Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

4 stars out of 5

Pinker’s big push for the Enlightenment values that got us where we are is the right message at the right time. Not perfect, mind you. Pinker’s cheerleading for capitalism goes a little overboard and understates the problems commensurate with it. His treatment of cultural movements that press against the Enlightenment, such as Romanticism, are at times astonishingly simplistic. Enough so to undermine his credibility in isolated passages. When he criticizes Thomas Piketty’s landmark Capital in the 21st Century, Pinker has a point in that Piketty’s emphasis on wealth inequality elides the improvements in material life that have carried all classes forward. But Piketty’s willingness to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of late capitalism makes his work seem more impartial overall, less slanted than Pinker’s. The charts and counter-charts that make Piketty’s book more tedious and less readable than Pinker’s more informal tome also make Piketty’s analysis seem more balanced and complete.

Overall, though, Pinker’s own core thesis is persuasive and exceedingly timely. After all, the Right has always had a deeper investment in religious and authoritarian structures that cut against the Enlightenment’s commitment to open inquiry and to a principle of individual freedom that transcends religion, region, or demographic. It is only recently that the postmodern Left has joined in the attack, often renouncing the Enlightenment standards of universal truth (accessible to reason and science) and condemning the Enlightenment-based liberal Western democracies as hopelessly enmired in racism, sexism, and other oppressive formations. In this regard, Pinker’s pushback against the Left as well as the Right is spot on. Despite the obvious bumps along the way, and bumps that are still with us, the Enlightenment, with its philosophical message of universal rights over tribalism and of the universal standards of reason and science, has resulted in the most humane, anti-sexist, and racially tolerant sensibility in social history. This is measurable in Pinker’s statistical graphs (and most visibly of late in the Washington Post’s worldwide survey-based map). That there were bumps and contradictions along the way, that challenges of social justice are still with us, is no reason to attack the foundation of the Enlightenment and of the Western liberal democracies that go along with it. Indeed, it would be preposterous to expect no bumps, no contradictions and challenges. We need to improve, perhaps even to do so at a revolutionary pace, but we need to start by working with what we have, not throwing it all overboard and creating a vacuum for some less Enlightenment-based power formation to move in.

     piketty

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There’s been some confusion

Some private confusion, that is, about the politics of this blog. One minute I’m critiquing conservatives and the next I’m critiquing liberals. Guilty as charged. But not inconsistent. Not if both of those ideologies (as expressed today) are getting it wrong.

To clarify, I reviewed an old post that playfully defines my position as “Aquarian Anarchy,” which is in some ways equidistant from all points on today’s left-right axis. Although the post is from the year 2 BTE (before the Trump era), it still seems accurate. So here it is. Enjoy.

Aquarian Anarchy

              

 

Zizek Revolution

Why hasn’t the Left been able to counter the rise of right-wing populism these last few years? Slavoj Zizek makes an excellent start at answering that question (video clip below, h/t to my friend, Balazs Zsido). I would only quibble a bit, as I believe he may tend to overstate his case at times and leave a little something out at times.  When he says that every populist movement is caused by a failure of the Left, I think it would be more accurate to say that a failure of the Left is one of the things implicated in the rise of right-wing populism. There are probably multiple causes in each case, but in each case, one could also ask how the Left failed to put forth a viable alternative. I’m with him about 90% on that one, as historical analysis.

Turning from historical analysis to the current crossroads, I agree with him 100% that the Left is failing to produce a viable alternative today. The “old” Left of protecting universal health care and worker rights established post-WWII is a good thing but not enough to get us across the new horizons today. I agree with him there, although I might emphasize more than he does that the freedoms and socialized elements of Western democracies are the best thing going right now. Some of the rage against capitalism and the West needs to be thoughtfully reconsidered, as simply taking down the Western democracies revolution-style right now may well result in more oppressive structures — a turn for the worse. When I look at existing models of governance outside of the West – Russia or China, Iran and the Middle East, North and Central Africa – the freedoms of the West’s liberal democracies look relatively good. Simply knocking down the West would leave a vacuum for the other power brokers of the world, who do not seem to promise more enlightened governance. Even within the West, the “identity politics” branch of the Left (at least in the U.S.) seems all too eager to replace the West with their own oppressive and demographically determined structures. Be careful what you wish for. Things could actually be a lot worse than they are.

