#18: What’s Left: Communism, Socialism, Progressivism, Social Democracy, and the Value of Dissent

There seems to be a notion out there that there are different stages of being left-wing or progressive. This goes back, of course, to Hegelian ideas about the Spirit of History, the End of History, and stages of development, which, in some way, were given a materialist spin by Marxism.

Anybody who believes that somehow, “as a society”, “as a people”, “as humanity”, we are moving in some direction through time, following the laws of History (with a capital H), is somehow believing in a “progressive” vision of society, in the sense that we are “moving along” an imaginary arrow of time leading somewhere. If you believe that eventually we will get flying cars, that we will colonize space, that humanity will somehow “evolve” through this process, and that this process is inevitable and that we should help it along, this is what it means to be a progressive, probably. History (with a capital H) is not just the more or less understandable accumulation of events that have happened, but it is a force that can be studied, whose laws can be understood, and the lessons of such study can be applied to our lives and our political vision. This is what “Historical Materialism” means, in a nutshell.

One opposing vision – and there can be many – would be that we are rather ambling along in an un-Historical way through our somewhat chaotic, unpredictable lives, hoping to make sense of things, but living in the humility that every society that ever existed has eventually crumbled, every state fallen, every human being eventually died, and humanity always living under the condition of being an imperfect approximation of larger goals, but never truly being able to live up to it, because of what is called the human condition. The lesson here would be to live your life as much as you can in a moral fashion, to improve the lives not just of yourself but also of others around you, to realize that nobody is perfect and that nobody should be blamed for that, but also, that such realization should not crush you down, but should enable you to pursue realistic goals, to live with hope and with the confidence that no matter what roadblocks life will have for you, you are doing everything you can, and this is just what life is all about. I would call this an agnostic view, maybe even mildly conservative, and it certainly is not seductive, even though probably more realistic.

Even less comforting would be fatalism, or complete acceptance of the order of things, although that could be liberating in the sense that the realization of your eventual complete inability to live forever saves you from even the semblance of false hope.

Yet people seem to need a positive vision, they need hope, they need something to cling to in order to go on. They need comfort, they need something to distract them from those parts of life that are not uplifting. Religion might be a solution, but true religion (true in the sense of not offering false promises or too simplistic answers), or rather theology, is more complex than typically desired, and that which could be called folk-religion may provide some hope, but it oftentimes falters under pressure. The classical question of Theodicy, “how could God let that happen,” does not really have theological substance. If “God is always greater” than our understanding, such a question is pointless, and it does not fit very well with higher-order religious systems. “God wills it” – if not applied to justifying horrendous human activity – is probably the best theological equivalent of Murphy’s Law. While probably true, it is surely neither uplifting, nor attractive.

Thus we come back to how to craft a vision for society. Some Progressivist vision – i.e. the general idea that things will improve over time – can certainly prove attractive. It might thus also seem seductive to help History along and shape that vision politically. Why wait unnecessarily if we can already make things better for everyone? As Marx remarked in his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” So far, so understandable. But how? Marx himself – contrary to popular belief – did not have a concrete vision. He never finished Capital himself, and we should be careful about drawing too concrete conclusions from his incomplete thinking on this. But there is one point that Marx has been making consistently – and most clearly in his letter to Ruge – and it bears repeating time and time and time again, and deserves to be quoted in full. It begins as follows:

“everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. …”

Tough stuff. We do not know the future, so it is better now to rather than to “dogmatically anticipate the world” (i.e. to create some dogmatic utopian state), the new one will come about through criticism of the old. Criticism, or critique, is more than just liking or not liking an idea, but a critical interrogation (truly open-ended) of the powers that be (and – because of the rejection of dogmatism – of the powers that challenge the powers that be. Then follows one of the great Marxian pen-drop put-downs, that caustic and acerbic wit for which he is so well known. But let’s continue, let the past be the past, and what do we need now?

“… Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. …”

Maybe Hegel appeared in Marx’ mind and whispered something of consciousness and spirit, and we get Marx at his most Hegel-ish aloof moments where bold statements are pounding the argument. There is no proof here, only him saying that there is. But it sounds cool. What he probably means is that philosophers can no longer be content at warming their armchair only with presumably complex thoughts spouted at adoring apprentices, but have to apply themselves at matters relevant for the people, for society, to actually liberate people from Plato’s cave rather than to bedazzle them with their skill. Thus now:

“… But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx to Ruge)

Thus if we aim to create a better future, we need to be careful, and make sure that we stay skeptical. This sense of skepticism and critique is interwoven into all of Marx’ thought; it is practically his conditio sine qua non, the condition without which you cannot think about him. Ruthless skepticism means a skepticism even of skepticism. All power needs to be critiqued always. This position is more important than any other political idea Marx may have had; and it is the one impulse remaining throughout all of Marxist intellectual history. And Marx is, or should be, or is frequently declared to be, the cornerstone for the leftist movement itself. You could start with Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, or with Jesus, or with Francis, or Acquinas, or many others, but Marx it is, typically.

