A Guaranteed Income

Every man speculates upon creating a new need in another in order to force him to a new sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence, and to entice him into a new kind of pleasure and thereby into economic ruin. Everyone tries to establish over others an alien power in order to find there the satisfaction of his own egoistic need.

– Karl Marx, Marx’s Concept of Man, 140

It should be noted in the above quote, taken from Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844, that Marx indicates that it is “[e]very man” and not just capitalists who have an interest in exploitation. The capitalist is not unique in the desire to exploit others, that is common to us all, says Marx. What separates capitalists from everyone else is that they have the means to exploit. If we are not all free, then none of us are, and this is precisely why.

In this post, I want to give a libertarian socialist defense of universal basic income. This will require some specific definitions to the notion of “universal” and “basic” and it will require a defense that is not reliant on consequences. In other words, to be a libertarian socialist defense, it cannot say “hey, see how this, and this, and this would be better with a UBI!” Such arguments are all well and good and have been made repeatedly by others with better data and research than I care to possess. See here, here, and here for arguments of that kind. Instead, I want to present us with a socialist argument for, what I will call a guaranteed income. The reason for a socialist argument is that without a rupture with capitalism, a universal basic income would really just subsidize wages for employers.


Before I present the argument I need to be clear about what I’m suggesting. The “guaranteed income” is not really universal and “basic” is too abstract to be of any value. What I intend is an income for people whose labor is less traditionally rewarding in a capitalist society, but is nevertheless important. The first and foremost of these types of labor is what I’m calling austerity. Austerity is the labor of making do with less. Austerity is the job of the poor. They learn to live with less so everyone else can have more, more cheaply. This is thrift and it is so often exploited that I don’t think another living soul has ever even suggested that the rich exploit the poverty of the poor. They take the benefit of being poor, which is free time, and remove the ability of the poor to be industrious for their own gain. I will spare us the details but suffice it to say that it takes a lot of work to be poor in a capitalist society, see Nickled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich for why. Other types of labor are better known as labor if still unpaid or underpaid. Domestic labor is at the head of this class, followed shortly by child-rearing and education, and the copious amounts of internships and art gigs people do in the hope of building a portfolio.

Free labor that benefits another is another class like austerity that I’ll be mentioning. This one already has a name. It is called slavery. A guaranteed income, as we will see, conforms slavery into austerity, where one has little but their free time is, in fact, their own. However, it is not necessary to be fair that everyone would receive this income, it is only necessary that everyone could receive this income and merely for being alive. In this sense, it’s not really universally applied despite being guaranteed to all. Everyone is guaranteed some income if they choose to take it and don’t already make more than it offers. But how much should it offer?

I recommend that the price of the income be pegged to some sort of productivity index. There are several to choose from: the Gross Domestic Product, Gross National Happiness, Genuine Progress Indicator, the Happy Planet Index, and more. Whichever index we light on, we’ll want to set a standard level for the guaranteed income, say around a quarter to a third of the per-capita distribution. This would vary, year by year, and have the important fact of driving people back onto the labor market when productivity slacks. It will no doubt find a reasonable equilibrium and the point at which comes to rest will mark the divide between the interest in free time and that of affluence.


That brings me to my argument. We might start by graphing these mutually exclusive human interest: free time and affluence. They represent the twin concerns of political economy: how to maximize non-labor time while also maximizing prosperity. The Marx quote above echos the understanding of the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians before them: if you want to be free and prosperous, then you must have slaves, which, morality aside, makes complete sense. The only way to exist in a state of wealth and ease is to have others produce the wealth without their enjoying it so that you can. Capitalism supposedly offered a way to avoid this economic truth, but it was Karl Marx and his theory of exploitation that pointed out that capitalism only nominally abolishes slavery. Marx showed that what appears to be contracting between free individuals is actually coerced and ultimately exploitative, i.e. wage-slavery. This form of slavery only paints a patena of voluntary decision-making over the forced slavery of explicit slave-society.

This entire system of human interests can then be mapped out for us. (Forgive the crudeness of my graphs.) In figure one below I have place affluence or relative wealth on the vertical axis and the amount of time one would need to spend laboring versus the amount of time one has free on the horizontal axis.


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Fig. 1: Graph depicting human interests established under capitalism.

In a capitalist system, the red line represents everyone’s prospects giving the uncheck desire to place all others in a state of laboring for their own benefit and not the benefit of the laborer. You can see near the equilibrium point (0,0) the line is diagonal showing that the more you work, the more you make, the less you work, the more free time you might enjoy, but at some point, and that point is arbitrarily illustrated here, the line bends around in both directions. So that we might extrapolate four classes of individuals in a capitalist society.  Those that labor little to none at all we might call the capitalist class, or what Marx called the bourgeoisie, depicted below in blue. Those that work excessively and yet “enjoy” intolerable poverty we call the slave class, depicted in black below. The two in the middle, which could conceivably be seen as one class (under socialism) is characterized by the idea that the more they labor, the more wealth they enjoy or the less they work the more free time they enjoy, these are the laboring class or proletariat and the austere class respectively, depicted in purple and green below.

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Fig. 2: Graph showing the division of class interests based on income and free time.

We can see that there is an artificial arc here against what our morality would tell us; that the more you work the more prosperity you ought to enjoy. We can then divide the graph into four zones along the axes.

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Fig 3. Graph depicting the ideal quadrants of human interests.

Each zone in figure three represents a potential set of individual interests. Here, the capitalist zone is the most desirable since it works the least and enjoys the highest degree of wealth. However, having a capitalist class necessitates a slave class, and what is more, the capitalist class will always be pushing every other into the slave class. This is similar, but not exactly the same as, what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma. Every individual having an interest in being a capitalist will naturally result in the overwhelming number of people existing in the slave class. A constant pressure to rise on the line will force everyone else down the line. But also like the prisoner’s dilemma, a simple solution exists: make a rule. In this case, we must eliminate the ability to make money from another’s effort.


On the one hand, doing this must involve abolishing the form of rent which I have spoken of before. But that is not enough. Even with the mechanisms of the exploitation of labor removed, the mechanism for exploitation of free time would still exist. The result would be a “capitalism of the proletariat”, a new kind of socialist dystopia. This is why we need a guaranteed income, it effectively straightens out the curve so that every individual is left free to choose between the level of free time and the level of affluence they would like to enjoy. If the curves we saw on the line represent exploitation, then their elimination under socialism entails a lack of exploitation.

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Fig. 4: Graph depicting what a guaranteed income (socialism) does to human interests.

You’ll note in figure four above, that the red line never enters either the slave or the capitalist zones. This is necessary, should there be a capitalist, there must be slaves. Thus the only way we will all be free is if none of us are allowed to be capitalists. To guarantee an income would be one of two steps necessary to effectively and actually abolish slavery for the first time in recorded human history.

The Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theory of Richard Wolff

Dr. Richard D. Wolff is a prime example of that critically endangered species known as Marxian economists. His critique of capitalism centers mostly on Marx’s theory of surplus-value and it is, at least since the financial crisis of 2007, increasing useful. Wolff made his case for a new model of socialism back in 2012 when we were still coasting off the Occupy movement’s meager momentum and with a nearly-sympathetic ear in the White House. In his book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, he lays out his plan to replace capitalism with genuine socialism, which he distinguishes based on how the surplus-value of labor is allocated in a society. He dismisses Soviet-style socialist programs as “state capitalism”, where the surplus-value of labor is extracted by the state-apparatus in precisely the same way that capitalist do in what he terms “private capitalism”. I make similar distinctions, calling Soviet-style communism, a truly refined, monopolistic capitalism for the same reasons Dr. Wolff articulates.

For Wolff, there is only one way for a state to become truly socialist and that is to have what he calls “worker self-directed enterprises” or WSDEs. (He may be Marxian, but he shares the economists’ penchant for acronyms.) Such enterprises he concludes allow all the decisions and all the surplus-value to be wholly controlled by the workers engaged in the enterprise itself. This is what Marx intended by “socialism”, although not “communism”. It was self-controlled workplaces that required the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which Marx saw as an intermediary between capitalism and communism. Wolff agrees, stressing that WSDEs will sufficiently resolve capitalism into genuine socialism.

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Dr. Richard D. Wolff

To some extent, I believe Wolff is correct. The step he outlines is absolutely necessary for the evolution of capitalism (whether private or state, in his terms) to socialism. However, it is not sufficient. It does not address other forms for rent, such as landlordism and interest-driven banking. Neither does it treat the action of all workers, taken as a whole, as the monopoly Marx does. This oversight would leave the pressure to make a living off of one’s labor intact. Under Wolff’s plan, the proletariat inherits the role of the bourgeoisie, not so much replacing the political role of capitalism but collapsing the two Marxian economic classes into one. Again, this is a necessary first step, but the problem should be obvious: if you didn’t work, you would be oppressed by those who do, and a new sort of forced austerity would be exploited by the proletarians.

The laborers would enact a kind of “capitalism of the proletariat” which would perhaps be the worst kind of socialist dystopia because it would be a form of capitalism that looks more like genuine socialism than any other yet conceived. It would prove too difficult to suss out the difference for many on the left and make its systemic problems hard to overcome than capitalism. The “capitalism of the proletariat” would look socialist because of the working class would be in charge, but only the working class as it was formerly conceived of by capitalists. The unpaid laborers, the sick, the old, the dreamers, the drifters, the poets and–dare I say it–the philosophers might all too soon feel themselves to be the new underclass in a world were “labor” is the new capital. We would have to look at other interests, such as our stake in having free time, and adjust our economic models accordingly if we were to escape this new nightmare. I don’t mean to sound upset with Wolff. Frankly, I think his work is brilliant. It’s just that we need more than WSDEs to convert capitalism into socialism.

 

 

 

A Libertarian Socialist Conception of Private Property

[Economists] forget that… it is use which determines the value of a thing, and that use is determined by fashion.
– Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts

The left has been suspicious of private property since Pierre-Joseph Proudhon brazenly declared it to be nothing more than theft in 1840. His friend, Karl Marx, saw it as the root of capitalism’s exploitation, a superfluous invention of the bourgeoisie that would be dispensed with in the future. Anarchists’ generally see it as an agent of control. Even the most sympathetic socialists treat private property as a necessary evil. Those on the left who refuse to denounce private property are all-too-quickly labeled as faux-socialists, unwitting capitalist apologists, or even disingenuous counter-revolutionary agents.

On the right, private property rights are often so strongly enforced that they trump even the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Such a strong defense of private property is ironic, precisely because the justification for private property is typically based on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, especially the right to life. These “background rights” perform the justificatory work for private property rights.

I want to engage this conversation from a third direction. I want to begin from a neutral position, neither assured of private property’s virtue nor its defamation. To start, I think we need a tight definition of what private property is. Then, I think we need to explain the fact that so many independent societies throughout history have lighted on the idea of private property. What particular problem did property solve? Then can it be justified to the satisfaction of socialism? To avoid suspense, I’ll sum my conclusions now: 1) private property is no different from personal property, 2) private property is common to many cultures because it solves the problem of how to divvy up the common world, and 3) private property can be justified for socialists when it is based on the background right to life and the pursuit of happiness.


The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.
– Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2

There is, in the leftist tradition, an important metaphysical division of the concept of property. The first, largely implicit in Marx’s work, is the split between productive property and consumables. Marx paid little attention to the latter if he mentioned them at all. He, like all the great economists of his day, focused almost exclusively on the “means of production”. The productive property were the things you needed to produce consumables, which included the tools, machinery, and raw and pre-fabricated materials of which the consumable consisted. When Marx speaks of abolishing private property in the above quote, he intends only this productive property. He is also quick to defend the productive property of the “petty artisan and of the small peasant”, saying, “There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it and is still destroying it daily.” Marx is saying there is no need to abolish the camera of the photographer or the laptop of the freelance writer. So he means only the large-scale productive property, i.e. the factories, great machinery, and other types of great capital that requires a social body to utilize it. The consumable property goes by the name of “personal property” while the large-scale productive property goes by the name “private property”.

This division saves the left from the accusation that communism or socialism removes your right to use your tooth-brush exclusively. In other words, you have to share your tooth-brush with other people. This argument is devised to reduce socialism to absurdity. If you wouldn’t want to share your toothbrush, you couldn’t even share food-stuffs or water or air, at least not as you eat, drink, and breathe it. So it does make a compelling argument against which socialism must resolve. The division of property into personal and private is the traditional solution. However, the division of property introduces its own problems. The most important of these and the only one I will treat here is the indistinguishability of personal from private property. 

We can see the crack in precisely where Marx claimed there is no need to take away the private property of the individual proprietor. Here Marx is admitting that the tools of the individual crafter should belong to the individual crafter; their productive powers are thus not sufficient reason to socialize them. The common understanding is that it is then only those tools that require social operation which must be socialized–I am ignoring here a similar argument that certain types of property of, e.g. land, must be socialized irrespective of how it is used for the simple reason that Marx did not make this argument. The problem with the argument that only social operations must be socialized is that even socially operated machinery is individually exclusive as it is used. To make this concrete imagine an assembly line of ten persons. Each person has a specific spot on the line and performs their unique task. Each spot on the assembly line then may legitimately be conceived of as the exclusive property of the individual proprietor.

While such a conception is dangerous because each individual proprietor, save the first and the last, would be faced with a monopoly on either side of themselves, that is a single provider of the materials they need to do their work and a single consumer of their finished product (viz. the unconsumable, partially-worked commodity). It is more harmonious to conceive of them as all part of a single entity, each cooperating rather than competing. Still, even under the auspice of cooperation, each has an exclusive need to be able to use their part of the whole. The right to exclude others from their part is no different for the workers on the assembly line than it is for the individual proprietor whom Marx exonerated from the abolition of private property. We have only two ways of resolving this inconsistency: either abolish all private property, including the photographer’s camera and the writer’s laptop or do away with the distinction between personal property and private property altogether. As we agreed above that the former is absurd, we are left only with the latter.

