On Morality

I’m watching a Facebook discussion on taxation and health care, in which an arch-reactionary is attacking the concept that health care is a human right; specifically, attacking it on moral grounds. Yes, of course, your immediate reaction is to laugh, or perhaps roll your eyes. But for me, there is a significance to this that is important.
It is a reminder that morality does not exist above society, is not handed down from God, is not inherent in the air we breath or the water we drink, but rather is a product of society, of human interaction. Moral systems, moral codes, are invented by human beings, and in class society, any moral system serves the interests of a definite class. In feudal society, to oppose the king was immoral. As the bourgeoisie began to gain power and influence, they created their own morality, in which, eventually, resistance to the king was laudable. In the antebellum South, opposition to slavery was immoral; but to the abolitionist, who represented the future and the interests of Eastern capitalism, and to the slave, whose deepest interest was emancipation, slavery itself was immoral. Today, failure to respect private property is immoral.
Then there are those who attempt to place themselves above society, and either make judgments about the worth of various moral systems as if reflecting eternal values; or, worse, take themselves entirely out of the conflict and make observations about all moral systems as if they were all equal and we can pick one based on whim and it would be no better or worse than any other; or still worse, and still more common, that the value of a moral system can be determined by only examining the system itself, outside of its social and historical context.  These people, too, serve definite class interests.
I am willing to make judgments about certain actions as being good, or bad, or heroic, or vile. I do this based on the morality I have chosen, which is a morality that, to the best of my ability to understand, serves the interests of the working class. All ideologies in class society serve class interests, and that especially includes our sense of right and wrong. If you have not examined your morality, if you have not thought about where it comes from and what class interests it serves, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to do so.
Recommended reading: Trotsky: Their Morals and Ours

Trotksy Their Morals and Ours V 4


War and Capitalism and Stupidity and Aquariums

A friend of mine had an aquarium with a snail problem.  In case you didn’t know (I didn’t), snails in an aquarium can cause nitrogen build-up that can kill the fish.  She dealt with the snail problem and the nitrogen build-up.  A year later, she carelessly permitted the filters to become clogged with the waste products of the fish (yeah, fish poo).  This caused a nitrogen build-up that can kill fish.

As she was explaining this to me, you know what I didn’t say?  I didn’t say, “fish poo can’t be the cause of nitrogen build-up, and the proof is, there was nitrogen build up last year before there was a fish-poo problem.”  Because, you know, that would have been a very stupid thing to say.

Here’s another stupid thing to say: “Capitalism can’t be responsible for war, and the proof is, there was war before there was capitalism.”

Um, hello?  No one said capitalism invented war.  War, in the most general sense, is a product of scarcity.  (No, it is not  because “people are evil,” and it isn’t the product of religious differences, though certainly religious differences can be and often are used to incite a population into doing what it would druther not.)  But you know those other economic arrangements we monkeys came up with in order deal with the problem of scarcity? They don’t exist any more.  Today, we have capitalism.  And, you know what?  Capitalism, among many other benefits (as well, to be sure, as countless crimes), has improved the productivity of labor so much, there is no longer any need for scarcity.  And thus, there is no longer any need for war.

So why is there war?  Because capitalism is organized on the basis of nation-states, and because of the nature of the profit system, in which production is inextricably tied to amassing personal wealth.   Thus, production, through the medium of accumulation of personal wealth, is tied to control of markets, resources, labor, all of which are divided among nation-states.  The US is bombing civilians in Yemen so the Koch brothers and Jeff Bezos can add more zeroes to their bank accounts, and they are in the position where they can (and in some ways must) do that because of the capitalist mode of production.  The irony is not lost on me that it is as a result of scarcity that millions of people have had to die to keep a few bastards living in luxury.

The point is, the fact that we can eliminate scarcity doesn’t mean we have eliminated scarcity. And we cannot eliminate scarcity until we break once and for all the relationship between production and the amassing of personal wealth.  Once we’ve done that, there will no longer be scarcity, and thus, no longer war.  In the meantime, the reason we still have war, is because we still have capitalism.  Kapeesh?

(Just in passing, this provides the answer to those smug idiots who like to say, “Neener neener  under socialism who gets to decide who gets the rare things like vintage wine and caviar?”  Just ask yourself: would you go to war for it?  If not, shut up.  If so, you’re a bloody sociopath, and kindly go shoot yourself.   I’m not feeling patient right now.)

Anyway, the next time some guy tells me that capitalism can’t be responsible for war because there was war before there was capitalism, I’m going to look him dead in the eye and say, “Fish poo.”

