The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Another reflection on “social justice”

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It was, I think, about 30 years ago that I was first presented with the question, “Why is it less offensive to use the word ‘faggot’ than ‘nigger’?”  It was a rhetorical question, so, naturally, I tried to answer it.  It took me a while, but eventually I realized what ought to have been obvious: It is a class issue.  That is, 30 years ago, one assumed that anyone who was Black, or Latino, or American Indian*, was also poor, or at best working class; so one reacted to the derogatory term with a sort of extra layer of disgust.  How should I say this?  At no point did one believe that “faggot” was somehow okay to use–but “nigger” was even worse.  Hearing that word, the bile would rise in one’s throat, and to this day I have trouble writing it, and even more trouble saying it.  The struggle for equal rights (in the parlance of my youth, “Negro equality,”) was emphatically part of the class struggle, and nearly all of the Black leaders from Martin Luther King to Huey P. Newton (and even Malcom X in the latter part of his life) saw it that way.

By contrast, the Gay Rights movement emerged from middle-class radicalism.  And even though, at heart, it is a class issue (compare the problems of a George Takei to those of a gay auto worker), it was never publicly presented as anything but an issue of identity.  The defining characteristic of middle-class radicalism is and was subjective idealism–the belief that the problem is all in the head of the individual, and all you need to do is to change people’s ideas, and inequality will vanish.**

Feminism falls into an odd place in between.  By long tradition, it was part of the working class movement and (with some important exceptions) saw itself that way.  The Left saw equal rights for women as a vital part of organizing ever since Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.  The labor movement learned–often the hard way–that when it ignored the struggle for women’s rights it shot itself in the foot.  But sometime in the mid-60’s, around the time Feminism was being called Women’s Liberation (or, dismissively, “Women’s Lib”), it  began to transform itself, to move toward issues that (in the opinion of its leaders) could be solved under capitalism: language, personal and family interactions, public perception.  I still remember the point when it became less important that a political party fought for full equality then that there were x% women in leadership roles in the party.

But for a long time, the struggle for the equality of non-whites was still very much seen, by anyone who called himself a Leftist, as a part of the fight for the independence of the working class.  Exactly what is so pernicious about today’s “Social Justice” supporters–that is, those who favor the politics of identity–is that, now that there is a significant black middle class, even ruling class,  those who stand to lose by the destruction of capitalism are running as fast and far from the working class as possible.  What started as the belief that if you just hired enough Black cops, and maybe elected a Black mayor or two, poor Blacks would no longer face police violence has become, today, a determined rejection of any and all class issues.  It has become a fight for equality by and for the middle class.  Obama, of course, represents the highest expression of this milieu.

So, then, to me, these are the questions one ought to answer:  Can there, in fact, be equality under capitalism?  If not, can capitalism be destroyed in any way other than by organizing the independent power of the working class?  If not, what effect will identity politics have on uniting the working class?

Many–probably most–people reading this blog will have different answers than I have to each of those questions; but it seems worthwhile to at least pose the issue the way I see it.

*It is significant that I’m using “Black” and “American Indian” rather than “African-American” and “Native American.”  Why?  Because I am rejecting the terms used by the petit-bourgeois radicals in favor of the terms you’ll actually hear if you hang around with working class Blacks and Indians.  Think about it.

**Which, I suppose, is true–in the same sense that, if one is in the middle of the ocean drowning, one only has to get out of the water, hence there is no need for a life preserver.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

161 Comments

  1. I disagree with your assessment that the gay rights struggle comes out of the middle class. It’s origins are firmly planted in the working class and poor. It’s very birthplace, the Stonewall Inn, was a place for working class gays and drag queens and its first uprisings were the actions of the working class queers who had finally grown fed up with their extortion by the state and extortion by organized crime (as if there was any difference then or now).

    It’s true that the people who are most visible NOW in the manistream media — and the core members of Obama’s ‘veal pen’ of liberals — are certainly middle and upper class queers who are agitating for equality in marriage and little else. George Takei (who I love, don’t get me wrong! It’s more than OKAY to be Takei!) understandably wants to be able to wed his husband and receive all the legal and tax benefits of that contract. Meanwhile, your gay auto worker can still get fired for being gay in all but a handful of states, and ALL the auto workers live in a system where they give up the fruits of their labor to a boss who can destroy their livelihood over a stupid whim like who they fucked the night before.

    I would argue that the real catalysts for change among the queer rights movement are not the big flashy rich gays of the Human Rights Campaign, but work in radical groups like Get Equal, or in groups like Unite Here! — a hospitality workers labor union which has a majority of queer members in most places, and which is agitating over very basic issues like preventing hotels chains such as Hyatt from stealing tips from the poorest workers like housekeepers.

    The queer activists I have personally worker with are acutely aware of the class issues at the root of what they do, even if they choose to focus on the ways the class war affects their specific community.

    So while I agree with your basic conclusions, and the Bourgeois Queers in the HRC are certainly the most visible in the mainstream media, I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of real (i.e. effective) queer activism on the ground.

  2. skzb

    “I disagree with your assessment that the gay rights struggle comes out of the middle class. It’s origins are firmly planted in the working class and poor. It’s very birthplace, the Stonewall Inn, was a place for working class gays and drag queens and its first uprisings were the actions of the working class queers who had finally grown fed up with their extortion by the state and extortion by organized crime (as if there was any difference then or now).”

    I hadn’t realized the Stonewall Inn was a working class joint. That does, indeed, change things at least to a degree. In general, you make valid points. Thanks for the correction. (And, hey, I’m with you on Takei! Had no intention of dissing the man.)

  3. I didn’t take it as a dig on Takei but a valid observation — his concerns as a out gay man in Hollywood are different from those of our hypothetical transgender auto worker.

    Stonewall was a squalid, poor place run by the mafia. They rinsed the glasses in a bucket behind the bar to ‘clean’ them. Periodically, the cops raided it and picked on the working class drag queens that frequented it for bribes/pay offs. One night the drag queens had just had it. I wish I had a time machine to go back and observe it, because the sight of all those queens throwing pennies from a broken parking meter at the police until they were forced to barricade themselves in the Inn must have been a sight to see.

    It IS impossible to separate the movement that grew out of it from identity politics for better or worse, because the movement that sprung up around Stonewall was certainly empowered by what they perceived as the recent successes in feminism and African American equality to start a movement of their own. There’s usually been tension between the radicals and the ones like Harvey Milk who try to pretty up the image and work within the system (for all the good he achieved!) but I believe (and know some very old school radical gay activists who agree) that there is a core of working class rage at the movement’s origins which has been kept alive to this day.

    For added contemplation, let’s throw in Bayard Rustin, the under acknowledged gay man who shaped so much of MLK’s journey. Of course, he was forced into a less visible role due to his orientation…

  4. I had always assumed the reason ‘Faggot’ was perceived to be less offensive than ‘Nigger’ was because it was an emasculating term.

    One would not identify traditional masculinity when hearing it, most if not all emasculating terms are used to great excess by peers to define a man or boy as not ‘male’ to try to push him out of the group unless he exhibited an expected set of behaviors. Obviously the thinking would go along the lines of if you like men like women like men you are the same you are a woman and therefore not a man, not one of us, etc.

    Granted my perception on the term probably stems from having gone to elementary and middle school in the 80’s and it was pretty much a daily, hourly insult heard reaching a fever pitch by the end of middle school. There was a near universal hatred of ‘Gay’ people and culture. Kid’s daren’t say ‘Nigger’ they knew they’d be in deep shit if they did, especially if directed at someone and even more if directed at a black person.

    Ultimately I suspected it was perceived as simply less offensive because of how accepted it was in the common dialect of average 13 year olds. Spend an hour on Xbox Live and you’ll find that both Faggot & Nigger are used at such an astonishing rate the words themselves literally lose all contextual meaning. Nevermind, don’t do that, it’s frankly disheartening.

  5. “Can there, in fact, be equality under capitalism?”

    I can’t imagine economic equality under capitalism. The theory seems to demand economic rewards for doing whatever the system rewards. There is an assumption that the system will reward whatever is best for the system, and so it’s all OK.

    We can’t reward good behavior and still have complete equality. But maybe equality is not necessary. If everybody gets what he needs and nobody is so far ahead that it causes much trouble, maybe that’s good enough.

    “If not, can capitalism be destroyed in any way other than by organizing the independent power of the working class?”

    Probably lots of ways, but it isn’t enough to destroy capitalism, we also need something better. We would need to have a new system already in place and functioning, ready to hit the ground running. I have only the vaguest sense how it might happen, but just as capitalist theory envisions a business gradually failing as its customers begin to prefer other products, perhaps people might start to choose some other system. And the capitalist tools who normally destroy alternatives would themselves be drifting away to the new system….

    I’m not sure about the independent power of the working class. In medieval times the large majority of people were farmers, largely serfs. A discussion like this one in those times might focus on organizing the independent power of the serfs, but in our reality that didn’t much happen. New people got power without owning land, and things changed to the point it wasn’t feasible to keep serfs.

    Now the old working class is becoming irrelevant. Industrial automation can replace most of them, leaving jobs for people who design automated assembly lines etc. Capitalism slows that process as follows: when you build an automated plant you pay for hi-tech equipment up front. Sunk costs. But if you build an old-fashioned plant with human workers, when the economy slows and you want to shut down, you can just lay them off. Then when you start up again, hire new ones. More expensive to run, but cheaper to shut down.

    If we have important thinking jobs for a small fraction of the people, and low-value low-pay jobs for a slightly larger fraction, how can the working class get organized? Something else will happen to change the system around, and I don’t know what it will be or whether I will approve of the results.

    “If not, what effect will identity politics have on uniting the working class?”

    If somebody marketed a “working class” identity to them and it caught on, that’s one possible effect. Otherwise they are more likely to accept other brands to do identity politics with.

    Jewish working class can identify with Israel.

    Union members might identify with their unions, which give them perqs that they could not get alone.

    They can all take pride in working for a living when so many others can’t get jobs.

    They may identify with their consumer products. If you buy a nice fishing boat with an outboard motor, then you are not just Steven, you are Steven who owns a boat. If you buy a Prius that’s one identity. A Landrover SUV is different, and a Saab is something different still. Identities that divide and not unify.

    I don’t know where things are heading, except that in some ways it’s away from the status quo. I think people who believe they know which variables are important and which will be important in 20 years, are probably fooling themselves.

  6. Interesting analysis, and one I hadn’t thought of before.

    To add to it, if someone were to ask me today why I thought ‘faggot’ was less offensive that ‘nigger’ I would attribute it to demographics and culture, specifically the population density of blacks or gays in a given area. For example, to my ears, ‘chink’ is more offensive than ‘nigger’. I understand objectively that ‘nigger’ is an offensive word that ought not to be said, but emotionally, ‘chink’ is far worse. I would say the cause of this is a relatively low black population compared to the Chinese population where I grew up. Similarly, the population of gays in most regions is still rather low. Though the gay rights and related anti-hate speech movement is growing, for those who would use the word in an ‘us vs. them’ fashion, the ‘them’ faction is small enough that the use of it doesn’t pose a significant threat of social backlash, thus making it less taboo.

    And speaking of perceived threats (because I do believe that these sort of offensive slurs are fear based) the nature of the civil rights advances in within both groups plays a part. Thinking of the civil rights movement in America conjures images of strength and unity, marches, impassioned speeches and those brazenly defying the social order. In this era we see ‘nigger’ transform from a word used to describe a person of color and lesser being, into a weapon specifically intended to cause harm.

    However, when examining civil rights movements for gays, the same threat of strength and possible violence is not there. The media and cultural portrayal of gays as ‘limp wristed’, ‘feminine’ and ‘fairy’ negates the need to use the word ‘faggot’ as a weapon. The word –though offensive- remains primarily to describe someone of diminished masculinity or clownish behavior.

    Furthermore, these days I’d like to think that ‘nigger’ is fading from cultural relevance. It is becoming a word that is widely accepted as being on the “do not say, ever” list and socially we accept that the use of this word not only invokes negative feelings in the listener, but casts us in a negative light as well. Saying the word in all but the most uniform of social circles paints us as a villain, and regardless of social or political views, no one wants to be thought of this way.

    So why don’t we get the same feeling of ‘villain-ness’ from using ‘faggot’? If you call someone a ‘nigger’ you are denouncing them based on the color of their skin. That’s a pretty tangible characteristic. Denouncing someone on their sexuality, however, isn’t. Considering how many people still believe that homosexuality can be ‘cured’, that it’s a phase or a choice, in addition to how many forms homosexuality takes (gay, lesbian, bi, trans, two-spirited etc.) calling someone a ‘faggot’ isn’t seen as demeaning, but rather calling out a liar.

    I don’t consider it acceptable to use either, but that’s my take on the social and cultural weight of the words.

  7. skzb

    Angelo: “Ultimately I suspected it was perceived as simply less offensive because of how accepted it was in the common dialect of average 13 year olds.”

    I’m inclined to think you’ve reversed cause and effect there, but I can’t prove it.

    J. Thomas: Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’m only going to address a couple of your points; the others can hang around for everyone else to consider.

    “A discussion like this one in those times might focus on organizing the independent power of the serfs, but in our reality that didn’t much happen. ”

    Because the productive forces at the time had not been built up to the point where plenty was available for everyone; hence there had to be inequality. Today we can produce enough for everyone, hence inequality is not necessary.

    “Now the old working class is becoming irrelevant. Industrial automation can replace most of them, leaving jobs for people who design automated assembly lines etc.”

    To really answer this would require an intense economic discussion of the falling rate of profit, and the nature of surplus value, but, in brief, you’ve hit on one of the great contradictions of capitalism–it builds up the productive forces to the point where it can no longer sustain them. The more automation happens, the fewer workers needed, the smaller the percentage of profit from exploiting workers, the more prone to crash and crisis (and war) the whole system becomes. However, rather than undermining the possibility of the working class achieving political power, this enhances it, both because of frustration and anger and fear it produces, and because of the increased level of sophistication of the working class.

  8. Do we have an agreed-upon definition of “equality”, and consensus that it (whatever i is) is an unalloyed good?

  9. Perhaps you can educate me. How much of it might just be etymology? To paraphrase someone near to your heart: “It is not good to devalue the meaning of a word.”

    I can recall reading the incredibly campy, but classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, where discussions of “being fagged” just meant tired. “Fag” was cigarette. “Faggot” was a length of wood. Now we’ve just lost those words and resorted to euphemisms that we further devalue.

    Did the same transition happen with “nigger” and I’m just unfamiliar with it?

  10. I don’t have much to add to the many wonderful responses above but an observation, when my son was being bullied a year or two ago in middle school we would go to the administration. The fact that the kid called him a fag and dirty Jew got a very mild response “boys will be boys”. The fact that his disability was mocked? The same weak response. When he was pushed into a locker or when a kid threw money on the ground and told him to get it and pushed him? Same “boys will be boys it’s all a misunderstanding”. However, when the kid called him a “nigger” ? That got an immediate response. We were called in, the bully was suspended and moved out of our son’s classes and they reassured our son he would be safe.

    My first thought was maybe this was the final straw, but it was clear they had no record or memory of our earlier complaints. I’m not sure what this means but that word is so loaded, even for those who can ignore most types of prejudice and racism and bullying that it invites an instant response.

  11. If not, can capitalism be destroyed in any way other than by organizing the independent power of the working class?

    It’s never a question of destroying an aspect of society, but rather what will you replace it with? People simply will not slough off something that works, or mostly works, or doesn’t fail them completely, unless there is something demonstrably better for them that they can see. The French Revolution tried to destroy an existing society without a plan, and it didn’t work. The American Revolution set out to replace their existing government with a well thought out alternative that was mostly organized even before the monarchy was completely over-thrown.

    People who oppose capitalism won’t succeed unless they can point to effective and workable ideas operating within their country’s existing social framework. In the US, no one will care if you point to Country X and say “Socialism works for them;” you have to be able to point to Anytown in the next county and say that.

    On another note:
    … in favor of the terms you’ll actually hear if you hang around with working class Blacks…

    About 90% of my co-workers are black, and “nigger” is the most common word they use. It’s funny because they’ll all apologize to me, a white woman, when they say it, usually saying that “it’s just how I talk”. On my part, I’m having to learn to refer to “dark skinned” and “bright” when describing people, skin tone being like hair color when refering to white people.

  12. skzb

    L. Raymond: “People who oppose capitalism won’t succeed unless they can point to effective and workable ideas operating within their country’s existing social framework.”

    “Within the country’s existing social framework” leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But, that said, I very much agree with you on this.

  13. skzb

    By “equality” I mean equal access to food, education, housing, and health care, along with the same voice in shaping policy as anyone else. At least, that’ll do for a start. Is it an “unalloyed good?” That strikes me as a trick question. I think, without question, it would be an improvement.

  14. “To really answer this would require an intense economic discussion of the falling rate of profit, and the nature of surplus value….”

    I’d heard those phrases before but they didn’t mean much to me until now, hearing them in context. If you don’t mind I want to say it at length:

    Capitalist microeconomic theory distinguishes between fixed costs and variable costs. There’s cost just to being in business, and then there’s a cost that changes with the amount of product you produce. When there’s “too much” competition, prices may fall to the variable cost. If it costs you $1/item to make stuff, on top of mortgages and licenses etc, if you can sell for $1.05 you’re better off to make it than shut down even when you lose money total. But if you can only sell for .95 then you lose money faster by staying in business than you do to close up.

    Say you make computer chips. You need a billion-dollar factory to make them, and once you have that your variable cost is somewhere in the range of 10 cents to a dollar per chip. If you get into a price war with other companies making the same chip, you’ll be selling for maybe 50 cents and you’ll never get your billion dollars back. So you have patents etc that keep others from copying your chip. On the other hand, nobody in their right mind will get locked into using a chip with a single supplier. Some random disaster that hits you — a lawsuit, maybe — will sink them.

    Free market theory didn’t work in that case, so they threw it out. You choose a second source and both of you build your factories. You can compete in minor ways but you collude on prices. Your distributors trust that you’ll set prices that the market can bear. Your product has a predictable life cycle — you can start out selling for hundreds of dollars per chip, and that drops to tens of dollars per chip, and before it drops too low nobody wants it and you’re phasing in the new factory with the new generation of product.

    The whole thing depends on final consumers believing that new computers are worth what they cost while old computers should be thrown away. The life cycle depends on the rate that people are willing to buy new computers, which is basicly arbitrary. When it was cars, there was the claim that new models came out every three years because a drop forge lasted three years. Maybe more fundamental was that the plurality of consumers could afford a new car after 3 years and they didn’t want to buy the same thing again.

    This same sort of problem afflicts every capitalist who tries too much automation. If he has competition, he must drop prices too low and lose money, and by the time he can raise them again it’s late in the product cycle and he never breaks even. If there is a recession and he can’t sell much, his costs are already sunk. To make it work we must abandon free markets and depend on informal agreements that work because the people who agree all want it to work.

