Sunday, October 30, 2005

IKEA The Opiate of the Masses

IKEA – The Opiate of the Masses  

Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto talks about the incredible ability of the modern economy to produce stuff, over production becomes the problem.  This leads to Imperialistic empire building:
The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate.  It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, namely, to become bourgeois themselves.
I am currently reading a book called the Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkin (a link to an interview with Perkins about his book  In this book Perkins describes how the NSA (like the CIA) recruited him and trained him as an EHM (economic hit man).  He then became the chief economist of an engineering consulting firm.  Basically, what he did was get countries to agree to loans from the World Bank or IMF that benefited the rich in the country.  The stipulation to these loans was that the construction had to be done by a US company.  So the money was transferred from a bank account in Washington to another one in New York and the poor people of a country had to pay for the loan (for the impact of debt on the poor see, or the big one is  He would offer these countries loans from the World Bank that the country just couldn’t pay, then the IMF would take over with Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) which would effectively implement policy that is favourable to US corporate expansion, making an empire.  When the EHMs didn’t work, then came the real CIA kind of hit men, and when they failed (like in Iraq) then war comes.  

     One for Marx, but then the question I have is: if he was right about the capitalist system why isn’t there a revolutionary proletariat?  The answer to this question is a lack of class consciousness.  I think hierarchy and globalization have created big divisions in the proletariat.  For example, the office worker in Canada isn’t fighting in an act of solidarity for the rights of the sweatshop worker in China.  Both are working for a fat middle aged white man, but globalization has spread the two workers thousands of kilometres apart and the cultural and language barriers not to mention pay scale provide more differences than commonalities in even a desire for struggle against the “oppressor.”  Further there is no way to communicate between the two workers.  The Canadian once saw a documentary on sweatshop workers and the sweatshop worker is too busy working to try to feed herself to go to an internet café and chat with her co-worker in Canada.

     So why won’t either revolt with their co-workers where they are at?  The answer is dependency theory.  Marx put it this way, “Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”
The core exploits the periphery and the periphery allows its rape because it has bought into the system that the core is the centre of the world.  I have seen this; I spent two months in Albania and the people I was staying with warned me not to give out my email or make promises about letting people stay with me when I got back to Canada, because they would come with their family and move into my house.  Everyone wore Nike and every night the local TV station would play an American movie.  This is because the American propaganda machine pumps out the utopia of America as the core, the centre of the world.  I like to call this culture envy.  
     So how does dependency theory and culture envy relate to why the sweatshop and office workers won’t revolt.  First, the sweatshop worker; the sweatshop worker won’t revolt because she will lose her job, in fact she won’t even complain about the situation because she will lose her job.  And if everyone revolts or complains than the factory will just pack up and go to somewhere that will appreciate the below subsistence level job they have to offer.  So why won’t her government do something about the situation?  Because the government has bought the gospel of capitalism, that they have to develop through industrialization, and when they do then they will be like the core, the centre of the world.  
     Side note for a rant: I think Marx’s view of development as a forward march of progress is flawed first of all, it is too linear and simplistic, the world just doesn’t work that way, things are diverse and as can be seen in development theory, context is more pertinent to successful development than how the west did it. Developing countries can follow their own paths, but if they knew that then the West would no longer be the core and the centre of the world.  
     Finally, why won’t the proletariat of Canada revolt?  It comes back to dependency theory for me, envy.  The periphery wants what is at the core, and at the core is a good office job that you don’t have to work too hard and a nice house with a nice family and it can always be a little bit nicer.  They keep us at work by making us want more.  So subvert the system, be content.  With Contentment I won’t depend on the system to give me what I want and can follow my morals and fight for my sweatshop co-worker.  I’m sorry Material Girl, but maybe materialism is the opiate of the masses.  Also, Sulty, a classmate, is from the former USSR, and gave a presentation on life under soviet rule.  He said something that really stuck out to me, he said: “No body had a lot of stuff, but everyone was happy, and together.”  

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Popular Opinion is Irrational

Paul Berman - Terrorism and Liberalism

I had to read a couple chapters of this and it renewed my belief in evil. As you can see from my blog on certainty I am a poster boy for liberalism (more or less). The premise of Berman’s article is that liberalism is naïve in its belief that there is no evil without a reason. Everything has a cause and effect, and to humanize the villain all a person has to do is find the reason that a person decides to do evil acts. This makes life a lot less scary because everything is understandable. Look at the cliché, ‘people fear what they don’t understand’.

