The Dream Café

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

Idea to Matter to Idea to Matter

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WARNING: EPISTEMOLOGY AHEAD!

In the discussion of Post-Modernism (or, more precisely, Post-Structuralism), Chaosprime challenged my argument by making a strong point.  He writes:

As far as this goes, I have yet to get past the blatant contradiction. There’s this maneuver where we want to reject the political program of idealists who want to take no concrete action but talk people into thinking differently which will supposedly produce change, right? So we say, no, philosophical idealism is wrong, it’s material conditions, we should change those. And then we *slip idealism in the back door* by constructing ideas as some kind of airy-fairy thing that is specially excluded from the world. Sorry, that’s no good; can’t have it both ways.

Everything is material; therefore, *ideas are material*. Ideas are a part of the material conditions of existence. Thoughts are a part of the material conditions of existence. You can tell because consequences proceed from them.

Meanwhile, in what has been called my socialist FAQ, Oliver Campbell made the following observation:

First of all, it’s critical that the working class have a high level of political consciousness and culture, something that suffered major blows in Russia as a result of the deaths of the most class conscious workers in the civil war against the White army and the major imperialist powers.

Taken together, these provide an opportunity to explore, for the three of you who are interested, just how I approach the question of the relationship between objective material conditions and subjective ideas.

First, above all, the relationship is dialectical: the objective and the subjective can transform into one another. The point cde Campbell makes is a perfect illustration: The fight of the Bolsheviks took place, above all, in the arena of the consciousness of the Russian working class–it was a fight to bring to the worker an understanding of actual material forces: the conditions of Russian capitalism, the effect of the war, the reasons that, whatever he may have personally wanted to do, Kerensky was incapable of simultaneously fulfilling Russia’s agreement with the Allies, and solving Russia’s problems–it required simultaneous peace and war.  At the same time, he was incapable of solving the problems of the Capitalist Class’s need to end the resistance of the proletariat and the peasantry, and the need for the proletariat and peasantry to have “Peace, bread, and land.”  In the end, it became a clear choice: Lenin or Kornilov; there were no other options because of the correlation of objective, material forces (you don’t get much more objective than bullets and artillery shells; they tend not to care what you’re thinking).  And in the end, the October Revolution happened because the Russian worker and soldier, in particular the Petrograd worker and the soldier in the Petrograd barracks, understood this.

But that understanding took place in the heads of the worker and the soldier.  It is a matter of ideas.  It is subjective, personal.

And then, because of sheer numbers (an objective factor) and above all because of the social position of the worker and the soldier (another objective factor),  those subjective, personal ideas became an objective force: the decisive factor in the creation of a workers’ government.  Indeed, one might say that the subjective thinking of the Bolshevik Party became an objective factor in history at exactly the moment that those thoughts, through a combination of activity and the development of objective events, transformed the thinking of the Russian masses.  (Here I could go into the transformation of quantity into quality, but I shan’t. You’re welcome.)

And after Civil War, and the Wars of Intervention by the Allied Powers, in which the most advanced, most class-conscious elements of the working class were also the most self-sacrificing, the tremendous toll on those forces resulted in a significant lowering of  the consciousness of the working class, which, in turn, became an important factor in permitting the bureaucracy to gain power–that is, an objective factor, part of the material conditions.

So, in fact, Chaosprime is right when he speaks of ideas being part of the material conditions; at least under some conditions.

So, with this in mind, when I speak (admittedly, with a certain contempt) of idealism, what do I mean?

Let us go back to St. Thomas Aquinas for a sterling example of idealism. He argues: 1. God is, by definition, perfect. 2. One attribute of perfection is existence. 3. Therefore God must exist.

But, you see, St. Thomas never actually examined God. He did not measure God’s beard, he did not test God’s DNA, he did not discover how many decibels were produced by God’s speech. He had no God physically before him to investigate, which left him only able to discuss the idea of God.  Hence, the conclusion he draws says nothing about God, it only speaks of the idea of God, which was never in doubt; he then palms a card by obscuring the difference between the idea and the reality.