    Imagine we had a system that encouraged automation. Then any job that can be done by routine, can be automated. If you can show somebody how to do the job, then a machine can do it. Instead of training lots of people to work on assembly lines, we wind up with a few people who design assembly lines and their work is so complex it cannot be automated — yet. They take great pride in what they do. It isn’t easy to assess how well they do it. You can compare their success to others of their kind, but there are never a lot of other people doing similar work. They exercise professional judgement and there’s a lot of subjectivity involved. Collectively they are extremely important. Individually not so much — each of them can do his own specialty, and he is not qualified to horn in on somebody else’s specialty. If he quits work for a couple of years he’s obsolete and unemployable.

    A few important people with important jobs. A few people who are worth very little apart from their jobs. It reminds me of a taoist story:

    There was a flood and a man drowned. A fisherman went out in the flood with his boat, hoping to rescue someone, but only found a body. He advertised to find the family. It was the tradition that people who didn’t get a proper burial would haunt their relatives, so the family would want that body. The family also advertised, and found him.

    But they couldn’t agree on a price. The fisherman had risked his own life and wanted 100 gold coins, but the family didn’t want to pay more than 10. They went home. Eventually the man was bothered about the corpse stinking up his toolshed and went to an economic adviser. The adviser listened to his story and puffed his pipe. Then he advised, “Wait. They can’t get the body anywhere else and the ghost will haunt them. Sooner or later they must come up to your price.”

    The family was bothered and went to the same adviser. He listened to their story and puffed his pipe. Then he advised, “Wait. He can’t sell the body to anyone else, and he will need to clear the market. Sooner or later he must come down to your price.”

  15. You hit it on the head in your footnotes: “African-American” and its ilk are certainly petit-bourgeois euphemisms that deny any commonality of anyone else of the same ethnic background that lives elsewhere.

    The worst case of that usage came from the Chicago Tribune in its review of the first episode of “Star Trek: Voyager” and their pleasant surprise that “finally they have an African-American Vulcan.” I couldn’t stop laughing at that absurdity for several minutes. Now if they’d just inserted “playing a” between the last two words, it would have been merely petit-bourgeois, not stupid… but, dude, the character isn’t African or American, if he’s a Vulcan!

  16. It could have been already less offensive (and I take for canon that it was) and therefore easier to reach for and make even less offensive by volume of use. I’d agree with that. Your explanation adds insight to history that precedes my own experiences.

    An interesting trend I noticed in the next generation following mine is that the term ‘Faggot’ was replaced by ‘Gay’ in the same context, simply ‘You’re gay’ or ‘that’s gay’ as a negative connotation for anything and still as an emasculating insult. I suspect because ‘Faggot’ became classified as hate speech by school administrations as would be appropriate for the word the way it was being wielded, though I am not one for censorship there are things one ought not say, especially in certain contexts.

    Not that schools don’t already have enough to deal with, but at the core it’d be a bit better if we got to the root of the derogatory name calling instead of simply shifting focus from one offensive term to a ‘less offensive term’ used in the same hateful way but I digress.

  17. “By “equality” I mean equal access to food, education, housing, and health care, along with the same voice in shaping policy as anyone else.”

    Suppose everybody gets *enough* access to food, education, housing, and health care.

    When I get too much housing I wind up spreading my junk everywhere, and then it’s a big hassle to clean it. I want a place I can afford to heat, with working plumbing and good air and water. If someone else wants a place 10 times as large and they need 3 fulltime maids to clean it, I won’t envy them.

    Education is peculiar. If you graduate from Harvard people will think you’re smart and well-connected both, and that can be valuable. If everybody could graduate from Harvard it wouldn’t mean that. Increasingly you can learn anything but trade secrets on the Internet, things you don’t have to get muscle memory for. But if you want a job it isn’t enough to know things, you need to persuade an employer that you can do the work and not cause trouble.

    Food is peculiar too. We can grow far more corn and soybeans than we need, given sufficient oil. Corn gives carbs, soybeans give protein, both give oil. People can get a big part of their diet that way, and then they do better with a variety of fresh vegetables and a few ounces of meat a week. It would be easy to give everybody a healthy diet apart from the vegetables, but then there’s the question what people actually want….

    Health care is the most peculiar of all. We’re pretty good at reviving people when they are about to die from something temporary. If you look at what physicians were doing in 1953, from today’s perspective most of it looks harmful. 1963? Maybe 80% harmful. 1973? 70% harmful? The more we learn, the worse our previous practices look. Maybe most of our current healthcare will look harmful 60 years from now. Who should get the most of it?

    I want everybody to have enough, and I don’t care if we’re a bit sloppy making sure nobody gets a bit more than enough.

  18. As for terminology for groups like “blacks” vs “african-americans” and “american indians” vs. “native americans” or whatever, I always figured it was best to go with whatever the group used for self-description. But then I’d rather say Napoli than Naples, too.

    Re capitalistic equality:

    By definition there can’t be *economic* equality under capitalism because the whole point of it is for individuals to accrue, retain, and concentrate wealth and moreover to use that wealth to control capital, which in a technological society is the source of goods production. The more pure the economic capitalism, the more likely that governmental and social structures will devolve into a de-facto oligarchy for this reason, just as in America in the 19th century (and it seems more and more today as well) and in Russia in the 21st.

    But putting aside economic equality for the moment, there can be equality of treatment under the law in a capitalistic society (since capitalism doesn’t imply much about the legal system) and also equality of opportunity in a slightly socialistic but still predominantly capitalistic society that provides a quality education to all regardless of of wealth. These kinds of equality may or may not be all that likely due to the tendency towards oligarchy I mentioned, but it’s at least possible to some extent, as for example in the US today, which while obviously not a paragon of egalitarianism, is nevertheless clearly far more egalitarian than it was in the 19th century.

    To some extent, the effectiveness of capitalism in any given case may be connected to how honestly technocratic it is — that is, to what extent more capable of individuals are actually promoted and encouraged regardless of social and economic class origins. But I think technocracy per se (if anyone actually tried it as a systematic form of societal organization) would tend to destroy itself because of the oligarchic tendency of the elite to try to retain and pass on their perquisites.

  19. Good questions. Some thoughts:
    “Can there, in fact, be equality under capitalism? ”

    Under unrestrained capitalism–no, clearly not. The world has unfortunately neither infinite resources nor perfectly rational actors and so unrestrained capitalism gets stuck in local maxima. We call these monopolies and Oligarchs.
    Exactly how much control needs to be exercised over a capitalist system to create the emergence of equality is a really good question. If you control it enough is it capitalism anymore?
    As you mentioned, there are enough resources currently (current distribution mechanisms being sorely lacking) to assure, at the very least, basic elements of life such as, for example, food, clothing, housing, medical treatment, physical safety.
    Then, if societal needs such as, for example, transportation systems, communication and education are taken care of (they need to be taken care of for a sustainable civilization) we arrive at a place where people aren’t equal yet, but at least they aren’t dying or having bridges fall down.
    If people don’t have to worry about starving or unexpected medical bills, a large amount of leverage is taken away from the hands of the entities that would otherwise be used to coerce labor.
    Arriving at this state would require some pretty broad defeats on some fairly entrenched groups that:

    “If not, can capitalism be destroyed in any way other than by organizing the independent power of the working class? ”

    :requires the cooperation of the working and/or middle class. In the US, up until the past 15 years or so, the gradual increase in who was middle class seemed to be heading in the right direction, albeit slowly. The rise of income disparity in more recent years is quite troubling.

    “If not, what effect will identity politics have on uniting the working class?”

    It seems fairly clear that the strategy of the right is to try to fragment people along identity lines so that they forget who the actual oppressor is.

  20. “there can be equality of treatment under the law in a capitalistic society (since capitalism doesn’t imply much about the legal system) and also equality of opportunity in a slightly socialistic but still predominantly capitalistic society that provides a quality education to all regardless of of wealth.”

    How? The card palmed by people who talk about equal opportunity is that equal opportunity requires equal resources. In the US, poor neighborhoods get poor schools, and in the legal system, rich folks like OJ Simpson go free thanks to great lawyers while poor folks of all hues end up on death row for otherwise comparable crimes.

    “It seems fairly clear that the strategy of the right is to try to fragment people along identity lines so that they forget who the actual oppressor is.”

    Is it? The people promoting identity politics are bourgeois feminists and anti-racists.

  21. “Can there, in fact, be equality under capitalism?” The answer partially depends on your definition of equality. I say partially, because even if you remove all of the variables that humans use to measure against each other, they would still find a way to suggest that someone was better or worse than someone else. In order to accomplish total and true equality, you pretty much have to play John Lennon’s “Imagine” and hit the big, shiny, red “Society Reset” button. We would literally have to go back about a million years (or at least 40,000 years) to when humans first started to develop any kind of social structure. Remove countries, religion, possessions, and anything else that can have any sort of bearing on social class, and just have some extremely wise person who is able to convince everyone that everyone else is equal.

    If you are just talking about equality in basic necessities, that is also a complex animal. You could start by saying that everyone, regardless of who they are, gets certain amount of food, water, shelter, and security (ie. privacy) for free. For many, especially the poor, those are currently some of the most expensive costs in their lives, so free up those things would be a considerable boost to them. There would, however, be those that would choose to go above and beyond that which would be provided for them by the government and would have the resources available to get them. Then you would still be left with inequality, though those that are among the “haves” would say that they deserve to have the excess, because they spent their resources to obtain it.

    Come to think of it, the same goes for health care. You can make all aspects of health care 100% covered by the government, and there will still be rich people who will want better health care than everyone else has. They will be willing to pay for speed and quality of care.

    Bringing politics into the mix adds another degree of complexity entirely. Though technically, Capitalism shouldn’t have anything to do with politics, so getting rid of lobbyists, making transactions between political figures and commercial entities illegal, and putting a watchdog system in place to ensure that political actions weren’t affected by consequences that happened or will happen while the politician was out of office, would at least help curb inequality there.

    The other end of the political argument is that poor people don’t tend to have as much care about politics as those in the higher economic classes. For the poor, besides what side of the spectrum their individual ideals fall on, they really don’t consider themselves to be effected much by who is in charge of the country. Life still sucks, and they still have to work their butts off just to keep the necessities going. There may be more voices if they ever chose to speak up about anything, but considering they are having a hard enough time making a living, and considering that, for many of them, the concept of change has been given a negative connotation, they are unlikely to speak up and use those voices.
    So, if you are willing to start with a level playing field for all of those aspects, which would be extremely expensive in America, then it is possible to have at least a base level of equality, but the rich will always find a way to get more.

    “If not, can capitalism be destroyed in any way other than by organizing the independent power of the working class?” I’m not sure I understand this question properly. If you are talking about the working class and poor coming together to disassociate themselves from Capitalism, but still live within the government that is currently in place, then I would say no. That reminds me of an article that I read on CNN about some sub-cultures around the US who used alternative forms of currency. At first I thought that it was a good idea, but then when I read that by law, they are required to base that currency on US currency, I thought it was just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They aren’t changing anything, they are just making some goofy way to feel like their community is coming together.

    Unfortunately, Capitalism and our government are now completely intertwined. If one fails, the other is just as likely to fail. That said, if the system is allowed to continue on its present course, it’ll fail on its own eventually anyway. When the S&P downgraded the US credit rating, I thought for sure that would be a major wake up call to those in power, but they ended up just kicking the can down the road again.

    The US military has obviously developed to the point of making an armed rebellion if not completely moot, at least very infeasible. It would have to be a peaceful revolt. Instead of trying to force the government to change, a significant portion of the US (enough to make continuing under the current system useless) would have to stop playing by the rules of the system. If the Occupy Movement, instead of just squatting in the park, making signs, and occasionally trying to force banks to close, had just started living in self-sufficient, bartering communities, and were able to prove that they could have an effective community outside of Capitalism, then something effective might have come out of their protests. Just as J Thomas said, the system that those people used would have to be carefully prepared and agreed upon before it could be effective.

    The government, of course, wouldn’t like it, and would most likely take action to try to shut the communities down. But, if there were enough of them, then they would have to be very careful about how they dealt with the situation, which would give the movement an edge to establishing a foothold. Since they couldn’t just squash them without terrible backlash from the rest of the world, they would have to negotiate, and then the movement becomes like the camel in the story about the man and his camel in the sandstorm.

    “If not, what effect will identity politics have on uniting the working class?” As it is now, neither side of the political spectrum seems very interesting in uniting the working class. It is also unrealistic for the working class to come together sufficiently to create a political party with sufficient power to have any real effect on economic, or other, equality.

  22. @Will
    “Is it? The people promoting identity politics are bourgeois feminists and anti-racists.”
    Right, the identity politics people are trying to say something like you are a member of group X, be proud. The area I was trying to point to (probably with an incorrect label) is the manner in which many right wing campaigns seem to invert this and say something like “They are members of group X (therefore different) fear them.”

  23. Will: I said “there *can be* equality…” not “there *is* equality…” I didn’t say anything about so-called equal opportunity laws, nor do I claim now they ensure equality in current society; but I must say it’s better to have them than not to have them; I’d rather have equal opportunity than Jim Crow.

    A pure capitalistic system cannot provide equality of opportunity (education and employment and employment compensation) because of the point you made, that resources are required to be spent on these things, not by corporations, but by the state, and the state is just as withered away under pure capitalism as it is under pure communism. That’s why I specified that a socialistic capitalism was required for that provision.

    It’s clear that the US currently provides more equality of opportunity than most 19th century nations such as the US or UK of that time provided; and that is because the US is currently more socialistic than was the case back then.

    I also should point out that “can be equality” does not mean “likely will be equality” under capitalism. The inherent economic inequalities of any form of capitalism caused by concentration of wealth in the form of capital ownership evidently tend to stratify and separate wealth and class, which will tend to cause all kinds of inequality if not very carefully and diligently controlled by the state, which itself naturally tends to be co-opted by the capital-owners.

  24. skzb

    Will: As far as equality under the law, I agree with you. Or let’s say social equality, because you can have a “law” in the sense of what’s written in the law books without actual equality. In my opinion, real social equality requires economic equality as a first step.

    I respectfully disagree with you, Miramon, on this point. The social inequality is both a product of and a necessity for the economic inequality. Not only are there obvious issues such as Will raises, but there is the point that you, yourself brought up: the right using the divisions within the working class in an effort to prevent the full strength of the class from coming together against them. I submit that this is an inherent part of capitalism.

    Will again: “Is it? The people promoting identity politics are bourgeois feminists and anti-racists.”

    I may be nit picking, but to me, this is exactly the point, and why I agree with Miramon. It is exactly in this way that the so-called Left is supporting the right-wing agenda.

  25. skzb

    “Suppose everybody gets *enough* access to food, education, housing, and health care.”

    At which point the Philistines will gleefully pounce on it with, “Who gets to decide what ‘enough’ is?” and we’ll never get anywhere. However, in actual practice, I agree with you.

  26. skzb

    Chris F: Thanks for a thoughtful comment. For the most part, I’m going to leave it alone. Obviously, there is much I see differently.

    One point I do want to address, however, is where you say, “The US military has obviously developed to the point of making an armed rebellion if not completely moot, at least very infeasible.” Every revolution in history has been made under conditions where the army could crush the people. Every successful revolution in history is distinguished by the army coming over to the side of the people. One might almost say that is *the* determining factor in the success or failure of revolution. Since the divisions within a society are always and inherently reflected in the military of that society, the possibility is always there. As a general rule, the military will come over to the side of the revolution when the revolution demonstrates its determination to carry things through to the end.

  27. I agree that capitalism stems from an existing social inequality, and its inherent economic inequality will encourage other forms of inequality; I don’t argue with that.

    But I still say that we are vastly better off now in the Americas and in Europe and Australia and Japan and in any other more or less westernized societies around the world than was the case in the 19th century. The reason we are better off is that willy-nilly the state has evolved into a somewhat inclusive system that tempers and to some extent opposes capitalistic forces. It’s fashionable on the left and right to deride the weak-minded compromises of the center; but all the historical examples of the extremes have led to disasters.

    Of course even in the best run country in the world (New Zealand, perhaps? Dunno, never been there) the state is also partially corrupted by and partially suborned by capitalistic forces, but this is what happens when you dine with the devil; and if you will forgive the extension of the metaphor, you have to sit down to that dinner if you don’t have enough food of your own.

    Needless to say, merely because the current quasi-capitalist systems in various countries around the world aren’t the worst ever experienced doesn’t mean they’re very good; nor does this imply that capitalism can be “perfected” into some kind of idealized union of libertarian and egalitarian values. But honestly, of the revolutionary triumvirate of values, I think universal fraternity is the most overlooked; until we can come up with a way to motivate that, we are rather whistling in the dark as regards economic and political theorizing.

  28. “It is exactly in this way that the so-called Left is supporting the right-wing agenda.”

    Imagine that everybody in the world had equal influence on the world government. Then we would each have about 1 part in 7 billion of that influence, and it would take at least a billion people agreeing on something to cause a change….

    But we don’t each have one seven-billionth of the influence. Some of us have no ideas but blindly follow some ideology without checking how it actually works in their experience. The rest of us think about things and come up with plans and such, and then some of the plans trump the others.

    It’s easy to imagine that rich people’s plans trump everybody else’s. But rich people are probably more diverse than other groups of similar size, and they have lots of plans. A few of their plans trump the rest.

    What determines which plan wins? Likely it’s often random events that no one could predict.

    There are a whole lot of right-wing agendas, and for that matter a whole lot of left-wing agendas. Each agenda supports some of the agendas that can be classified as being on the other side. It’s a giant tangle. Nobody understands the system. Nobody understands the consequences of his own actions. Probably the best we can do is maintain goodwill and do things we intend to have good results, and then hope it works out somehow.

  29. [i]One might almost say that is *the* determining factor in the success or failure of revolution.[/i]

    “Almost”?

  30. skzb

    I say almost because you have to then push it back to why the military did or did not go over to the revolution in a given case.

  31. Just a minor not to pick regarding the terms “American Indian” vs. “Native American.”

    For my first 5 years as a teacher, I worked at a college as one of the two academic instructors at a center designed to help Native Americans learn basic skills, and, for many of them, the goal was to actually enter the working class for the first time. The point being that I think my students qualified as what you’d call “working class.”

    My students came from a number of different tribes from Montana to New Mexico to California. They all used their own tribe names to identify themselves, but they were also perfectly happy using both “American Indian” and “Native American” in describing themselves as a whole. Some preferred one over the other, sometimes strongly, sometimes not so strongly, but I don’t think any of us can reject either of these terms, as long as the people to whom they are applied use them.

    No, I didn’t teach writing. That’s not my strength. 🙂

  32. Dang, and I thought I’d caught my typos. Wish there was an edit feature…..

    “Just a minor NIT to pick….”

    sorry

  33. Hi, Steven. I reading your blog post the other day and it has been rattling around in my head occasionally since then.

    I don’t know much ’bout politics, but I like to think I have a “Big Picture” view of things. You talk about the how to bring on the “destruction of Capitalism.” Well, it is my opinion that the “problem” will take care of itself.

    For two million years, we existed in conjunction with our environment. Sometime in the last 50 thousand years, we became smart enough to develop language and share knowledge with each other. This was the beginning of the collective conscious.

    About ten thousand years ago, we began to seriously change our environment (i.e. starting fires, herding, plowing, irrigation).

    Time went on. We shared more and more information. We became (collectively) smarter and more efficient at 1)doing stuff and 2)destroying our environment.