Berman showed, using history, this premise can lead to dangerous sympathies. Example 1, the French socialist party during the late 1930s said that the German people were oppressed by the Jews (the Jews were financiers and being socialist fought against the financiers and didn’t see a racial distinction, so they rationalized the actions of the Germans). Berman describes,
"The anti-war Socialists wanted to know: why shouldn’t the French government show a little flexibility in the face of Hitler’s demands? Why not recognize that some of Hitler’s points were well taken? Why not look for ways to conciliate the outraged German people and, in that way, to conciliate the Nazis? ...But the political arguments rested on something deeper, too – a philosophical belief, profound, large, and attractive, which was reassuring instead of terrifying. It was the belief that, in the modern world, even the enemies of reason cannot be enemies of reason. Even the unreasonable must be, in some fashion, reasonable."
This raises for me the sympathy of the oppressed and the hatred of the oppressors. I used these terms in a class a week ago and was chastised for it because it is an old polar way of thinking. Which made me think of Chesterton saying that everything is not black and white, but neither is it grey. In everything there is black and white. The simplification into the categories of oppressed and oppressor, good and evil to explain why bad things happen is not sufficient for understanding the world. As for the French, they allowed half their country to be annexed and it resulted in the death of a lot of people.

The main point of Berman’s article was that mass movements of pathological killers exist. There is no reason why. Berman quoted an Auschwitz SS officer “here there is no reason why.” The liberal mind always asks why, so this was/is a tough one to get my head around, but he also gave the example of suicide bombings in Israel, and the rise of public support with the rise of suicide bombings, the support of murder, a contemporary version of the French and the Nazis.

In my blog on Mill’s Liberalism, Mill talked about the oppression of truth is due to the times, that is, the context. Berman showed that as the suicide bombings rose, so did the support for the Palestinian cause in the west. He linked this to an obsession with transgression “that sometimes takes an overtly sexual form.” He goes on to say that he can’t prove this, but it is interesting that the support of Palestinian causes rises and falls with the suicide bombers, not the suffering of Palestinian people. This points out our own irrationality. Those whose religion is rationality seem not too faithful in our marriage to it. So, is rationality just a cerebral explanation to follow our emotions (meaning that rational thought is illusion, we argue for what we feel?). I think it can degenerate to that, by one sided arguments (fundamentalists don’t have a corner on the market of closed mindedness). The challenge of being a rational being is always seeing the side I don’t want to see.

This gets back to the oppressor/oppressed language, in that it is very easy for me to see the side of the oppressed, and fight for that person, but I don’t want to see the side of the oppressor, I don’t want to be in dialogue with something that I hate, but I think that hate is also due to the fact that I think of a CEO as the embodiment of everything that I despise because I don’t know a CEO. Even Hitler loved some children. I also think that is where the most effective change can come from, it is much easier to effect change if I can influence people in power. I think underlying it all I have a fear of talking to CEOs because I don’t want to turn into what they are.

Back to Berman … where has reason gone wrong, why has the desire for discourse led to the support of murder? Should it be abandoned? I think reason failed because opinions are privileged. There is such a wide diversity of opinions that it is very easy to not run into important critiques; especially the critiques that don’t explain the why. So sure the suicide bombers have had a rough oppressed life, but that is not enough to explain why, and reason will not take me to some opinions that need to be voiced. For example, intuition, and faith.

I am not yet ready to abandon reason, but Berman gives a caution to absolute faith in reason. There will be sides that I am not seeing, and life is complex and cannot be explained by tight circles of logic in which a couple of steps show the process of becoming a suicide bomber. In conclusion, I think that a person can very easily rationalize things that are wrong to make them seem right at the time. Maybe this can be avoided by not seeing things as polar opposites, by not rationalizing evil acts. Sure corporate oppression is evil, but so is killing and to be sympathetic to murder because I think I can understand why they did it doesn’t make it right. I don’t think this is what Berman is trying to say actually. I think he is trying to say that we are sympathetic to murderers because of reason and shouldn’t be because they just need to be brought to justice.

I just used the term ‘we’ (not intentionally) because liberals try to bring unity to humanity, but we are faced with factions that have the goal of destroying portions of humanity. The two goals are incompatible. Berman’s point is that we can’t reason pathological factions over to our side because they play by different rules. There are people that want to kill us and we can’t talk them out of it. That leaves limited options as a response. Do we have to speak their language and hunt them down and bring them to justice for our survival, or is there a better way?