Am I then an “apologist for capitalism,” as some of my leftist friends might say? Not at all. Capitalism is approaching its limit. The age wherein human fulfillment is defined by how many resources you can hoard, wherein the primary relationship between people and resources is one of private ownership – this age will end, whether dystopically or utopically. The writing is on the wall in the form of ecological collapse and worldwide economic disparities that are increasingly visible with globalization. But beware the negative possibility. Just knocking down the West and leaving the field to, shall we say, less liberal and less democratic forms, may not yield the answer young Western radicals seek.

Like Zizek, I don’t have a specific answer for today’s Western leftists, but I do have a framework for answers. My framework is simply this: We need to think of the next stage not as a revolution against the West but as a revolution within the West.  We do need to move into the (post-materialist, post-capitalist) 21st century, but capitalism and liberal democracy are the matrix from which new forms will spring. Every age begins as a new birth but carries the seeds of its own destruction in the form of its own contradictions. When those contradictions reach a critical mass, the shell starts to crack. As the shell of capitalism starts to crack in the face of ecological and economic imperatives, the idea is not to crush everything but to bring forth the hidden seed that has been nurtured and throw away the husk. In particular, we need to keep the freedoms of liberal democracy intact while pushing hard and mindfully on the transformation into a post-capitalist economy that leaves no group stranded.

So yes, we need to move into a post-capitalist, post-materialist 21st century, where for example green technologies can be deployed based on what is possible, not on what is profitable. Following Zizek, I might say that we need a new Left to articulate a transformational vision for our age. Something may come of the Alt-Left, if its presently amorphous and contradictory energies coagulate around the best it has to offer. Then again, I’m not sure this radical vision will come from the Left at all. It may be that the last true radicals were in the 1960s.  Since then, Left and Right may both have become too damaged, too entrenched, to make the next turn. So be it. If the new radical vision comes from outside of today’s Left-Right spectrum, that is fine with me.

Zizek video clip

Won’t Get Fooled Again

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Russell Brand and Me

Dear Russell,

I meant what I said in my recent kudo review of Revolution. If you’ll permit a near-certain misuse of a UK idiom, balls up to your social vision, politics, and witty delivery. I agree with you that late capitalism is nearing its end, as the exponential growth of consumption upon which it depends is now hitting its ecological limits. I’d like to play devil’s advocate though, if only to diversity our intellectual resources for the coming paradigm shift. I’ll start with your pet peeve, voting. I hate to bring up the voting thing, since it really is a small part of your overall vision, and the media has magnified it as if it were your core point and not just a corollary, but I can’t help it. It’s an interesting nugget. I understand your rationale for not voting – Establishment “democracies,” which serve only their corporate masters, are rapidly destroying social and ecological equilibrium, and voting only gives them the mass “buy-in” they need to extend their program of annihilating planetary resources to serve the 1%. Good point, but I can think of three pressures pushing me the opposite way, toward voting.

  • Long-term/short-term goals. In my favorite slave autobiography, that of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah’s first move after gaining his freedom is to go into a plantation venture with one of his former masters, on the condition that he be assigned the task of picking slaves from the slave ships. Although his long-term goal was abolition, his short-term goal was to guarantee that some of these unfortunates – and especially his own countrymen – would be treated well. Perhaps I too would not want my long-term vision, remarkably like yours, to scuttle my short-term goals. I’m not as confident as you that the past six years under Obama are no different than they would have been under another George W. Bush. I think that lives are being affected presently and that something is to be gained short term. And I’m not willing to sacrifice that for a still far-from-certain mirage of revolution. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condemn your position. I think you should hold to your position and I to mine. We have to acknowledge – even celebrate – our differences openly, knowing that in the big picture we’re all on this ride together.
  • Maybe I’m just older than you, which makes me (for better or for worse) more patient. You note that the revolution must begin subjectively, as a revolution in human sensibility. I agree and am perhaps even more concerned than you that if the objective forces of revolution get ahead of the subjective changes, we are in danger of a hijacking by less than idealistic factions (something The Beatles and The Who sang of during our archival hippie revolution). I believe it is this fear – that the objective forces of revolution outstrip the inner revolution – that caused Gandhi to go on a fast and call off the non-cooperation movement when his own supporters responded to violence with violence in the Chauri Chaura incident.
  • Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, argues that if we opt out, the big corporations and lobbyists will not, which means their influence will be even more unfettered, creating damage that even the Russell Revolution might not be able to reverse. I’m torn because I see your point, Russell, but Robert Reich’s position does give me pause before I forego voting.