What does this mean? It means that we cannot, as Marx commands, abolish private property. This means that capital and capitalist can’t simply be dispensed with. This is not a vindication of capitalism, as those on the right would like to assert. While getting rid of capitalists is not an option, what is left open to us is the modification of what can and cannot be done with private property. That is precisely what the rights of property owners entails them to do. The rights of private property ownership have their limitations, even the most right-wing libertarian will agree. For example, your “right” to own a gun and your “right” to do with your private property as you please, cannot be combined to justify any homicide you may like to commit. 


What lies behind the left’s condemnation of private property is the capitalist’s claim of a right to the surplus-value of a worker’s labor. This claim is justified, according to the apologists of capitalism, by the “ownership” of the means of production. Ownership then it is implied, entails the right to allow others to use said means to produce products for less than the value those products fetch at market. The chief problem the left has with private property then is that it can be used as a means for the exploitation of other people’s labor. Marx details of the process in the first volume of CapitalBut even there, private property does not so much create the exploitation as it is simply the vehicle for it. Property relations are social relations, not between human beings and things, but between human beings and other human beings. This is what makes economics political in the first place. 

Given this, our question becomes: can the capitalist really justify the right from ownership? To answer this question we will need to examine what justifies private ownership in the first place. I’ll start with John Locke’s justification of private property. In brief, Locke argued that the private consumption of the material world was vital to every individual. We cannot consume in common, even if we produce that way. This makes private property necessary in order to be enjoyed. The question for Locke then became, how is it that I come to exclude the whole of humanity in order to enjoy this or that particular thing? Or more concretely, by what right do I pluck an apple from the common tree so that I may eat it and by eating it, exclude all others from its enjoyment? When did it become mine alone to enjoy? We all agree that after digestion, it is exclusively mine, but when did it first become so? He traces back the right to my act of plucking the apple. With this labor expenditure, I have the right to that apple. So, generalizing from this, it is my labor that makes things mine. Locke would go on to lay the foundations of the first labor theory of value, but it is his labor theory of property that concerns us. This theory is the basis of private property rights upon which capitalism is founded.


Unfortunately for the bourgeoisie and Marx alike, the private property right established by Locke is not one based solely upon labor. Labor identifies which particular things are justified, but it does so under the pretense that we are going to use them. Locke himself said that one cannot claim a thing, merely to deprive others of its enjoyment. Ultimately then, it is the need to eat, in conjunction with the labor of plucking that justifies my claim to the apple and so the right to exclude the rest of humanity from the apple’s enjoyment.

Marx misses this. Elaborating in Capital that the value of commodities comes entirely from the labor required to produce them. We may deduce from this that the justification for using commodities according to Marx would come entirely from having labored to acquire a thing, either by producing it or trading “dead labor” for it. Use, the consumption element of commodities, plays little to no role in Marx, who argued that either goods and services have a use-value or they do not, there are no quantifiable degrees of use-value. Equally, there would be no reasoning for use in owning, only labor. For Marx ownership is derived merely from labor and trade.

But no one asserts this claim more than the bourgeoisie. The capitalist claim of ownership is justified entirely by the idea of labor exchanged for a good. That Marx and capitalism agree so completely on this subject is the greatest tragedic irony of the post-enlightenment history. Locke, as I said, founded the labor theory of property and of value on the unquestionable human need to consume individually. Labor alone is therefore insufficient to justify ownership of anything, and correspondingly, it is insufficient to justify the total value of anything. We lack the consumptive side, the input of use-value. This is where Marx made his most fatal error. He said that “use” could not be counted in the final estimation of value. He assumed more than argued that “use” has no quantifiable value because it is a quality, i.e. things either have a use-value or they do not. This is wrong.

Use-value, it turns out, is quantifiable, and what is more, it is quantifiable in units of labor. I have made the argument for use-values quantifiability before, see The Genius and Folly of Karl Marx, Part Two. What is confusing for us is that the labor-units for use-value are inverted from units of labor in exchange. They act like negative numbers to positive ones, so that use-value functions more like “labor saved” while an exchange-value represents “labor expended”. For example, to make a hammer, it might take X amount of total (socially-necessary) labor to produce and bring the hammer to market, this–according to Marx–would be the hammer’s value, assuming there was someone out there with a use for a hammer. However, this is just the minimum that the hammer’s manufacturer would want to sell it for, it does not represent the value of the hammer to the user. The final value is how much labor it saves its consumer over the amount of labor that consumer would have to shell out for it. A hammer’s cost then is subjectively determined by the consumer, not by the producer, and it is never objectively derived as Marx hoped to prove.


But all is not lost for Marx, because both use-value and exchange-value are determined as units of labor. In other words, labor remains the sole source of value for everything in exchange, just as Marx said. Private property becomes justifiable in the twin aspects of labor: labor-spent and labor-saved. I ignore here a metaphysical discussion of labor-saved, except to say that Marx himself saw labor-saved as the “value of capital”. It was the private aspect of capital that Marx and the left railed against. The “means of production” of which most capital consists is problematic only when in private hands.

This, however, is where libertarian socialism breaks with Marxism. It is not the private nature of the ownership of the “means of production” that is the problem. The problem is the fact that capitalists are not and never were the rightful owners of them. Capitalism is contradictory because it violates the justification for private property ownership established by Locke. Capitalists maintain their claim to rightful ownership through the justification of expenditure of labor, but since they have neither the desire nor a possibility of using the “means of production” exclusively their claim of ownership over them is wholly unjustified. It is, in fact, the workers and ONLY the workers who can meet both necessary conditions for ownership. First, they do have an exclusive need of the materials in question, and second, they (through the extraction of surplus-labor) have paid for them. This argument holds true for other forms of “rent”, for example, the tenant who uses the house has the priority claim to ownership of the house if they pay rent.

What is exploitative about capitalism is that the rightful owners of the means of production are not the “legal owners” according to the political structures drafted by capitalists. The inherent villainy of private property is a Marxist red herring, no pun intended. The upshot of this concept of private property is that we have a clear path and reason for removing capitalism’s exploitative element. It will require workers to become the rightful owners of the enterprises in which they work, as is suggested by Dr. Richard Wolff. But it goes beyond just that, it will require the abolition of the form of rent everywhere in society, except where the rentee is the public. It will also require a guarantee of income, but for reasons that are not expressly clear here. But that is all. We needn’t abandon private property nor do we need outlandish distinctions, (e.g. private property vs. personal property or labor vs. “socially necessary” labor) that prove only necessary to bolster the failings in Marx’s theory. The solution is more simple and more elegant, ownership of property is the right of the people who need it, who use it, and who paid for it; and not the state, the community, the government, or investors.

 

The Wealth of Nations, Revisited

A Contradiction of Interests

I’m not sure if this is a real contradiction or not. But it seems to me that Adam Smith has a perspective problem. Smith famously argues that what is best for the individual is best for the society, and yet at the same time he argues that slavery is not best for the society because slaves lack individual incentive to work hard. This may be true, but it certainly seems to serve as a counter-example to the notion that what is best for the individual is what is best for the society. For when he suggests this, we must sincerely ask, which individual? The slave or the slaveholder?

