On Ownership

I had an interesting conversation with three friends not long ago.  They were trying to convince me that they didn’t actually own their homes, because if they didn’t pay their taxes, the government would take their homes away.  Hence, they argue, they were only renting their homes–from the government.

After thinking about it, I realized that, although specious, this argument provides an opportunity to examine the question:  what does it mean to own something?  I speak of this briefly in point #7a here, but it is perhaps worth expanding on.

First of all, there seems to be some confusion between “possession” and “ownership.”  While we often colloquially refer to stuff we own as our “possessions,” I want to use a more narrow, precise definition. When I possess something, it is under my immediate control.  Right now, I possess a guitar, and I also possess a book that my friend Will loaned me.  I own the former, not the latter.  Ownership implies a legal right, which, by definition, invokes the courts, the laws, the police–in short, the mechanisms of the State that exist to protect property.  My possession of my guitar implies a relationship between me and the guitar; my ownership of it implies a relationship between me and the State–in other words, between me and other people (many of them carrying guns).  These people are paid to (barring unusual circumstances) prevent someone from depriving me of the control of something I own, or punish someone who has done so.

This approach makes even more sense if you look at it historically. The question: what can and cannot be considered property? is something that each social class immediately redefines when it takes control of the State.  For example, when the State is controlled by a slave-owning class, human beings can be property, and the force of the State is used to protect that property.  When the slave-power is overthrown, either by feudal lords (in Asia or Europe), or by emerging capitalists (in 19th Century America), this changes, and those who lately owned property in human beings cry out helplessly against their property being stolen.*  And the history of when, where, and how land can be owned, and what can be done with it, is a long and complex tangle of culture and class that I’m not even going to attempt to describe in detail.

At the moment, we live under the control of a State run by capitalists, hence, property is defined in such a way as to serve the interests of those who exploit the labor-power of others in order to appropriate surplus value. The fight over the exact degree of exploitation involves conflict with the individual capitalist, and also, at times, with the State itself, when the State is forced to recognize certain rights that work against the direct interest of capital (the fight for the closed shop, the right to strike, civil rights, &c).  As long as class society exists, this fight will exist in some form.  It is called the class struggle, and, when carried to its conclusion, it is called revolution.  But what I want to emphasize is that now, and at every period of history as long as there has been private property and thus a State, the State gets to decide what property is, and what you may do with it, and when you may keep it.  It does not always get to do this however it wants, without conflict or contention; but at the end of the day, it is the State that decides, and it decides in the interests of the ruling class.

So my answer to my friends who say that they are only renting their homes from the government is: Sure, you are welcome to define ownership in such a way that makes that true, but, if you do, the words “ownership” and “property” immediately lose all meaning.  The only meaning those words have ever had, is to describe a relation among people in general, and between an individual and the State in particular.  The right of the State to define and control property flows inevitably from the interests of the class that controls that State (that is, after all, what “ruling class” means).

In conclusion, if you are going to discuss ownership, or property, be aware that you are talking about property as defined by a particular State working for the interests of a particular class at a particular time.  To even discuss the concept as a pure abstraction is unscientific and ultimately useless.

*ETA: I think my favorite music is the wailing of an expropriated ruling class about how their property has been stolen.

History and Objectivity

Sometimes I feel the need to mount my white charger, pick up my sturdy lance, and ride off in defense of some poor, abused word.  Often, it is a word that has been mugged and robbed of its precision, like hopefully.  Sometimes, it is a word that has been enslaved and required to labor under a burden of meaning it was never meant to carry, like, relationship.  The fact that these one-man campaigns are hopeless does nothing to discourage me; on the contrary, it just makes me feel more heroic, noble, and self-sacrificing.  Please do not disabuse me of this illusion; my self-love might not be able to stand the truth.

Today, we fight for the defense of a word that has been framed for a crime it didn’t commit.  I refer, as you are already aware from the title, to the word objectivity.  Somewhere along the line, objectivity, particularly in discussions of history, came to be used by some to mean something like, not having an agenda, or, not being a part of what one is examining, or, pretending to have a perspective that is uninfluenced by one’s knowledge or experience.  Naturally, with definitions such as this, poor objectivity finds itself convicted of uselessness without due process, and ends up in solitary confinement in some ideological prison where it must endure of hours of people taunting it with comments like, “there is no such thing as objectivity in history.”  Cruel and unusual, I say.  We will call this the casual definition, because calling it sloppy is a bit more confrontational than I’m ready for just yet. Now, where did I put that lance?