Marx is often quoted as saying, “Men make history, but not just as they please.” But let us look at the full quote for a moment: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)

Being determines consciousness.  Consciousness, through human activity, can also then alter the conditions of being, but not willy-nilly, not arbitrarily in any way it chooses.  However much a Libertarian wishes to create a society with private property but without the State, it cannot happen: private property and the State are mutually dependent, one cannot exist without the other.  However much a “democratic socialist” wishes for socialism to be voted in and to immediately institute universal suffrage, the power and ruthlessness of the capitalist class requires violence and repression and the curtailing of human rights in order to prevent the bloodbath (and far more brutal repression) that inevitably accompanies counter-revolution.  And conscious political activity can neither start nor stop a revolution, only determine its success or failure.

We do not get to simply choose arbitrarily how our history will unfold. When L. Raymond, in the discussion of the Paris Commune, spoke of the reason for its failure as being squabbling among its leaders, without, in turn, explaining what conditions produced that squabbling, we have an example of idealism.  When J. Thomas, who I know means well, creates a long, involved study of what people should do, or what they actually do, piling conclusion upon conclusion upon conclusion, none of which is grounded in the natural and social conditions under which human beings live, we have as clear an example of Scholasticism (a particularly virulent form of idealism) as that provided by St. Thomas.

Our struggle, as human beings, whether political or not, is to continually increase our understanding of how the world actually works, and then to use that understanding to make things better.

And so, Chaosprime, here is my answer: If we explain ideas, above all, by pointing to  material conditions, we are materialists. If we explain material conditions, above all, by pointing to ideas, or we neglect material conditions entirely in our study of ideas, we are idealists.  They interact, they can transform one into the other, but the objective facts are always the prime moving force, and by neglecting that truth, we are failing to understand our world.

 

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

32 Comments

  1. You know, it’s only relevant in the most tangential of ways, but I should note that any time I see a discussion of the connection between ideas and material conditions – not just here, but *any time* I see this discussion, my brain always flashes back to the same thing.

    “You speak of our ideas as if they fell from the sky. They didn’t. They grew out of our needs, out of our thoughts, and out of our fight. Ideas aren’t just thought up one day, and then people come along and decide to adopt them. Ideas are as much a product of their times as a particular summoning spell is the result of a particular Athyra reign.”

    And so on and so forth. Every time I see this debated I want to re-read Teckla. Every time! It gets inconvenient, because then I start my cross-referential hunt for Le Livre des Sept Sorciers easter-eggs again, and they’re scattered throughout my library.

  2. I like St. Thomas. He’s the closest thing the Catholic Church has to a “cuddly” theologian. That said, your distinctions are incredibly helpful.

  3. I really like what you’re saying here. It immediately connects for me to a couple of concepts that always stay close to the top of the disorderly pile of tools in my conceptual toolbox.

    1) Korzybski’s realization that people continually confuse the map for the territory (a kind of “magical thinking” mistake), or as I prefer now, “the map is not the terrain” (less nationalistic sounding). It’s become such a popular meme it has its own Wikipedia entry now.

    2) Ethan Allen’s pointed question for those who question reason: do you use reason to question reason, or not? If so, the implicit presumption of reason establishes the very principle one is trying to refute. If not, then you’re beyond reason and beyond rational argument and should be disregarded by reasonable people.

    Number 2 is the best argument against postmodernist critiques of reason that I’ve found. I think it similarly applies to idealist critiques of materialist realities. As you point out in your concluding paragraph.

    I find any argument critiquing materialism to be ultimately, er, rather immaterial!

  4. If it wasn’t entirely clear, the connection to concept 1 is that ideals and idealist arguments are the highest level of abstraction away from actual terrains, the material world, and while that level of abstraction can be very useful in certain circumstances, ordinary people in everyday life have far more immediate needs for road atlases than for globes.

  5. skzb

    Brian: If the map were the terrain, I wouldn’t need to order food; I could be nourished just be looking at the menu.

  6. “When L. Raymond, in the discussion of the Paris Commune, spoke of the reason for its failure as being squabbling among its leaders, without, in turn, explaining what conditions produced that squabbling, we have an example of idealism.”

    I thought I had made myself clear on this particular point. Fighting among themselves was bad, but that was just a reflection of their utter inability to observe the conditions under which they were working and adjust their actions to suit reality. In other words, they were idealists when they needed to be hard-headed, practical leaders capable of forming plans in response to the rapidly changing conditions in which they found themselves. They leapt in full of their ideas of how to create and protect a worker’s commune but they were unable to adjust their plans to what you would call material conditions, and what I’d simply call reality. Had they only gotten themselves killed, I could almost be in sympathy with their idealism, but they got tens of thousands of people killed because of their inability to function in the real world, under actual material conditions.