What is true in Smith’s slave argument is that it is not best for the slave to be a slave, and correspondingly it would not be best for a society that the slave be so either. The slave’s disincentive to work would lead to less work performed in general, and correspondingly to a less productive society. However, is that which is best for the slaves or the best for the slaveholders? As a slaveholder, owning many slaves is what is best individually. If the rule holds, we must conclude that owning slaves is what is best for society. Is this not a contradiction? It cannot be both best and not best for a society to have slaves. Perhaps we could claim that being a slaveholder requires the existence of slaves, which we just said were not beneficial to society. But then the question becomes, why should we take the slave as “the individual” and not the slaveholder, as Smith clearly does? 

Smith’s problem seems to be one of perspective. The value of the rule that societies do best when people are free to pursue their own interests is debatable. It may depend entirely on which individuals’ perspectives we adopt. Is it better that a landlord is allowed to collect rent or that every person own the property they live in? Is it better than an employer negotiate wages before the sale of the product or that laborers are paid in accordance with their efforts? These perspective questions shoot holes all through the idea that liberty is the best policy and its more general precept that individual interests can be used as the best guide for social action.

The Utopia of Competition

It seems to me that competition itself becomes romanticized under most libertarian writers. The reason for this is if they use it as a cure-all for many economic injustices. The assumption works like this: as long as the rules are fair, then competition will lead to the best possible use of resources. And so it would, as long as we had some way to ensure the fairness of the rules. What does it mean to be fair? Who decides what is fair? On what basis is that decision to be made?

One can always succeed in competitions through two different methods. The first method is exactly what the libertarian writers imagine, a system where everybody follows the rules, the rules are fair, and then the winner deserves what they get, and this would work out best for society, just as Adam Smith suggested. The reason is that if everyone competed this way, we would all benefit from the maximized effort competition elicits. But unfortunately, there are no umpires or referees in economics, no one to turn to and say, “Hey, that’s not fair!”.

The second method for success in competition is free and unrestricted. Players follow their own best self-interest, and when the “rules” of fair play get in the way, they abandon them. In this method, one might succeed by making their competition under-perform or advance themselves through some form of subterfuge. This method focuses on distinguishing oneself by making all of the others look worse. This, of course, is a natural tendency of free competition that ultimately degrades society.

So we have a choice. Either competition is regulated to enforce an external set of rules that foster fair-play or economic competition is not good for society. If we were to have the former, a sport-like instead of war-like competition, then we would have to insist that the players do not get to dominate the body that makes up the rules. In real terms, this means that businesses would have to have minimal effect on political determinations of economics.

The Fable of the Bees?

It is perhaps ironic that Mandeville’s “The Fable of the Bees” features so heavily in Smith’s thought. The poem presents the idea that it is private vice (greed) that drive humanity to the public good (prosperity). The irony is not what climate change and over-use of pesticide have done to the bees, but the fact that Mandeville chose bee’s as his perfect society turned waywardly toward virtue to the ruin of all.

Bees are hive-minded totalitarians. The structure of bee society is based on homogeneity. The hive is comprised of nearly identical genetically speaking. The small individuality comes in the form of castes: the Queen, the product of royal jelly is tasked exclusively with all the breeding for the entire colony; the drones, a small subset of males, whose only function is impregnating the Queen; and the workers who do everything else to make the colony run. There is some break down among the work performed by the workers but this too is regulated exclusively by age. The high organization by nature is related to the Orwellian suppression of individuality inherent in bee society.  

There is no private vice in bee society because there is no individuality. Private vice requires individuals whose interests, even if entirely dependent on the efforts of others for their survival, can still conceive of themselves outside of the society. If private vices are public virtues then it perhaps proves that what is best for the individual is not what is best for society and vice versa. For it seems that public vices can just as well be private virtues.

Reflections on Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto

Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin Magazine, did a Q&A last night in Philadelphia’s Westside to promote his new book, The Socialist Manifesto. It was hosted by the Philly chapter of the DSA. I was in attendance with about a hundred other, mostly young, mostly hopeful, progressives and socialists and at least one stodgy old Marxist. The “action” came at the very beginning when Sunkara was attacked, (had a yogurt-like substance thrown on him and was briefly accosted) by one of two black bloc anarchists, apparently over a beef they had with one of his tweets. Personally, the emphasis on anonymity and malicious behavior that characterizes black bloc tactics betrays a kind of conservatism more often found among internet trolls than radical activists, but I digress.

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Bhaskar Sunkara

After a quick change, Sunkara masterfully presented his work. The book, which I was fortunate enough to read in the twenty-four hours before his talk, is somewhat mislabelled. Sunkara explained his original title, “Socialism in Our Times” was rejected by the publisher’s marketers, who retitled it, with his permission, “The Socialist Manifesto”. The book, however, is not really a manifesto. Most of its 288 pages are devoted to a quasi-scholarly history of socialism from the era of Karl Marx to the 2018 American midterm election. In its selections and interpretation, Sunkara quietly gestures to his larger objective, invigorating a long-dormant socialist organization that is capable of challenging capitalism’s domination of the political-economic world.  

By his own admission, of which I am in complete agreement, the best part of Sunkara’s book is its first chapter, where he jovially lays out a vision of a socialist world not too different from ours. What is different is important, making small changes with big implications. It is the most theoretical part of his book. The vision he lays out is ideologically socialist and ruptures from capitalism, but it also deviates from the traditional socialist programs. It is more libertarian, less communist, emphasizing bottom-up socialism over top-down. I have very few quarrels with it and in general, find it a hopeful take on the modern socialist theory.

The main issue I had with the book is that there is no defense of the vision. It is presented and then merely assumed. From the second chapter onward, the book embarks on a long narrative history, not so much of socialism’s varied theoretical debates but on its practical efforts to build, organize, and maintain itself as well as challenge capitalist forces and survive antagonist forces allied against it from both within and without. The book’s final chapter provides a list of socialist commandments, drawn from the lessons of the history Sunkara elaborates.

I am not averse to books of practical socialist politics, but the title of Sunkara’s book had me excited that we were finally going to be moving towards a new kind of socialist theory. One that takes a decisive step away from Marx. I understand that it was not Sunkara’s choice for the title, so I don’t blame him for baiting and switching. I fear that without a new theory of socialism, the best socialist can hope to do is “occupy the state” as Sunkara said of Léon Blum. We are still waiting on a vision.

 

We see in Concepts not Phenomena

Charles Sanders Peirce once noted that it is an achievement of human excellence to see the world as an artist. What he meant is to see the world as it really appears, and specifically not as we conceptualize it. Similarly, Claude Monet once said of his friend and fellow painter Edouard Manet, “He comes to paint the people, I have come to paint the light.” This comment speaks volumes about what we see when we see what we see.  If that sounds confusing it is because what we see remains constant but what we see it as can change. Monet and Manet were in the same place and painting the same scene, but they painted it vastly differently because Manet was painting the concepts as he knew them while Monet was painting the phenomena as he experienced it.