Marx’s demand for criticism is a demand for intellectual freedom, and thus for democracy. Utopia ruins freedom, as it is by definition perfect, and the enemy of perfection is the enemy of, well, everyone who wants a utopian future. Marx wants to make things better, but he wants to keep thinking.

The enemy of thinking is dogma. Whenever dogma enters the equation, you enter the perversion of leftist thinking. The “left”, or in French “gauche”, or better, in Italian, “la sinistra”, gets its “sinister” reputation partially from the caustic personalities of a Karl Marx, a Richard Wagner, a George Orwell, a Lech Walesa, or a Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, or Slavoy Žižek. This is as sinister as things should go.

Communism is dogma, it left-wing is utopianism of the worst and most oppressive kind. It is the utopian vision, and states who pursued it, called themselves Socialist (and aspired towards the Communist ideal). “Socialism” and “Communism” are thus the same thing, and “Democratic Socialism” is the term used by revamped Communist parties in former Soviet-style Socialist countries to delude people about what they really are. Socialism can never be democratic if it attaches itself to the idea of dogma, of utopia. You cannot modify socialism through democracy; socialism is a dogma, and dogmas are inherently anti-democratic, anti-criticism, and anti-thinking.

The only thinking alternative is Social Democracy, where democracy (which tends to align with capitalism, because free thinking and free markets go well together) is modified (or mollified) by social thought. Social Democracy is not a failed attempt at becoming socialist or communist. It’s the other way round. Dogmatism, whether it is socialist or communist (or national socialist!) is always a perversion of social democracy.

There is nothing wrong with being moderate, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical, there is nothing wrong with thinking. Any system that wants people to comply rather than to think on their own is not something a thinking person should want to pursue. As Kant said in “What is Enlightenment,” Sapere aude, dare to reason on your own. He was more polite than Marx, but Marx still asks us to think for ourselves, and to support others to do so as well. After all the sound and fury of Marxist discussions and arguments, this is what is, and should, be left.

#17: Coronavirus: This is the Apocalypse

Bear with me. The Greek word “apo-“ means “away from”, or “un”-, and “kaluptô” means to cover, hide, veil. “Apokalypsis” simply means Uncovering, Unveiling, bringing that which was once hidden into the light (alas the phrase in the Latin Requiem, “quidquid latet, apparebit”: whatever hidden, appear it will); to reveal something. Alas, the book of “Revelations” is about revealing something. “Apocalyptic” is something that reveals something, that may bring out a change, but that is not necessarily the end of the world, or something horrible; it’s just whatever may bring out the truth.

(Just imagine me, sitting through the countless times some horror show or movie saw some heroes facing the “Apocalypse”, which would be some weird end of the world scenario, while I was figuratively hitting my head thinking, “this is not what apocalypse means.”)

Anyhow.

No, as far as I can tell, CoViD19 is not bringing about the end of the world. It is bringing death and destruction, but it is revealing something else: We need to change the way we have been doing things. This is the apocalypse we have to understand. We are seeing that our trajectory is all wrong at the moment. Let’s make a list:

  • Global interconnectedness has always been the best route for pandemics to spread. We need to be smart about those connections. At least clean the planes, and filter pathogens out of the air. That should not be too much to ask.
  • If something bad happens, everyone needs to know, politics be damned. Whether this thing came out of a lab accident or a wet market in Wuhan, PRC, we all need to know immediately. Full transparency, full access, no shenanigans. Same with Chernobyl or any other mess back then, same with anything else in the future.
  • We cannot just make stuff in one place globally. This right now means China, but it would also be wrong if everything was made in the US or in Europe. A global system needs redundancies, backups, multiplications, simple as that. Any place on Earth could be hit by a catastrophe, and we should never have an over-reliance on one place only. This is stupidity of the highest order.
  • We need to think globally, whether we like it or not. Does not mean we cannot have or national or regional or individual identities, but we are living in close communion with the world already, and we need to take that into account, the good and the bad. Behave already.
  • The West cannot shy away from believing in individual rights, democracy, rule of law, equality, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right to privacy, the inviolability of life, checks and balances, etc. Don’t let a legitimate crisis lead to an illegitimate destruction of rights fought for over centuries of human history across the globe. These are not just Western rights, they are human rights, and governance standards for good reasons. Dictatorships don’t work in the long run. The Roman Republic knew this: in a crisis, you can appoint a dictator till the end of the crisis, maximum for one year, then things go back to normal. Whether or not that worked in Rome, we can learn from this piece of wisdom.
  • We will have to do what we can to defeat a pandemic with science and discipline, and once that works, we cannot whine “it wasn’t so bad, look!” when the reason for our success were the measures taken.

