Why I do and don’t fear (for) my progressive friends

Between the general disgust with Donald Trump and the specific outcry over the George Floyd killing, revolutionary momentum is building, and the possibility of social transformation seems more within grasp than at any time since the 1960s. This might be a good time to review the things that stoked the 1960s radicalism of Martin Luther King and the hippies for both inspiration and cautionary checks.

Of the various rhetorical angles one might bring, I’ll bring this one. Let’s say I’m a 1960s radical fired up about the 2020 movement but fearing that progressives have made some wrong turns. I’d express those fears as below, not to derail the movement but to prevent it from being derailed, not to push the movement back but to push the dialectic forward through counterpoints. Here are the wrong turns, as they might seem to a 1960s radical.

1. We were for chaotic free speech, rough and tumble, for wider freedom to think, speak, dress, and live in whatever unconventional arrangements you choose. Today’s woke progressives seem too much in favor of policing dissent and standardizing options to their own norms. We wanted to obliterate the cultural police; they want to BE the cultural police.
2. While acknowledging race, we struggled to remove race as the definitive marker of identity, to sort and judge people by values/character; today’s woke progressives seem to have restored race as the definitive marker of identity, sorting people into racial boxes and giving moral tags to the boxes. This may not be the intent, but beware lest you let the devil back in through the side door.
3. We saw a recognition of shared humanness (“they” love their kids, laugh, cry, like “we” do) as the antidote to distrust and bias across racial lines; today’s woke progressives seem to see “shared humanness” as a white supremacist conspiracy designed to elide black identity.
4. We worked to marginalize racists and racism; they seem to seek and magnify it everywhere. E.g., when I think of how over the years, I (white) have had black roommates in two different states, I believe by woke standards (parsing for white privilege and white fragility) I am racist because I look back and see only good friendship there, not insidious racial dynamics. I can think of no better way to reverse the gains in consciousness we’ve made since the 1960s than to re-read every instance of cross-racial love, friendship, and collaboration as an expression of insidious racism.
5. We sought to fix persistent racial inequality by identifying with each other across racial lines based on values, not skin color – with a rainbow coalition for justice and equality on one side and those clinging to an unjust status quo on the other. Today’s woke progressives seem to reinstall the battle lines between black and white, or blackness and whiteness. (There is nothing that old-school racists would like better than to peel off whites who would join the cause of racial justice by recasting that cause as a black vs. white battle.)
6. With regard to feminism, we sorted people into those (male and female) who were pushing for equality and those clinging to an unjust status quo. Today’s woke progressives seem to redraw the battle lines as female versus male. (There is nothing that old-school sexists would like better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men by redrawing the battle line as female vs. male.)
7. With regard to gender and sexual preferences, our instinct was to obliterate all categories and let everyone enjoy whatever consensual arrangements they like, without sorting them into morally tagged boxes. Today’s woke progressives seem to continually generate more and more gender boxes for sorting people, tagging each box with a moral tag or victimhood level, and encouraging each group to defend the wall around its segregated turf.
8. We were (implicitly) in favor of all forms of “cultural appropriation” in every direction. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Woke progressives seem to prefer that each demographic circle the wagons and guard its turf against cultural appropriation. Applied to the arts, this wrong turn is especially devastating. When creatively identifying with people from other races and genders becomes the #1 cultural sin, we’ve pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement stood for. Whereas the “truism” today seems to be that whites cannot know the heart of blacks, Asians cannot know the heart of Hispanics, etc., 1960s radicals felt that we CAN and SHOULD see into each other’s hearts across those stupidly reified lines of race and gender, that we really ARE brothers and sisters under the skin, and that indeed all our future hopes lie in that very recognition that heart-to-heart human connection is not limited by race. I.e., we were radically integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and woke progressives alike.
9. We were for extending the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment, however belatedly, to all peoples. They seem to reject the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment as features of white supremacy, and prefer tribal (“you can’t know my truth because you don’t look like me”) rights and truths. To us, tribal rights and truths are the causes of distrust and bias across groups, not the solution to distrust and bias across groups.