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Manet’s realism (left) captures the vision of our mind’s eye; Monet’s impressionism (right) captures light as our eyes see.

I want to explore what that means. What did Peirce have in mind when he drew his distinction between phenomena and concept. I suspect that to see the world “like an artist” is to see the world precisely devoid of concepts. That is to peel back every single layer of cognition. We often think of this as what “the eye” sees, or what we see without the “mind’s eye”. Phenomena, we take to be primary to human cognition, like Immanuel Kant, from whom I take the word. The phenomena for Kant came from the unknowable noumena or the thing-in-itself. The noumena–if there is such a thing–is the thing outside of our experience of it, an object before we experience it. Kant held noumena to be beyond our ability to know. Human knowledge, he claimed, is limited to what we experience, that is phenomena. We do not see a chair, for example, what we see is patches of color in a familiar shape we “recognize” as a chaise lounge. We do not hear a song, we hear frequencies of airwaves, that we recognize as Bon Jovi.

This stands against many long-held theories of epistemology and human cognition. The traditional view, since John Locke anyway, is simply that we experience the world through our senses, and those senses give us reliable information, which we then conceptualize into the things we know. This picture, I believe, is completely backward.

No doubt our senses present us with reliable phenomena, qua phenomena, but that is not really what we experience. What we experience are concepts; concepts mapped onto the phenomena before or at the same time we experience them. Really, the human phenomenal experience is all about mapping concepts. Concepts are all we’re concerned with. When I look at a table and chairs, I don’t see colors and shapes and tints and shades and other static phenomena, even though all these are what we might say my eyes can “see”. When I look at a table and chairs, I see a “table and chairs”, that is the concepts “table” and “chairs” applied precognitively to the phenomena. I didn’t have to think about it. I didn’t have to ask myself, “what is that?” and answer myself, “that is a table and chairs”. I simply saw a table and chairs. Whatever part of my mind applies the concepts I know to the phenomena I experience, does so without the acknowledgment of my conscious mind. And what is more, I’m satisfied with my knowledge of the table and chairs because I can apply “table” and “chairs” to the phenomena of my eyes.

To really see what I mean, let’s examine this from another angle. Look at children’s drawings the world over and you will see art, not as the artist sees the world, but as the rationalist see it. The child draws the world of concepts. The humans they depict have the right parts to make them visually identifiable as human: one head, round; two eyes, in the center of the head; one nose underneath the eyes and one mouth underneath the nose; a body; two arms; two legs; perhaps hands with five fingers each; feet; perhaps even a heart. There is nothing of “realism” in the child’s work. Every child is a minimalist. What is relevant here is that to “see the world as an artist” is to unlearn what comes so natural to us that even very young children can do it: seeing the world in concepts.

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It is important to note that when we see the world in concepts, we are the ones applying the concepts, but we do not create the concepts. We take them from our experience of the unconceptualized world and our culture. When we don’t know what something is, what we mean to say is we have no conceptualization for the pattern of phenomena we are experiencing. Lacking a concept, we don’t even have a name for what we experience and so we are reduced to gesture, verbal or physical, and wonder. The child’s primordial and perennial question, “What’s that?”, is the basis of all human understanding. It is from this question that we build up batteries of concepts into the storehouse of knowledge.

The real point here is that human beings apply the concepts we see and we apply them in such a way that we do not recognize our own hand in their application. We experience them as out there in the world, coming to us through our eyes. But this is both false and dangerous. It is because of this inconspicuous application that we experience our own biases as “natural”. We cannot see ourselves standing before the light and so see our shadow as something manifest in the world. This gap between what we see and how we see it is perhaps the greatest source of epistemological error. The gap is perilous to transverse when dealing with observable phenomena, but it is doubly perilous when the phenomena in question must be inferred from the phenomena that can be observed, for here we must jump the gap twice! 

The Philosophy of Politics

Politics is a broad term. It is often used to describe everything from being an asshole on the internet to being a statesman and nation founder. It is denigrated and revered, usually at the same time. This post is my attempt to create some clarity around the question: what is politics? I do not want to give a hackneyed definition, such as a litany of the term’s historical development or a cross-reference of modern usages of the term. What I want to do is identify and explore the different ways people talk about politics, so that we can perhaps begin to understand when we are talking about different things that all fit loosely under the umbrella of politics.

To this end, I conceive of four approaches to politics that I feel need to be sketched out. Listing them from the most abstract to the most concrete, we have: “the political”, “political architecture”, “politics”, and finally “realpolitik”. The four share a concern for group identity, shared ideology, group direction, shared responsibility, and group action. But each takes a particular concern as paramount. I should be understood that all four of these ways of talking about politics are necessary at particular times and all are vital to a culture of flourishing political debate. All four must see their particular concerns addressed in order for a society to resolve an issue. To solve a political problem in three of the four ways is not to solve it at all. Hopefully, this will be clearer after I introduce the differences between them in greater detail.


The Political

By far the most abstract is a sort of metaphysics of politics; the concept of the political as Carl Schmitt saw it. Its primary focus is on how to create and maintain group unity. Imagine a Maslowian hierarchy of political needs, the political is the base. It is the formation of a group, who counts as its members, who are responsible for its duties, who are the beneficiaries of its privileges, but most importantly can the group maintain itself in its given formation? i.e. is it able to cohere? Schmitt elaborated the primary action of the political as determining the friend/enemy distinction. It is the establishment of an “us” by the identification of a “them” which we are not and do not like. Us and those like us, are friends and those unlike us are enemies. This relationship is primary and will determine how we treat others in our sphere of influence.

For example, what is the role of poor blacks in the USA? Are they really citizens? Do we (white America) have an obligation to treat them as citizens, that is to treat them just like us? Are they accretions upon the body politic? Enemies, who may be used for labor and discarded? What we say and what we do will be partially determined by whether or not we really consider them just like us?

Schmitt’s distinction is but one way to affect unity, others included shared economic benefit, shared culture/language, simple homeostasis, and—on small scales—kinship (and possibility others). There are many ways group identity can form and dissolve, but at the base, without group identity, there are no more political questions to even ask. To call a group of people a society, of any kind, is to assume the kind of political connection discussed under the concept of the political.


Political Architecture

The second most abstract topic of political discussion is what I have termed political architecture; which we might define as the organization and arrangement of power structures and institutions in a given society. The focus of political architecture is largely on how to effectively and efficiently deploy the power that comes from “group effort”. The many battles over the “rationality” of politics, from Carl Schmitt to Michael Oakeshott, fall under this category. Political architecture deals in terms of democracy, monarchy, aristocracy, and anarchy. Its terms are those of organization and arrangement, law and principle, government and property. As well as terms of design, such as the separation of powers, the nature of sovereignty, how to affect the popular will, and much more. This is the realm of order, harmony, stability, and security.

By far the most important question of political architecture is striking the balance between liberty and equality. Always with an eye to the necessity of maintaining group cohesion, a political architecture cannot go too far afield in either direction. We cannot even conceive of a polity where there are but one abusive tyrant and a whole mightly population of abused subjects. This is because such an arrangement is unstable, it will tip over into chaos, despite the many horrors chaos brings. 