Let us begin with the dictionary, because I like to know dictionary definitions before I ignore them.  The American Heritage Dictionary, 1981, has this for definition 1 of objective: “Of or having to do with a material object as distinguished from a mental concept, idea, or belief.  Compare subjective.”  Definition 2 goes on, “Having actual existence or reality.”  It is not until we get to definition 3a that we find, “Uninfluenced by emotion, surmise, or personal prejudice,” which at least waves at the definition to which I refer in the previous paragraph.  And then 3b merrily goes on, “Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.”

We often hear, “No one can be objective regarding history.”  I beg to submit the following: 1. Generally, when someone says that, it is the casual definition that is being used.  2. By the casual definition, not only can no one be objective, but those who claim to be are usually being disingenuous, and working very hard to conceal their agenda.  3. Using the casual definition, objectivity is not only impossible, but also unnecessary, and not even a goal worth striving for; on the contrary, a good historian makes not the least effort to be objective in that sense, knowing that such an effort can only lead to distortion.

But when we go with the dictionary definition, we have an entirely different approach and result.  When I say a work of history is objective, I mean that it bases itself on real, material events and relationships.  Right now, I’m studying the history of Kansas, 1856-60, and the formation of the Republican Party.  I neither expect nor desire the historian to pretend to display events as if devoid of prejudice, belief, or agenda.  What I do demand is that conclusions be based on facts that are clearly laid out, that the historian’s beliefs and programs be either clearly stated or easily deduced, that “inconvenient facts” not be omitted, and that the internal consistency of the narrative, built on verifiable facts, be laid out.  In other words, “show your work.”

My two favorite historical works are James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.  McPherson makes no secret of his antipathy for the slave power, and Trotsky, of course, is quite clear and open about his support for the insurrection of which he was one of the principal architects and the primary organizer.  What makes these works so profoundly convincing is the revelations of the general historical laws at work effectively explain the events; the logic holds together.  In both cases, it becomes very difficult to dispute the conclusions without taking the position that the author is out-and-out lying about facts (which is problematic in both cases, given how easily verifiable the facts are).

When I refer to a work or a method as subjective, I mean that it bases itself on the particular, individual, personal.  A work is subjective insofar as “I feel” is the starting point, as opposed to, “this happened.”  Even more so if, “this is how you should feel about it,” as opposed to, “this is why it happened,” comes slithering through the subtext.  Individual, personal experience can be vital in helping us empathize with another human being, but it is not how we come to a scientific understanding of the processes of history which, though inevitably happening to individuals, are nevertheless fundamentally impersonal: they are what happened whether I like it or not.

To be sure, no one can have a complete, perfect, total understanding of an historical event any more than one can have a complete, perfect, total understanding of, for example, the formation of Earth’s crust.  But we do not find hoards of pseudo-intellectuals telling us how geology cannot be studied objectively.  To achieve a scientific understanding of the formation of the Earth’s crust, a geologist does not base his work on how he feels about it, but rather endeavors, as well as possible, to determine what really happened and why.  And then we test that understanding by making predictions, and so modify our theories as needed.  To apply this same method to the study of history is, without doubt, more difficult: the effects of prejudice and social pressures generated by class society are much more immediate.  But that is no excuse for applying different standards. So, yes, I reject the notion that there can be no objectivity in historical studies.  Those who support this notion are, in my opinion, abusing the poor word, and ought to stop.


In the Game of Science vs the Humanities, We Lose

My friend Casey Blair just made this post, which I liked because it made me think. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

There has been a fair amount of discussion in Some Circles about which is more important, education in science, or education in the humanities.  The general attitude is, you only have so many hours of education in college, you can only take so many classes, you have to choose how to divide them.  Casey points out that what is trendy today is to concentrate on math and science, because that will make you employable, and she elegantly picks apart the logic behind that position.  The crux of her argument is this: “Education is not primarily about teaching students employable skills.  That’s called training, and that also matters, but it’s not the same as education. Education is about teaching people how to think.”

In my opinion, the biggest problem in education today is that one needs massive student loans just to get enough of an education to get a job that will never allow one to pay off the student loans.  But, for the moment, let us ignore that and concentrate on the issue of education in science vs education in the humanities.

As far as Casey went, I have no disagreements; my argument comes in the next step.