You get the gist. This is what an apocalypse should be: a wake-up call to get us through the current mess, and prevent the next one which will – just as in any good science fiction or horror show – inevitably appear and be bigger and badder than the last one.

We’ve been warned. No excuses.

#16: Coronavirus and Democracy

We all make mistakes. It is a strength of open societies is that those mistakes will eventually all be ruthlessly and painstakingly revealed, so that we can effectively correct our course and improve our response to crises. This openness, while revealing all the uncomfortable messiness, may seem like doing open-heart surgery with cameras rolling. But that is not a bad thing. It is the only thing that can eventually reinforce societal trust and the consent of the governed.

The purpose of Democracy is not just to change the leaders by democratic vote. It is the best way human societies have discovered that allows such consent to be created time and again without creating the upheaval that a change of leadership regularly creates in non-democratic societies.

With regards to Coronavirus, there appears no single country that has not made a series of mistakes. Typically, there has been denial – it can’t possibly get here. Then, there’s been hand-wringing about what to do, and quite legitimately so. The current voluntary economic restrictions are painful, and have to be weighed against the consequences of the virus. Some governments and leaders have tried to be both hopeful and admonishing. Still today, no single country’s approach really seems to align well with the others, even if it comes down to counting and attributing cause of death (Did someone die because of CoViD19, or with CoViD19 in in addition to other conditions? How do you measure the specific impact of the virus?). It would certainly have helped to have global guidance on that, but I guess this is what happens.

Sadly, every crisis means that the entire world is a collection of different laboratories independently having to solve a problem, with some collaboration. It would have been helpful if China had been honest and transparent, and if the WHO had been less independent in its judgements. Taiwan knows well what to think of them both. That does not mean we don’t need global coordination either, but it needs to be improved.

Once this crisis is becoming more manageable, it will be the open society approach that will prove to be the only one to tackle such problems in the future. Both democracy and science thrive on open confrontation, on honesty, on transparency. They also thrive on convincing people to opt into the right approach, out of their own capacity for reason, rather than on forcing them to comply. If people are not given the choice to do their part to help, but are forcibly locked indoors, or held against their will in horrible conditions, they will rightfully rebel. But if they are convinced, by reason and science, to do what needs to be done to solve this problem affecting us all, they may just do the right thing quite on their own. Democracy believes in citizens, not subjects, it believes in treating people as grown-ups, not children. It is by far the more sustainable approach. At least I hope it is; I don’t think I would like to live in a world where this would not be so. Wash your hands.

#15: Happiness

I have struggled all my life with some form of sense of mortality and the definite sense of an ending. That is, I guess, due to a Catholic upbringing, in which the theme of death is permeating everything, albeit counterpointed with resurrection. I have not always been able to reap the benefit of an unwavering faith that G-d will take care of me just as I wish; because I do not want to presume to know what G-d might want, or to even dare ask G-d to intercede on my behalf. (I use the Jewish spelling of G-d to indicate that we cannot know what “God” actually is).

Life thus consists in hope, but not certainty, that things may well turn out well, but also in the awareness of the struggle that things do not just magically fall into place.

There is also the medieval “Wheel of Fortune” idea, so popularized by the Carmina Burana, which tells the tale that our lives will be favored by the fates some days, and other days not, and that high and low, rich and poor, will suffer from Fortune’s wheel. Breaking the wheel – the utopian notion that was Daenerys’ hope in Game of Thrones – is impossible:

However, hope may lie in realizing and feasting on the punctuated moments of happiness. Akhnaten did have a good little run, as depicted in Philip Glass’ Opera. At the height of his power, he invents monotheism (pace Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays), and enjoys his triumphant moments as the founder of a revised Egyptian religion, whose traces will probably survive as one of its followers, Moses, carries it with him when fleeing oppression in Egypt.