    “Consciousness, through human activity, can also then alter the conditions of being, but not willy-nilly, not arbitrarily in any way it chooses.”

    The Communards didn’t understand this. They thought that simply declaring themselves to be The Paris Commune meant they were a functioning government of the workers, by the workers. They had grandiose ideas about income, about production, and most importantly about themselves and their philosophical understanding of laws of history and laws of economics and laws of whatever else they thought they had mastered. They didn’t just ignore reality – your material conditions – they rejected it as unimportant and insisted they were doing what needed to be done, regardless of what should have been the obvious consequences.

    “If we explain ideas, above all, by pointing to material conditions, we are materialists.”

    What -ism are we if we don’t care about explaining ideas, but are only concerned with how they’re applied?

  7. That sounds pretty good to me, really. I’d just want to stipulate that we should not, as I think has happened a couple times in history, attempt to draw a *simple* line from broad economic conditions to ideas; the relationship is chaotic, in the scientific sense of the word. (Which I’d imagine any proper Red would recognize, or they’d presumably have a hard time explaining how Engels would develop and promote ideas that were threatening to his nominal class interests.)

    I wouldn’t want you to think that I want to offer any support to serious philosophical idealism. I’ve mentioned how, in my investigations into the role of consciousness, I did some time in the occultism salt mines? Neo-Platonism is *so* big with occultists. By and large they love the fuck out of Plato and his shitheel carnival-barker illuminism. And that’s for the same reason that Crowley-era Britain was so into India’s caste mechanics: the mechanism presented is a programming language for humans with well-defined interfaces for extracting economic goods from them. Aquinas, Plato, Gurdjieff, Hubbard, none of it is about a single fucking thing but using the systems security vulnerability represented by the capacity for language to repurpose humans as machine components.

    I don’t think of philosophical idealism as misguided or unhelpful so much as profoundly fucking evil.

  8. Korzybski made a very important point, but he seems to have interpreted the confusion of the abstract with the concrete as a regrettable failure of intellectual rigor rather than an economically motivated security exploit.

  9. It can be both, of course. Caveat emptor… there are oh so many people selling amusement park style maps out there, ones that show only the things they want people to buy into. It demands intellectual rigor of the buyer, in a market of ideas that fails to self-regulate in the interest of the buyer.

  10. Steven: Exactly! Things do get a bit more confusing in an information economy, though, where people are selling recipes, not menus. For example when it comes to DRM of books and music, the digital “recipe” for cooking it up (playback on an MP3 player or ebook) and the product itself could be said to be one and the same. The map is a salable territory. Or taking it another step stranger, when I enjoy one of your books, I use the concepts pointed to by your words to follow a strict conceptual recipe and produce a hearty neuronal meal. (Which makes it interesting to think about people who might critique an author’s concepts as “stale.” Odds are good they went stale in the reader’s head, not the writer’s!)

  11. skzb

    L. Raymond: I’m not sure I can make it any clearer. I’ll try.

    There is, in my opinion, a significant difference between, “their utter inability to observe the conditions under which they were working and adjust their actions to suit reality,” and understanding that, with the state of the underdeveloped working class, and a rising bourgeoisie, and the hard demarcation between city and village (with conflicting needs and interests), and petty bourgeoisie with no possibility of doing anything except being squeezed to death between the two major forces, the leadership that developed would naturally and inevitably reflect that confusion. You place the blame on the thinking of the individual leaders; I see the social relations as the cause of that thinking. For you the bottom line is in the heads of the leaders, for me the bottom line is in the material conditions under which they operated. That is idealism vs materialism.