I would argue that science is, in fact, about teaching people how to think.  However, when I say science, I do not just mean, “CSCI 4061 – Introduction to Operating Systems ,” or, “MATH 4707 – Introduction to Combinatorics and Graph Theory,” or, “BMEN 2501 Cellular and Molecular Biology for Biomedical Engineers .”  When I speak of science, I speak of using using our reasoning abilities and our means of gathering information to form conclusions that bring our thoughts as close as possible to objective processes in the real world.

In this regard, there can be no distinction between “science” and “the humanities.”

It is a false, pervasive, and dangerous dichotomy.

The point Casey makes above, that I quoted, is exactly on point: The idea of education is, yes, to teach us to think.  But just as much, it is to make us more complete, more empathetic, more well-rounded human beings.  That is also the role of art in life, as well as in education.  A good education ought to help us understand the world, both physically and emotionally–or, if you will, spiritually.

I think it is one of the great crimes of capitalism that today fewer and fewer people have access, not only to training in how to think, but in how to get the most out of works of art.  Of course, the closing of museums and the attacks on symphony orchestras are part of that same process.

I’m getting off-topic.  Sorry.   I’ve often heard things like, “science shows us how we change the world, the humanities show us why” and similar distinctions.  They’re clever, but I don’t agree. My point is, I think it is misleading and pernicious to make such a sharp divide between the sciences and the humanities. What matters is being able to understand, operate in, and change our world.   When it comes to education, to understanding how to think and to fully appreciate the world around us, we all need it all, and we all deserve it all, and, really, I don’t think that’s asking for so much.

Idea to Matter to Idea to Matter


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.



FUCK post-modernism

I made a tweet regarding events in Chile on this day in 1973, and included a link to an article that, placing the blame above all on Washington, was also critical of Allende.  Someone tweeted this back: “FWIW that narrative differs from the one you find in Chile, where e.g. Allende is regarded as socialist.”

The word “narrative” jumped out at me, and I realized suddenly that it had been months since I last spewed forth my utter hatred and disgust for post-modern philosophy.

Post-modernism is built on the notion that we can’t actually know anything, we only construct “narratives.” The very concept of “narrative” carries the implication that one is as good as another, and one chooses a narrative based on one’s goals.  But goals are subjective; truth is objective, and thus to interpret the world based on narrative is to deny that it is possible to actually know anything.  But all of human progress has come from the effort to know things, and then act on that knowledge.  It’s not about “narrative,” it’s about the effort to discover the  laws of motion that guide processes in the objective world.  This inevitably leads the post-modernist to reject the concept of progress.  I find this appalling.  Also, stupid.

Post-modernism works very hard to use language that obfuscates and excludes–that’s why it’s so easily subject to hoaxing; anything that wants to consider itself a science ought to make clarity and precision and transparency guiding principles.  In particular, post-modernism uses Marxist-sounding lingo in its effort to undermine what is most vital for Marxism–that is, understanding social processes and communicating that understanding to the working class.

As I said earlier, post-modernism attacks and rejects the very notion of progress.  They do so, today, using the latest and most advanced technology that progress has produced.

Post-modernism is built on attacking Enlightenment beliefs.  There were, to be sure, ideas produced by the Enlightenment that deserve serious criticism: the perfectibility of Man, for example, or the belief that human thought can be independent of time, place, and material conditions.  But post-modernism attacks what was most progressive in the Enlightenment: the idea that human beings can learn, can work to improve conditions, can make advances in social and economic equality.

Post-modernism not only rejects the notion that we can learn from history, but, in many cases, insists that there is no such thing–that there is no objective truth to be known in past events.  The idea that people will study history from the point of view of their own beliefs is not new; historians have known it as long as the discipline of history has existed.  To go from there to utter rejection of the validity of historical study is like saying that, because human beings are mortal, the medical profession should be abolished.  I suspect many post-modernists have visited a doctor (although, in many cases, I wish they hadn’t).

During a discussion at this year’s Fourth Street, someone mentioned that, in the arts and sciences, post-modernism was most associated with, among other things, architecture.  Someone at the table where we were sitting remarked, “I don’t know about you, but I want the person who designed the building I’m in to believe there’s an objective world.”


ETA: After some discussion with jenphalian, it seems I need to clarify something.  The word “narrative” is not, in fact, evil.  There are times it’s appropriate when discussing someone’s view of events and interpretation of facts.  But I will stand by my position that these times do not include efforts to understand politics, economics, or, really, anything beyond the personal level.