Friday, December 15, 2006

Reason #5--Reality Matters

“If Herr Bukunin knew even one thing about the situation of a manager of a
workers’ cooperative factory, all his hallucinations about domination would go to
the devil.”
--Karl Marx, review of Bukunin’s “Statehood and Anarchy,” 1875

In the early 80s, my gruff, gray-headed semantics professor passionately railed against the insanity of the world around him. Thumping his critical thinker’s bible--Wendell Johnson’s 1946 book, People in Quandaries--he raged over the blind machinations of the university, condemning the institution for firing two award-winning teachers in a row because they were short on publishing. One period, his lecture sang hallelujah to a Vietnam era speech by Dick Gregory, skewering the insanity that prioritized a piece of cloth, the American flag, over the right of free speech.

All of this passion erupted from a fairly quiet little book. Johnson’s People in Quandaries argued that most of society’s irrational and unhealthy behavior stemmed from what he called “verbal cocoons”—our subjective worldview that sifts through learned abstractions to interpret events in a way that reinforces our preconceptions. Johnson writes:

“Quandaries, then, are rather like verbal cocoons in which individuals elaborately encase themselves, and from which, under circumstances common in our time, they do not tend to hatch. The peculiar structure of these cocoons appears to be determined in large measure by the structure of the society in which they are formed--and the structure of this society has been and continues to be determined significantly by the structure of the language which we so unconsciously acquire and so unreflectively employ.”

If he did nothing more, my semantics teacher dramatically challenged us to take a close look at the abstractions that made up our view of reality, question them and allow ourselves to see new possibilities.

In his struggle for a similar sanity, Karl Marx often reminds me of that Semantics professor. Early in his career, he argues against “setting up any dogmatic flag” and dismisses “sentimental, utopian, mutton-headed socialism.” He’s most impatient with his fellow revolutionaries who want to achieve romantic goals while ignoring realistic conditions. In his final years, his critique of the anarchist Mikhail Bukunin reveals his ongoing exasperation with those who won’t grapple with the messiness of reality. Responding directly to Bakunin’s criticism of his theory, Marx writes, “Schoolboy drivel! . . . He understands absolutely nothing about social revolution; all he knows are its political phrases. For him its economic requisites do not exist . . . . Will power and not economic conditions is the basis of his social revolution.”

Marx insisted the path to realizing our dreams must be traveled with good maps and eyes wide open. Consistent with anyone who believes in scientific method, Marx saw goals for what they were, ideas (subjective concepts) that may only be achieved by a thorough understanding of the workings of the material world (objective conditions). This is the essential difference in Marx’s philosophy and Hegel’s dialectics that influenced him. Hegel believed the history of human ideas evolved through a series of arguments and counterarguments, purely products of the mind. Marx believed this series of arguments and counterarguments emerged and challenged one another based on changing realities. With the industrial revolution, Marx saw the potential for a society run for the benefit of all, but he believed that resolution would only be possible when the impoverished majority took power from the elite minority.

This balancing of the ideological and the material runs throughout his most concise summation of his theory, his famous preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.” Roughly, this is what it says:

*In their workplace, people must assume certain relationships to one another whether they like it or not. These relationships correspond to the development of our technology. As a whole, these relationships make up the basic framework of society, and on top of that we build legal and political systems consistent with our ideas. But our ideas come from our experiences in this structure. At various points, developing technologies make the old relationships obsolete—our outdated social framework becomes an obstacle for the entire system. This is the beginning of revolution. Everything begins to change rapidly. Our ideas change in an unpredictable variety of legal, political, religious, artistic and philosophical ways. The important goal during such upheaval is to understand what’s really going on by asking tough questions and seeking contradictory answers—plain old scientific method. The struggle for revolution shows us just what’s possible, and when people finally run the world in the best interests of all, true civilization will begin.*

For over 150 years, Marx’s analysis of the arch of capitalism has generally been proven accurate. Marx theorized the globalization of capital and the falling value of labor. His forecast saw smaller and smaller numbers of the very rich forced into increasingly barbaric competition while the middle classes began to disappear. The rich divided further and further from the poor, the movement of capital would become more speculative, the pace of financial transactions would accelerate faster and faster to keep the system afloat. This whirlwind of money would not serve the needs of the growing numbers of poor, and it would erode our quality of life, destroy our environment, deplete our resources and rob us of a salvageable future. Marx’s vision of communism was not a vision of a system that could compete against a market economy; it would have to overcome it. We manage civilization cooperatively, or we lose it altogether.

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