I suppose I should be forthright and lay my vision of what may come past the next horizon line against yours for comparison/contrast. OK, since you asked, I will do so in a forthcoming piece. Like your vision, mine combines Age of Aquarius thinking with a little extra anarchy, so watch for the manifesto on this exciting and newly minted socio-political order, Aquarianarchy.

Your post-nationalist countryman,

Gary

Russell Brand, Punk Rock Ram Dass

(I posted a version on of this entry as an amazon review of Russell Brand’s Revolution.)

A Poli Sci dissertation by a Punk Rock Ram Dass, a mash-up of anarchy and idealism, Revolution is the perfect book for the next generation of hippie waifs. Russell Brand, self-identified “professional weirdo” (169), touches on all the key points. Late capitalism and the culture of consumption are dying. The top dogs are as “lost” as the rest of us (232). “Ecological imperatives” (207) spell radical change coming, but whether that change is utopic or dystopic is up to us. Either we have a revolution that reinforces human values for all, or we have “something more draconian than we have ever dared to consider” (224). To seize the utopic track, we must initiate the revolution not in the objective arena of politics but in the subjective arena of human sensibility. Internalize the non-violent way, change our inner values, and then we can more surely change the political superstructure with less risk of someone hijacking the revolution.

And best to be ready, ‘cause when it comes it will come quickly. For one thing, those ecological imperatives come with a time limit. As it approaches, we can use new communication technologies to harness rapid change without the need for a centralized power structure.  Or we can use them to escalate the death spiral of “jittery materialism” (106). Russell, bless his heart, is ready to give up his Dior boots and lead the charge.

The book has its imperfections – Russell is occasionally too earnest too long and scores best when he scores with hilarity, I wish there were more arc and less repetition as the chapters go by, and there’s a persistent low-level tone of belligerence that gives me pause before nominating Russell as cult leader of the commune. Actually, Russell grants me that last one when he opens a modern equivalent of Haight-Ashbury’s “free store” and his tyrannical interference leads him to conclude, with typical comic aplomb, that “the only thing the experiment proved is that I should never be allowed to run a shop” (203). But that very flaw leads him to think seriously about the principles that must take precedence over personalities if this is going to work (and if it doesn’t work, we will fairly quickly burn through the world’s remaining resources, so it won’t matter anyway). Yes, I said “to think seriously.” This book quite seriously thinks over our options for the planet. I can’t agree with every local strategy and assessment, but anyone who dismisses Russell Brand as a lightweight on issues of the social order is either making a mistake or buying into the idea that the only proper way to speak of such things is the Establishment way. Skinny yes, lightweight no.  Everyone needs a vision, or multiple visions, of where to go from here (and we have to go somewhere – those “ecological imperatives,” you know), and this is a good big-vision, page-turner book delivered with the quirky, English, Monty Python wit of Russell Brand.

See also Russell Brand and Me.

Professionalism and Alienation

I recently heard (or perhaps instigated) someone at work talking about how proper attire promotes professionalism. My faithful readers will recall that I, as a fashion anarchist, have commented on Jeffrey Tucker’s suggestion that people should dress properly at work (Bourbon for Breakfast, Chapter 37).

Now to tackle the tangent idea that a dress code promotes professionalism. First, if professionalism is meant in the narrow sense of an individual’s competence to complete the tasks at hand with rigor, efficiency, and integrity, the fashion anarchist wins this one easily. Obviously, my engineering or accounting or design skills are not affected every time I change clothes.

If professionalism is meant in the general sense – the sense that it is generally easier to maintain professional relations where people are dressed professionally – this is a little trickier. On this level, I say good riddance to professionalism, which has been a scourge on human contact for some 300 hundred years.