The goal of political architecture is to establish the minimum number of institutions to effect relative and fair equality. The “minimum number” preserves freedom, while the institutions protect the equality vital to group cohesion. All the grand schemes of political arrangement and political economy are attempts to find the balance in whatever situation a group of people happens to find themselves. It is important to note that, no one solution is right for all situations and so political arrangments and political economies, to remain stable would change with the situation.


Politics

The third most abstract is what we could call politics proper, i.e. the traditional idea of politics, as it was held by the ancients. This type of politics deals with the human condition, the current situation, economic need, justice, balancing the needs of the people, and much, much more. The primary focus in standard politics is deciding where to direct our group resources and energy and when, where, how, and—most importantly—why to use the power of group unity, including the institutions that harness and focus that power. This includes the creation and enforcement of policy, the allocation of resources, declaring and fighting wars, and the settlement of inter-member disputes. It always has an eye towards the maintenance of unity, but its concerns are particular and practical, unlike the general and theoretical concerns of political architecture. 


Realpolitik

The least abstract, or most “real” approach to politics, goes by the label realpolitik. This approach focuses on the effective use of the existing power structures to achieve desired ends among the rival choices of politics proper. This is the aspect of politics that is the most disreputable and deals with the strategies of sub-unities or factions to attain control of the power of group effort and use it to better their own situation. The strategic maneuvering of realpolitik is limited only by the prevailing political architecture and the constant pressure to retain group unity. When unity fails, it’s always factional strife behind the dissolution.

The goal of realpolitik is managing logistics. How do we actually get the job done? The proverb of the mice who decided to hang a bell around the cat’s neck but cannot decide on who will attempt the feat is a question of realpolitik. The best-laid plans of a presidential candidate mean nothing if they lose the election. Winning elections then are just as important as making decisions, if that is what the political architecture calls for. This, of course, brings up the ugly business of gaming politics: gerrymandering, suppressing votes or buying them, and much, much more. This also includes the political and economic viability of enforcing the ideals and decisions of the other forms of political conversation.


All four approaches impact others and affect them in particular and limited ways. Some can be used to delimit and control others to some extent, but all four are always present and necessary in every polity. There is a strong relationship between the political and politics proper, and between political architecture and realpolitik. The former pair creates unity and maintains it in a real, concrete way. The latter pair prevents abuse of unity while managing to get needs met and actions accomplished.

The political and political architecture constitutes the realm of political theory or political philosophy, as they form the primary assumptions upon which all other political decisions are based. These two deal with the possible and the impossible. Politics and realpolitik are better informed by political science as they deal in the observable world of the probable and the improbable. Let me reiterate that there is no conflict between these aspects, merely different goals.

Beyond all four aspects lies the realm of ethics, in two distinct senses. First as virtue ethics, which instills in the individual the skills and abilities to get along well in a given political arrangement and culture, and then pure ethics, including the ethics of care, which hope to determine individual actions about what is to be done in the concrete situation. Ethics are not politics, but they do relate to it because they form the preconditions and boundaries of politics. Ethics is to politics as wood is to a table. A table is made from some substance, but the essential “tableness” of the table has nothing to do with which particular substance that it is formed from. Ethics then can disagree with our politics, that is the two can be in discord so that realities do not match ideals, or they may try to agree with political consideration so that either the individual or the polity itself must be changed into harmony. This is because all forms of ethics deal with the individual and politics deal with groups.

Murder by Libertarianism

I’ve written more and more in-depth on the problems with libertarianism before, but in this post, I’d like to delve into a specific absurdity of libertarianism. Let me start by summarizing Nozick’s understanding of why he feels there is no exploitation in economics. He argues that people cannot be faulted for taking actions that limit the opportunities of others even beyond the point that some of those others have intolerable lives. The implication is that, while unfortunate, these people’s misery is justly derived and nothing should be done to alleviate it because any form of redistributive justice would assault the rights of the beneficiaries and thereby, be unjust.

In a section of his magnum opus, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, where Nozick discusses capitalism and force, he claims that what limits the choices determines whether or not an act is voluntary. He further claims that when choices are limited by other peoples’ rightful actions, the remaining choice is “voluntary”, even if it is limited to a single option. He helpfully provides a concrete example of his position: imagine 26 pairings of marriage partners A-Z and A1-Z1, so that A1 is the most desirable for all letters and A is the most desirable for all primes, B1 and B are the second most desirable, and so on through the list, so that Z1 and Z are the least desirable in each group. Naturally, we could assume that A and A1 would get together, thus delimiting the options of all the rest by removing themselves as available options. Sure, B1 would like to get with A, and B would like to get with A1, but they simply do not have that option. The actions of A and A1 getting together limits the actions of all the others but is just. By rational extension, B and B1 get together, C and C1, etc., until we reach Z and Z1. In this case, Z and Z1 have no choice but to marry each other or remain single. Nozick asks, have they been forced to make this decision or is it still voluntary on the part of Z and Z1? 

Nozick’s point is not that the situation is not unfortunate for Z and Z1, but that the only alternative, forcing one of the other couples to not get married or give up their chosen partner to make the situation of Z or Z1 better, is worse. In this Nozick is right, however, that’s not the whole story. Nozick has chosen a rather disanalogous example. Z and Z1 are of course free not to marry without being harmed. Would the situation be different if they would be killed if they did not marry? Would a threat of death be enough to change the ethics of the analogy?

Imagine the same situation except for this time a dictator threatens each couple with execution if they do not agree to choose any mate. Would there be a violation of rights? I imagine Nozick would say yes, it is the dictator who violates the rights of the couples. But let us tweak the situation slightly again, and this time say that the dictator will only provide food to those individuals who agree to marry so that if they do not, they will starve to death. Here, you are free to choose the harm, but the question becomes is it within the rights of a dictator to choose how food is distributed? Again, Nozick would probably argue it is not. However, if the dictator choosing how food is distributed is a violation of individual’s rights then would it be less so for the dictator to decide to distribute food on the grounds of who worked to produce it? If the dictator doesn’t have the right to choose the one method, they do not have the right to choose any. Let me try one more tweak before we quit this example: imagine this time instead of a dictator, we imagine an incredibly wealthy individual, who gained his wealth through entirely justified means. This individual has had his love rejected by you and as a result, he has made it his life’s goal to revenge himself on your romantic endeavors. Towards this end, every time you have fallen in love, he has paid off your would-be lover to quit you so that you are never able to marry. Would this still be just according to libertarianism?

I think it must be! It meets all the libertarian criteria for “voluntary” action. The spurned suitor has the right to spend their money as they like, and the would-be lovers have the right to break off with you in exchange for his money. It may seem unfair to you, but it is not unjust according to libertarianism. It would be a breach of justice to protect your happiness by interfering in the rights of the spurned suitor. But if this is justice, would it be different if the actions were deadly? This time imagine the same rich individual, except now he’s decided to escalate matters and take your life. In this case, every time you go to buy food to feed yourself, he offers the food purveyors more money to sell it to him instead. This is well within his rights. He is simply buying food. Since he has a right to do with his money as he pleases and the money is indubitably his, and purveyors have every right to get the best price for their food, all the transactions are therefore legitimate. Through the exercise of his rights, the spurned suitor is able to prevent you from buying any food, effectively and willfully starving you to death.