Why I don’t fear (for) my progressive friends

1. Our long-term vision is the same – a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness.
2. There is a growing sense that rather than clinging to the left in an old left-right paradigm, people are ready to break the whole paradigm. This means breaking the grip of leftwing Establishments as well as rightwing Establishments. The left still has a hold on the progressive movement, but there is something in the air to suggest that progressives may soon break that hold and cross a new horizon line.
3. There is a gap between the intelligentsia of woke progressivism (in academia) and the grass roots progressives on the street that warrants optimism. Many of my fears above are rooted in the formulations of critical race theory (and critical theory as applied to women and other identity groups). These think-tank products are almost invariably divisive and counterproductive, enforcing a sense of identity defined by race and gender, drawing ever sharper lines and fomenting animosity between them. The kids on the street seem already beyond – or very nearly beyond – the academics in their ivory towers.

Why, one might ask? Why the disconnect between the academic think tanks and the street? We can start with the cynical idea that the main mission of every academic department (at least in Humanities) is getting funding for next year (cynical, yes, but not for one who has seen some of these annual and highly competitive funding battles). If you are in newly formed Identity X Dept, you had best prove quickly (and build a sufficient body of literature to back it up) that X is the cornerstone of identity, and that the struggle of people X is defined by trait X above all else and is a struggle that will continue in perpetuity (hence our need for funding in perpetuity). “Shared humanness” or the idea that one’s value system and not skin color is the defining aspect of identity means your dept is on the defensive in next year’s battle for funding. Call it a conspiracy theory, but at least it is one aligned with the accepted principle that self-preservation is often an operative force behind the scenes of what one thinks and does. It also aligns nicely with Karl Marx’s insight that the economic base is the driver and the political/ideological superstructure evolves in a way that serves the economic base.

Luckily for us, the kids on the street are not invested in next year’s funding for Dept X. The toxic influence of those academic theories is wide across newsrooms and other institutions, but it is not deep. Even where kids on the street mouth the slogans they learned from the academic think tanks, my sense on the street is that deep down they are not at all invested the divisions those slogans are designed to perpetuate. Deep down, they are invested, on the contrary and perhaps to the dismay of the more self-aware of those theorists, in that long-term vision of a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness. They already intuit, on some level, that there is no retreat back to conservatism, but there is also no future in the divisiveness of academic theories or in the increasingly narrow speech and thought zones of too many of our media outlets. They already know. Turn off the news and love your neighbor. Talk out of turn. Never stay in your lane. Never trust anyone, left or right, who says we need to respect walls of separation.

The ever-prescient LSD guru of the 1960s, Timothy Leary, had the right solution after all: If you want to bring society over the next horizon line, “Drop out, turn on, tune in!”

Or, if you prefer Lennon/McCartney, “All You Need Is Love.” Get that part right and the rest will follow.

Get Together 

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Turning the Page on Locke: Private Property in the Coming Age

John Locke (1632-1704) left quite an intellectual legacy for modernity to brood over. He was a founding figure of the empirical age, arguing that all knowledge begins with the input of the five senses. (“Perception . . . [is] the first step . . . towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it” [1].) He applied this to psychology [2], arguing that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa or blank slate (a psychological theory that coincidentally supported the views of his Whig patron, Shaftesbury, who despised the old views of inborn superiority of rank and innate ideas about social hierarchy). Indeed, Locke says point blank that there are no innate ideas “as it were stamped upon the mind of man” [3]. And then of course there’s his political theory, with ideas about the government’s role in protecting life, liberty, and property [4], which would be applied by Thomas Jefferson 100 years later in the founding documents of the US. Jefferson, of course, cagily substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” [5], but it’s the “property” idea that concerns me here.

The same ideas that supported Locke’s epistemology (empiricism) and his psychology (tabula rasa) fed into economics. Instead of the old economic system based on landed hierarchies, suddenly you have “economic individualism” as the cornerstone idea. Each individual is a self-contained unit with a right to their individual property. For “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, ownership was the cornerstone of all social relations. Indeed, Locke argued that ownership over one’s own body is given in the very state of nature, and that all appropriation of additional properties is a natural extension of that relation. (“Everyman has a property in his own Person … [and] the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his … Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided … [and] mixed his labour with … [is thereby] his property,” [6].)

Thus we come to a world where social relations take the form of individuals accumulating and competing for property, and governments organically emerge in defense of “life, liberty, and property.”