Yet joy does not last, and as Akhnaten’s realm falls, his happiness comes to an end. But it was real – in the years that he indeed was the new founder of his religion:

Just because the past is difficult, the future unseen, and the present stuck in the uncomfortable middle, this should not prevent us from enjoying the happiness we can make in the meantime. It is hard, excruciatingly hard, but possible, every day, to carve out a moment of transcendence, of divinity, of spirituality, of utter joy, of ecstasy, and of shameless undiluted humanity. Whatever darkness may have befallen you today, cast it out for a few moments, and remember, this is your life, and you control your reaction to it, so that, in the end, with hope, you can have peace.

I guess this was a very strangely Catholic post. Oh well. It’s Easter, why not have some hope!

#14: The European Project Needs Both Unity and Disunity

Now in a major crisis, the European Union has a chance to lead. But how should such leadership look like, and how strong should such a union be?

It may well be understandable that currently, during the Coronavirus crisis of 2020, its individual member states are concerned about their own safety, and that they have seemingly fallen back on national thinking. But this would be a misleading conclusion that would fall in line more with those suspicious of the EU as an overreaching enemy of national identities.

But the European Union is not such a super-state, and it should never become one. The history of Europe teaches us two major lessons: First, without some form of unity, European states will defeat each other in their selfish quests for dominance. Many a war has been fought in pursuit of this, and it took several wars of global scope to demonstrate that point eventually. The Seven Years War, the Crimean War, World Wars I+II, and the Cold War have revealed Europe to be a danger to itself and the entire world that needs to be contained by some form of structure stressing cooperative and mutual success over selfishness and deadly competition. Yet second, history has also shown that national, regional, even tribal identities in Europe need to be respected as well, and that they need to also be recognized administratively.

Accordingly, the answer to European Integration can only be a form of supranational, very weak federalism. But this is not a weakness, it is a strength, and it is recognized already in the EU’s motto “united in diversity.”

Throughout history, many a charismatic leader has tried to unite the area that could be called Europe under a single ruler. The only stable approach to this has been the Roman Empire, but this was at a different time, under completely different historical circumstances that cannot quite be compared to our times.

Reasons for the failure of Rome are manifold, and always fun to discuss. There is no one factor to pinpoint. But maybe it helps to see that the great empires of antiquity – which would include Egypt, Persia, Seleucia, and Rome, acted as developmental drivers for the entire Mediterranean region. All these multicultural empires were enabling infrastructure, local development, science, and culture; but they eventually also enabled different regions to develop their own identity. While everybody focuses on the Germanic invasions later on as a cause for the breakup of Western Rome, it is more instructive to look at local independence movements in Gaul, Britain, Palmyra, and other areas. In the end, all subsequent attempts at unifying the entire realm by force would fail, thankfully.

The lesson here may be that large empires can be established when the provinces and regions are weak, but this is, of course, no sustainable economic model. Once provinces and regions grow stronger, centrifugal forces will keep creating division if the central authority is perceived as too strong. If there is any lesson history can provide us, it is probably that.

If we apply this to the European Union, we need to first provide the major caveat that the EU is of course not a structure created by force but voluntarily so. Its creation, however, was hastened by several factors, namely the legacy of World War II, the dangers of the Cold War, the external help from the United States, and finally, the legacy of Soviet oppression. If we simplify these forces, the lesson here is that democracy and freedom are drivers of unity, while authoritarianism is a danger against which European states will eventually rise up.

This reveals the following: Any attempt at European integration that aims for a unified super-state with state-like powers will fail. An all-powerful and intransparent central bureaucracy will kill the European project just as much as any authoritarian dictator will. Brexit surely was idiotic, but predictably so. In order to retain some form of European unity, some form of disunity will need to be tolerated.

#13: Poem: PASSOVER

there’s a feeling rising up
from somewhere deep
inside

the strangest sensation:
intense, and yet gentle,
a realization, for sure,
of something I’ve already known
and yet
don’t care to face all the time

the silliest thing,
it’s so banal,
it is so trivial,
it is so utterly devoid
of any originality
and still
so rarely
truly
expressed

we live our lives
in constant quite anticipation
of something to come,
of something to happen,
of some form of meaning
to emerge
to transform
to fulfill
the way we are

seek pleasure we
seek happiness
seek plain fulfillment
everything
thus we:
how grand a happiness
we might achieve
and last it will
forever more

how sweet such hope
and yet how shallow
yet how vain
yet how dangerous
and plain

to see what’s here
is all we need:
is all we must:

for while the future needs be tended for
its seeds are sowed quite in the now
ideally, since yesteryear
and all we need is to proceed

but future’s work
and past’s achievement
lies in the here
lies in the now:

and if we can’t face
what lies beneath
if empty we fear ourselves to be
no future will fill it
and wither we will