  12. An idea can be thought of as a model, a theory of some aspect of the material universe. (The previous sentence is an example of a crude model of thought. I attempt to transmit this model from its physical embodiment within my own grey matter to an agreed embodiment (English sentence) to a shared environment (the blog and its supporting hardware) out to readers via their own interfaces.)
    These models can, of course, vary greatly in their accuracy. “Two objects of equal mass fall at different speeds.” is an example of a model that fares poorly when tested in the material word.
    Now, the efficacy with which these models can be transmitted between individuals varies both from the current state of the transmitter and the transmitees for those ideas. The transmission and acceptance of the relative validity of an idea thus depends very much upon the material conditions in which that idea are brought forth and expounded upon. If a particular model of the world varies too far from an individuals preconceived internal world model, then that individual will have a resistance to accepting or even attempting to understand the new model. We can see many cases of this where objective facts (as reflected in clear experimental evidence) are ignored in favor of dearly held opinions. Work must be applied in order for change to take effect.

  13. skzb

    Chaosprime: Yes to that. But then we ought to take the next step, and seek the explanation for both idealism and materialism also in the changing conditions of humanity, the contradictory but still forward-moving drive to understand and explain nature. St. Thomas, for that matter, used the idealist method because, quite simply, not enough was known at that time for a materialist explanation to be possible. You need to build up an impressive number of facts before you can reasonably start interpreting them. Many idealists made truly impressive contributions to human thought–contributions that, at that time, were denied to materialists (Hegel comes to mind as the easiest example of explosive and powerful discoveries, compared to the materialist Feuerbach, whose philosophy, though groundbreaking, was lifeless and sterile by comparison).

    And there, by the way, is where I part company with the militant atheist, who wants to simply put religion into the “bad” or “evil” category without attempting to understand where it comes from, how it ties into social factors and the over-all development of human thought. For example, Protestantism was a definite advance over Catholicism, because it removed a step (the priest) from in between Man and knowledge of the world. But Protestantism would have been impossible without the rising capitalist class, which both supported and required it in order to–

    The audio book has arrived. Human knowledge can go fuck itself. I’m listening to my book now.

  14. Steve:Cool, audio book! And, also an excellent example of a change in the material world having an immediate effect upon an exchange of ideas.

  15. “They interact, they can transform one into the other, but the objective facts are always the prime moving force….”

    That looks right to me. We can have any ideas we’re capable of, but then we do a sort of natural and artificial selection among them — the useful ones are the ones we can connect to reality.

    Incorrect ideas can have a tremendous influence on history, but they will tend to be weeded out eventually unless they survive better than more correct ideas do.

    “When J. Thomas … creates a long, involved study of what people should do, or what they actually do, piling conclusion upon conclusion upon conclusion, none of which is grounded in the natural and social conditions under which human beings live….”

    There may be some wiggle-room there. First, consider the natural conditions under which we live. The world is a very different place when you have access to fire, versus when you don’t. And it is also a very different place if you have cheap fusion power, than if you don’t. We don’t have cheap fusion power. Do we live in a world where that’s possible for us? I don’t know.

    Part of the problem with getting cheap fusion power is that we want to trap fusion plasma in a constrained space, and we don’t know how to use gravity for that so we must use magnetism. And our understanding of magnetism fails in subtle ways so it’s hard to design ways to do that. Our problems with electromagnetism date to the days of Faraday, who was self-educated and had no interest in mathematics. He studied physical magnets and electric currents and watched what they did, and he described what he saw. Mathematicians tried to fit his observations into mathematical language, and they wound up with something that did not satisfy galilean relativity. Faraday worked at a lab bench and he described everything relative to his bench. He came up with ideas that worked in that context but that couldn’t work for two different contexts at the same time. Maxwell accepted Faraday’s ideas when he put together a unified explanation of electromagnetism, and it explained so much that physicists felt it had to be true, though it didn’t satisfy galilean relativity either. Einstein publicised an idea that made Maxwell’s equations work by bending time and space to do it. Now our search for fusion power depends on those ideas. Are there ideas available which are more correct? Who can say? We don’t know the objective facts the universe is built on, but we sort of think we do, and our ideas about that control our capabilities.

    Then consider the social conditions. Our societies adapted to fit natural conditions. We have had well over half a million years to adapt to fire. We have had 5,000 to 50,000 years to adapt to agriculture, depending on location. We have had at least 25,000 years to adapt to clay pots, 5000 years to adapt to expensive bronze, 3000 years for cheap iron. Europeans have had maize and potatoes for 500 years, allowing a population explosion. They have had modern workable crop rotations about that long. Iron good enough for steam boilers, about 300 years. Steam-powered railroads, 200 years. Telegraph, maybe 175 years. Lectric power, maybe 140 years. Automobiles, maybe 130 years. …. Personal computers, 30 years. The internet, depending on how you count, maybe 20 years.