The Age of Bourgeois Capitalism, which began in roughly the 18th century, could also be called the Age of Professionalism.  In the previous age, the frame of reference for human relations was the landed hierarchy of commoners, gentry, aristocracy and various subsets. Doctors and lawyers and such were generally commoners, subject to much mirth and ridicule in the literatures of the day. Even where respected, their professions (or one might call them “occupations” in that pre-professional age) conferred no class status. As bourgeois capitalism replaced landed hierarchies as the defining scaffold of power, the “professions” came to confer the kind of class status we see today, with grandmas encouraging grandkids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers (and not, on good authority of Waylon and Willie, cowboys, those residual personae of the land). The old frame of reference for human relations in the landed order – things like de facto respect for those above you in the hierarchy and generosity towards those below you in the hierarchy – was replaced by the public sphere paradigm to “behave professionally.”

“Professional behavior” presupposes human connections that are less vertical and more horizontal/democratic, and that may well be a step forward toward the ideal of a human community of mutual fulfillment, but it comes at a cost. The cost is alienation. Human relations becomes the “business of human relations.” When Karl Marx says that under capitalism “human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things” (Capital, Vol. 1), this can be applied on the social as well as the economic level.  Human relations become a little bit icier. The other person is objectified, which enables us to treat him or her as an object in some market-driven game and not as a concrete human being. One scene in The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, screenplay Coppola and Mario Puzo) nicely encapsulates human relations in the Age of Professionalism. Tessio has betrayed Michael and now realizes that Michael has discovered the deed and set him up to be killed. Tessio, knowing the end is near, tells Tom: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” Tom replies with some pathos, “He understands that,” and then goes forward with the hit. Lift the veil on professionalism’s polite exterior, and this is the model of human relations you have underneath. It brings everyone one step closer to the version of human identity manifested in the “officials” of Kafka’s novels, who epitomize ad absurdum the sloughing off of all human responsibility in the execution of the office.

The alienation that takes place in the Age of Professionalism indeed gives us another reason to look to the Luddite/technophobe point of view. In particular, the technophobe distrust of mechanization may raise valid points about the impact of technology not just on labor markets but on human relations generally. If professionalism takes a subjective toll on the fullness of human relations, new technologies, without moral steerage, can give a kind of exoskeleton to the process of alienation, abstracting us from the human warmth and human consequences of our actions. The person who pushes a button in Nevada to launch a drone strike on a Pakistani village and then stops by Walmart on the way home probably does not see his actions the same way as one who had to stand toe to toe and push the steel blade into his opponent’s belly.

Now for the optimistic conclusion: In our collective reach for higher ideals, professionalism has served its purpose, weaning us away from hierarchies that were antithetical to the fullest form of human relations and giving us a basis for something more democratic and fully reciprocal. But we have paid a cost in terms of the objectification of, and alienation from, our fellows. It’s time take the next turn, put professionalism to bed, and reinvest full humanness into our relationships, even into our relationships in the workplace and with remote clients and customers. And one way to start that slow tectonic shift is to gently undermine the professionalism paradigm by bringing, so far as we can manage it, a little fashion anarchy into the workplace.  It might look funny, but it beats becoming characters in a Kafka novel.

Luddites & Technophobes

“Luddite”: The very word conjures up images of knuckle-dragging curmudgeons. When the wheels of the Industrial Revolution started turning in late eighteenth-century England, the cult of “improvement” was already long entrenched (indeed it had been satirized by Jonathan Swift and his motley “projectors” nearly a century earlier). Resisting the “improvements” of industrialization at the turn into the nineteenth century were the Luddites. As weavers and artisans lost their jobs to new labor-saving machinery that required fewer and less skilled workers, the Luddites of 1811-1817 fought back by smashing new factory machines in the dark of night. The dominant ideology has ever since scoffed at the Luddites’ economic naivete and lumped the Luddites themselves in with the flat earth society.