♪ Feelings, Nothing more than Feelings ♫

There’s an old joke that goes, a psychotic thinks 2+2=5.  A neurotic knows 2+2=4 but he hates it.  My various brain scientist friends can, no doubt, explain what is wrong with the joke, but it does make a certain point: 2+2=4 whether we like it or not.

The first time this sort of thing came up was on another blog, years ago, during a discussion about the religious right, politics, and stuff like that. I am fascinated by the way people’s ideas change in response to broad, social, real-world events, and made a controversial statement that provoked heated discussion. You know, like it does.  Many people took issue with me, and some of them made strong arguments.  What knocked me down, however, was one comment that said, in essence, your position offends me, therefore it is wrong, full stop. I believe my mouth literally dropped open.

Then a month or two ago on my Facebook page, there was a discussion about an issue that, in my opinion, is nothing short of vital: in considering police murder of unarmed workers, poor people, and minorities, do we address it as a human right being denied those who are at risk from the police, or as a privilege granted those who are not?  The different answers reflect different views of the nature of society, of the role of the police, of the mechanisms under the surface, and lead to vastly different methods of struggle.  If we care about police violence, we must consider it.  The discussion, quite properly, expanded to the more general approach of human rights verses privilege discourse.  And then someone said, with the exact air of playing a trump card, “When you tell me that I am being denied basic human rights, you make me feel I am not human.” Just…wow.

It’s happened since then, more than once, especially when I’ve exercised my sense of irony.  That question—irony—ought to come down to, “Are you imposing irony as a means of sneering, or are you exposing the actual irony that exists within the conditions you’re discussing?”  That is the key question.  The former cannot advance our understanding, whereas in the latter case, well, sometimes, to refrain from being ironic would be to distort the circumstances—the irony is right there.  For example, one guy on Facebook is justly outraged by those who respond to police murders by saying, “what about black on black crime?” and yet this same guy cannot hear about Israel’s attacks on Palestinians without saying, “What about those other people who attack Palestinians?  Why don’t you talk about them?”  The irony is there, all I’m doing is pointing it out.  And, more and more lately, the response to this sort of irony (for the record, not from this individual) is:  You must be wrong because your opinion makes me feel bad.

There have been occasions on this blog where it was painfully obvious that the responses were generated by hurt feelings.  For example, my opinion is that ideology has a class basis, and I feel the most important thing we can do when attempting to understand an ideology is to determine what social class it serves.  So, am I surprised when when people are offended by my discussion of petit-bourgeois ideology?  I am not.  Nor am I pleased that they are offended.  But their offense (and my feeling about giving it) is neither here nor there in terms of whether I’m right.  I mean, none of us, I think, set out to hurt anyone’s feelings, and rudeness is usually an indicator of political bankruptcy; but we have to ask: in discussions that are aimed at coming to a better understanding of society with the aim of improving it, just how important, in a given case, are someone’s feelings? I imagine many scientists felt some level of offense and even outrage when Einstein introduced the General Theory of Relativity, thus calling into question a great deal of what they believed. They did not, however, spend much time telling Einstein his ideas were offensive, the burning question was: Was he right?  What can be called a scientific approach in the most general sense, ie, an effort to determine the objective laws that explain social activity, must, in my opinion, be the foundation of any effort to make things better.  Thus I am baffled by statements that boil down to, “I reject your analysis of the social role of the police in capitalist society because it makes me feel bad.”

To be clear, I am not saying, “You are wrong to be offended.”  On the contrary, there are beliefs and opinions that ought to offend us; we’re dealing with politics, which means with human lives, with people being hurt.  But our offense, whether ideological or personal, whether objectively valid or only subjectively, is not an answer to whether something is true or false.  Recently, a politician opined in so many words that there were no significant contributions to technology or culture by anyone except white people.  If that doesn’t offend you, something is wrong with you.  But the offense doesn’t get us very far; when someone collected a list (a long, long list) of the contributions to culture and technology by various Asian, African, Indian, and Middle-Eastern societies, that was a far better answer than the outrage and indignation we felt.

The only explanation I can come up with, is that underneath such attitudes is the idea that we cannot understand; that time spent striving to learn the objective causes of racial oppression, of imperialist war, of police violence, are wasted. We can’t know, we can’t understand, so let’s instead concentrate on what we can understand: our feelings.  To put it another way, if there is no objective reality, just a collection of subjective opinions, than it is reasonable to conclude that feelings take precedent over other considerations.  I reject the notion that there is no objective reality, and, indeed, nearly all of my opinions flow from this rejection.

Or else, maybe, it is simply a massive sense of entitlement that says, “I get to say whatever I want, but no one has the right to make me feel bad.”