    Our societies have spent many generations adapting to natural conditions that mostly do not exist any longer. We don’t know which of those adaptations are still useful. A lot of what keeps us from trying out new approaches is the set of social ideas we have left over, that may not be useful at all today.

    Like, we grow way too much corn-fed beef. It’s cheap, and people like cheap beef. We could be far more efficient by growing insects. Also we probably suffer various ailments today from not getting enough insect chitin in our diet. But there is no market, because people do not want to eat insect meat. This is a social truth that is basicly arbitrary. A historical accident.

    There are surely a whole lot of historical accidents that determine large swaths of our social conditions. Some of them will crumble at a touch, given obvious advantages to doing things different. Others resist stubbornly. We can try new ideas at random and see which ones have a chance. Of course, it’s easiest to get a good start for a new idea when it promises to deliver lots of money to people who already have the resources to pay for social change experts to do their work….

  16. “… with the state of the underdeveloped working class, and a rising bourgeoisie, and the hard demarcation between city and village (with conflicting needs and interests), and petty bourgeoisie with no possibility of doing anything except being squeezed to death between the two major forces, the leadership that developed would naturally and inevitably reflect that confusion. You place the blame on the thinking of the individual leaders; I see the social relations as the cause of that thinking.”

    Steven, I think it’s much easier to judge the social relations in hindsight. It’s easy to look back at what happened and understand why that outcome was inevitable. But at the time it looks confusing, it’s hard to know which are the most important variables. People who can see that correctly ahead of time have a special talent that probably can’t be taught, similar to predicting stock markets and football seasons.

    So at the time, some of the people on the spot might be important. L. Raymond says that the “leaders” didn’t lead in useful ways but argued confusedly about things that were not immediately important. He seems to assume that they could have done something different. And you seem to assume that they could not have done anything different because they had to play the hands they were dealt.

    I want to agree with Raymond on this. If someone there had actually understood what needed to be done, he might have persuaded the rest to do it. That might have involved finding a way to temporarily paper over the conflicting needs of city and village, to get each some of what they need. Do that better than the other team and maybe city and village could stand together for awhile. Etc. Maybe all such efforts would inevitably lose in the long run when the actual conflicts were revealed to be insoluble. Or maybe not.

    Maybe that’s too big a job. Maybe nobody could have done it well. But then, like the guys running from the grizzly bear, they don’t have to outrun the contradictions — they only have to outrun the competition.

    I want to think that individual people who can think things out in the ways that the circumstances require, can make a big difference in the short run. People who just do what seems to be in their short-term best interest without much reflection, probably not. I could be wrong.

    But then, if I encourage you to think it out and it actually makes no difference, what has anyone lost?

    But if I persuade you that what you do doesn’t matter, that there’s a best choice that somebody who’s in position to make that choice is bound to make, and if you don’t make it somebody else will and they will then make your choice irrelevant, then we will lose whatever valuable insight you might have provided.

    So — this may be oversimplified but I like it — I favor a version of Pascal’s wager. If it does no harm to think I could make a difference, and it does no good to think I can’t make any difference, I prefer to think I can make a difference. This is a sort of idealism, but it ought to be harmless.

  17. This is off topic, but you say that private property can’t exist without the State. I’m curious, is there some place you’ve written about why this is so, or can you point me to the writings of someone who you think articulates the argument properly?

  18. No time to look it up, but one of the things Karl Marx and Adam Smith both said – from very different perspectives. Try it the other direction. Try to imagine private property without the State. For example imagine no State and you own land you don’t reside on. Imagine no state and you a 10 sqaure mile piece of land you do reside on. Imagine no State and you own enforceable patent rights. (I’ll bet someone can explain why the last is cheating a bit. If anyone does, I’ll explain why it may look that way, but it really is not.)

  19. skzb

    R. David Murray: Try Engels’ *Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State*

  20. “Try to imagine private property without the State. For example imagine no State and you own land you don’t reside on.”

    So, maybe I have to hire rangers to keep people off of it. Expensive.

    “Imagine no state and you a 10 sqaure mile piece of land you do reside on.”