    Then came the industrial revolution. We learned how to manufacture and produce goods at an immense rate. This was good in the short term, and population boomed. Now I believe we are nearing the top of the curve. The human race is presently at it’s “greatest point.” But we are so consumed with keeping the system going that we too distracted to deal with the cliff that’s coming.

    We are starting to see the beginning of the end. “The centre cannot hold.” There is no way we can continue at this rate for long. We have created a system where there is a great mass of population that is totally dependent “the system.” We can’t continue to feed this many people, and we are destroying our natural resources. The aquifer under the great plains is 2/3 gone and is estimated to last only another 10-20 years. Soon, I estimate in about 75-100 years tops – probably sooner, there will be a great famine. As the tempurature rises and the droughts get more frequent and severe, and as the population reaches a critical value, the bubble will pop and the population will plummet. I think it will drop below one billion globally.

    Whatever comes out the other side will be a different human race. We will be more like our ancestors. Small farms and villages. But, in this “post-apocolyptic” Mutations will become more prevelant because of contaminated soil and water. Eventually, maybe in ten thousand years, we will get back to equilllibrium, but I doubt it. Maybe in a million years. Maybe.

    Kaczynski is right: The industrial revolution has been a disaster for the human race, but it was inevitable. Call it growing pains. But Ted says we should tear down the factories. You and I both know that is never going to happen voluntarily.

    But they will fall. Capitalism will fall. So will all the rest.

    Meanwhile, in the jungles of Papua New GUinea, the locals are harvesting taro root for their evening dinner. Exactly the same way they have been for the last 10 thousand years.

    Eric C.

  34. The difference is, there has never been a point in history where the military has outclassed the citizenry by such a large margin. Sure, anyone who knows their way around any rifle can quickly figure out how to any rifle, and with a little more effort any machine gun, effectively. What I’m referring to is the tanks, jets, naval vessels, predator drones and other military equipment that require special training, or at least extensive effort and trial, to use effectively.

    As an old tank mechanic, I can tell you that, as long as a tank is already functioning properly, a crew of 3 (bare minimum 2) can figure out how to operate one effectively enough in about a day (assuming there is at least one of them has decent common sense). If anything significant is wrong with the tank, it would be useless to those without that training.

    So using their own weaponry against them is not very feasible. You would have to go for cutting off the supply lines. However, if the militia doesn’t act quickly, precisely and effectively, the campaign might be over before it really starts. They would be labeled as terrorists, or at the very least threats to national security, and thanks to our good friend, the Patriot Act, they could dispose of them however they saw fit and it wouldn’t even be against the law.

    You could argue that guerilla warfare might prevail, and that is certainly the best option, if there is going to be an armed conflict, but the military has surely learned a decent amount about dealing with guerilla warfare and other situations where the enemy has no real stronghold from Vietnam and the current war on terror. They would also find a way to justify declaring nationwide martial law, which means that even the rights of the average citizen would be flushed down the toilet, at least until the rebellion is quelled.

    That is why I think that an armed rebellion is not feasible.

  35. skzb

    All through the Russian Revolution, again and again, some Czarist general would say, “Give me one loyal regiment and I’ll disperse this rabble.” The trouble was, they couldn’t find that one loyal regiment.

  36. skzb

    Thanks for the data point.

  37. I tend to put my feminism ahead of class issues (and ‘faggot’, as discussed, has as much to do with contempt for femaleness as contempt for homosexuality), not because of general identity but because of the absurdly high sexual assault rates, which seems to transcend class issues. Women are raped, just heaps, at all economic levels, generally by their economic peers (since it’s usually someone you know). Although being wealthy makes a rapist more likely not to be convicted, the conviction rate is so very very low across all classes that it seems a minimal difference compared to the gender difference. I find it hard to … sit comfortable with the idea of trusting to large groups, since once you have a group containing 10 or more men that you don’t know pretty well, one of them is likely be a rape threat (statistically – not necessarily actually. I can cite that 1-in-10 if you need it).

  38. Oh right, my point is: I don’t know that socialism will particularly reduce the sexual assault rate, and without a significant reduction (say – til it was on par with the murder rate or something) I don’t see how there can be equality. Especially when you consider how much the threat of assault restricts women’s freedom of movement and association.

  39. skzb

    McKinley: Thanks for the comments. In my opinion, the prerequisites for reducing the sexual assault rate are, first, a culture in which human relationships are not mediated through economics, with the resulting alienation between and among human beings. Second, massive mental health efforts. I do not believe capitalism capable of providing either of these.

  40. When you say “economics”, do you really mean “money” — or do you mean to use the word properly, as in the existence of, and thus the allocation of, scarce resources?

  41. skzb

    lb: Neither. I was using it to mean the production and distribution of material human wants.

  42. That makes sense – the alienation. It occurs to me now that capitalism is directly tied to some of the contributing cultural factors – eg. advertising that presents women as the prize you’re entitled to for buying the product, and particularly the acceleration of sexualised advertising – the need to go further, be more edgy (ie creepy) to get the ad noticed. There are undoubtedly others.

  43. skzb

    Good point about advertising. Capitalism certainly didn’t invent the turning of women into second class citizens, but it’s carried the comoditization (is that a word?) of the female body to new heights. Or rather, depths.

  44. “…. So using their own weaponry against them is not very feasible.”

    In Cuba, Batista’s army was far stronger than Castro’s people, but not strong enough to catch them in the mountains. But when the public got tired of Batista and refused to cooperate, there weren’t enough loyal soldiers to make them cooperate. Batista ran away and Castro came down from the mountains and took over, and nobody had sense enough to tell him to go away.

    In the Philippines, the guerrillas in the mountains couldn’t accomplish anything much. They could hide there, and every now and then US Marines went on “hunting trips” for training. But when the public wouldn’t tolerate Marcos any more, the military was right along with them and Marcos ran away, and the US Navy carried a lot of gold for him. (Or for somebody, I don’t know whether they ever gave it back.) A lot of the guerrillas in the mountains may still be there, I don’t know how well they got along with the new government.

    When people are ready for change, soldiers go home on leave and their grandmothers ask them “Why are you supporting these evil monsters?” and they lose enthusiasm for supporting the evil monsters. If the bulk of the army wants change then the evil monsters run away. If the army is split 50:50 chances are they hunker down and do nothing rather than fight each other, and it gets decided some other way.

    In Syria it’s partly different ethnic groups fighting each other; the minority that has the official army has its trained men fighting hard, the other trained men have defected, and the more they fight the harder it will be to pick up the pieces afterward. Similarly in Libya, and for that matter Iraq. And of course Israel, where all the trained soldiers are Jewish and will support the government forever.

    In theory, when a democracy is ready for change they can vote for change and violence is not needed. Sometimes things that look like democracies don’t actually allow the voting to be done that way. The Palestinians voted for Hamas over Fatah and the USA didn’t let that stand, so they wound up fighting. In Chile they voted in a socialist government and the USA worried that socialists might not allow another election, so they supported a military coup. Pinoche suppressed dissent for a long time and finally gave in. We tried that in Venezuela, but the the public wouldn’t stand for the coup and it failed. The USA calls Chavez a dictator, but he’s a dictator with public support. That’s another value for voting, or at least avoiding censorship — people who want to take over the government get a clearer sense how much support that government has.

  45. “You can make all aspects of health care 100% covered by the government, and there will still be rich people who will want better health care than everyone else has. They will be willing to pay for speed and quality of care.”

    Imagine that we kept public statistics about health care. Any time you want, you can go to the internet and look up a set of symptoms and get a breakdown of the different diagnoses that people with those symptoms wound up with (after further testing). You can get a breakdown of the treatments, and the recorded outcomes.

    Say you have a potentially life-threatening problem. Why would you agree to anything less than the statistically best treatment? Because the free health care does not give you a choice. They don’t know what’s really best, they only know what’s been best in the statistical past. Newer treatments might be better. One obvious way to decide this (for fairly rare problems) is as follows:

    Each time a treatment gets a worse-than-acceptable result, assign the next patient with this problem to a different treatment. New patients get the new treatment until one of them has a worse-than-acceptable result. The better a treatment works, the more patients it will be assigned and the quicker we get statistically-significant results.

    So all the people in the free program are experimental subjects or controls, which is as it should be. But people who want to pay can get the treatment they want. They can be sure to get the treatment that has been best in the past, if that’s what they want. They can get laetrile or sevin or arugula enemas, anything they want to pay for within reason.

    When the numbers are available, it should be clear how good the medical treatment is, on average. And it should be clear that rich people who pay for something else are mostly choosing things that are not necessarily better.

    The exception to this is treatments that are insanely expensive, that still work. Say you get a heart transplant. You find a healthy Indian peasant who will trade hearts with you for a price. You fly him here, the hearts are transplanted, you both go on lifelong medication to suppress your immune systems and prevent rejection, and you live a long time when otherwise you would have died. You have to be rich to afford it. People might be jealous of that. But for most things, the free treatment should be OK. Particularly if the funded research is mostly for affordable treatments….

  46. “Soon, I estimate in about 75-100 years tops – probably sooner, there will be a great famine. As the tempurature rises and the droughts get more frequent and severe, and as the population reaches a critical value, the bubble will pop and the population will plummet. I think it will drop below one billion globally.”

    It might not be that bad.

    Say that as things started to get bad we reverted to a new feudalism. Rich people would own their “gated” villas with a lot of armed guards. As things broke down the villa guards could mount raids against anybody who couldn’t defend themselves well enough, to get whatever you have that they need. Lots of survivors would pledge themselves as serfs to whatever lord would accept them, as a way to survive.

    Use of fossil fuels would go down in a controlled way, likewise use of advanced munitions. The lords could control the birthrates of their subjects. It might be reasonably stable.

    We could get that sort of system even if it was as bad as you say, if less than 1 in 7 of us survive.

  47. “… once you have a group containing 10 or more men that you don’t know pretty well, one of them is likely be a rape threat….”

    This is a social thing. If one acquaintance rapes you, you could pretty easily find 6 other acquaintances who would be glad to kill him for you. Even if they don’t know you very well. Even if it’s just your word that it happened.

    I get the impression that women hardly ever consider that option. If they did, likely there would be rather fewer rapes. For one thing, rapists are often repeat offenders and one murder would prevent ten to fifty rapes. For another, men who cooperate to kill a rapist are quite unlikely to rape anyone later, even if they hadn’t been quite certain of that before.

    I’m not sure I’d like a society where that sort of thing happened much. But I don’t understand why it doesn’t happen more. It’s as if US women are raised to be tolerant of getting raped.

  48. I believe that the pervasiveness of advertising that objectifies women and implies that sex is just another commodity to be earned,bought or taken has created an environment where women often question whether they have a right to complain about sexual assault. I agree that sexual assault occurs at all class levels, but the higher you are on the economic scale the more ” choices” you have to be ” safe “-so if I can afford to not work, to sty home and to never go in public without a male ” protector” ( assuming I am lucky enough that heis not my abuser as well) then I guess I could be smug about how I don’t invite rape while being ignorant of the prison I’ve allowed myself to be trapped in.

    Capitalism breeds hate, a lack of empathy and a certainty that taking what is “rightfully” yours is acceptable. Whenever I try to invite discussions with friends tht envision a world without our current economic models I am met with fear and mistrust regardless of whether those present lean right or left.

    At the risk of rambling I have two more observations:

    Race. My family is multiracial but we live in a middle class milieu and so while racism occurs, the impact is significantly different and more easily shaken off than it would be otherwise. Class is clearly a mitigating factor, although it doesn’t erase prejudice by any means.

    Sexuality. I don’t know how much class issues have to do with it, but our society has kind of backed itself into a corner where for most the only “right” or “healthy” relationships are monogamous or at least involve serial monogamy. I don’t think that has ever been true for most humans and I beleive that attempting to fit into this model causes an unreasonable amount of dysfunction and pain on micro and macro levels. I guess there are class distinctions in that much disparaging comment is made on poor women with multiple children by multiple partners and wealthy people who cheat are seen in a much more forgiving light. It’s all smoke and mirrors in any event, because very few of us are in positions where honesty about our sexuality is accepted.

  49. “Capitalism certainly didn’t invent the turning of women into second class citizens, but it’s carried the comoditization (is that a word?) of the female body to new heights.”

    …which goes back to economics and scarcity. Things are advertised — whether under capitalism, or any other system under which advertising would exist — by associating them with other desirable (and scarce) things.

    Fabio exists (as an object) because the people who will buy romance novels and simulated butter can be interested by associating romance novels and fake butter with something else they desire.

  50. J Thomas – I don’t know how often women consider the option to have their friends vigilante-murder another friend, but it is not a viable means of rape prevention.

    What you’re doing is separating out good guys and bad guys — each person is inherently good or bad, and once you find out that a person committed rape, now you know they’re bad and it is okay to murder them. Unfortunately, humans are more complex than that. When this scenario is pushed as the cultural norm, what happens? People who do bad things work to rationalize them as not-rape so that they’re not-rapists. (“She wanted it, she didn’t say no, she was leading me on, she should have known better than to wear that/be in a bar/be alone, she came to my place on the first date” etc.) Instead of confessing or seeking counseling, they blame the victim, and their social group does, too.

    That’s the important part – their social group helps them not be labeled a rapist. When you talk about dudes being happy to kill a rapist for me or another woman, I don’t think you’re taking into account that the proposed-killers are almost certainly friends with the rapist as well. We don’t happily murder our friends. We aren’t even comfortable with kicking them out of sci-fi conventions. We rationalize, we downplay, we blame the victim, and we do everything *but* acknowledge the crime.

    The second huge problem is that this whole “I’d kill a guy who raped my female friend,” has roots in treating women, and their sexuality, as property. Same as the guy who gets violently jealous that another man is looking at his girlfriend.

    Murdering rapists may seem like a heroic response to an awful crime, but it is actually deeply unhelpful to talk about. Please consider promoting consent culture as an alternative tactic.

  51. This made me think about how I can’t think of a spot in your books where a protagonist gets a relationship with a romantically-desirable person as a prize for doing good. Thanks for that!

    (Also, I agree with you re: prerequisites for reducing sexual assault rates.)

  52. skzb

    Thanks. You’re right, I don’t think a character ever has that happen. But did I? 🙂

  53. skzb

    Jenphalian: You said everything I was thinking, only I wasn’t as clear in my head about it.

  54. skzb

    Just talking about that last paragraph, which is full of interesting stuff: I think the point is less about the increased options as you move up the social scale (although that is certainly true), then about the family, ever since it’s invention as such, being a reflection of what that society needed it to be. Remember that family (as opposed to, for example, pair-bonding) has always been an economic institution–a device for determining the placement of property. And, as Engels points out, the word “family” comes from the Latin *familias * meaning, “a man and his slaves.”

  55. “What you’re doing is separating out good guys and bad guys — each person is inherently good or bad, and once you find out that a person committed rape, now you know they’re bad and it is okay to murder them.”

    Yes. And it seems like it would happen a lot, but as far as I know it does not.

    “When this scenario is pushed as the cultural norm, what happens? People who do bad things work to rationalize them as not-rape so that they’re not-rapists.”

    They do that anyway.

    “Instead of confessing or seeking counseling, they blame the victim, and their social group does, too.”

    Yes, but … if you get kidnapped by a bunch of guys who’re all hyped up to lynch you, and your task is to convince them you are not a rapist…. You might persuade them to let you go. But everybody present will be 100% clear that rape is a bad thing. It’s a rare individual who would not be concerned about going through that twice.

    “When you talk about dudes being happy to kill a rapist for me or another woman, I don’t think you’re taking into account that the proposed-killers are almost certainly friends with the rapist as well.”

    That’s a concern. You have more than one circle of friends, right? Get a group from a different circle to kill him, and if word gets out it could lead to vendetta.

    So it may be better to go to the same group. Yes, people will be uncomfortable. They may decide to do nothing. I try to imagine the alternatives — you try to pretend it didn’t happen? Don’t tell anybody? Stay with the group and interact with him as normally as you can? Or leave, and the next woman who joins the group and gets raped has no warning…. If you tell people your side of it and it winds up he-said/she-said and nobody does anything, still they’ll remember it when he has that problem with somebody else. Sure, people are uncomfortable. Why wouldn’t they be? They’re friends with an accused rapist and they have to decide how to respond to that.

    “The second huge problem is that this whole “I’d kill a guy who raped my female friend,” has roots in treating women, and their sexuality, as property.”

    Yes. That’s why you don’t choose one big strong guy to be your boyfriend and ask him to do it. When it’s six of them they don’t feel like they have the right to share you among themselves afterward. And it’s much more likely they’ll win, too.

    “Please consider promoting consent culture as an alternative tactic.”

    Sure. Just, among white Americans everybody at least says that rape is wrong. When they do it, they almost always rationalize that it wasn’t really rape. There are lots of examples in the media etc where a woman gets into a highly unequal relationship that turns into a sexual one, that could be interpreted as the woman submitting when she really has little choice — where she says she’s fallen in love. The big win for male viewers is that it’s low-stress for the man. A completely free woman could say no and laugh at him, or be disgusted. A woman who’s obligated to him will at least be polite. There’s a tremendous amount of rape-suggestive stuff in the culture, encouraging various forms of false consent. Creating a new culture won’t remove the vestiges of the old one.

    Even if we get it very thoroughly established that “anything-but-yes means no”, we’ll still have poorly-socialized males who will face a dilemma:

    1. If I do the right thing, no woman will ever want me and I will die a virgin.
    2. If I pretend a woman likes me and I persuade her to act like she does, I can have sex.

    Ideally we would give such men an incentive to pretend they fit in.

    I don’t advocate the murder approach to acquaintance rape. I wonder why it happens so rarely. Lots of men would do it. It looks to me like mostly women don’t want it, that they prefer to tolerate being raped.

  56. On capitalism: No, I think the very system is founded on the idea of inequality. Therefore, there can never be equality in capitalism.
    Can it be destroyed in any other way than by organizing the independent power of the working class: not solely, I don’t think. I think it’s a “nested” issue, and I think that given the way much of society has been headed, that it’s possible it could put itself in a position which would make it more likely that a good shove from things like the organization of the working class could destroy it. Because the market has become SO global, it makes it both more fragile AND (I think) more flexible than it once was.
    I think it’s more likely that capitalism would shift and morph and – as you pointed out “give the appearance” of what the majority of people say they want so that it makes the independent organization look like the bully and the villain. I think that is much more likely.
    And I think identity politics are an inevitable part of any movement. People by their nature focus on where they fit in, and how it helps people who are “like them”. The more they identify with those they are organizing with, the more power the movement has. I don’t think we are at a place yet where people see folks as just people – at least not where I live. Just my thoughts.

  57. “…which goes back to economics and scarcity. Things are advertised — whether under capitalism, or any other system under which advertising would exist — by associating them with other desirable (and scarce) things.”

    Imagine that prostitution was easily available and cheap. Would that do much to reduce the amount of rape? That would seem like the capitalist approach to the problem.

    And I suspect it would not reduce rape that much. My guess (not backed up by any scientific research) is that men care more about meaning than about physical experience.

    I’m guessing that men could find cheap tools to assist masturbation which would make it feel if anything better than normal heterosexual sex. (Though not the same.) But it would still be masturbation. It would not have much social value. No sense of being valued by another human being. No sense of even affecting another human being.