I will say this as succinctly as I can: If I or someone else makes an ironic remark that hurts your feelings, then the next question is: is the irony being used to cover up the lack of a thought-out position, or is it exposing irony that truly exists in that situation?  If the former, yes, by all means, call me on it—I’m far from perfect in this regard.  If the latter, then it may be time to reconsider your stand.  If it is not irony, but a political position, and the only reason you don’t agree is because it makes you feel bad, I cannot help but wonder how much you’re involved in social issues in order to improve the world, and how much your agenda stops at feeling good.  And if the latter is really all you care about, well, that makes me feel bad.

The petty-bourgeois intellectuals are introspective by nature. They mistake their own emotions, their uncertainties, their fears and their own egoistic concern about their personal fate for the sentiments and movements of the great masses. They measure the world’s agony by their own inconsequential aches and pains.” — James P. Cannon

Inequality and the Police

If we are to combat police violence, racial or otherwise, we must first begin by understanding it.

Social inequality is a reflection and a product of economic inequality.  Unless we are to wallow in unscientific claptrap about “human nature” and “tribalism,” we must recognize that the essence of social inequality is that it provides a material and ideological structure that permits some to take things by denying them to others.  Racial inequality is a particularly clear example of this.  For anyone who hasn’t read it, I recommend MLK’s speech at the end of the Montgomery to Selma march.  Whatever disagreements I have with King’s pacifism and reformism, he certainly understood the origins of racial oppression, and gave a beautiful and succinct summary beginning in paragraph 9.   I also cannot recommend too highly the book he refers to, The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward.

In order for economic and social inequality to exist, three things are necessary: the first is the production of a surplus; you cannot have an argument about who gets the extra apple until there is an extra apple.  The second is an ideology that accepts inequality as normal, as just part of life–the idea that we live (or could live, or almost live) in a meritocracy is one, a sense of morality accepted from the oppressors through their control of the media and the academy is another.  Any moral code, such as pacifism, that interferes with the fight for equality serves the interests of those who benefit from continued oppression.   Reformist ideology by definition treats the object it intends to reform, capitalism, as permanent, and thus plays its part in accepting inequality is normal.

The third is a means of enforcing the inequality through violence and the threat of violence.  This is, and always has been, exactly the role of the police.  I think, of all the illusions under which many people operate, one of the greatest is that it is possible to fight against police violence without simultaneously fighting for social and economic equality, because violence in defense of  economic inequality is why the police exist.  The fight for social and economic equality is the fight for socialism.

What Middle Class Ideology Means

I’ve found myself using the term “middle class ideology” and realized that I’ve never explained what I meant. Let’s start with some basics: The bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, or ruling class, means that class of people who live by selling the products of the labor of others. The working class are those who live by selling their labor-power to capitalists. There is also a broad middle class of small shop owners, craftsmen, family farmers, private contractors, free-lance artists, middle managers, and academics.

The middle class is, by definition, caught between the two major classes of society. The bourgeoisie has the entire state at its command: the police forces, the military, the jails, the courts, surveillance legal and illegal; in a word, overwhelming armed might, backed up by ownership of the media and control of education, all of which represents enormous power. The proletariat, insofar as they are organized, has the capability for mass, united action, and, even more, have in their collective hands all of the wheels that make society function, that produce and transport the goods we need, keep the roads open, keep us healthy, and create and maintain all of the infrastructure that permits society to function, all of which represents enormous power.

The middle class, or the petty bourgeoisie, has—well, they have hope that between the two clashing armies they won’t get crushed to death. The bourgeoisie advances its interests in direct conflict with the working class, ie, by attempting to drive down wages and conditions so that a larger share of the surplus value goes into their pockets. The working class advances its interests in direct conflict with the bourgeoisie, ie, by attempting to raise wages and improve conditions so that a larger share of the surplus value goes into their pockets. The middle class, as a class, has no direct way to advance their interests. As individuals, they may choose to align with the working class, with the ruling class, or, most often, they will hope and pray that the two great classes do not come into open conflict, because that is a dangerous time to be in the middle: major labor battles are inevitably accompanied by the bankruptcy of small businesses and difficult times at best for artists, managers and academics. Thus it is in the interests of the middle class, above all, that conflict between these armies be prevented, or at least delayed as long as possible.

As long as society is driven by the conflict between property owners and those who must labor for the enrichment of the property owners, political ideologies will and must represent, above all, the interests of one of the classes of society: ideologies either emerged and gained popularity through educational institutions run by the ruling class, or ideologies that grew up in conscious opposition to them, and all ideologies gained influence because they “spoke” to some segment of society. No one would make such a simplistic claim as that the social class to which you belong is the only thing that determines your ideology: if that were true, every worker would be thoroughly imbued with revolutionary consciousness and there would be no need for a vanguard party. But to understand the development of political ideas in class society, we must begin, above all, with understanding whose class interests those ideas serve.