for life is bracketed by death so clearly
in all its morbid obscenity
so unavoidably
and brazenly
and undeniably
just so

we come from nothing
we’ll go to nothing
your hope will be a hope against nothing
or a hope that in this nothingness
nirvana lies, not emptiness:

but still
it’s not for us to know
to hope, believe, aspire, yes:
but know we can’t

and thus
the only thing remaining
lies in the now
lies in the here
so if you lie
about your inner self right here
and if you hope just ‘gainst the truth
you’ll nowhere go
and nowhere be
and nowhere will you see
what all you have
what all is here
in the here
in the now
awaiting a future tender and fragile;
but more so, a present that’s real, not just passing:

‘tis just another way
of saying, life is short,
I know
and yet
this moment
this saddest feeling
this saddest knowing
had to be meditated upon
had not to be passed over
just too eas’ly so
or unthinkingly

this night
this night of all
like every night
time passes by
life passes by
like a thief in the night:
you better know
you better have done
what necessary was:
you better hope
that there is substance
in your life
while you are meditating
on the abyss of death
you need to focus on life
which is given meaning today
and only today
and in all the todays
still coming
till meaning is given by death
finally

but today
you will remember
the oppression of days past
to ensure that none such oppression will ever return
but today
you will remember
the promise of days yet to come
to ensure that this promise will be there for all
but today
tonight
you will sleep, hopefully, knowing that if time,
if time,
if time had decided
that your work now be completed,
then today
would be a good day
to see an end to your suffering
and a beginning
to the closing
of your days

if not today,
if not tomorrow,
then sure another day

but today it is
today it is
today
it is time
to just be
just be
and be just
to yourself
and your love

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam,
shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

philjohn.com/poems

#12: We Are All Just Human Beings, and We Are All Predictably Stupid

We are all just human beings, and we are all predictably stupid. It is easy to judge strange behaviors in times of Coronavirus, but we should not be surprised. This is how human beings have always behaved in the face of an “invisible enemy,” as President Trump so descriptively calls it. We cannot see it. We don’t even know whether we have it. We don’t know whether we are in danger, because all we have is statistical knowledge, and symptoms of the disease show themselves very late, but you are infectious much earlier.

At which point should we realize that life, as it was, is over for the time being? And if it is not over for the time being, it could be over, over over, permanently over for far too many people to have this be a trivial matter.

People congregate even though they should not. People visit aging relatives in virus-infested areas even though they should not. Everything we should be doing goes against everything we have been doing, all our instincts are being violated, all our routines, our most human self denied. To be human is to be gregarious, tactile, close, and social – at least for most. But even the most antisocial would appreciate closeness with other antisocial people. Like likes like.

It is spring, and it is beautiful outside, and yet, we are supposed to distance ourselves. Shopping becomes an epic quest just as much as an ordeal. This sucks. It is not fun. Blessed those in large enough houses even with some greenspace living with people that they actually want to be with. That’s not a given. If you chose to be with the wrong partner, now you’ll know.

We could solve this probably easily. But we all need to be in it together. But we are stupid. Individually, we are stupid if we insist on carrying on as before, or if we were unprepared, or living with the wrong crowd. Systemically, we are stupid if we have not understood that people need to have a decent space to live and work, that you have to have protections, and that your economy needs certain buffers and protections to be able to survive a prolonged ordeal. We should also know how to make critical stuff at home, and that we need to stockpile stuff. Hospitals must never again be underfunded, doctors and staff never again underprepared and underprotected. This is bare life, at the barest.

In the future, we will all have learned from our mistakes, and none of this will ever happen. Entire articles and eventually books will be written about the transformative effect of Coronavirus, and how it changed the world forever, and how it brought home the message that we should take care of nature if we want it to take care of us.

Bullwinkle. We are too stupid to do this.

We will go back doing what we always have done. All those people that apparently had to be told to wash their hands will probably go back to not doing it, even though there are other nasties out there. We will again defund our healthcare system, and most of all, destroy our environment even more (especially those darn animals carrying all those viruses), and yearn for a robotic workforce that can never be sick. They will be necessary, because all this working from home may give some people the idea that we should just pay people for being themselves, and have those robots do all the work.

We will be just stupid enough to do this. Come on, man! Stupidity, after all, is our only true renewable resource. Look at the beaches, the parks, the private parties, some churches, even some countries, and you will see that we may be from the “homo” genus, but the “sapiens” in our name is dripping with irony, so much so that it is almost sarcasm. The “wise” human, sure, very funny.

Ain’t gallows humor grand?