Christ said to turn the other cheek, but was he talking on the level of international relations, or just personal relations? Can I turn the other cheek to people I don’t know? Does turning the other cheek have to do with not taking insults personally?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Truth or Survival

John Stuart Mill - On Liberalism  

I have definitely been procrastinating writing this one, but the time has come.  I think that I have been procrastinating because this one is very foundational; it is like a writer that has a hard time writing the pinnacle work of her life because it is just so damn hard to do.  

So I have been sitting here for an hour; this is what I’ve come up with, Liberalism embraces evolution as a method of cultural interaction. Mill published On Liberalism in 1859; the same year Darwin published The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man.  Wow, that was quite a year, modern science is based on Darwin and modern politics is based on Mill (in Canada at least).  

1. Importance of Diversity
I think that Mill advocated for an intellectual environment that didn’t suppress diversity: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”  This is a powerful statement supporting diversity in dissenting ideas.  He saw the value of diversity of opinion as:  “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error” and in that way the limiting of freedom of expression is not robbing the individual but “it is robbing the human race.”  

But What’s the Point?
Near the end of On Liberalism Mill talks about the saying that truth will overcome persecution; his assertion is that this is not true, but goes on to show that it is: “The real advantage truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such advance as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.”  At this point however, if I am going to continue the comparison of liberalism to evolution the end goal needs some thought.  For example, I don’t think there is an end goal of evolution, other than survival.  Maybe that is the function of truth, truth is what helps us survive an philosophical paradigm.  The philosophical paradigm is truth.  As the paradigm changes so does truth. But to get back to the quote, maybe it was my reading of the quote, but I didn’t get a subjective understanding of truth, but an absolute truth that is enigmatic and unrecognizable in some instances.  I don’t think Mill would agree with the idea that truth is what helps us adapt to survive intellectually.  I think I’m on to something though, because…

Not that there can’t be truth that transcends culture, but there can also be truth that helps us survive

I’m using the word truth a lot so I had better define it.  I’m using truth in this blog as the ideas that people agree upon.  

However, people agree upon some stupid things, like slavery.  I don’t want to say that the arguments for slavery were true at the time.  What made it alright for Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews?  It was illusion, not truth…

Maybe what a civilization agrees upon may or may not be true, but it is intellectual adaptation for the individual.  But what is true and how close a person’s civilization’s intellectual paradigm (what the civilization agrees upon is their intellectual paradigm) resembles that truth may be the determining factor in how good that civilization is.  This idea isn’t evident in evolution however.  That is what I am struggling with.  The only goal of evolution is survival.  The goal of culture goes beyond survival to the ideal of truth.  This is very Hegelian in that the best civilization to live in will be a model of truth.

I began this blog with the idea that Darwin and Mill were advocating for diversity as a basis for survival (evolution), but I am ending with a thought that they are quite different, using the same means, but with vastly different ends.  It is insufficient to have a cultural paradigm whose goal is survival, rationalizing the current context.  I know for myself, that if the goal of the current paradigm was to rationalize the context then I wouldn’t put much faith in it.  The question that must be asked is: Do ideas legitimate power, or does power bring life to ideas?  Legitimate government is power bringing life to ideas, but I think as time goes on and contexts change and regimes stay the same that ideas are produced to legitimate the regime.  That is survival; the first is a commitment to truth.  To living beyond survival, living for ideals…  

Monday, October 24, 2005

Feel Good Morality - With or Without God

Feel Good Morality – With or Without God
John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism

This blog will be my attempt at the reconciliation of utilitarianism and Christianity.  Mill defines utilitarianism as “the ‘greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”  When I first read that I thought oh yeah, what kind of crack pot society will you have if everyone is looking out for their own happiness (oops, capitalism =) ).  But, as I read on I discovered that there was a lot more to it than that.  
The next quote got my attention: “The comparison of the Epicurean*(emphasis on the pleasure of the mind and body in moderation) life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness.”   Mill goes on to say that the higher pleasure is the mental instead of the bodily pleasure.  
This brings up a little side note, I have a prof that is of the opinion that the mind/body split is absurd.  I can see this, look at depression and mental illness, it is a deficiency in a chemical in the body that effects the mind.  The split has also been the basis of misogyny, because the man is more of the mind and the woman is more of the body.  Also look at the favouring of rational over the intuitive.  I read an article earlier this year by Flyvbjerg (Rationality, body, and intuition in human learning), he showed that a beginner level was characterized by rationality and slow thoughtfulness.  The expert on the other hand is characterized by intuition.  Just a side note for thought, but maybe the mind/body divide is as artificial as country borders.    
Back to utilitarianism…The point that stuck in my head was this, “the utilitarian standard… is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier.”  This creates morality as the goal of utilitarianism; the idea that the good of other people is above the good of the individual.  
Mill was writing to fill the abyss that God left in the secularization of society.  My argument is that maybe the argument is a repackaging of the first and second greatest commandments, to love the lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind; and to love your neighbour as yourself.  In both I find a focus on the other.  A critique that I need to hear of my own life.  