    Grizzly bears are supposed to keep territories from 70 to 400 square miles. I could handle 10 square miles if I didn’t need to spend a lot of time growing food or writing novels or something. I would need to be armed and grumpy, and I would have to enforce my rights with violence if somebody challenged them. “L’etat est moi.” If somebody kills me or beats me up and I have to slink away, then I have lost my property just like an old bear.

    Maybe there might be a community that agreed about property rights. Then I’d own what the community agreed I owned. If somebody starts to build a house on my land, people tell him that he shouldn’t. “That land belongs to J Thomas because his pappa left it to him” “…because he was born under a blue moon” “…because he won it in a church bingo game” or whatever reason they agree on. People might not sell to him, or might sell only at a higher price. They might help me burn his place down and shoot anybody who comes out. There can be established community traditions without exactly a state, and the traditions are whatever they happen to be. If the tradition is that there is no private property then it will be very hard for me to grab some too close to them.

    “Imagine no State and you own enforceable patent rights.”

    That’s hard. Say I do something that looks like an improvement, how do I keep people from copying me or make them pay to copy me? Maybe I figure out a way to make an invention in large numbers and it’s easier for them to buy from me than make their own. Somebody else figures out how to make something similar. They didn’t copy me because I didn’t show them how I did it, they figured that out for themselves. I see one and ask the owner who sold it to him, and I track the guy down. “I’m the only one who has a right to make those. Tear down your machinery or I’ll tear it down for you.” Who’s going to help me do that? People who care about my monopoly rights? My friends and relatives? Possibly, depending on the culture, there might be a guild of inventors who help enforce each other’s property rights. You get into the guild by showing them your great invention, and they decide how long they will help you destroy factories — they may be less sympathetic to your children who didn’t invent anything. I can imagine it various ways but the easiest way is no IP rights except in special cases. Like, if you invent a religion, your followers might help you suppress variant religions because they care.

    What I get from all this is that government has gotten associated with the idea of impersonal rights. The idea that there are rights that everybody has, just because they are citizens. A poor man with no weapons and no friends can in theory own property, because the government will let anybody own property if they follow the government’s property ownership rules. It would be possible for communities that are not states to do that just as effectively as governments do, but I wouldn’t usually expect it of them.

  21. “So, maybe I have to hire rangers to keep people off of it. Expensive.”

    Especially when you have no money to pay for them, due to having no property rights, due to there being no state.

  22. “So, maybe I have to hire rangers to keep people off of it. Expensive.”

    “Especially when you have no money to pay for them, due to having no property rights, due to there being no state.”

    Traditionally they were paid in food, beer, and weapons. Also maybe each would be given a ring. Upkeep included sorting them out when they got into fights with each other, and throwing the most troublesome off the force, etc. Every now and then one of your guards kills one of somebody else’s guards and you have to pay them off to show you don’t want trouble. But to balance it every now and then one of theirs kills one of yours and they have to pay you off. There’s a lot of history documenting this sort of thing, but no telling how reliable it is.

  23. By which point you are not hiring them, you are leading them. As the saying goes, property rights and a small warband will get you some land.

    But thats the same deal as good intentions, a dime and a cup of coffee; one of those things turns out to be in excess of the minimum requirement for the transaction.

  24. skzb: “You place the blame on the thinking of the individual leaders; I see the social relations as the cause of that thinking. ”

    This is why I favor asking questions before putting words into people’s mouths; it saves me from making comments like this. I haven’t said anything about where I thought their ideas came from; I’ve been addressing how they chose to put their ideas into action. Not that you’ve asked, but I’d say it’s quite clear their ideas about society came from their own situations, what they saw around them, and the fact they felt themselves to be helpless and relatively friendless in a political sense. We differ in that I don’t think their sense of impotence and frustration is a good justification for killing people.

    It seems to me the primary difference between our points of view is that I think it’s unacceptable to act without having determined a practical framework in which to act, and you think it’s acceptable to act in any way whatsoever just so long as you’re having a knee jerk reaction to your surroundings. Of course, for me this only applies if one’s actions could harm other people who didn’t ask to be involved. I’ve said before suicide is fine so long as no bystanders are hurt.