    Prostitution, by reducing sex to a capitalist transaction, tends to reduce the meaning men would want to put on it. Men can pretend, but alienated men, while paying for prostitutes would still want other meanings. They might do acquaintance-rape while pretending the women were willing. And a man who thought of less-than-consensual sex as somehow “winning” might not feel he won with a prostitute unless he managed to stiff her for the fee.

    I don’t actually know much about prostitution beyond reading. I have read that women hardly ever hire prostitutes, and I would attribute that to their more intense interest in meaning over physical experience. Though having less money might be part of it, and also a much easier effort finding willing men.

  58. 😀 Yes, but the universe accidentally sent you a manic pixie dream girl.

  59. skzb

    Thanks for the comment. The problem with the “morphing” program, is that those who are liable to be “morphed” out of power are those who control the State–a vast apparatus of coercion. If they object to being “morphed” they have they guns to back it up, unless there is a determined opposition.

    When we speak of “identity politics” we’re not simply talking about an individual’s natural tendency to identify with a group, but with a very deliberate movement, with roots in the late 60’s but that didn’t really blossom until the mid 80’s, in which a program of organizing for unity of the oppressed is consciously replaced by a program of separation..

  60. skzb

    Thank you, universe. 🙂

  61. There are parts of this where I almost want to engage further with the discussion, but not if you’re going to continue to insist that murder is okay. And if you really believe that I would “tolerate being raped” just because I abhor the idea of retaliatory violence, then you and I aren’t going to have much common ground to meet on.

    One quick note, though: a lot of lynch mobs were white men, murdering a black man over perceived sexual contact with a white woman. I think it had a lot more to do with class and race than rape. So maybe not the best imagery to invoke to make your point.

  62. Personally, I think “nigger” is offensive because of the system of slavery, whence its use sprang, or at least gained serious wide-spread traction(over on this side of the pond). The LGBT (apologies for any letters left out, but I honestly can’t tell which ones are “official”, and which ones might anger some sub-group within the community) Community, despite having legitimate complaints about inequality, can’t come close to matching racial chattel slavery.

    Capitalism is not perfect, that’s for sure. Pretending we live in a Representative Society within the system of capitalism is — well, it’s something else.

    I’ve lived the last 20 years or so, carrying a gun — sometimes behind a badge, sometimes wearing a soldiers’ uniform of one kind or another. God only knows what I’ll do, from here on out. Nobody likes an English Degree, and nobody has much use for military “talents”.

    …but, while soldiering, and before then, back when I was hitch-hiking and living in a tent in Europe for a year,I learned a thing or two about what happens to folk without guns who go up against folk with guns. I’ve also learned that “legitimate force”, applied by the sovereign State, kicks the poop outta Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel and his home arsenal, no matter how obsessively horded. I’ve also learned that the folk who “go over” to the side of “the people” are just looking for the chance to be legitimized, themselves — they just want to dismount some local power-monger, and mount up and ride in his stead.

    I’ve seen what happens when someone gets his mitts on an anti-aircraft cannon, and shoots up his neighborhood with it, in the name of proper genuflection, or Greater Pond-Scum-Onia, or whatever cause seems to float his boat. I’ve also seen what happens to that person, when superior air-power is brought to the scene. Lots of real estate suddenly available, at low cost…

    We ain’t the aristocrats. The Aristocrats run the show. They always have. They always will. Our lot is to find a job that we don’t despise enough not to do it, and try to eke what happiness we can out of our lives with our spouse, family, friends, whatever, before we kick the good ol’ bucket. Occasionally, we rant in chat-rooms, or on Facebook, and sometimes we bore the secretaries of one of our Representatives to tears with our letters about fracking, or animal control, or Vegan diets in schools, or whatever.

    There has been one successful slave uprising in the Western Hemisphere, in all recorded history, and that was because two Imperial Powers just didn’t care enough about it to suppress it — if they had, there would have been none…

    Talk about Representative Government, if you still believe in that. Talk about Peaceful Revolts, or “Passive Resistance”, or whatever. I wish you the best in your endeavor, but I don’t believe you’ll get too far before your message is co-opted to serve the Aristocrats, or before you are marginalized in some other way.

    Don’t do like our local hayseeds, and talk about “gettin’ more guns, to defend yourself from a tyrannical gub’mint”, or armed revolt, or any of that business, because that is just nutso…

    I’ve watched our fine government throw out fair elections, abroad, because they didn’t like the results. They just kept throwing ’em out, until they got the results that were in our national interest of the moment.

    National Interest. National Security. What was it that ol’ Phil Agee had to say about that…? Never mind, he was a Bad Guy, we shouldn’t listen to him…

    Good luck, Cawti — personally, I think you’re screwed (except that you may have a Kinder Author)…

  63. I was about to write something about how I get to change the rules, but that’s also a function of privilege. I will likely be seen as quirky or eccentric not skanky or immoral.

  64. Completely agree,especially with your last two sentences. There is a lot unpack when men say they will avenge you.

  65. I think the term “identity politics” is a bad one because it leads to ignoring social, material and historical facts.

    No only feminism and the struggle for racial equality have historically been part of workers struggle. So have gay rights. For example Harry Hays was a Marxist pioneer of gay rights who held form several gay rights organizations and was ultimately kicked out of the Communist Party because they would not accept an openly gay member. (The whole “blackmail” rationalization did not make much sense with someone openly and proudly gay.)

    However people who suffer this particular type of oppression have every reason to think to be conscious themselves politically as women, or Black, or LGBT or whatever – because they face struggles because of this in addition to whatever straight white male workers do. Those struggles take place at home, or when drinking in a bar, or even inside lefty organizations so the struggle is not just as a worker but as a woman worker or a black woman worker or whatever. It is not middle class affectation. It is real additional human suffering and human struggle.

    OK but why does so much of it seem separated from working class struggle? Because the working class has been so weakened that quite often there are not working class organizations to be part of, and it is hard to ask, say a woman already dealing with rape culture to create working class organization from scratch besides. There are Unions, but Unions are a shrinking part of the population and tend themselves these days to represent narrow short term member interests rather than making a real effort to represent the broader workign class.

    So I think you have cause and effect reversed. It is not that middle class identity groups have grown at the expense of the working class organizations. It is that as working class power has been weakened, portions of the working class who managed to organize around something other than workplace were able to hold on a little longer and even grow a bit. Note that even on economic issues, often these other groups are to the left of labor unions. :For example even some middle class feminist groups were supporting single payer when many unions opposed it on grounds that health care was one of the few things they had to offer their members.

    And yes there is a lot of reaction among those you call identity groups, just as there is a lot of reaction among labor unions. Part of it is desperation, trying to salvage what can be salvaged in a rear guard action as the working class is weakened. Part of it is the corruption powerlessness brings, buying into capitalist ideology, putting personal advancement before long term organizational interests. Again this happens equally among unions and among other types of working class organization. (And yes I insist that the movements you call identity politics are working class movements. Some organizations like HRW are truly middle class. But most feminists and gay rights groups, just like most groups fighting for racial equality are majority working class. And every criticism you make of them could be made of most (not all) of today’s unions.

    Yet I have not heard, and hope I won’t hear you, dismiss unions as middle class in spite of the fact that most union leadership these days is middle class. However compromised, the unions do represent an important (if increasingly small) part of the working class, and when they lead fights for workers rights I hope you will continue to be on their side. If you are an activist, then being there to walk picket lines when a union calls for public support remains important.

    And the same thing applies to those other struggles you call identity politics. As compromised as those fights often (not always) are, they are where much of the working class is to be found. If you want them to become more class conscious and class based, support them and join them. .

    The alternative does not seem promising. There is a scandal in the SWP in the UK (which I don’t think has anything to do with the U.S. SWP) where the leadership who used “feminist” as a swear word covered up rape, handling accusations internally inside the organization and smeared and harassed the victim.

  66. skzb

    Peter: Thanks for the comment. I’ll only make a couple of remarks. “The Aristocrats run the show. They always have. They always will.” The part about they always have is demonstrably false (unless you twist the definition of “aristocrat” so far that it loses all meaning), and I have hopes that the “always will” is false, too.

    Also, I quite agree with one part: the notion that we must keep guns to “protect us from government tyranny” is stupid for exactly the reasons you give. The success or failure of a revolution has nothing to do with whether the populace is armed.

  67. skzb

    Thanks for the comment, Gar. That is interesting about Harry Hays; I hadn’t known about it. “So I think you have cause and effect reversed. ” Hee. That’s exactly what I was about to say to you. I think the weakening of the working class has a lot do with identity politics–that is, in fact, exactly why one of the bourgeois parties loves it so much. As for the term, well, I didn’t invent it, and I’m not married to it.. If you want to use a different term for organizing against oppression without regard to the class origins of that oppression, I’m willing to consider it. It will continue it’s reactionary character under whatever term is chosen.

  68. I don’t mean to take up too much time, or too much space on the board.

    I consider (and this is just me, perhaps no one else on this board, or anywhere, shares this opinion) that “Social Justice”, and various anti-oppression movements, criminal justice equality movements, and even some social services organizational interests, are all tied together.

    Without trying to be offensive to any one group (political, NGO, self-defined community, whatever), I see a kind of a pattern. The pattern is very much like the one demonstrated by the Democratic Party, on a National level (which, obviously, is a reflection of that same political Party at the State, and even at the “Local” level, in some cases, like the Community in which I currently live, in Illinois, and the Community in which I used to live, in Central Texas.

    The Democrats, generally, are trying to address too many issues all at once, and they become divided in their focus, divided in their energies and resource expenditures, and in their strategic planning. This division crtainly makes them less effective on the floors of the House of Representatives, and the Senate, but that is not really the direction I’m going with this, although it is related — I am NOT saying that the Democrats are NEVER effective, just that this tendency to be “too plural”, when the opposition is united on one particular front, makes effectiveness a lot harder. If I have to expend my energies convincing my allies of my point, and of my strategy, I am operating at a loss — because I will eventually have to try to compromise with my opponents, and then I may alienate what little support I managed to glean from my allies.

    I see the same thing happening in grassroots social services organizations. I see the same thing happening with National level NGOs, and International NGOs, as well. The Corporate value of “doing more with less” has been given steroids, in the not-for-profit / social services realm, and you find the “Project Manager” is also the “Case Manager”, and the “Program Coordinator”, and the “Outreach Coordinator”, and (worst of all) also the “Development / Fundraiser / Grant Writer”.

    These are the organizations who function by going around, cap in hand, trying to cajole various industries into sharing some of their wealth with “Cause X”. If the Corporate entity doesn’t see a big enough tax wrtie-off, a big enough “philanthropic return on investment” (positive media, some kind of Brand Image improvement), then the NGO folk can go poop up a stick.

    When I am talking about “Aristocrats”, I am talking about groups, not individuals (even Machiavelli clearly states that the Prince had better have allies, or his reign isn’t going to last). I am talking about perennial organizations (Corporations, the PACs they work with, the lobbies they fund), as well as loose knit groups that might have a shared industrial interest, like every single power company (nuclear, coal-based, oil and gas), agricultural production / distribution giants, and “service industries” who cross industrial borders, like KBR and Halliburton.

    The Corporate interests are much more aligned in their internal and external strategic postures than the NGO / Social Service folk. They are not interested in losing power / influence.

    I’m not totally hopeless, here — if I were, I wouldn’t constantly apply for jobs in the Social Services / Social Justice realm. I have my own ideas about how to effect some strategic alignment in some of those spheres, which includes a combination of “minority empowerment” and “LGBT empowerment” — and I wouldn’t join organizations like NACOLE, even though I don’t believe they are currently effective. This is one time that having an English Degree works against me, because these folk all want a Social Work Degree — without the right degree, they won’t even look at your letter. Too bad all my veterans benefits are in a different State, huh? The things we do for love…

  69. You can’t have true equality of opportunity in any society where children are raised by their parents. Some parents will always have more money/power/status/influence than others, under any conceivable economic system, and will use that to give their children advantages not available to the children of less privileged parents.

  70. Different surgeons have very different success rates in performing the same procedure. Not everyone can have the best surgeon. So rich people will pay more to make sure that they get the best one.

  71. We can pretty much tell that humans in the “wild” (pre-agricultural) state were mostly but not entirely monogamous. There’s a rule of thumb in primate anatomy that says that the more monogamous a primate species is, the closer the males and females will be in body size — if you’re monogamous, there’s no evolutionary advantage for males to be bigger than females. Human males are 10% or so larger than females, on average, and therefore humans (considered as primates) are mostly but not entirely monogamous.

  72. Ha! Perhaps there are two paths to writing feminist literature: a desire not be sexist and a desire not to be fucking boring,

  73. Some of the difference in attitudes to promiscuity in rich vs. poor women is the amount of children that result. And THAT is a result of access to contraception and education, both class-correlated.

  74. In my experience you frequently can’t get guys to even end friendships with their rapist friends (“I don’t want to take sides”, “I don’t know the whole story”, “but Roman Polanski makes really good films”) so I’m not sure how much luck you’d have getting them to murder them.

  75. You’re right to be suspicious of prostitution reducing rape. Certainly on a city-by-city basis, legalised prostitution is accompanied by an increase in illegal sex trafficking, which is certainly rape. It’s also correlated massively with poverty.

    Thinking about capitalism, Australia has a high % of sex slaves because we have a strong welfare network: far fewer Australians are forced into prostitution by poverty, so there’s demand for imported slaves.

    I was really thinking more about acquaintance-rape though, when I said I put female solidarity above working class solidarity.

  76. oh man, that is my etymology-squee of the day

  77. “Different surgeons have very different success rates in performing the same procedure.”

    Yes. This would be true even if the surgeons were all the same but it was only statistical fluctuations we measured.

    But there is more to it than that. Some surgeons get to choose their patients. In general, the healthier the patient the more likely he will survive surgery. So the surgeon with the very best record will tend to be one who only operates on people who are misdiagnosed and who have nothing wrong with them at all….

    And yet, if you go with an expensive surgeon who has a good track record, the odds are in your favor. Past performance does not at all guarantee future results, but it’s the way to bet.

  78. Well, as has been pointed out, if it becomes important to know who the “legitimate” off-spring are in order to distribute wealth then it becomes important to craft societies where women are carefully watched and constrained and where monogamy is the rule.

    The concept of “mostly but not entirely monogamous” leaves a large window of human behaviors open. If, as I suspect, men have been able to more freely exercise the “mostly” part because of the need to protect their property and determine future heirs then the unhealthy imbalance of human needs and desires is perpetuated in service to an economic and social model that is also unhealthy.

  79. “…not if you’re going to continue to insist that murder is okay.”

    I’m trying to explore concepts.

    The government doesn’t do a good job with this problem. They try to be fair to everybody, resulting in extremely insensitive legal treatment of rape victims and usually no conviction. When they do convict a rapist he is sent to prison with the intention that he will be continually raped there, usually with no concept of changing his attitudes about whether he should dish it out when he gets the chance to.

    Changing cultural norms is a good thing, if you can do it. However, to a large extent rapists are people who have already rejected some cultural norms. Some rapists rationalize that what they do is not in fact rape and is deserved, while others rationalize that life is hard and then you die, you’re likely to be punished for taking what isn’t yours but the alternative is to do without. Mostly everybody already knows that women and civilized men disapprove of rape. Where do we go from there?

    Small groups using hidden force seems like an obvious possibility, as a part of it, and I don’t hear about that much at all. Women could do that themselves or persuade men to. I get the strong impression that women tend to refuse to consider it.

    “…if you really believe that I would “tolerate being raped” just because I abhor the idea of retaliatory violence, then you and I aren’t going to have much common ground to meet on.”

    Reporting to the police is a form of delayed, ineffective retaliatory violence. (Except when the police particularly believe you, and do immediate informal retaliation.) If you avoid any sort of retaliation is that tolerance? I try to imagine what else you could do. Perhaps you could arrange a civil discussion with him about it later? Persuade him with logic and emotion that what he did was rape, and that he should not have, and that he shouldn’t do it again? I can imagine that being the most effective thing you could possibly do. Of course, you don’t want to give him the chance to rape you again if he is unconvinced.

    “…a lot of lynch mobs were white men, murdering a black man over perceived sexual contact with a white woman.”

    Yes. To the extent there is a different black culture in the USA, it seems to be more tolerant of rape of various kinds. I think this is because it’s generally less organized and as a result more free. When blacks know they can’t depend on the official legal system, all the justice that happens is dished out by private individuals acting on their own initiative (or as groups, like church groups etc). Apart from whatever justice God provides. In the public lynch mob days white groups did nothing about black-on-black rape or white-on-black rape but tried to retaliate for black-on-white rape. They didn’t pay tremendous attention to getting the right rapists, either.

    It’s certainly cautionary for any private action. Private individuals tend to be sloppy, impulsive, and kind of stupid. But when you leave it to bureaucracies they tend to be slow, expensive, and uninterested in your short term needs.

  80. skzb: “‘Within the country’s existing social framework'” leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But, that said, I very much agree with you on this.”

    Agreeing there needs to be a fully developed , or nearly so, plan to replace capitalism before it can be destroyed, do you know who is working on such a thing? What group or which person has acted upon a positive plan to that end? Where has any part of it been implemented? That’s always the key question – what practical acts have been done in support of the theorists?

  81. “I think the weakening of the working class has a lot do with identity politics–that is, in fact, exactly why one of the bourgeois parties loves it so much.”

    I think the fundamental reasons are economic.

    First, the USSR collapsed and so a whole lot of people who had thought that international communism was a terrible threat, suddenly decided that communism is not such a threat after all. They went around saying that the fall of the USSR proved that communism couldn’t work and that everybody could see that now, so they relaxed about it. Before, they thought they needed a large prosperous middle class to persuade Americans that capitalism was better for them than communism. Now their beliefs changed.

    Second, the skills needed to run international corporations got developed and spread. Before, if you decided you wanted a factory in the Philippines you’d send US managers who didn’t speak spanish or tagalog, and they’d hire filipinos who did speak english. They’d never understand what was going on. The factory might or might not do well.

    Now it works much better. Companies that before would be sure they couldn’t operate overseas now find they can, or they can hire foreign companies to make stuff for them and have it work. They don’t need high-cost US labor.

    So the US working class is in trouble. Presumably we will not be in trouble after the US standard of living drops to the world average, and we ease environmental restrictions etc, and we become competitive with the third world.

    One piece of the puzzle is that a lot of Americans believe they shouldn’t get anything unless they earn it. And that means not just get paid for government make-work. They need real jobs with real employers. When the jobs just aren’t there, they feel like losers. Another piece — they feel like they’ve earned a lifetime sinecure if they have joined the military and got shot at protecting the nation. Veterans deserve everything we give them.

    I can’t be sure where this will end up, but my conjectures don’t look pretty.

  82. “You can’t have true equality of opportunity in any society where children are raised by their parents.”

    You can’t have true equality of opportunity unless children are raised by machines.

  83. skzb

    A plan worked out “in detail” strikes as me as unnecessary and impossible; when they cut off the head of Charles the First, establishing for the first time a State dedicated to preserving capitalism, they couldn’t know that it would require a massive overhaul of corporate, trade, and tax laws, nor how much more infrastructure would be required, nor how to pay for it; to some extent, you always go in blind.

