America will become an undeveloped nation, that there will be a revolution marked by food riots, squatter rebellions, tax revolts and job marches, and that holidays will be more about obtaining food, not gifts. ...

"There will be a revolution in this country," he said. "It's not going to come yet, but it's going to come down the line and we're going to see a third party and this was the catalyst for it: the takeover of Washington, D. C., in broad daylight by Wall Street in this bloodless coup. And it will happen as conditions continue to worsen."

[h/t to BJ and kevin]

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Light bulb joke

How many computer programmers does it take to change a light bulb?

Three: one to change it, one to ask, "How many computer programmers does it take to change a light bulb?" and one to answer, "Three: one to change it..."

Sunday, November 30, 2008

All else Pales in the Face of Palin

Reader Kelly Kilpatrick contributes the following analysis of Sarah Palin and the Republican Party.

It’s an American election like no other – first we had the undignified spats between senators Obama and Clinton. And now that Obama has emerged the clear winner (but not by too much of a distance) of that race, the focus has shifted to the three-ring circus run by McCain where Sarah Palin is the star attraction. From virtual nobodies, the Republicans have pulled out of nowhere to take centre stage in the media circus that was dominated by the Democrats throughout the primaries.

For now, the spotlight is on Palin and her remarkable (and frightening) similarity to George W Bush, mostly in the way they both seem to spout incomprehensible inanities and end up with their foot in their mouth so often that you’d think they would have gotten tired of the taste of old leather and sweaty socks. It’s like the nation has forgotten that it’s Senator McCain who’s running for president, and that Palin is just his running mate. Probably what the Republican think tank was looking for in the first place – to divert all the attention to their camp after Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama stole it during the primaries by virtue of being the first woman and black respectively to vie for the highest office in the country.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, and so Palin was sprung on an unsuspecting nation. With her “folksy” appeal and supposedly down-to-earth hockey mom attitude, she was supposed to charm a nation of working class people and have them eating out of her hands, something that McCain could not do even if he were to stand upside down for hours. Much has been said about her expensive makeover, her dictatorial attitude towards those who oppose her or those close to her, her regressive outlook, and, well, the list could go on and on.

Republicans who support her stand against abortion would elevate her to sainthood if they could, for her “moral” decision to give birth to a child she knew had Down’s Syndrome. Yes, Palin is a saint – who else would be so adamantly against sex education in schools even though her teenage daughter is pregnant by her equally teenage boyfriend? It’s all well and good for Palin to take strong stands on such issues – she’s not as unlucky as the single mother who has to give up her sole means of making a living to stay at home and raise a baby with a lifelong disability; her daughter’s not as unfortunate as the teen who has to quit school to raise a baby that she didn’t want in the first place; and her child and grandchild are not as unlucky as the babies that are born to parents who have neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to care for them.

Yes, under the circumstances, Sarah Palin is definitely a saint, one that this country needs as much as it needs another George W Bush. But aren’t we the folks who wanted another four years of the man even though the first four were markedly torturous? So who knows? Maybe we’re masochistic enough to wish this woman and her ilk on us for the next four years, and the four after too. God save America!

This post was contributed by Kelly Kilpatrick, who writes on the subject of a masters program for criminal justice. She invites your feedback at kellykilpatrick24 at gmail dot com

[Note: the article was written before the November 4 election. I think it still has relevance both as a commentary on the election and concerning Palin's interest in the 2012 election. -- Ed.]