If I may take what 18th-century wit, Henry Fielding, said of a certain philosophy of the day, and apply it to Locke’s theory, I might say it is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true” [7].

OK, I can’t quite make the claim that Locke is wrong, but I can raise the question: What if this cornerstone idea of modernity and capitalism, this idea about the primacy of personal ownership, is false? Or perhaps not false, but at least not logically necessary. What if it is but one way of looking at things, and a way that is perhaps no longer the most serviceable?

My alternative would start here. My interlocutor might grant me that the idea of ownership as the primary relation between oneself and one’s own body is speculative and not in any way self-evident. But, my interlocutor might say, the relation between a person and land or objects – there, ownership seems to naturally apply. Surely ownership is fundamentally a relationship between individuals and the things that they own, no? My counterargument is this: Ownership is not fundamentally a relation to self, nor is it fundamentally a relation to objects or natural resources. Ownership at its most fundamental is a relationship between people. “Mine” is a nonsense concept in isolation. “Mine” always means, a priori, “mine and not yours.” Or, one could perhaps narrow that still further and say that (“mine” = “not yours”), and that this is the fundamental equation of ownership. With all due respect to Locke’s contemporary Daniel Defoe and his Robinson Crusoe, an isolated individual cannot own anything [8]. That individual can use resources, can deploy them in the hunt for food and shelter, but cannot own them because there is no “mine and not yours” line to be drawn.

So am I just quibbling or are there consequences to this revision of the ingenious Mr. Locke? I tentatively suggest there are consequences. Once you see ownership and private property in this light, as relations between people and people, not between people and things, it can plant the seed for a new vision of how things could work.

Marx said that the capitalist world of commodity-values converts social relations into the “fantastic form of relations between things” [9]. With social identity thus alienated, we compensate by creating a wedge between “social” and “private” identity, and start to treat private identity as “real” identity.” But what if that world view is coming to an end? Under the pressure of income inequality and ecological imperatives, it seems capitalism must break or evolve into some new form. At least the prevailing definition of human identity and human fulfilment in terms of private identity and private property must break. If we can reverse the Lockean trajectory – instead of casting social relations into terms of private identity and private property, what if we recast identity and property into relations between people?

From Locke to Adam Smith to Marx to Thomas Piketty, we have been in the age of homo economicus, where homo sapiens are defined fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations. But is that necessary or is it just the signature paradigm of the 17th – 20th century? I won’t say 21st, because I think it is finally time for a paradigm shift out of the age of homo economicus. Increasing inequality (well-documented in Piketty as an intrinsic feature of capitalism, despite spikes and troughs [10]) and ecological imperatives require it. If we can reconceptualize ownership and private property into the fundamental social relations that they are, perhaps we can start to turn the ship. Perhaps we can redefine human identity and human fulfilment in terms that render the obsessive desire to accumulate private property for one’s own self into a historical curiosity. There are enough resources to go around. As Russell Brand points out in his cheeky anti-Establishment manifesto, Revolution, “a bus with the eighty-five richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth’s population” [11]. Stripped of the debilitating definition of human identity as private self and private property, a technology and a sharing economy in the service of something larger than personal gain might flourish – not that ownership will disappear, but it will be conceptualized differently. Instead of “owning” being an absolute relation between individual and thing, a removal of the thing from the field of social relations for oneself, owning would be seen as something provisional and embedded in social relations, an ongoing negotiation, evolving and flexible as our relations to others are evolving and flexible. This way of looking at things is not only possible but as the current cycle keeps turning, it will become more and more a practical necessity.

  1. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, II.ix.
  2. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, I.ii.
  3. Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, I.i.
  4. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap 7, parag. 87.
  5. U.S. Declaration of Independence.
  6. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap. 5, Parag 27.
  7. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book 15, Chap. 1.
  8. The Lockean sense of ownership Defoe gives to Crusoe is almost unintentionally comical as Crusoe surveys the island with “pleasure . . . to think that this was all my own . . . and [over it I] had a right of possession” (Robinson Crusoe, 1985 Penguin ed., pp. 113-14).
  9. Karl Marx, Capital, 1906 Random House ed., p. 83.
  10. Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century. The documentation referenced runs throughout the book.
  11. Russell Brand, Revolution, p. 8.

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