    When I spoke of having a plan in place, I didn’t mean anything that precise. I think there are two elements at work. One is objective, and is the degree to which socialism is growing, as it were, within the womb of capitalism. Such things as public water works, the right of eminent domain, public education, and fire departments are all examples of socialism. The subjective element is the degree to which the oppressed see, not only the problems of today, but that there is a way out, there is something to strive *for*. That is a problem that hasn’t been solved yet, but I’m hopeful.

  84. “However, to a large extent rapists are people who have already rejected some cultural norms.”

    No, they’re not. When we talk about rape culture, we’re talking about the parts of our culture that normalize lack-of-consent and victim-blaming. Rapists aren’t rejecting anything – they’re embracing cultural norms that we need to change.

    “Small groups using hidden force seems like an obvious possibility, as a part of it, and I don’t hear about that much at all. Women could do that themselves or persuade men to.”

    I tried to make this point before. The reason it is a bad idea, and unhelpful to victims, to conduct crowdsourced vigilante raids on perpetrators, is that it reinforces the cultural narrative that sexuality is a commodity and that that’s how we value people, especially women. Revenge fantasies are normal and common for a victim, and have their place in the healing process – such fantasies can be a way to take their power back. But when people close to the victim express the same desires, the subtext is that they want to hurt the perpetrator in retaliation for damaging the victim. The victim believes that they’re worth less than they were before the attack.

    When sex is a commodity, rape makes people feel dirty, sullied, and therefore worthless. Retributive justice reinforces that.

    “Perhaps you could arrange a civil discussion with him about it later? … Of course, you don’t want to give him the chance to rape you again if he is unconvinced.”

    Actually, serious therapy is a really good idea! A rapist is a broken person. Let’s try to fix them, instead of trying to hurt them until they’re corrected.

    Implying that taking or not taking some particular course of action in the aftermath of a rape means that the victim “tolerates it” is gross. Another way to ask, “is that tolerance?” would be, “how much can I blame victims for rape?”

    The way you go on to tell me that having discussions with rapists will probably get me raped some more is even grosser. At the very least, it demeaningly suggests that I deserve whatever happens to me.

  85. SKZB & Peter: I would tend to agree with Peter about aristocrats, at least under my own definition of aristocrat, which may well be wrong. My definition is: An entity, whether group or individual, who has seen the benefits of power obtained by those who have earned it, and seeks to gain similar or greater power without earning it. In the past, as far as I can tell, this has been done by convincing those who were already in power that they can perform a function which the person in power would rather not have to deal with. That, I believe, is where bureaucracy comes from.

    Aristocrats may not have always been running everything, but for most of the history of human civilization, they have had the ear of those who were in power. Even if that is indirect power, that is still power. They have certainly been a constant in the US since its inception. No matter what system you can think of, there will always be those that will seek out, and find a way to get, power for their own ambitions instead of the good of the people that they have been given power over. This may not be a characteristic of all people, but it is certainly an aspect inherent in humanity.

    One of the fears I had about a Romney Presidency was that he would do his best to fast track the US to a true Plutocracy. If he would have won, it is possible that the country would have either gotten to the point where the system would quickly fall apart by itself, or a revolt would happen and force the system to change anyway.

  86. Thank you SKZB, This is one of the better descussions I’ve taken part in (and believe that I’ve had valuable contributions to), in a long time. I hope it continues for a while.

  87. SKZB & Peter: I would tend to agree with Peter about aristocrats, at least under my own definition of aristocrat, which may well be wrong. My definition is: An entity, whether group or individual, who has seen the benefits of power obtained by those who have earned it, and seeks to gain similar or greater power without earning it. In the past, as far as I can tell, this has been done by convincing those who were already in power that they can perform a function which the person in power would rather not have to deal with. That, I believe, is where bureaucracy comes from.

    Aristocrats may not have always been running everything, but for most of the history of human civilization, they have had the ear of those who were in power. Even if that is indirect power, that is still power. They have certainly been a constant in the US since its inception. No matter what system you can think of, there will always be those that will seek out, and find a way to get, power for their own ambitions instead of the good of the people that they have been given power over. This may not be a characteristic of all people, but it is certainly an aspect inherent in humanity.

    One of the fears I had about a Romney Presidency was that he would do his best to fast track the US to a true Plutocracy. If he would have won, it is possible that the country would have either gotten to the point where the system would quickly fall apart by itself, or a revolt would happen and force the system to change anyway.

  88. skzb

    I think without power–by which I mean control of the armed might of the state–the term “aristocrat” is meaningless in this context. It is the capability to use force that defines an aristocrat.

  89. >f you want to use a different term for organizing against oppression without regard to the class origins of that oppression, I’m willing to consider it. It will continue it’s reactionary character under whatever term is chosen.

    But it is not so much the term as the dismissive reaction to it. Another way to put it is: therefore what? Do you dismiss most labor unions (with gallant exceptions such as the UE, the National Nurses Union, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers?)

    What happens when a feminists undertake democratic struggle, such as “Slutwalks” protesting against the idea that the way a woman is dressed provokes rape? Or a reactionary union fights for the rights of their own members without ever showing understanding of larger issues or solidarity with workers who are not members that union? Do you sit on the sidelines in such struggles, dismiss them as reactionary fools? Or do you start with where the workers are – struggling against genuine oppression and try educate, agitate and organize to make the links to class struggles?

  90. skzb

    In such situations as you pose, the fight is for the unity of the working class as a class, and then for the understanding of the historical tasks of that class. Look at the questions I posed in the original post. Clearly, you come up with different answers than I do. That’s all right.

  91. “In my experience you frequently can’t get guys to even end friendships with their rapist friends (“I don’t want to take sides”, “I don’t know the whole story”, “but Roman Polanski makes really good films”) so I’m not sure how much luck you’d have getting them to murder them.”

    More luck. When it’s treated as a trivial matter, two friends who don’t get along, people frequently refuse to take sides. They prefer to get along with all their friends, and it’s only in extreme cases that the group drops one or the other.

    When it’s the ultimate in taking sides, some will do so. It’s easier when they don’t have to continue to deal with both people for months or years afterward.

    Of course this is not very civilized and I’m not advocating it. I’m surprised how seldom it comes up.

  92. You’re right — “faggot” was a length of wood. The origin of its becoming a slur against gays was from the middle ages when gays were (along with witches and other “heretics”) burned alive atop large piles of wood: faggots. Interestingly enough, when I explain this origin of the word to people who use it interchangeably with “gay” as an insult (usually meaning “stupid” or “effeminate,” having nothing to do with sexuality), their inclination to use it decreases sharply…

  93. ‘However, to a large extent rapists are people who have already rejected some cultural norms.’

    “No, they’re not. When we talk about rape culture, we’re talking about the parts of our culture that normalize lack-of-consent and victim-blaming.”

    To a large extent they are. There is a very large part of our culture that disapproves of rape, even if that disapproval is often for the wrong reasons.

    “The reason it is a bad idea, and unhelpful to victims, to conduct crowdsourced vigilante raids on perpetrators, is that it reinforces the cultural narrative that sexuality is a commodity and that that’s how we value people, especially women.”

    I say this is pre-capitalist. It’s tribal. It could be patriarchal, but I would not be surprised if matriarchal societies did it too.

    “But when people close to the victim express the same desires, the subtext is that they want to hurt the perpetrator in retaliation for damaging the victim. The victim believes that they’re worth less than they were before the attack.”

    If the victim does not feel damaged, if she does not feel like a victim, then retaliation is not worth doing. There are a whole collection of less-than-fully-conscious ideas involved in all this, and I’m not sure what to suggest — honest rational concepts might come across as insensitive.

    “When sex is a commodity, rape makes people feel dirty, sullied, and therefore worthless. Retributive justice reinforces that.”

    It’s complicated, and I’m probably not qualified to discuss this. Male homosexual rape is probably very different though with some big similarities. There’s the business about being forced, manhandled, beat up, intimidated. Deeply unpleasant even with no sexual overtones. Perhaps “sexual” violence that is directly damage with at most a grotesque relation to sexual contact. Or, given time to be convinced that sexual contact is inevitable, your body might respond some and that could seem shaming even while it reduces damage.

    None of that has to be connected to sex as a commodity. It might fit better in terms of tribal honor or family honor.

    “Actually, serious therapy is a really good idea! A rapist is a broken person. Let’s try to fix them, instead of trying to hurt them until they’re corrected.”

    First off, I agree that it’s probably useless to hurt them. Likely that makes them feel powerless etc, and when they get the chance to recover one way they might try to feel powerful is by raping more.

    But I’m not sure they’re broken. It probably varies. Some of them may have an ideology that says what they’re doing is OK, and they may simply disagree with therapy. In that case I can imagine that the most respectful thing may be to kill them. We don’t owe them an explanation, but if it was convenient to give one it might go something like “Your philosophy of life is self-consistent and logical. I like mine better but that’s just my bias. However, it’s clear that we should not try to live in the same world together, and since one of us needs to die I prefer that it be you instead of me.”

    “Implying that taking or not taking some particular course of action in the aftermath of a rape means that the victim “tolerates it” is gross.”

    Maybe so. It’s a gross topic to discuss.

    “Another way to ask, “is that tolerance?” would be, “how much can I blame victims for rape?””

    I don’t see that at all. For example, what response should Christians have to rape? Isn’t it important to forgive the rapist? That might allow faster healing, and yet many people feel that is a wrong thing to do. I think a lot of people have self-defeating ideas about what response is appropriate.

    “The way you go on to tell me that having discussions with rapists will probably get me raped some more is even grosser.”

    Not probably! But the risk is there, and doesn’t it make sense for you to minimize it? Fool me once….

    “At the very least, it demeaningly suggests that I deserve whatever happens to me.”

    Absolutely not! But you are living in the world we have, where bad things sometimes happen. There are people who may try to violate your rights. They don’t have the right to do that, and still you will be victimized less if you make it more difficult.

  94. “Aristocrats may not have always been running everything, but for most of the history 0————————————of human civilization, they have had the ear of those who were in power.”

    Coral reefs provide a way for coral organisms to feed. Over evolutionary time coral reefs have evolved repeatedly. Something happens and they go extinct, and then later some entirely different organism evolves to do nearly the same thing.

    If there’s a sort of “ecological niche” for aristocrats, then some people will mold themselves to fit the niche. They may have no direct connection to previous aristocrats there or elsewhere, but they will show a similarity because form follows function.

    The aristocrats of the Russian Communist Party ate caviar and some of the women wore luxurious fur coats — not necessarily because it’s what other aristocrats did, but also through convergent evolution. Being the only consumers of rare commodities served as a symbol of their status.

  95. skzb: “A plan worked out ‘in detail’ strikes as me as unnecessary and impossible…”

    Not necessarily a detailed plan; a general road map would be of interest, just to see how theories are being, or could be, implemented. I’m familiar with a book by Christine Sypnowich, “The Concept of Socialist Law”, which seems likely to have answers (if I had $165 to burn, I could even read it) but for the most part I’ve only seen commentary like Rosa Luxembourg’s, who said it would be impossible to determine how a true socialist government would function, or things like “We cannot say precisely how a judicial system would be structured in a socialist society, for it will be up to the people, through their socialist industrial union government, to make that determination.” (from deleonism.org). I’ve seen many statements that law is entirely derived from capitalism, which is ignorant in the extreme, but no actual analysis of law from a socialist perspective except for an appendix of Jeffery Reiman’s “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison”. It’s frustrating to see so many positive statements about changing the world with nothing to back any of it up.

    skzb: “Such things as public water works, the right of eminent domain, public education, and fire departments are all examples of socialism”

    I’d have to argue that as examples of public good, all of these are in stasis, or even retreating. Private companies have been steadily taking over the management of municipal water utilities; for decades eminent domain has been used to the benefit of private businesses such as oil & gas companies in Texas and elsewhere, and SCOTUS has ruled it’s permissible to level private residences to set up a hotel; public education is coming under increasingly successful attack as “school choice” and vouchers take hold; and even some fire departments are no longer for the good of the whole community (check out Fire Subscription Services).

    As for the “subjective element”, have you read Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas”, an analysis of why middle and lower income people vote against their economic interests, or Robert Reich’s “Supercapitalism”, which examines reasons behind the growing disparity in incomes? I think he would argue what the “oppressed” are striving for is the fruit of the system which has reduced them to a lower class to begin with.

    PS – I wish not all HTML were stripped from responses; it’d be nice to be able to provide hyperlinks rather than mega-long URLs in the body. Not that it’s pertinent, but I’d also like the “comment_parent” field to not be cookie dependent or for numbering to be reintroduced.

  96. skzb

    “I’ve seen many statements that law is entirely derived from capitalism, which is ignorant in the extreme…” Well, of course, capitalist law is derived from capitalism (as well as from it’s own historical development); but capitalism didn’t invent the law. There is a very brief, cursory discussion in Engels’ Anti-Duhring.

    “I’d have to argue that as examples of public good, all of these are in stasis, or even retreating.”

    I’m inclined to agree with you. To me, that is another indication of the bankruptcy of capitalism–even the limited progressive steps it took are now under attack.

    I’ve copied and pasted your last paragraph to the web site topic where I hope Corwin and Felix will see it. I’m going to suggest a permanent meta-topic so it’ll be easy to navigate to a place for suggestions like that. Thanks.

  97. As a Mohawk man myself, I can point out some family usage along these lines. We use “Mohawk”, “Native”, and “Indian”, with no favorites, though we probably all went through a phase of rejecting “Indian” for “Native” when we were younger, and now that we’ve thought about it a bit more, we don’t care.

    “Native American” and “American Indian” just don’t have much traction on the rez. Same thing for “First Nations”. I won’t speculate about why, except for noting that they all take so damned long to say. This may have more to do with it than any philosophical commitments.

  98. “Agreeing there needs to be a fully developed , or nearly so, plan to replace capitalism before it can be destroyed, do you know who is working on such a thing?”

    What you call “capitalism” might better be named “the Borg”. It’s a system that incorporates anything which works in the short run, and when any part stops working it cuts that part loose and replaces it with whatever works now.

    There are a collection of concepts that fit into traditional capitalism — limited liability, the joint stock company, fractional reserve banking, etc. If we could change all of those the Borg would continue in somewhat different form.

    Imagine that we could somehow get rid of joint stock companies and replace them with some sort of syndicates owned by the workers in each company. How much would that change things?

    I have one data point, ACIPCO. A long time ago the owner decided to give the company to the workers, and it seemed like a big deal. I talked to a man who had worked there. “Oh, that’s that special company where the workers are in control?” “I didn’t pay attention to the politics. It was just another job for me.” And it was just another job. Workers could stay late and discuss how to do things better if they wanted to. When they hired a new CEO they chose from a list of traditional CEOs from traditional companies. The differences kept getting less with time.

    It’s possible to set up your own kind of company your own way. The laws are pretty flexible about that. If you are successful then you can buy and sell on the same international market everybody else does; you will be part of the Borg. Still, you can make changes that way provided you can prosper doing things your way.

    On the other hand, you might get the government to impose some sort of change. Government is a blunt axe but it can make some cuts. Businessmen who don’t like the changes can shop around for a government they like better. Some of them are more mobile than others.

    I think we need both approaches at the same time. Build businesses on new principles that work better. And get government to sort of change the ecological balance so the new businesses can survive.

  99. skzb: “Well, of course, capitalist law is derived from capitalism”

    This is what I’ve got a problem with – I’ve seen no explanation of the term “capitalist law”. I’ve read many articles by socialists which refer to laws that have been in existence for 1500 years, calling them “capitalist laws”, a description I doubt our Anglo-Saxon forebears would agree with.

    skzb: “There is a very brief, cursory discussion in Engels’ Anti-Duhring”

    I just downloaded a copy and will read it this afternoon although I’ve yet to be impressed with any of these personal attacks written by Engels or Marx (“Herr Vogt” being another).

  100. skzb

    “This is what I’ve got a problem with – I’ve seen no explanation of the term “capitalist law”.”

    Oh. Ooops. What I mean by capitalist law is: The laws that are in place under a capitalist system. So, yeah, I agree: the laws of 1500 years ago have as much to do with capitalist law as commodity production 1500 years ago has to do with commodity production now; in other words, none to speak of.

    We may never agree on the other; Anti-Duhring is up there with Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and MacPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom as non-fiction I treasure as much as my favorite novels..

  101. As the Online Etymological Dictionary points out, this supposed etymology is an urban legend; the use of “faggot” for male homosexual first appears in early 20th Century American slang, and most likely derives from “faggot” as a derogatory term for women which was still in use then.

  102. “What I mean by capitalist law is: The laws that are in place under a capitalist system”

    But that’s no answer. The fact county law requires people to get their pets rabies shots has nothing to do with capitalism. I know this isn’t your area of special interest and so I won’t get started on it (much), but if any of your friends are well-versed in the history of socialist legal theory, I wouldn’t mind being directed to a few reputable resources.

    “Anti-Duhring is up there with Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and MacPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom as non-fiction I treasure as much as my favorite novels.”

    I only read sections 9-11 (the “Morals and Laws” parts), and I can assure you I have as little to say about them as I did about MacPherson, or as I would about “The Russian Revolution” (or “The Revolution Betrayed”). *ahem*

  103. @J Thomas: “What you call ‘capitalism’ might better be named ‘the Borg’. It’s a system that incorporates anything which works in the short run, and when any part stops working it cuts that part loose and replaces it with whatever works now.”

    I don’t actually call anything capitalism, since I was just quoting another, but I certainly wouldn’t use a pop sci-fi term as a special label for basic human behavior. No unadulterated government or economic system has ever been used by people since we first gave up the hunter/gather life; it’s all hybrids, and the US economy is no different.

    “Imagine that we could somehow get rid of joint stock companies and replace them with some sort of syndicates owned by the workers in each company. How much would that change things?”

    Why imagine when you can examine reality? Look into the implementation of benefit corporations, a form of company intended to fend off activist investors and thus to mitigate the impact of pure capitalism. Watching them should provide you will many data points on businesses trying to cope within the existing economic framework without adopting it completely.

  104. Not to split-hairs about vocabulary, but this seems to imply that my local sheriff is an aristocrat, and the city council above him. In this sense, ‘aristocrat’ become equivalent to ‘the law enforcement branch of any government,’ doesn’t it?

    Playing that out gets a little absurd—the presence of laws entails law enforcement, which entails aristocrats; ergo, rule of law creates aristocrats—so I must be missing something. (And my jumping in late to the conversation easily makes this the most plausible explanation.)

  105. skzb

    Scot: I meant that control of the armed might of the state was a necessary part of the definition, I hadn’t meant to imply it was sufficient. Sorry for the confusion.

  106. Looking back to the original questions, I’d argue that the initial framing perspective is slightly off-kilter.

    ‘Equality’ is an abstraction invented to make discussions (like this very intriguing one) easier. However, the substance of equality is my and your recurring decisions to treat each other fairly. Having equality within capitalism is a cinch—all you need to do is get the individuals to consistently treat each other fair. And inequality within socialism is just as easy.

    The economic framework is not the issue so much as the ethics of the people involved. The question of how to engender a healthy value system within a person (or within yourself?) is, I’d claim, a much more important and difficult one. My ignorance of socialist theory gets in my way here—is there a recommended method for this kind of instruction, beyond ‘show them the exploitation and they will rebel’?