Friday, October 21, 2005

On Certainty And How to Get Along

On Certainty …And How to Get Along

What is certainty?  I have had a lot of problems with this stupid idea from Descartes because to me certainty is not being open to other people’s opinion on a topic.  It is a kind of off limits to discussion.  It also seems that people who are certain about their beliefs are jerks to those who don’t agree with them.  For example… you don’t see things the way they obviously are so you must be an idiot.  
     People are way too valuable to be talking about them like that.  Being a Christian I believe Jesus loves people way too much to have that kind of attitude, where if you don’t conform to my system of belief then I just won’t talk to you as a human being and will write off your experience as invalid because it doesn’t line up to the way I see the world.  
     But what if certainty is re-conceptualized as not being a closed-ness to the opinions of others, but instead as an openness to other opinions.  The thing that I am certain about I shouldn’t have to protect from questioning. It should stand on its own.  
     This leads me to the question of the application of certainty, namely to the undisputed topic of gravity and to the highly disputed topic of Religion.  Gravity just isn’t disputed, I think it is because it is a pretty simple concept that applies to a single phenomena that shapes our lives.  I guess the question I am getting at is what makes religion such a contentious topic?  Everyone can agree that gravity works the way it does and apply the open concept of certainty.  Is it arrogant to apply the same open concept of certainty to religion because there is a diversity of opinions?  
     The real question is how do people of different religions get along?  Can I say to a Buddhist friend that I am certain about my faith in the way that doesn’t rely on me to defend it; which puts me in the unique position of being able to question my own faith.  In this situation my Buddhist friend and I can ask questions of our faiths together and learn from each other.  We can be united in our questioning, and I don’t think it matters that at the end of the day he may remain Buddhist and I Christian (and as a friend commented on the last blog, ‘God forbid a fundamentalist sees this’).  I think this fulfills my calling as a Christian to “preach the gospel” because my Buddhist friend and I are both more intimately aware of each other’s faiths and further it is alright that she has remained a Buddhist because free choice is more important than being a Christian (it’s the way God set it up).
In conclusion, I would have to say that this is true from my experience as well.  I relate to people of other faiths by going into a religious conversation of lets question together.  The openness view of certainty is precisely that.  The closed view of certainty would say “let me teach you what I believe.”  I think the first is a lot more sustainable in a diverse society.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Why bacon is better with books.

Why bacon is better with books.  How to get out of illusion and to the truth.
What I will try to do is legitimate learning from reflecting on the books that I read.  This is something that Francis Bacon wouldn't have agreed with, but I hope to win him over. 
Through Experience
Francis Bacon said that knowledge doesn’t come from books it comes from doing things.  (His big thing was that we can't be sure that we aren't falling into illusion if we don't have any direct experience, learning through observation)
In a lecture Mao Zedong gave his comrades two examples of knowing something.  One person can cook following a recipe in a book, a second person who has much experience cooking can do it intuitively.  The first person is literate the second person can cook
Through Discourse
In an interview with Jay Leno Will Smith said, “Whatever you are going through someone has gone through it before and written a book about it.”  - Will Smith isn't so focused on avoiding illusion, but he does bring up the point that we can learn from other people.  Put more eloquently: John Stuart Mill in On Liberty "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error."  - A person can get to the truth by talking about it with other people and comparing opinions.  

Relationship between Experience and Discourse
To take the example of the person who can cook, that person reflected and discussed the use of spices and the cooking temperature with his fellow learners.  A person experiences something but there is no learning without reflection on that experience.  Theory is the discourse of that reflection on experience.  The cook is backed by booth experience and theory.  
     This leads me to the title for my Blog.  My discourse on theory occurs between talking to my friends, and reading (a one sided conversation).  This is where I will round out the one-sided conversation of reading.  This is my talking back to the authors I read, summarizing what I think they are saying and how that relates to my reflections on topics.  This is discourse.