    To move this point away from something in which you are so heavily emotionally invested, consider a random guy. His desire for money may stem from the material conditions in which he lives – his wife’s failing health, the overdue mortgage, the late car payment and his child’s being barred from re-enrolling in school without tuition – but shooting up a bank and dying in a confrontation with the guards while trying to get the money he needs is not a good idea, no matter *why* he came up with it. So it was with the Commune. It doesn’t matter *why* they thought they were competent to take over a city under the conditions they did, it was a bad idea poorly executed. They were too arrogant to see their own weaknesses, and so I do place the blame for their failing squarely on their shoulders.

    “For you the bottom line is in the heads of the leaders, for me the bottom line is in the material conditions under which they operated. That is idealism vs materialism.”

    And this is the root of problem: you’ve ignored everything I’ve written. I’ve been criticizing the *actions* of the Commune, and you keep equating their actions with their ideas. I think their ideas were foolish, but the reason I think they themselves were fools is that they tried to put those ideas *into action* without stopping to consider whether the conditions they found themselves in were the best under which to act, or even if it were a good idea to take action at all based on their ideas.

    So for me, the bottom line is they behaved in a manner totally inappropriate to the circumstances in which they found themselves. Let me repeat that, although I have said it before, in as many words: they acted totally inappropriately given the material conditions under which they operated..

    You cannot get me from that explicit statement to what you term an idealist stance without completely ignoring what I’m saying. Their actions are what matter. That they were based on what I consider foolish, arrogant ideas is of secondary importance. Good things can come out of foolish, arrogant positions, if the actions taken are based on common sense and firmly rooted in reality. The Communards’ actions weren’t based on good sense, nor were they taken with regards to reality.

  25. skzb

    L. Raymond: ” I haven’t said anything about where I thought their ideas came from;” Exactly!

  26. “As the saying goes, property rights and a small warband will get you some land.”

    Sure. Or the consent of your neighbors, provided no warband comes through that can beat them.

    “But thats the same deal as good intentions, a dime and a cup of coffee; one of those things turns out to be in excess of the minimum requirement for the transaction.”

    I don’t get it. Are you saying there are some sort of property rights that have some different source? When there’s a government, the government is running the biggest warband around and they enforce whatever it is they choose to enforce. Absent that, there’s your friends and neighbors who might choose to help you hold onto what they agree is your property against whichever robbers try to take it from you.

    Isn’t that what property rights mean? What else is there, to be in excess?

  27. Exactly? It didn’t even occur to you to ask me what I thought before holding me in contempt, and now you have one word to write? Allow me to point to this:

    “Not that you’ve asked, but I’d say it’s quite clear their ideas about society came from their own situations, what they saw around them, and the fact they felt themselves to be helpless and relatively friendless in a political sense. We differ in that I don’t think their sense of impotence and frustration is a good justification for killing people.”

    You were wrong to have claimed I “spoke of the reason for its failure as being squabbling among its leaders, without, in turn, explaining what conditions produced that squabbling” since I did not make that claim, and so the reason for their childish bickering wasn’t pertinent. This one word response to my correction suggests you’re going to continue to assign me a position I haven’t taken. Where do strawmen fit into a materialist’s world view?

  28. skzb

    Even in the section you quoted, it appears that you see the ideas as reflections and products of personal experience, ignoring the broader, class issues that ultimately determine what those personal experiences will be–everything you say indicates that you see the determining factor to be subjective and ideas, where I believe they are objective and material.

    Look, if we’re discussing the cause of the tides, and you speak of the shape of the coastlines, I will object because you left out the Moon. And when you argue that you said nothing about the Moon, I say, “exactly!”

  29. No, the problem is we’re having two different conversations, and you’re trying to force my half to match yours.

    When I brought up the Commune, I was talking about the results they failed to achieve and some – not all – of the reasons they failed. You chose to look at the other end and discuss why they behaved like they did.

    If I were, in fact, talking about the *cause* of the Commune, then the restrictive nature of a blog response would be inadequate to touch on anything but the main points. But since I only brought up the results of that experiment, your insistence on trying to derive an entire philosophical underpinning for my thoughts by working backwards to a topic I hadn’t even touched on is out of line.

    If I’m talking about Thing Z, that doesn’t mean I’m unaware of Thing A or all the things in between, just that it’s not pertinent to what I’m saying. In trying to force a conversation to Thing A, you’re trying to define the only proper way to discuss the matter. You want to control the conversation, which is fine, since it is your blog, but it were better to say, “Unless you plan to discuss ultimate origins, don’t touch on any subject I care about” and let us know in advance no off-handed remarks are acceptable.