  107. skzb

    “The economic framework is not the issue so much as the ethics of the people involved.”

    This is worth taking a moment to talk about, because it so perfectly captures the idealist method–that is, the belief that being is determined by consciousness. As a materialist, of course, I believe the reverse–that consciousness is determined by being. I believe that an economic system based on equality (economic equality, equality before the law) is a necessary precondition for the creation of a “healthy value system” within individuals.

  108. Isn’t it true, though, that these two must operate together—a dialectic of new ideas leading to changes in material conditions, which sparks other ideas? (I’m paranoid that I’m making n00b arguments here.)

    I’ll assume you mean that you fall on the >51% materialist end of the spectrum (and I’ll wait to be corrected if I’m assuming inaccurately). I guess that stance is apparent in your other comments about a detailed plan of change being unnecessary and impossible.

    I’m speaking from ignorance again, but it’s hard for me to see how it wouldn’t be >51% idealist method though. People cause the most immediate changes in our material conditions, but a person won’t (can’t?) make a change that he can’t envision first. Not that fiction is a reliable evidence for much, but even in your novels it’s a new idea that often transforms Vlad’s perceptions so that he can proceed to changing the matter around him. (I would say this kind of psychological realism is one of the strengths of the series.)

    Or is it a definitional twist—ideas framed as one of the material conditions?

  109. skzb

    Well, either you believe ideas are primary to matter, or the reverse. To put it in the simplest terms, can there be an idea before there is a brain to think it? When expressed that way, most people will concede that the brain must come first; yet in practice many of them, when looking at situations, will concentrate on the ideas involved, rather than the material conditions that gave rise to those ideas.

    To be sure, science and technology work to change our world in accordance with definite ideas. But an idea is only scientific insofar as it corresponds to material reality; and technology is only useful insofar as it changes that world in the desired manner. Try reversing those formulations, and you end up with nonsense:material reality is only scientific insofar as it corresponds to our ideas? Yeah, not so much.

    The idea that state power should rest with the capitalist class isn’t something Oliver Cromwell just thought up one day; it was the result of the emergence of productive forces that outstripped the ability of a monarchical society to manage. The idea that state power should rest with the working class isn’t something Karl Marx just thought up one day, it was the result of the emergence of productive forces that outstripped the ability of capitalism to manage.

    This discussion is a case in point. You said, “the substance of equality is my and your recurring decisions to treat each other fairly.” I disagree. I believe the substance of equality is built on an equitable distribution of human needs (food, shelter, medical care), and the end of oppression; equality in our thoughts can only come after that has been achieved. Or, to quote Bertolt Brecht: “First feed the face, then talk right and wrong.”

  110. First, I’ll start by conceding that “equality” is not possible in the long-run under capitalism. I’d argue that the broader question of social justice shouldn’t be translated as “equality” though. Egalitarianism (at least in my view) is also important. Justice theory defines a few different types of justice, but the two most relevant to economics are distributive justice (does everybody get the same outcome) and procedural justice (are the processes leading to outcomes fair).

    Those distinctions are worth making in an economic discussion, because beliefs about which should be paramount and whether or not they can be simultaneously achieved are at the heart of the disagreement between well-intentioned socialists and well-intentioned capitalists (as opposed to the disingenuous or selfish demagogues that tend to predominate on either side of the aisle).

    It’s only a slight oversimplification of laissez-faire capitalism to say that it has two primary characteristics – a free market and ownership of private property. “Free market” implies: minimal government intervention in the market (though it may enforce contracts and insist on accurate disclosures), barriers to entry are relatively low, and, perhaps most importantly, companies that can’t operate profitably eventually fail and are replaced by firms that are either better at delivering what consumers want or are run more efficiently. In conjunction with ownership of private property, a capitalist economy, by definition, would only result in equality if a) consumers equally valued all goods and services and b) producers were all equally capable of providing goods and services. Most of the time, neither of those is true, let alone both; as a result, equality and distributive justice are impossible under capitalism.

    Procedural justice is another story. An advantage to a true free-market economy where information flow is relatively good are that the people who are better able to detect what consumers want and deliver it effectively are able to expand, which is desirable, both from an egalitarian (because people who are good at doing what society wants are rewarded) and a utilitarian perspective (because consumers benefit along with the successful producers). One nasty and unfair side-effect of capitalism is the transfer of accumulated capital across generations, which often leads to unfair advantages in education and access to the means of production, which screws the whole system up, especially if the wealthy are able to harness government to their own ends. Capital ends up in the hands of heirs that a) didn’t produce value in the first place (so it’s not egalitarian) and b) are often ineffective at managing it (not good for society, so it also fails the utilitarian test).

    Over time, a strong tendency is for wealth to exert undue influence on government, which then begins to view preservation of wealth for the wealthy and accumulation of capital as ends unto themselves, rather than undesirable outcomes of a desirable process. At that point, they establish policies that help large companies acquire or crush more efficient small businesses (antithetical to capitalism), they tax ownership at lower rates than productivity (antithetical to capitalism) and they begin picking and choosing winners in the marketplace (antithetical to capitalism). At that point, the economy has transitioned from capitalism to corporatism or fascism. I would argue that that is where the US is today.

  111. Jeremy, I like your explanation about capitalist theory. Notice that this is almost exactly the same argument the deep ecology people use. They say that ecosystems work best with minimal interference from humans. They naturally balance themselves in the best way, etc. The differences are that economic transactions are assumed to be voluntary on all parts and to benefit each party, that human innovation happens on a timescale of years and not on evolutionary time, and that humans can think about the whole process. If we expanded the capitalist theory to include involuntary activities then it would be about the same.

    You have the goal of maximal benefit to consumers, where for ecosystems the goals are more to maximally sequester scarce resources and maximally collect energy. Whatever energy an ecosystem fails to sequester, is available for invading species to use, and those might disrupt things in new ways.

    But in reality, ecosystems mature into whatever can grab stuff and hold on. Grasslands get crowded out by scrub and then trees that get the sunlight first unless something stops that. Not enough water. Grazing animals that destroy the other plants. Wildfire that kills other plants but the grass recovers faster. Each kind of tree gets replaced by something which can grow in its shade, until something creates an environment that nothing else knows how to subvert.

    Similarly, when capitalist corporations compete, by some theories they must compete by making things better. But in reality they do whatever wins in their particular environment. As you point out, winning strategies might involve a better deal for consumers or they might not. Corporations that survive do whatever actually helps them survive in their environment, and not what some philosophy thinks they should do to survive.

    I like the idea of competing organizations, so that when one fails another is ready to step in. For that, government would not have the job of micromanaging them all, but would attempt to create environments where their competition tends to fit human needs. It would establish the rules, rather than accept whatever arbitrary rules get set by whoever holds the trump cards at the moment.

    As one example, government might set a maximum number of employees that a corporation can have, and perhaps a maximum cash flow and a maximum profit. A company that got too big would have to split into two smaller companies that would compete against each other plus their other competitors.

    We could start with a high maximum size and gradually reduce that size, slowly enough for companies to adapt. So, if we required every corporation with more than 2 million employees to split into two corporations with half that many employees, only Walmart would be affected.

    Then in a few years, require every corporation with more than 1 million employees to split in half. Only the two Walmarts would be affected.

    Then later we require every corporation with more than 500,000 employees to split in half. Only the four Walmarts would be affected.

    Then we require every corporation with more than 250,000 employees to split in half. The eight Walmarts would be affected, along with IBM, McDonald’s, Target, Hewlett-Packard, Kroger, UPS, GE, PepsiCo, Sears, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway , Citigroup, Wells Fargo , Yum Brands, Home Depot , J.P. Morgan, AT&T, and FedEx.

    You can argue that we are better off with one Walmart instead of 16 Walmarts engaging in free-market competition. You might make a reasonable argument about UPS and FedEx. Can you with a straight face argue that the US economy is better off with any of the others being the size they are? Surely in 2008 we would have been far better off if BoA, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan were not too big to be allowed to fail.

    If we occasionally reduce the maximum size for corporations, at some point we’ll get a sense that we’ve taken it far enough. Unfortunately that’s likely to come from lobbyists and not from any sort of objective data, but them’s the breaks. It wasn’t any sort of objective data that got us to let big corporations grow to their bloated sizes, either. That was lobbyists too.

  112. ÄWell, either you believe ideas are primary to matter, or the reverse.Ä

    Isnät that kind of ++ Aristotelian_

    They could be in different domains with only indirect connections. They could be kind of independent.

    Imagine you wanted to look at some lesbian porn. You get on the internet and the porn comes to you, mediated by binary light pulses on the net, changed to binary electrical pulses in your computer, translated to binary light pulses on your monitor. Without all that hardware you couldnät see it. On the other hand you might know some lesbians whoäd let you watch with no electronics involved. Even then it depends on light hitting your retinas converted to pulses down your nerves into your brain. But maybe you know some lesbians who would let you share in the experience telepathically. Does that involve physics or brains_ I donät know. I donät know if thereäs any such thing. Iäve experienced it )telepathy, not telepathic lesbian sex= but that doesnät mean itäs real.

    ÄAs a materialist, of course, I believe the reverse–that consciousness is determined by being.Ä

    Lesbian sex is not determined by the internet. And yet thereäs a sort of connection.

    I have a theory that ideas which connect to the real world have a direct importance to my survival, in ways that ideas which have less correspondence to the real world do not as much. I have developed this into a complicated theory which I tend to believe is true. It just makes so much sense. But if itäs true that I only die once, that wonät give me a lot of data points about ideas important to my survival. Maybe my ideas about the real world are deeply flawed….

  113. SKZB

    I have to disagree with your take on the English revolution, as a question of fact. The idea that it was in some way predestined or inevitable bit the dust a couple of decades ago; nowadays historians focus on the question of why it succeeded when on the facts it shouldn’t have done, and the consensus answer is that Charles was unlucky. The alternative answer is that Cromwell was lucky.

    History changes; the historiography of the English revolution is a fascinating example but there are plenty of others. The difficulty with basing an argument on what historians used to think is that it is so easily rebutted by pointing out that historians no longer think that. Historians may, of course, change their minds again but a radical change on this one is unlikely; we’ve mined the sources about as far as they go…

  114. skzb

    Stevie: I hadn’t meant to imply that it was predestined. Material preconditions for revolution may inevitably occur, but the revolution itself always requires the subjective element, which is far from predestined.

    Secondarily, for something as broad and complex as the English Civil War, one ought not to say, “Historians” as if there were unity of opinion. There is not, any more than there is on the American Civil War, or the French Revolution, or even the American Revolution. There might be what is currently fashionable, but there is nothing approaching unanimity.

  115. “So, then, to me, these are the questions one ought to answer: Can there, in fact, be equality under capitalism? If not, can capitalism be destroyed in any way other than by organizing the independent power of the working class? If not, what effect will identity politics have on uniting the working class?”

    Them’s so good questions.

    To the first, the notion of Xeno’s paradox is illustrative of why the answer seems (to me) to be “no.” Establish an economic system and disguise it as a political system, and in the foundational process forbid participation by any but a group of propertied men who by accident of design (?) all have the same skin pigmentation and pretend to a generic heterosexiality. Set that system in motion for a century and more, then try to expand the right of participation to those previously forbidden from exercising it. Can’t be done, Xeno’s paradox: you get to halfway point, ad inifitum. The rock never hits tree.

    To the second, dunno, maybe. To destroy capitalism when it strong is very difficult, because the whole ruling ideas of the age thing, which allows for the development of false consciousness. Organizing the independent power of the working class, as I recall the classic exhortations, had a lot to do with addressing false consciousness. When we all believe we’re getting richer and being treated more or less equally (even when we damn well know we’re losing ground and being treated unequally), the working class is not going to move.
    On the other hand, a myriad of nexus points can be found between Malthusian doom/carrying capaicty worries on the one hand and global climate change on the other in which capitalism will fall to a very weak state. Yet in that weakened state, you’d have to organize the former workers quickly while they still had a sense of united class consciousness (the fall of capitalism presumably shattering false consciousness.)
    So, absent action by an ordanized working class aware of it power and acting on that basis, hard to see capitalism destroyed. **

    Identity politics at present and by apparent design works to divide the most radicalized members of the working class, the ones for whom the false consciousnesshas already been shattered. Given goals to pit one’s own agenda against that of another, these groups collide to largely prevent any of them from moving their agendas forward. (Thank you, Mr. Madison, for that wonderful idea.) The very same forces however, are potentially very dangerous to the capitalist state — because workers from different sectors and unions have come together to make common cause despite attempts to pit them against one another. Tougher divisions to cross, but the reality is there.

    Ultimately, as many of us agree, an armed rebellion is a very poor idea in any advanced or even reasonably advanced capitalist economy, (Look to the situation in Mexico, where the Cartels are fighting off the government and alienating the population more with each massacre.) Here, I argue, the ability to recognize between a war of movement and a war of position. One gets you an autocracy in place of the previous autocracy, the other (in theory) gets you a revolution.

  116. I’m not sure why I can’t reply to the later follow-up comments—either my browser is retarded or else I’m breaking a forum rule about dead horses and beatings thereof.

    “But an idea is only scientific insofar as it corresponds to material reality; and technology is only useful insofar as it changes that world in the desired manner.”

    I agree that needs to be a correspondence between ideas and material reality, although I think the-chicken-and-the-egg view is less important. It’s something of a moot point, since we don’t have the neuroscience yet to falsify hypotheses about where synapses end and ideas begin.

    The word “useful” is key. The valuation of an idea, much the same as the valuation of a material product, hinges on how useful it is to a person. People are the most dynamic part of any material conditions, and people change (including changing aspects of their surrounding conditions) based on ideas (writ large to include feelings and beliefs, as well as concepts).

    “The idea that state power should rest with the capitalist class isn’t something Oliver Cromwell just thought up one day….”

    I disagree. The presence of the word “should” seems to move this clearly into the realm of ideas. Of course, Cromwell was simply labeling the material conditions he saw, so I take your point. I would argue, though, that neither Cromwell nor Marx were “simply” labeling. Both of them, and all historiographers, were filtering in/out certain details, evaluating the included details, and making judgments about the patterns they saw—they were interpreting selected data. There are other ways to filter and interpret the data set; the easiest examples to offer are probably religious perspectives.

    “I believe the substance of equality is built on an equitable distribution of human needs….”

    This seems a little circular to me. Are you saying that social aspects of equality will only be present after physical goods have been distributed with equality? This doesn’t seem to match the data because there are examples of fair treatment to be seen even now when there is such inequitable distribution. Or is it that, stemming from the Brecht quote, people can’t live ethically if they’re hungry? (I’d try for some other re-statements of the position, but I would only come across as being snarky. I don’t understand this line of thought, so if you could point me to a good starting point for reading, I’d appreciate it.)

  117. skzb

    Scot: I’m not sure what is causing the Reply problem, but I’m having it too.

    “The valuation of an idea, much the same as the valuation of a material product, hinges on how useful it is to a person. ”

    We disagree, that’s all. To me, the value of an idea is the degree to which it matches material reality, which is objective. To you, it has to do with useful, which is subjective (obviously, an idea might be useful to me but not useful to you, or vice versa). Your method is called pragmatism: the theory of knowledge that says truth is what works. You are far from alone in this belief, I just happen to disagree with it. I think there is such a thing as objective truth, and we are obligated to work as hard as we can to bring our ideas into line with it.

    ““I believe the substance of equality is built on an equitable distribution of human needs….”
    This seems a little circular to me. Are you saying that social aspects of equality will only be present after physical goods have been distributed with equality? ”

    Not exactly. I’m saying that there cannot be social equality until the material preconditions are satisfied. In other words, solving the present messes regarding poverty, homelessness, and lack of health care are necessary but not sufficient. I am here emphasizing the necessary.

  118. I’d say that pragmatism is a necessary element in a total worldview, although not sufficient as a foundation in and of itself. If a person isn’t willing to work with the imperfect tools/knowledge at hand, then there isn’t much chance of getting to a full view of objective truth (or any lesser goal).

    Regarding equality, I hear you saying that “social equality,” by definition, entails systemic fairness with money, property, and services. Thus, no matter how fair any specific interaction between people plays out, there still isn’t full-fledged social equality. Am I understanding more clearly or merely putting words in your mouth?

    And most importantly: if I’m distracting you from writing on Hawk, then I rescind all questions.

  119. skzb

    “I’d say that pragmatism is a necessary element in a total worldview, although not sufficient as a foundation in and of itself. ”

    A reasonable position, but one with which I disagree.

    As for the rephrasing, no, not quite. I don’t think I can say it any clearer than I have. Let’s try it this way. The very existence of private property in means of production creates conditions of inequality which inevitably–I repeat, inevitably–requires inequality on many important levels. Thus eliminating private property in means of production is necessary, though not sufficient, to achieving social equality. In the meantime, the fight for social equality can be progressive providing it is subordinate to the fundamental issue: the existence of class society.

    And, no, you’re distracting me from yet another draft of a short story that’s making me crazy, but the whiskey bell sounded a few minutes ago, so I’m done for the day.

  120. “Establish an economic system and disguise it as a political system, and in the foundational process forbid participation by any but a group of propertied men who by accident of design (?) all have the same skin pigmentation and pretend to a generic heterosexiality. Set that system in motion for a century and more, then try to expand the right of participation to those previously forbidden from exercising it. Can’t be done, Xeno’s paradox: you get to halfway point, ad inifitum.”

    Democracy makes more sense if you assume it is designed to survive more than to provide “equality”.

    Extend participation to people who will damage the system if they are excluded. I think the history mostly makes sense if you look at it from that perspective.

  121. “To me, the value of an idea is the degree to which it matches material reality, which is objective. To you, it has to do with useful, which is subjective (obviously, an idea might be useful to me but not useful to you, or vice versa).”

    I think those are intertwined.

    Like, I have a complicated idea about the ways that economies are like ecologies. I believe this idea is objectively true, within wide limits. But it includes no moral component. It says something about how things work, but nothing about how they ought to work. Is it useful? Maybe. To some people.

    In general, people have a hierarchy of needs. They satisfy the most important needs first, and then work their way down the list. The most central need is a sense of identity. People will often die rather than accept threats to their identities. The second need is excitement. A distant third need is security.

    People will only accept the need to study boring ideas that improve their security, when they have enough excitement or when their identities say they are that kind of person. If you want people to do things that’s usually the wrong button to push.

    The most useful ideas are the ones that affirm our identities. What does it even mean for those to be objectively true?

    But when you accept ideas that are objectively false they can give you trouble, just like ideas that upset too many other people’s identities.

  122. skzb

    I do not seek out ideas people are “comfortable with” or that they will “accept” or that “affirm their identities” (whatever that means). I seek to make my ideas conform to objective reality as well as I can. The fight to understand reality has led to a better world; the effort to find ideas people are comfortable with has not.

  123. Alongside the effort to understand reality has been a fairly strong, consistent effort by humans to change objective reality as well. And those efforts have been directed by something other than objective reality itself. How would you describe or label those things? How do you evaluate them?

    On a larger scale, how do you view the realm of things that fall into the subjective reality bucket: illusions, real-but-not-worth-attention, real-but-having-no-impact-on-the-material-world, something else?