The Nozickian libertarian must conclude that it would be perfectly just for the rich man to starve you in this manner. This reductio ad absurdum comes about because libertarianism insists that the government cannot take any action to prevent your death as long as the agent of your death were legitimate in their actions preventing you from getting any food for a long enough period of time to intentionally cause your death. The fact that this scenario is highly unlikely is immaterial. The point here is that libertarianism allows such absurdities as part of its ethical ideology.

The fact that the spurned suitor is not buying the food to use, but merely to prevent you from having it is also immaterial. This could only be seen as a violation of your rights if and only if we observe something like the troublesome Lockean proviso that forbids ownership in the event that there is not “as good and enough left over” for others. I will spare the details of Nozick’s treatment of this proviso, except to say that he doesn’t explicitly reject the proviso; he merely points out the unsatisfactory nature of it as a solution. Sadly for libertarians, there seems to be no alternative. They are forced into a dilemma between accepting a dangerously unsatisfactory proviso or uncomfortably admitting that there are ways in which it is permissible to intentionally murder another individual under the ethical framework provided by libertarianism.

If you accept my argument, it is but a small step to the idea that there are other places where libertarianism leaves gaping holes in its ethics. I am perfectly willing to suggest that at least one such hole is its treatment of owner/laborer negotiations under capitalism. It’s entirely keeping with Nozick’s premise that if the situation is unacceptable in an individual instance it is equally unacceptable at larger scales so that the reductio ad absurdum given above is sufficient to condemn libertarianism altogether.

However, as I do not agree with his premise, I will not offer such an argument here. Instead, I would want to show that the situation is no better on a large scale. The ultimate condemnation of libertarianism comes from the fact that it can be found absurd both individually and socially. Imagine a situation in which a rich man, goes on accumulating through legitimate means until the whole of the Earth is their exclusive property. This, when combined with the minimal state and without the Lockean proviso, would create an autocratic libertarian nightmare. Such leverage would make all life entirely dependent on the will of this libertarian autocrat, annihilating the possibility of free choice since one would have to “voluntarily” agree to whatever the autocrat asks of them or die or watch their family die, or both, or worse. At this point the difference between the worst kind of authoritarianism and libertarianism vanishes and the two become identical. Libertarianism requires only that the autocrat has derived his total leverage via “legitimate” means. So on this scale too, libertarianism could justify absurdities.

I obviously believe that it is a failing of libertarian ideology that it can be used to justify totalitarianism. A zealot of the ideology could always argue that libertarianism is correct despite such arguments and the unlikeliness of such extreme situations reinforces this view. But I am not one to follow absurd ideas. On the other hand, this condemnation of libertarianism should not be read as a suggestion that governments can or should dictate all aspects of individual life. It only suggests that there are times when society has the right to intervene in the lives of its members. Freedom is not always the best policy, although it is generally the best policy. There are the places where we slip beyond the ethical into the political, and such places are blind spots for libertarians. It is in these places, however, that libertarianism must give way to libertarian socialism if it is to retain the aspect of justice.

 

Is Philosophy a Relevant Degree Anymore?

I was asked by a student recently, “is a philosophy degree relevant anymore?”  I had to think about it seriously.  As someone who just earned a master’s degree in philosophy and is seriously considering a doctorate degree, and as someone who loves reading philosophy whenever time permits and writing an involved philosophy blog, I’m inclined to say yes. But what kind of a philosopher would I be if I didn’t at least try to argue both sides? So, I thought about it a little bit more. As someone who is currently struggling to find paying work, struggling to be published, to have my hard-earned thoughts and ideas taken seriously, I am inclined to say, “not really”.

I mean if the point of an education is limited to the sole criteria of finding better pay for your labor… then no, philosophy is a total waste of your time. It’s too generic, too esoteric, too out of step with the demands of employers. Think about it: would you hire someone who liked to think for themselves but lacked the specific training for the job you need them to do OR someone who was very well-trained in the specific functions you need from them, even if they lack much on-their-feet creativity. With the exceptions of the highest level jobs, those vanishingly few decision-making positions that cannot be broken down into simpler tasks because they are big-picture oriented, most employers would rather have the latter.

But that thought brought me to the real value of philosophy.  Philosophy’s place in education is to question the fundamental assumptions undergirding every field of human inquiry.  From mathematics to art and from physics to social psychology, whenever the question turns from the specific to the general assumptions, we turn from the discipline itself to philosophy. Everything else that philosophy teaches comes, part and parcel, with the specialized disciplines themselves and there is no need to teach them separately.

Science, as we know it today, was known to our predecessors as “natural philosophy”, that is a branch of philosophy where we can put things to the test, the inductive test. The methodology of science is not only rooted in the history of philosophy, but it is also philosophy itself. The philosophy of science, I might add, is ever in the process of being redefined by those the philosophers of science. The rift between physicists and metaphysicians is a strange one to behold. It reveals something of self-ignorance of scientists to watch Neil deGrasse Tyson miss the role of philosophy on Twitter. The two have more in common than either imagines. Science is after all but a branch of philosophy that deals with the empirical. It represents the body of empirical knowledge about a given field of inquiry. Its methods are still philosophic in origin and still being refined in philosophy. The assurances of science are always subject to a priori justification because it’s entire methodology relies on just such reasoning. No matter how “hard” the science, it is bound by the principles of abduction (regarding the formation of hypothesis), deduction (internal consistency of a theory), and induction (matching observation) as are all other branches of philosophy.

Mathematics too, it may shock some to realize, is just another tributary of the river of philosophy. More accurately, it is a branch of another tributary, namely logic. Math, in its purest form, is entirely a priori after all. If math is really logic and logic is really philosophy then so goes all forms of number crunching, from accounting to statistics.  The most theoretical mathematicians are more like philosophers than many philosophers who style themselves more like analysts and psychologists. These mathematicians question the nature of numbers themselves and begin their analysis from axioms, which they sometimes have to generate from nothing, precisely like the premises of a political theorist or aesthetician.

So what does this say about philosophy’s relevance in today’s overly-specialized and capitalist-driven academic world? Well, mostly it says that students who don’t study philosophy lack the capacity to critically examine their own discipline’s fundamental assumptions. Worse still, they lack the creativity to restructure their respective discipline’s fundamental assumptions after they tear them down. This is not to say that they can’t work critically and creatively in their field, but that what is missing is an external view of their field, one in context with the nature of reality and the whole of human inquiry. What is missing is the big picture in the specialized perspective. The specialization of fields of study leads to nothing less than a tunnel vision that blinds a discipline’s leading experts from advancing the field in general or even pushing it in a deviant direction.