I beg to differ. I propose that the reason the Luddites were and continue to be subject to such ridicule in the dominant ideology is that they are dangerously correct, that they lift the veil on an unhappy truth about how labor markets work under capitalism. The captains of industry have always drawn upon the “improvement” philosophy to argue that increased automation would be good for everyone, enabling workers to generate the same productivity in much shorter time, leading to a utopia in which people would work a couple of hours a day and have expanded time for personal growth in whatever physical, intellectual, and cultural arenas interested them. Luddites argued that they would lose their jobs and worsen their lot while the factory owners amassed greater and greater profits. The Luddite argument shows a better grasp of the structural incentives of capitalism. The owners’ argument rests upon the hidden premise that workers themselves will profit from their increased productivity. But capitalist incentives work the other way: the company incentive is to lay off superfluous workers while remaining workers make twice as many widgets per day at the same old wages. After all, the remaining workers are now “lucky” to have a job and it is a “buyer’s market” for the employer.

Of course it is not a zero-sum game. Luddites were right in that working class conditions in Victorian England were famously appalling. (Engels’s Condition of the Working Classes in England is perhaps the best contemporary account.) But the government would intervene with labor laws, and the economy itself would adjust to fill the vacuum with new veins of employment. No one would argue that workers today, at least in the West, are not better off than they were in the nineteenth century. But the point is that the increase in productivity due to mechanization did not proportionately increase leisure opportunities for personal fulfillment. Workers were still expected to work full time. The curve change was not in the amount of labor time input but in the amount of productivity output. More aggregate wealth was generated with no increase in aggregate leisure (except perhaps for the investing classes).

Today’s tech revolution is subject to the same utopian mythmaking by the “improvement” industry and to the same grim truths of the labor market. We are told that computerized automation will exponentially increase per capita productivity, freeing people up for personal fulfillment. But the truth is that more often it results in layoffs, fewer jobs for humans, at least in the short run, and more productivity expected per salary. And think about Facebook’s recent (February 2014) acquisition of WhatsApp, a company with 55 employees, for $19 billion dollars. Where so much of GDP is funneled through 55 employees, what does that mean for workers in the aggregate? Does this make it easier for them to find employment or empower them to increase their leisure time? Not likely.

Moreover, those who are “freed up for personal fulfillment” by virtue of being unemployed or underemployed are charged with laziness. No matter how much productivity increases per capita, working and middle class people are expected to work their 40 hours or be damned as parasites. (I lump together working and middle classes, because the investing elite class is not subject to the same labor dynamics as those who live paycheck to paycheck.) Witness the recent CBO (Congressional Budget Office) report on Obamacare (February 2014), which said that once health care in the U.S. is universal and affordable, some people may be freed up to work fewer hours or to have one parent stay at home. This inspired much gnashing of teeth within one of our two national parties. So what if technological advances enable the same GDP with fewer hours worked, or enable affordable health care for all? How dare working class and middle class people take any extra hours for personal fulfillment!

This doesn’t mean all is lost. Although I believe the Luddites and their protege technophobes still need a fair hearing for what they reveal about technological impacts on labor within a capitalist system, I don’t believe that technological innovation is intrinsically antagonistic to workers’ long-term interests. I am not ready to completely dismiss the utopian dream of the apostles of improvement. Technology can be a force for good. But it needs to be framed by a different economy of values.  The capitalist world view of infinite market expansion incentivizes the full exploitation of a labor force, not with any eye on the human fulfillment of the workers (which is outside the scope of capitalism and its forces), but with an eye only on increased productivity and profit. This presupposition, this capitalist sensibility, is inconsistent with the utopian possibilities of technology. We need a new sensibility, a new subjective frame of reference for values like “work” and “technology” and “success.” And there are some signs that a new paradigm for self-actualization is emerging on the horizon line of capitalism. There is an increased consciousness that good stewardship of limited world resources is inconsistent with the world view whose metric of fulfillment is in magnitudes of consumption. The young techie entrepreneurs of today seem often motivated by an idealism that is beyond the scope of classical capitalism and its industrial giants. Or at least it is an idealism that is fluid or heterogeneous enough to accommodate post-capitalist ideals commingled with the residual values of productivity and profit.

The change in sensibility we need, in this case a change in the moral attitude about work, was captured as well as anyone by Buckminster Fuller at a time when the hippie revolution was coming to a head, its fate not yet decided (New York Magazine, 30 March 1970).

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Related internal blog entry: Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius
Recommended external blog entry: Global Therapy (Paul Adkin)