  124. skzb

    “Alongside the effort to understand reality has been a fairly strong, consistent effort by humans to change objective reality as well. And those efforts have been directed by something other than objective reality itself.”

    Well, I emphatically agree with the first sentence. The second leaves me scratching my head. Am I missing something? Are you implying that ideas that foresee changes are not based on objective reality? I would say the successful ones are; that is what permitted them to be successful.

    The only “subjective reality bucket” in truth are a subset of those ideas that we classify as “wrong.” Now, to be sure, there are times when it is appropriate for an individual to be subjective–my father’s opinions aside, no one can can or ought to be objective on all subjects on all occasions. It’s impossible to do and damaging to try. But if you’re going to try to change the world, it behooves you to understand it, don’t you think?

  125. Very late addition to this conversation. A quote from a certain 19th century bearded white male:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09-alt.htm

    The whole letter is worth reading, but one paragraph seems especially relevant to this conversation:

    >Nothing prevents us, therefore, from lining our criticism with a criticism of politics, from taking sides in politics, i.e., from entering into real struggles and identifying ourselves with them. This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctrinaire principles and proclaim: Here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall develop for the world new principles from the existing principles of the world. We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with true campaign-slogans. Instead, we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it wishes or not.

  126. In my experience, people are mostly bored with objective reality.

    They are interested in things that have meaning to them. After they inject meaning then they get interested.

    Two football teams play football. One of them wins. Ho hum.

    One of them is MY TEAM. Hey wait! Did my team win or lose? It didn’t say! Hey, that’s important!

    I have a bet on the outcome. So what happened? Did I win or lose? Where did my bookie go, he owes me!

    Anthropologists from New Guinea might provide an objective description. A complex ritual. Men wear plastic armor designed to reduce injuries. A game with rules honed over decades to reduce spectator boredom. Priests who punish behavior that breaks the rituals and then restart the behaviors. Some people would enjoy reading about that. Many more people care about what the game means to them.

    Most of the meaning people put onto things is not objective reality. A lot of that meaning is connected with the words “should” “ought” etc. We develop a sense of justice, which aids human survival. There is nothing objectively real about justice, it is entirely a useful human construct.

    Why should you be nice to your family and friends? Why should you kill your enemies? Why not just kill yourself and be done with it? Why do your duty? This is not about reality, this is about your goals, your choices, or maybe instincts which were planted in you and which you cannot choose to change. OK, maybe if you don’t get any choice then it’s objectively real. Maybe it’s a gray area or a slippery slope.

    “I do not seek out ideas people are “comfortable with” or that they will “accept” or that “affirm their identities””

    Most ideas which don’t do this are boring. Some, people get enraged by. There’s a fine art to challenging people just enough that they like it, while mostly keeping them comfortable enough to keep reading. You are exceptionally good at it.

  127. “Am I missing something? Are you implying that ideas that foresee changes are not based on objective reality? I would say the successful ones are; that is what permitted them to be successful.”

    Imagine that you get such a subtle understanding of objective reality that you can make some changes to society.

    You have a chance to change society to a socialist paradise. Or you have a chance to change society to a sort of monarchy where everybody is hypnotized into thinking that their function in life is to serve you.

    In my imaginary situation, you get to choose which way society will go. And you must choose. There is nothing in objective reality that says which choice you have to make. Science can’t tell you what you ought to want.

    I imagine that there is a place for choice here, apart from objective reality. You have to understand objective reality to make viable choices. I could choose this minute to get up and eat some ice cream from the freezer and finish this later. But only if there in fact is ice cream in the freezer…. After you understand objective reality enough to get a sense of what’s possible, you still have to choose what you want.

    “The only “subjective reality bucket” in truth are a subset of those ideas that we classify as “wrong.””

    What futures are possible? We don’t really know, our understanding is limited. Still it is a question about objective reality, just not one we can answer with any certainty.

    Which of the futures that look possible should we attempt to create? This is a question about our human values, not a question about objective reality at all.

    “But if you’re going to try to change the world, it behooves you to understand it, don’t you think?”

    Definitely! And, the tools you have and your prior choices about what to change will both affect which parts of objective reality call themselves to your attention.

    When you’re holding a hammer, you see nails everywhere….

  128. skzb

    “Most of the meaning people put onto things is not objective reality”

    And here is the heart of our difference. Putting meaning into something is, indeed, a subjective act–but why do we care about our football team? To answer that, we must understand tribal loyalty, the development of sport as entertainment and entertainment as a profit-making venture, and many other things, all of which are objective. Now, I enjoy watching my team (The Vikings) play, and I am pleased when they win. But “Go Vikings!” does nothing to advance our understanding of life, or even football; and hearing someone say it is pretty boring. My favorite commentators are those who can shed light on why a certain play worked, or failed to work; and there, too, we have the search for objective truth.

    ‘“I do not seek out ideas people are “comfortable with” or that they will “accept” or that “affirm their identities””
    Most ideas which don’t do this are boring. Some, people get enraged by.’

    And yet, it is only ideas that approach objective truth that generate progress. I am a fan of progress. I like what it’s done. Those who shy away from discovering or revealing truth because it may be unpopular deserve nothing but contempt.

  129. skzb

    mydreamcafe5: “You have a chance to change society to a socialist paradise. Or you have a chance to change society to a sort of monarchy where everybody is hypnotized into thinking that their function in life is to serve you.”

    What is most interesting to me about this thought experiment, is that people actually think that way. Indeed, this lies at the heart of “Libertarianism” or Randite “Objectivism”: the belief that we can start with “this is what I’d like to see” and construct a society based on that. Indeed, we can do exactly that: in our heads. But to actually change society, we need to understand society as it is, in all of it’s complexity and contradiction and movement. Difficult? Certainly. Impossible? I don’t believe so. But what is certain is that to begin subjectively (I think society should be this) as opposed to objectively (society functions this way) is unscientific and ultimately useless.

    To change the world in accordance with our wishes, we must understand how it actually functions. We might still fail–depending on the degree to which our understanding corresponds to reality–but it’s all we have. And we have all of the history of science and technology to prove that this is the correct approach, if you imagine it needs proof.

  130. “Putting meaning into something is, indeed, a subjective act–but why do we care about our football team? To answer that, we must understand tribal loyalty, the development of sport as entertainment and entertainment as a profit-making venture, and many other things, all of which are objective.”

    At the risk of pointing out the obvious: there’s an important difference between caring about something and being able to explain why someone cares about that thing. Any descriptions of why tribal loyalty et al should make me care about the Dallas Cowboys (the team in closest proximity) would not make me change my subjective evaluations.

    In sports, this doesn’t make much difference, but I think it touches on what I see as a problem for social justice and material equality: simply because a system of social equality is put into place does not mean that the people involved will sustain the subjective attitudes and behaviors to keep the system running. I take it as a fact that any human “system” runs b/c of the humans participating in it. And another fact, I’d argue, is that subjective human nature focuses primarily on personal welfare and gain. Until you can get those subjective interests re-focused on communal welfare, the individual people in the social equality system will erode/distort/destroy it.

    (I hope this post doesn’t come across as merely redundant. These questions still seem significant to me.)

  131. skzb

    Scott: ” simply because a system of social equality is put into place does not mean that the people involved will sustain the subjective attitudes and behaviors to keep the system running.”

    Quite. Which is why I’ve been insisting that material equality is necessary, but not sufficient to achieve social equality.

    “I take it as a fact that any human “system” runs b/c of the humans participating in it. ”

    Um. Well, yes. Similarly, any electronic system runs because of the electricity going through it.

    “And another fact, I’d argue, is that subjective human nature focuses primarily on personal welfare and gain.”

    This conflicts with most of the anthropology texts I’ve read, and with the more recent evolutionary biology studies I’ve come across. Indeed, I take it as established that most of what we’d call selfishness is learned through society, and that human instinct, insofar as it exists, is oriented toward social advancement–with the size of that society (family, tribal, civic, &c) varying with the society in question. The fact that I might be wrong about this in no way prevents me from taking it as established. 🙂

  132. I’d be delighted to be found overly cynical about human nature. Can you post the titles of some of those texts.

    Thanks for gently reiterating the necessary-not-sufficient distinction. I’m not sure why I find it so easy to view these issues in straw-man simplicity.

    Also, thanks for your other reply to mydreamcafe5 today. Your explanation there about subjective goals vs. objective plans (at least that’s how I took it) made more sense.

  133. “…. And yet, it is only ideas that approach objective truth that generate progress. I am a fan of progress. I like what it’s done.”

    Agreed! I am a fan of progress too. That is a choice we have made, a choice which may be outside of the domain of objective truth and within the domain of personal choice.

    Since we are fans of progress we are interested in how things work. (And maybe for other reasons too.) We think of ourselves as people who might somehow affect progress, and we want to know how to do it well. Our identities are connected to progress, and to some extent we will accept boredom or make personal sacrifices for it.

    We could instead have chosen to further the status of some group of people we identified with. We then might want to learn the details of objective truth so we could warp the world to assure victory for our group. We could be zionists or republicans or whatever. I did not choose that. I want progress for everybody. I haven’t seen yet whether you are for everybody or just the working class — I predict the former.

    “Those who shy away from discovering or revealing truth because it may be unpopular deserve nothing but contempt.”

    With experience you can find ways to reveal unwelcome truth that will not get you punished. If you do it wrong then your audience pays no attention to the actual truth you want to get across, but only wants to punish you. What good is that? Find the objectively-workable methods to get around that, and you’re golden.

    “”Go Vikings!” does nothing to advance our understanding of life, or even football; and hearing someone say it is pretty boring.”

    It’s late in the 4th quarter, the score is tied. Fourth down and rationally they ought to punt. But it’s a long pass! He caught it! One guy is running with him, and the defense is closing in! The other guy stops the one who’s closest, and as a result he falls behind. The ball is at 30 yards. 25 yards. 20 yards. You’re on your feet yelling “Go Vikings!” and everybody in the stands is up and yelling “Go Vikings!” with you! All except the Dodgers fans in the other stands.

    It does nothing to advance our understanding of anything, but there is a place for it.

    (I don’t know much about football, and my lack of objective facts may be jarring when I try to talk about it.)

  134. The obvious follow-up question: “What would you say are the sufficient conditions for social equality?” But I think asking that sets me up for a stop-cut: “Go read Das Kapital.”

  135. skzb

    J. Thomas: “That is a choice we have made, a choice which may be outside of the domain of objective truth and within the domain of personal choice.”

    I dispute it is outside the domain of objective truth; one can (and probably should) attempt to understand why humanity makes this choice. The reasons, the circumstances are objective. And this precisely hits the point: There is always the objective *beneath* the subjective; the subjective exists *within and subordinate to* the objective. That is why reversing those relationships produces nonsense.

    I’ve never disputed that there is a time and a place for irrational, subjective enthusiasm. Hell, my life is built around irrational, subjective enthusiasm. But I don’t offer it as truth, nor as a basis for changing the world.

  136. skzb

    The Communist Manifesto is shorter. 🙂 But I would say, after the material preconditions are met, the next two steps involve education, and a generation that wasn’t yet born when social inequality predominated. I think that would likely do it.

  137. “But to actually change society, we need to understand society as it is, in all of it’s complexity and contradiction and movement. Difficult? Certainly. Impossible? I don’t believe so.”

    I expect it’s impossible to understand it all. But you might understand enough to do something effective. If you do something effective you will not understand all the consequences, but you aren’t the only person who’s doing stuff and some of the others might reduce some of the unintended bad results.

    In this context I recommend John Gall’s book Systemantics. Gall writes in CN Parkinson style, pompously claiming to be infallible. “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

    Libertarians might be on the right track starting with their goals, and a simple way to achieve them. As they find their methods don’t work they can change them. Believing it will inevitably work gives them faith when faith comes hard. Historical necessity is a comforting belief, independent of its truth.

    “But what is certain is that to begin subjectively (I think society should be this) as opposed to objectively (society functions this way) is unscientific and ultimately useless.”

    I don’t know. When you design a computer program you start with a clear idea what you want to accomplish. You’ll never achieve that if you don’t know how things work. But you’ll also never achieve your goals if you don’t get clear what your goals are.

    If you have a goal which cannot be achieved with your hardware etc, then you’ll have to change the goal. But you won’t find out that you can’t do it unless you get the goal clear, and also understand how things can work.

  138. “I dispute it is outside the domain of objective truth; one can (and probably should) attempt to understand why humanity makes this choice. The reasons, the circumstances are objective.”

    You could be right. Some of humanity makes this choice. Some choose to further the group they identify with against everyone else. Some accept being sheep, herded by whoever is ready to herd them. There are other choices available.

    People don’t just choose by their social role. Poor people can and do choose to be Republicans, and a few of them learn how to work their way up the privilege system and get significant rewards. Some people born into Republican families choose to be socialists. Without knowing the details we can take it on faith that unknown objective circumstances completely determined things that look like individual choice.

    On the other hand, there are a collection of roles available waiting for somebody to fill them. We could each make subjective or random choices, and then the system selects people who fit the role to fill the role. Our individual choices might not matter even if we can make them freely.

    On the third hand, if you achieve an understanding of the system that no one could have predicted, no one can predict how you will use it. You might do things beyond fitting a predetermined role.

    “…the subjective exists *within and subordinate to* the objective. That is why reversing those relationships produces nonsense.”

    I am not sure this is always true. However, the system appears to be designed to filter whatever subjective stuff comes to it; it uses that stuff wherever it fits and suppresses it otherwise. So….

    I may have misunderstood what you’re saying. If I do understand it I see no possible way to test how much it’s true. I think I will wait and see whether it develops new meanings for me in context.

  139. skzb

    “People don’t just choose by their social role.” Nope. But that’s the way to bet. And more, the other, subordinate factors, are simply influenced by objective conditions at one or two removes.

  140. ““People don’t just choose by their social role.” Nope. But that’s the way to bet.”

    Unfortunately, yes.

    “And more, the other, subordinate factors, are simply influenced by objective conditions at one or two removes.”

    It makes sense to me that could be true. I don’t see how to test it. So it looks to me like an article of faith. But what is different if you believe this versus believe some alternative or believe that it isn’t known? I don’t see that it makes any difference at all what you believe about this. My first thought was to argue with you about it. But why should I? I can accept for myself that it is not known, I can let you believe that it’s determined by objective factors, and we might still agree about everything that actually matters in our lives.

    I’m trying to get over arguing about things that don’t matter. Better to get a clear understanding about the important stuff.

  141. I read as much of this convo as I was able to before it became repetitive. The demonization of capitalism, like our government, or for example, gun control is totally missing the point. All these things fail not because they won’t work, but because the morality is broken. Our government is broken because we have criminals running it. Our Constitution is designed to have moral men (generic sense of that word, not sexist, please) making decisions for a moral constituency. Those settings exist less and less, daily. Gun control won’t work because by definition, criminals don’t obey laws. Capitalism is failing in direct proportion to the decline in morality of those with the money.
    The answer is not to blame/change/re-vamp/whathaveyou whatever system you perceive is not working…the answer is to genuinely return to the state of society where we LOVE one another. That is the missing piece in all the problems you can describe. When you see someone in need, and have zero compunction about assisting them in any way you can, because you KNOW that it will be reciprocated to you in like manner, all these other problems disappear.

  142. skzb

    Hurniss: I don’t think I’ve ever read a more perfect statement of what I disagree with. I shan’t argue it, others can if they want. I’ll merely state the substance of the disagreement: I believe that morality and other ideas flow from material conditions, not the other way around. Meanwhile, thanks for your contribution.

  143. If you don’t mind, elaborate a little on the statement about morality flowing from material conditions. I know that you know what you mean, but it is not exactly clear to me. The morality I speak of flows from Love, capitalized; not from possessions or things, from the spirit. It is a condition that is nigh impossible to reach, but if we at least tried, we could come closer and closer to it, I am certain.

  144. I’ve been working on this one. But I think I flunked the pop-quiz:

    What does it mean to say “morality flows from material conditions”?
    a. That moral evaluations arise from physical situations. In other words, Bill Gates favors crony capitalism because this economic system gives him wealth and power.
    b. That physical systems determine human behavior and conceptualization. In other words, Steven Brust doesn’t favor Trotskyian Marxism because he believes it is correct, but instead because the material conditions he has experienced have entrained him to that stance.

    Does morality flow from the material conditions of a situation?
    No—if it did, then every person in the same situation would make the same decisions.

    How can a materialist view explain differing decisions by different people in the same material conditions?
    By tracing historically to previous material conditions. Since no two people experienced the exact same material conditions throughout life, there is no guarantee that decisions during a certain situation would match.

    What is it that makes some previous experiences more of an influence on a person’s decisions than the material conditions of the current situation?
    I…don’t know.

    Is the term “material conditions” synonymous with the term “physical systems”?
    I…don’t think so.

    Are there any aspects of human life excluded from the term “material conditions”?
    Moral evaluations, opinions, preferences, feelings—descriptions of consciousness that aren’t traceable to physical data.

    Do these aspects of human consciousness have zero effect on things that are accepted as “material conditions”?
    No, they do have an effect; for example, feeling that a certain candidate is a good / bad person affects election results.

    Then why are these aspects of human consciousness regarded with low esteem?
    Because so many factors of material conditions are NOT affected by them.

    Are concepts and ideas excluded from “material conditions”?
    Only if the concept cannot be grounded in physical data.

    Is there currently a limit to human perception and understanding of physical data?
    Yes.

    Then some concepts might be currently excluded from “material conditions” only because of these limits?
    Yes.

    Should decisions continue to be made with only this limited set of concepts?
    No. What we don’t have physical data for can still injure us; for example, smoking tobacco was a health hazard long before Nazi researchers conducted studies to prove the point in 1939. (Contrariwise, some things we don’t have scientific data for could still benefit us.)

  145. @skzb: “I believe that morality and other ideas flow from material conditions…”

    This says to me that slavery is perfectly OK if material conditions are such that the majority of a society will be better off if the minority are held in bondage, and I honestly can’t believe that’s what you mean. Would you please elaborate?

  146. Harniss, any system with human beings would work well if the people knew what to do to make it work, and they were willing to do it. In general neither of those is true. You point out that the Love you advocate is almost impossible to reach. So we definitely don’t want a system that depends on everybody achieving it all the time. Don’t arrange your nuclear reactors so that every single individual in the society who feels suicidal can easily blow them up. Too much chance of a bad result.

    Since many people are unreliable, we try to set up systems that have a lot of looseness in them, that should keep working despite a lot of bad behavior. Capitalist theory says that capitalism gets good results even when — especially when — people are greedy and selfish and only try to look after themselves. It takes some unrealistic assumptions to reach that conclusion, but they might be on the right track. Design the system to resist damage by mean or stupid people. They at least have the goal in mind.

    So we set up police and lawcourts and prisons etc to weed out people who are uncooperative. But then we get corrupt police and judges etc.

    In good times there is enough of a surplus of everything that we get by despite the fact that the system does not work very well.

    In bad times it falls apart. People get upset that the system does not work well, and do things to prevent corruption that reduce production. So things keep getting worse.

    I am not convinced that Love can be enough. It certainly has not solved our problems in practice so far. But if you can get people using it, it might help.