Again, I’m not talking about making sure law school’s teach ethics or making budding biologists learn Venn diagrams. I’m talking about teaching human beings how to see a picture as a picture and not theorizing endlessly about whatever the picture depicts. The tendency today is to hyper-focus on the specifics, the thing depicted, and to utterly ignore the view of the picture as a picture. The danger of this method is that without being able to recognize a picture as a picture, you can’t really ever see it as anything else, even when it is, in fact, something else. No doubt the sciences would continue without philosophy, but their progress would retard, stop, or even–in our current political climate–retrograde.

Sadly, many intro philosophy courses misguidedly teach the general body of students either an overview of the history of philosophy or a survey of philosophic topics. One might be better off taking a critical thinking course, but you might not either, as many critical thinking courses are taught like diluted versions of deductive logic. It’s not the student’s fault if they can’t find value in classes which will offer them little to nothing in their later disciplines and careers. Neither is the administration erring to remove such classes from the general requirement. That some philosophy class ought to be required for any student hoping to earn even an associate’s degree I think goes without saying, but what kind of class should philosophers be offering to the next generation of scholars, business people, and professionals? A history of metaphysics? Formal logic? Theories of epistemology? 

I’m reminded here of the growing millennial disdain for irrelevant high school education, stressing the Pythagorean theorem but failing to teach how to do your taxes. This stress on teaching the objectively measurable over teaching the necessary, the useful, and the beneficial has become the hallmark of modern American education, both public and private. We’ll spend ten years teaching children arcane mathematics but we won’t spend ten minutes teaching them how to have a healthy relationship, how to debate politically, and how to see the world from another’s perspective. And the reason is simply that teaching children how to live a good life is never a value to the people who hope to use these kid’s labor, but them knowing arcane math at least could be.

Philosophy departments across the United States, afraid of dwindling enrollments and/or the looming removal of their classes from their university’s general requirement, may wish to reconsider what philosophy really is and what it really has to offer students outside of the department itself. I say, save the history of philosophy for the majors and minors and even the examination of the interesting topics like metaphysics and epistemology for the upperclassmen. Let’s forget ethics, politics, and ontology, let’s leave Stoicism, Platonism, Modernism, and Post-modernism on the shelf, and instead, teach logic, ethics, and self-examination.

By logic, I don’t mean the dusty old formal deduction. I mean logic like Aristotle meant logic. I mean logic, like thinking and speaking clearly, with a dedication to finding the truth. By ethics, I mean teaching students to question their fundamental assumptions, to challenge themselves to rise above their own perspectives, and to see everything in this world as something they can and ought to fully engage with before they judge it. By self-examination, I mean the looking critically at our ontology, I mean cultural analysis that questions all the other factors that shape our being. I wish I had a more specific solution, but I have faith in the unwavering creativity of my peers. The gauntlet to save philosophy has been thrown at our feet, it is the mission of philosophers to save themselves.

Truth, Lies, & Alternative Facts

With the publishing of Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report, I felt it apropos to revisit the concept of “alternative facts”. Specifically, where exactly it fits in the realm of truthiness. What is it that makes a fact, a fact anyway? And can a fact have alternatives and still be a fact? This is worth spending at least a little time discussing, but first I should provide a meager background on the phrase.

The term “alternative facts” is the brainchild of Kellyanne Conway, Counsel to President Donald Trump, and his chief fixer. The phrase made its debut in 2017 in a Meet the Press interview with host Chuck Todd. Conway is recorded saying, “Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to [these claims], but the point remains that…”. The claims in question were media blowback over President Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer’s earlier claim that Trump’s 2017 inauguration was the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.” The data he cited favoring Trump’s immense crowd-size was uncited and seems to be entirely fabricated. All evidence suggests that the crowd size was smaller than Obama’s second inauguration and only two-fifths the size of his first inauguration. When confronted by Todd, who asked why Spicer would produce such a “provable falsehood”, Conway defined Spicer’s position as an alternative fact as opposed to falsehood. Conway continues to defend the usage of the term, which she defines as “additional facts and alternative information”.

Aristotle was the first to discuss the logical law of the excluded middle, which states that between two mutually exclusive terms, there is no middle. For the case in hand, there is no middle term between true and untrue; we have no quasi-true. Alternative facts certainly seems like it is trying to open up some middle ground between true and false. But we should be careful here, because over time things may be true by turns or in complex situations, partially true and partially false. The law of the excluded middle applies only to fixed statements. Conway’s definition of additional facts and alternative information could be just fine if the statement in question is not fixed. For example, if we base our assessment of inauguration crowd size on the number of DC Metro riders, then it appears that Spicer was lying, but if other sources of data are used or taken into account then the statement is not fixed. The problem for Spicer and Conway is that they never specified what data they were using to make their claim. The DC Metro riders are cited because that is the source for Spicer’s claim that Obama had a crowd of 317,000 in 2013. But that same source would put Trump’s crowd at 193,000. So, it is likely then that Spicer was using alternative data, if he was using data at all, and Conway was being legitimate in her defense of him.

However, there is still a good deal of duplicity here. The first is Spicer’s and the second is Conway’s. Even if alternative data was being used to support Spicer’s crowd assessment of 420,000 it is duplicitous to compare crowd-size using different counting methods. Problems abound, but let’s focus solely on the problem where one estimate might be grossly less reliable than the other. Imagine if Spicer used DC Metro ridership for Obama and his best friend’s gut feeling for Trump. This would be an alternative source of data and a fact as far as Spicer’s friend really had a gut feeling that there were 420,000 people at Trump’s inauguration, but the unreliability of “gut feelings” in general make this claim highly dubious and by not revealing the source, a propagandistic manipulation of the highest order. 

But it is Conway’s duplicity that should really concern us. And the word that ought to really concern us is “fact”, not “alternative”. The existence of alternative facts does not entail that we are in a post-truth era. Alternative facts, as Chuck Todd said of them at their birth, are not facts! In Conway’s terms, they are alternative theories of the interpretation of experience. Alternative interpretations have been around for millennia, and they make up a large part of what we consider to be the process of attaining truth. A “fact” on the other hand is something we all agree is true, in other words, there is a little dispute. And therein lies the problem with Conway’s phrase, for in order to be alternative it must not be a fact, and in order to be a fact it must not have a likely alternative.

It’s clear that Conway’s invention of the term is politically motivated and propagandistic. What she was trying to achieve is to give more substance to Spicer’s claim that saying alternative theory or alternative data, both of which would require further proof. To claim an alternative fact is to claim victory for a competing theory at the same moment it is being introduced. In fact, it is to claim victory merely by introducing an alternative theory. Such action is surely not reasonable, logical, interested in the truth, or honest. It is a win-at-all-costs, manipulative, lying form of sophistry. This is difficult to reconcile with Conway’s insistence that alternative facts are opposed to falsehoods, for it is the truth that is opposed to falsehoods and alternative theories are not necessarily true.

This sadly has become par for the course in the Trump administration. Instances of claiming victory while the situation is very much in doubt are rampant. Alternative facts are just one form of this premature celebration. Its as though Trump and those closest to him believe that acting confident is the same thing as being confident; that if you just pretend hard enough it will become true. But this is not the way the world works. Wishful-thinking is not science, down is not up, and there are no alternative facts.