Ideologies of the ruling class are easy to identify if we bother to look; nationalism and patriotism come first of course—we should see ourselves above all as part of a nation, not a class. But there are others: What’s good for GM is good for America. Thou shalt not steal. Law and order. You, too, can become a rich property owner if only you work hard enough to enrich someone else in the meantime. Your success or failure is purely a function of yourself and has nothing to do with social conditions, &c &c. Under certain conditions, pacifism.* Anything such as racism and sexism and hatred of immigrants or foreign workers that pits one section of the working class against another is of obvious benefit to those who have nothing to fear except working class unity.

Ideologies that are in the interest of the working class are those of solidarity, of resistance to tyranny, of class consciousness, of democracy, of equality, of independence from the political frauds of the class enemy. Even more, ideologies that actually help us understand the processes of history, that help lay bare the conditions that determine the laws of motion of society, help arm the working class for battle. We might even go so far as to say that every idea (ie, science) that helps us understand the objective processes of the world is, in a revolutionary epoch, at least in some measure revolutionary. This could help to explain the close ties between political reactionaries and those who oppose science. Marxism is, so far, the highest form of working class ideology, not because it is a schema or a system or a set of formulas, but because it is above all a method for understanding the development of the class struggle and providing a guide for activity to advance the working class.

Ideologies of the middle class** inevitably attempt to soften, hide, and diminish the conflict of the great classes. If you are looking to identify middle class ideology, look always for ideas that disguise hard edges and blur lines: Do not speak of enemies, we are all just people. Let’s not talk about conflicts over profit, but rather about how something makes someone feel (the middle class is always big on feelings). Don’t get upset about political disagreement, it’s just ideas. Let us, above all, renounce violence.* Let’s not talk about class conflict, but about love and kindness. Do not use harsh language that “alienates” people—ie, it makes them feel bad, and “how are you going to convince them if you’re being mean to them?” as if it were a question of convincing those who have already taken a stand on the other side! But the middle class, you see, hates the idea that there are “sides” and so, to them, everything must boil down to ideas, and if people oppose one another, that must only be because they have different ideas. Middle class ideologies like to talk about “people.” As in, “people need to realize this,” or, “people should stop doing that.” If they do make divisions among people, they will be based on anything but class; that is, any division that does directly bring them into conflict with capitalist society.

It can pretty much be categorically stated: when you see a cry against social injustice that turns your attention away from the actual oppressors—ie, the capitalist class—and turns your attention to another section of those exploited by capitalism, you are seeing, in essence, “let us see how much we can get without running the risk of making our masters angry,” and this fear of making the masters angry runs through middle class ideology like a yellow thread: whether it is fear of damaging one’s career, fear of outraging public opinion, or just fear of starting something without being able to control it, fear is the unifying factor. I got into a mess a while ago on these pages when I referred to a certain well-known individual as a Stalinist, even though he had explicitly broken from Stalin. I think part of the confusion (that I didn’t understand at the time) comes exactly here: When I speak of Stalinism as an ideology, one thing I am speaking of is a deliberate turn within the workers movement away from the working class and toward a middle class agenda that will, in the hopes of the Stalinist, prevent or delay a conflict with capital.

As we can see, middle class ideology, though concerned with avoiding, preventing, delaying, and softening the conflict between the major classes, inevitably ends up, because of this, supporting the status quo, and as the status quo means rule by capital, middle class ideology must end by supporting the ruling class. That is, as well as I can explain it, what I mean when I refer to middle class ideology. I hope it helps.


*Pacifism deserves its own special note, because of how it moves from a bourgeois ideology to a middle class ideology and back: During an imperialist war, sections of the middle class will be pacifist, because they see the war as oppressive and immoral, but can’t go so far as to advocate a military victory for the other side. But once the imperialists have secured their victory, all of a sudden the imperialists become the pacifists, and resistance by the conquered people is wrong because they are “resorting to violence to solve their problems.” We saw this method with the attacks on the indigenous peoples of the United States, with Israel, later with Yugoslavia, today all over the Middle East.

**Ironically, one of the most pernicious forms of middle-class ideology is the supposed rejection of ideology, usually expressed in some disdainful comment about “isms” that carry the implication that as long as you don’t know the name of your ideology, you don’t have one, reminding one of the famous character of Molière who said, “Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it.”