  147. Here is a sample problem. People drive recklessly. There are reasons for that. It’s fun. It’s exciting. Sometimes it’s important to get places quicker. Etc.

    But it costs a lot. Dead people. Wrecked vehicles. Etc. Reasonable people have looked at the data and they believe we would be much better off if we could cut the automobile death rate to less than 1 in 10,000. But safe driving is inconvenient, and without enforcement, the death rate tends to be closer to 1 in 1000. When a person loses somebody important to a senseless accident, that makes him drive safely for a year or so. It takes a high death rate to show people how bad the problem is.

    Love is not enough to bring the auto accident rate down.

  148. skzb

    Hurniss: Morality is a product of society, and thus each formation of society changes it’s morals. Today, we no longer take as a moral precept that the king can do no wrong, and that one’s birth ought to determine one’s social standing. Capitalism brought about it’s own set of morals–in fact, different ones under different conditions. Among them, the morality–such as my own–that opposes capitalism. In brief, I’ll point out that stealing wasn’t considered immoral before the invention of private property.

    My favorite is example is those who explain the virtues of heroism and self-sacrifice and war-like skills before an imperialist war is launched; and then, once the new land is conquered, immediately turn into pacifists and explain that, well, yes, perhaps we shouldn’t have invaded, but now it’s done, and violent resistance would be wrong.

    Some people insist that there is a morality that sits above society, and is used to judge society; given that society, in all of it’s complexity and contradiction, is what produces morality, that strikes me as flawed reasoning. But the belief that we can judge morality apart from the society that produced it is why today’s moralists, however much they twist and turn, in the end find themselves defending capitalism and opposing efforts to destroy it.

    L. Raymond: That’s rather an impossible position, isn’t it? Unless I’m misunderstanding you. Slave societies, as I understand them, inevitably have the majority in bondage; otherwise it isn’t a slave society, it’s just a society with some unpaid house servants. Perhaps I’m missing something.

    But in any case, no, I don’t think one can address morality in such a simplistic way as taking a head-count of who is better off and who is worse off; for one thing, one must then define better and worse, which then becomes a moral question, and one has bitten one’s own tail.

    In general, I am in favor of progress. In general, I believe progress requires increased productivity of labor. In general, this comes about when Man is able to exercise conscious control over the processes (natural and social) around him; thus the more we understand our world, and the more we as a species are able to use that understanding, the better off we’ll be.

  149. L.Raymond wrote, “This says to me that slavery is perfectly OK if material conditions are such that the majority of a society will be better off if the minority are held in bondage, and I honestly can’t believe that’s what you mean.”

    From my perspective societies are better when they provide their members with maximum free choice. So no society with slaves can be ideal.

    However, in our current society we are taught that slavery is one of the very worst evils. And that teaching usually is not questioned.

    In Rome and the antebellum slave-owning US South, there were some circumstances where slaves were basicly worked to death. I believe in the South that tended to be marginal situations, where an owner deep in debt tried to get wild land into production quick enough to pay his debts. But it may have been more widespread than that. However much it happened, it was evil.

    But when a slave was more like a family member who got the worst of everything, it was not so bad. Perhaps slaves were often better off than wage-slaves.

    On the other hand, slaves probably got their best treatment in times of labor shortages, when wage-slaves also were treated best. When there was a labor surplus the temptation to free slaves would be at maximum, leaving slaves with no more security than the abused free workers.

    If you think of it in terms of social and economic class, slavery simply adds another social class near the bottom. Without that class, the abuse that slaves get is instead spread over the remaining lower classes. Is it really such a big deal whether you have or don’t have that class?

  150. skzb: Morality is a product of society, and thus each formation of society changes it’s morals.

    I think a lot of morality comes from families, and that’s somewhat resistant to societal change.

    So monarchies said the king was kind of like a father to his people and they must obey him, playing on families where the father demanded obedience. But now we sort of imply that a CEO is like a father to his company and employees must obey him, similarly. Likewise the commanding officer of a military unit. Maybe the societies mostly work with what families give them, rather than change families to meet their purposes.

    skzb: I’ll point out that stealing wasn’t considered immoral before the invention of private property.

    My family doesn’t especially have private property, though I guess we do some. The kids can get snacks — fruit, PBJ, yogurt etc — whenever they want. Sometimes we have ice cream stored for after-dinner dessert. The ice cream isn’t private property, it’s for everybody, and still I find myself yelling “Who took the ice cream!”

    skzb: Some people insist that there is a morality that sits above society, and is used to judge society

    They can and do codify their own morality, and they judge society. For me the issue is, they condemn society and society condemns them. Whose spite is more pungent?

    Incidentally, every libertarian I have gotten to know well had big issues with his overbearing father. Rejecting his own father, he also rejected government and decided his own opinion about what’s right was primary.

  151. skzb: I don’t think one can address morality in such a simplistic way as taking a head-count of who is better off and who is worse off; for one thing, one must then define better and worse, which then becomes a moral question, and one has bitten one’s own tail.

    Once you decide what it means to be better off or worse off, then you might choose to define morals based on who’s better or worse off. It isn’t objectively true, it’s based on your choice in defining that. But attempts to be rational about morality always come from some unexamined basis, something that in the fundamental analysis is an esthetic choice.

    Or you can say things or moral or not based on how you were raised, without much thought.

    I think morality is not in the domain of what’s objectively true or false. It comes from human choices which might as well be considered free will since attempts at finding causes will usually bog down into unobservables.

    skzb: In general, I am in favor of progress.

    I agree! However, I think we need to progress as fast as we reasonably can at understanding stuff, and go slow on using new stuff that affects people. We now have more than 12 million new chemicals that we sometimes want to use, things that nobody in the world was exposed to before 1900. A few of them get extensive testing to see what they do to lab mice. Most do not. Every one we use extensively is another chance to hurt ourselves.

    If we could be organized enough, we should create 10 or so natural environments that don’t get affected much by modern society, and establish 100,000 or so people in each of them living a lifestyle that has worked for at least a few thousand years. Each generation, let the surplus primitive people who most want to leave join the bigger society and take their chances. Those societies would be our backups, in case we are doing something disastrous.

    Progress is good, but a more primary goal is to preserve the gene pool. If the population survives we can have progress later. If we go extinct then that’s the end of our progress. So learn as much as we can about the world — the dangers and opportunities — and exploit opportunities as fast as we become sure they are not traps.

  152. skzb

    “I think a lot of morality comes from families, and that’s somewhat resistant to societal change.”

    Really? Seriously? Families are “somewhat resistant” to societal change? That’s what you’re going with? The family of a Roman slave-holder was the same, and had the same morality, as a family today? A peasant family of Catholics, legally tied to land, under Chalamagne, had the same morality as a Unitarian family of college professors?

    Just one example out of millions (this one is fresh in my mind from having just read a discussion of it):

    In 19th Century America, wood was plentiful but labor was scarce–the opposite of Europe. That is one of the things that drove manufacturing off the family farm and into the shop, and then the factory, where labor could be used more efficiently and if some wood got left on the floor it was no big deal. But this change–from home-craft production for use, to commodity production for exchange–happened rapidly, and produced families that were considerably smaller for a couple of reasons–one, factories required workers with basic education, people thus (and for other reasons) married later in life, and because this transformed the household from a unit of production (growing crops) to a unit of consumption (eating food) children became a burden rather than an assistance.

    Smaller, working-class families meant HUGE changes in the role of women: for the first time, there was the “sphere” of men’s work and the “sphere” of women’s work; women’s work being considered less important. Childhood was now seen as a separate stage of life (and, en passant, fantasy stories now became children’s stories and the cultural value of my field was downgraded).

    Some results:

    Marrying for love rather than according to parents’ decision became okay for the masses of people for the first time in history.

    Woman had more free time plus a significantly higher level of literacy, so while their status was downgraded on the one hand, on the other it was raised, as woman became writers, teachers, nurses (and started asking why they were paid less than their male counterparts), they also had more time, and started organizing according to their beliefs, and became part of temperance societies and abolition societies as well as active in the various revival churches.

    Wait, temperance? Abolition? Where did those come from?

    With the growth of capitalism in the 19thC America, and the Irish famine, and troubles in Europe (especially after 1848), the whole demographic changes: From agricultural and Protastant, we now have Catholic and working class. What virtues are most important to those who run factories–that is, what virtues are good for the workers in the opinion of the owners? Well, free labor is vital (slaves can’t work with complex equipment because “it might accidentally break, sorry massa, guess I’s done for da day”). Also important are education, punctuality, and sobriety.

    Guess what virtues become important in the working class family? We now see temperance and abolition societies forming, and anti-immigrant becomes equal to anti-Catholic (anti-drinking becomes closely linked to anti-Catholic), public education becomes huge–the notion that everyone should be able to read and cipher came in with the American system of manufacture. These values made their way deeply into the American family, which, in a generation–from around 1830 to about 1850–went from husband and wife working together on a farm, and having a few beers after a hard day, and producing lots of children; to believing in temperance, moderation, punctuality, possibly abolition, or at least looking askance at slavery, a culture that was now deeply suspicious of and hostile to Negroes who might take their jobs (before, who cared what slaves did ‘way down South) and immigrants and Catholics and arranged marriages and…

    Okay, explain to me again how the morality of a family has relatively little to do with the society that produces that family?

  153. “I think a lot of morality comes from families, and that’s somewhat resistant to societal change.”

    ‘Really? Seriously? Families are “somewhat resistant” to societal change? That’s what you’re going with? The family of a Roman slave-holder was the same, and had the same morality, as a family today?’

    😉 No, I meant somewhat resistant, not totally resistant.

    You gave examples of society creating important changes in families. But look at my example (which does not negate any of yours). Often families create the idea of the father who is stronger than you, who must be obeyed, who does his best to get what you need and a little of what you want. And then society tries to shift that idea to the king, or the military commander, or the boss, etc. Whether or not it is really appropriate. Sure, societies influence family structure. But societies are also built from family structure and a society which changes the families too much may find it has sawn off the branch it is sitting on….

    ———————–

    I cannot disagree with any of your fine examples, which demonstrate what you intended. I have some minor quibbles about a few details which may not be worth discussing. I will mention a couple of them because it’s hard to resist, and if you don’t answer I won’t assume you couldn’t.

    “In 19th Century America, wood was plentiful but labor was scarce–the opposite of Europe.”

    And yet europe had similar changes. Maybe other factors were central in creating the result you describe.

    “But this change–from home-craft production for use, to commodity production for exchange–happened rapidly, and produced families that were considerably smaller for a couple of reasons….”

    The frontier started to dwindle away, so it was harder for new farmers to get farms. Cities had always been population sinks both because children were liabilities rather than assets and also disease etc tended to kill them. This wasn’t new, what was new was the population getting more urban. There were enough farmers making more than enough food. Productivity increases squeezed surplus farmers off the land, and they settled for what they could get.

    “From agricultural and Protastant, we now have Catholic and working class.”

    Importing people with a somewhat different family structure doesn’t change the existing families much, but it makes a big difference to the society as the population fractions shift.

    “(slaves can’t work with complex equipment because “it might accidentally break, sorry massa, guess I’s done for da day”)”

    “… now deeply suspicious of and hostile to Negroes who might take their jobs …”

    Slaves could work with complex equipment just fine, given proper incentives. And those incentives didn’t have to be as expensive as those for wage slaves. The problem was, if you bought a slave you had an investment in him. Then as he got trained that was a bigger investment. If it didn’t work out and you had to sell him for a loss…. He was actually in a better bargaining position than a wage-slave that you could fire any time and lose nothing but the bother of hiring another.

    So, why buy a slave when you could hire a wage-slave for bottom-dollar? You mostly couldn’t whip wage-slaves but discipline by reward mostly works better than discipline by punishment anyway.

    ———————

    None of this argues against your point. So I say, people tend to learn their morality at home in their families. Society must find ways to twist that into the behaviors it needs. Families are relatively resistant to moral change by society, and successful change then requires the society to change the ways it manipulates family morals to meet its own needs.

  154. Been thinking about some of the replies, and the examples used of why morality doesn’t work. My opinion is that we need a different word. The morality that I am talking about comes from the heart, not the mind, and especially not the society. It’s not that superficial. The kind of morality that you are saying has already been tainted by the same kind of things that make the system, whatever it is, not work. I am talking about that selfless kind of Love for each other that goes beyond the petty mores of what others expect, but comes from that part of you in the baseline where you know what you should do for someone else, and not in any way expect reciprocation or payment. Kind of like the Puritanical viewpoint, but again, not with a defined set of rules. It’s a difficult theory to completely grasp, but a worthy goal to seek.
    In the example of the car wrecks, that someone mentioned, you simply wouldn’t drive in a wreckless manner, because of your love for yourself and your fellow man. Nor would you drive if you were sick or otherwise impaired, and someone would gladly do it for you. I am not eloquent enough to express it better than that.

  155. “In the example of the car wrecks, that someone mentioned, you simply wouldn’t drive in a wreckless manner, because of your love for yourself and your fellow man. Nor would you drive if you were sick or otherwise impaired, and someone would gladly do it for you.”

    You are about to be late for an important appointment. You are driving on a deserted residential road, in a light rain. The recommended speed is 25 mph. You think it will be very safe to drive at 20 mph and you will be late. You think it will also be safe to drive at 30 mph and you will be on time. You figure the chance of an accident at 30 mph is probably around 1 in a million.

    Is being on time for the important appointment worth a 1 in a million chance of an accident?

    But if you are right, and you do that a thousand times, that turns into more than one chance in a thousand of an accident. Assuming you were right and the chance per incident is not in fact one in a hundred thousand.

    I don’t think love can substitute for statistics. Love will not tell you what the odds really are, or how bad the accident will be, etc.

    Still, if it’s a choice of a system run with a lot of love versus a system run without it, I want the system with the love.

  156. skzb

    “And yet europe had similar changes. Maybe other factors were central in creating the result you describe.” Yep. Slower and with their peculiarities, depending on their particular conditions. Germany failed to unify itself; Russia didn’t end serfdom until the end of the 19th century. And so on. And each of these peculiarities was reflected in family, and in morality.

    “Slaves could work with complex equipment just fine, given proper incentives.” Oh? When and where has this happened other than in a tiny fraction of special circumstances?

    Hurniss, I never said morality didn’t work, nor did I use the word “tainted.” Morality is a powerful force.. To say that it is–like everything else–a product of a given society at a given stage of it’s development doesn’t make it worthless or tainted. On the contrary, it permits us to understand it.

    You speak of love? Well, sure. But love, itself, is a material thing–a set of responses to stimuli, to our personal history with another person, and so on. It is part of our interaction with the real world. The different sorts of love: romantic, filial, fraternal, &c all spring from the real world, and all are affected by the society we live in. This is not a bad thing. But let us not turn love into some sort of mystical principle that stands above nature or above society. It is part of nature and part of culture and I, for one, am very glad that it is; I’d hate to be without it.

  157. skzb: “But love, itself, is a material thing–a set of responses to stimuli, to our personal history with another person, and so on.”

    This is one of my questions still—when you throw the net for ‘material conditions’ this wide, doesn’t the term become less useful? If ‘material conditions’ = any response to stimuli, then it seems to border on saying ‘material conditions’ = ‘life, the universe, and everything’.

  158. ““And yet europe had similar changes. Maybe other factors were central in creating the result you describe.” Yep. Slower and with their peculiarities, depending on their particular conditions. Germany failed to unify itself; Russia didn’t end serfdom until the end of the 19th century. And so on. And each of these peculiarities was reflected in family, and in morality.”

    Sure, and to some extent the local peculiarities in family and morality helped to create the conditions you speak of. I don’t disagree that material conditions were extremely important. I’m a little dubious that lots of wood and a labor shortage were the most important. Those both came because we had forests that farmers needed to chop down so they could farm that land, and also anybody who could scrape up minimal capital could go start his own farm instead of getting stuck in a city in a workshop. Meanwhile the shops also spread across europe where those conditions were reversed. It just doesn’t look like the central conditions to me. But it’s a quibble about an example, and does not at all affect your main point.

    ““Slaves could work with complex equipment just fine, given proper incentives.” Oh? When and where has this happened other than in a tiny fraction of special circumstances?”

    I think the tiny fraction of special circumstances show that it was possible. And part of the reason it didn’t happen more often was that slaves were in fact more expensive than wage-slaves.

    One factor that made slavery work for southern agriculture was the general lack of money. Slaves could be bartered for rice, indigo, cotton, etc. A money price could be set but minimal money had to change hands.

    Meanwhile the Yankee industries had factors etc that efficiently moved virtual money so that businesses could meet payroll.

  159. skzb

    ” If ‘material conditions’ = any response to stimuli, then it seems to border on saying ‘material conditions’ = ‘life, the universe, and everything’.”

    It is exactly that: life, the universe, and everything. And it is useful as long as people believe there are other things. For example, some people believe in nature endowed with consciousness (= god); others believe that the subset of material reality that we call “thoughts” are primary matter.

    ” I’m a little dubious that lots of wood and a labor shortage were the most important.” Most important? To what? I mentioned them as an example because they were fresh in my mind; I don’t believe I ever said they were “most important.” My point is that being determines consciousness. Morality is a particular form of consciousness. It is determined by being (ie, social conditions). I just gave you one somewhat detailed example of how a particular form of morality was determined by particular social conditions.

  160. Scot: “This is one of my questions still—when you throw the net for ‘material conditions’ this wide, doesn’t the term become less useful?”

    I think I’m getting it. It’s a sort of world-view. It’s like, a long time ago in biochemistry there was a school of thought called “vitalism”. They believed there was something special about life that was separate and different from non-life. Something like a soul, a vital force.

    Meanwhile, there was an opposing view called “reductionism”. Reductionists believe that psychology is nothing but neurology. Neurology is nothing but physiology. Physiology is nothing but biochemistry, and biochemistry is nothing but chemistry. There is nothing to you or any life except chemicals sloshing around. That’s all. No soul. No free will. Your creative thoughts are just chemical reactions. Your artistic feelings likewise.

    How can you prove that Beethoven’s Fifth is just chemical reactions? You can’t. But it’s a compelling idea that makes sense, so you can assume it’s true. Meanwhile, there is nothing in biology which can be proven to involve more than just chemistry. Every simple example that has been examined closely can be explained entirely by chemistry. There are always parts that are not understood, but everything we know about can be explained without extra assumptions, and we can assume that what we don’t know is like what we do know.

    It occurs to me that what Steven is discussing is called “materialism” and a central Marxist concept is called “dialectical materialism”.

    I don’t know yet whether this assumption is important. I expect you could get the same end results starting without materialism. But one consequence is that you can assume that everything has causes, and in principle those causes can be found. If you start with the assumption that some things happen because of random great men or random creative ideas etc, then you will believe in principle that the course of history cannot be predicted. Those beliefs are consequences of chosen world-views. I don’t know what further consequences would come from the beliefs.

    Materialism is not subject to experimental test. Obviously things don’t happen completely at random with no relation to the material world. So either they are completely determined by the material world, or there’s room for subtle influence by some things that can’t be predicted, even while we can point to overt influence by big material effects.

    Materialism is a belief that might be useful, or counterproductive, or irrelevant. We can’t tell if it’s true but we can observe materialists and try to get a sense of how materialism affects them.

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