    “Even in the section you quoted, it appears that you see the ideas as reflections and products of personal experience, ignoring the broader, class issues that ultimately determine what those personal experiences will be–everything you say indicates that you see the determining factor to be subjective and ideas, where I believe they are objective and material.”

    Perhaps if I were to learn a few -isms so as to present a bland, pre-digested word stew more in keeping with commonly accepted definitions you’d realize you don’t understand what I’m saying, but then you’d still be trying to force me into some other pigeonhole, so maybe you wouldn’t get it.

    Since the written word is not my forte I’m not offended at being told I’m not coming across correctly, but I am offended that you ignore a straightforward “no, that’s not right” and continue to misrepresent me. I’m also not a masochist, and will end this exchange here, allowing you to win, if you want. It’s a lovely day, I have fresh gingerbread downstairs and plenty of cicadas to serenade me as I nibble. I think you’ll find the weather in Houston to be perfect for whatever plans you have pre- and post- signing tomorrow.

  30. L. Raymond: In the original statement, you say:

    ‘@shetterly: “The Paris Commune didn’t get off the ground because it was crushed by capitalists,…”

    Capitalists didn’t have to crush anything; the Commune argued and debated itself to death. It was a sterling example of what is wrong with most would-be revolutionary organizations once they get any responsibility. The childish behavior surrounding the Committee of Public Safety is a prime example, even after one ignores the discussion of the name itself.’

    I believe this statement is wrong for the reasons I have outlined. More important, I believe it reveals a significant difference in method and provides an excellent example of that difference in action, and thus is useful as an illustration.

    That is as far as this need go.

  31. “Are you saying there are some sort of property rights that have some different source?”

    Maybe not clear; I was just making the conventional point that private property rights only really exist in the context of a state.

    A (functioning) state is more than a big warband. It is something that, starting as an idea, changes the material circumstances such that running a warband is non-viable. Which in turn changes people’s ideas about what is or isn’t legitimate to do, and so rights (or the perception of rights, if you consider that a meaningful distinction).

    But those new ideas themselves would equally be non-viable outside a state environment. You might have some kind of quasi-rights in a quasi-state, But if you have to persuade people to volunteer to defend your wealth, then that’s only going to work if you have previously been generous with it. Which gives you something like a gift economy, not a market one.

    I guess anarcho-capitalists would disagree with all this? Never got how that was supposed to work out; maybe encryption and nanobots could create property that enforces its own ownership…

  32. “A (functioning) state is more than a big warband. It is something that, starting as an idea, changes the material circumstances such that running a warband is non-viable. Which in turn changes people’s ideas about what is or isn’t legitimate to do, and so rights (or the perception of rights, if you consider that a meaningful distinction).”

    The way I see it, in a (functioning) state most of the people fail to oppose the rulers. They feel like they can live with the situation, and opposing the state is scary and maybe lethal. The ones who are very much opposed feel they can’t win so they mostly don’t try. One of the tools which allows this quasi-stable equilibrium is the perception that the state will enforce some rights for the individuals who don’t oppose them.

    Most citizens are safer in the same way that domesticated animals are safer with a farmer taking care of them than they would be roaming free.They don’t exactly have “rights”, more like privileges that the state has granted them and could take away.

    It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to have a government that cares for its subjects more than for itself, just as there can be farmers like that. And it doesn’t have to be a negative-sum game or zero-sum. But it’s mostly the state that decides how things go. You don’t get a choice whether you’ll have an altruistic government or a selfish one or somewhere in between. That is someone else’s choice, not yours.

    “I guess anarcho-capitalists would disagree with all this?”

    I have the impression they believe that good anarcho-capitalists would respect each other’s property simply because they are good anarcho-capitalists. Bad people would be beaten by the superior firepower, tactics, training, and intelligence of good people. Some bad people might get away with it for awhile, because there are no true guarantees for anybody.

    There’s a certain romance to it. I could imagine I might enjoy living in a society like that, if it worked as advertised. I’m concerned that they might wind up fighting internal wars over abstruse points of the philosophy that they think they should all agree about. Christians did, and anarcho-capitalists might too.

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