Saturday, February 29

Marxism, Socialism and the Future of Capitalism

‘What is the Future of Capitalism?   

I more or less agree with the views of eminent economist and author Paul Collier, who proposes an ethical capitalism supported by values defined by practical logical reasoning. The situational facts and meanings surrounding his ideas provide a good starting point.   

However, his conclusion is hardly a new idea, but follows on from the ancient Greek philosophers who proposed that by leading a virtuous life ( the good life ) that in turn, ensured one lived an ethical purposeful life. They saw no end in sight, just a continual improvement throughout one’s life, which gave meaning to their existence. You might recall I talked about the golden mean arising from different discourses to end as a resolution to embodied in their laws and system of governance. Humanity was a seen by them as a political animal, so that issues had to be debated then resolved.       

What Collier is suggesting, in a nutshell, is an ethnically based system flexible enough to embrace the ever changing nature of existence and one in which will avoid ceding control to vested or corrupting interests.
One might argue, to some extent, the framework to support such a system already exists in the United Nations charter to facilitate measurable sustainable development goals. In practice, accepting there are notable exceptions, capitalism is largely represented by a piecemeal approach, made up of weak values constrained by vested interests. The prevalence of greed and corruption is always a factor, but equally there are those willing to rally around a more just outcome to weed out corruption or greed in excessive price gouging. I don't accept the premise corruption is endemic to certain cultures, but rather it can be linked to forms of exploitation than can be eliminated more effectively in the dealings between enterprises and governments sharing an ongoing dialogue on ethical standards. Poorer countries. may be constrained by a shortage of human capital to be more vulnerable to exploitation than more affluent countries.    
Consequently, the lack of a clear cultural vision for capitalism, continues to underwrite its malaise, notwithstanding some notable exceptions. This state of affairs contributes to the current unrest and the accompanying surge in popularization of simplistic solutions attempting to fill in the void.
To facilitate a new ethical face to capitalism will require a concentrated effort to not only make a more convincing case, but to examine the big ideas of the past to see what aspects might assist us identify current inherent weaknesses. 
The goal might seem an impossible task, given significant cultural differences, but I would regard such an approach as a continual work in progress, to reflect an ever changing world. 
An important dynamic ingredient is the inclusion of cultural differences within the framework of agreed ethical standards. This has the capacity to create a more meaningful existence as we increasingly become part of a global village, necessitating cultural exchanges. This requires an empathetic and imaginative approach which will remain an ongoing work in progress.          
Of course human nature points to the fact that any system will carry with it the seeds of failure, but to the extent to which capitalism is clearly deficient, one can envisage clear cut moves to focus on maintaining an egalitarian society, without having to dismantle the whole system.  

Collier asserts the moral basis for a utilitarian focus to posit a fairer system of governance pertinent to Keynes and Adam Smith’s ideas (against mercantilism) have lost their way to breed disillusionment to those who feel overlooked in modernity.
Many of these ideas by Keynes for instance have been overlooked or abandoned to vested interests that have taken hold innocuously as in cultural hegemony. The task to re-examine these options which is not an arduous one, nor are the supportive arguments difficult to understand, communicate and implement as policy.      
Collier for instance, wants us to more frequently ask of our institutions  what are your values i.e. ‘what are the ethical foundations to this so called ethical state’, ethical firm’, ethical family etc. to represent the functional aspects to ensure fairness and equity for all of the stakeholders. In essence it has a socialist ring to it without inviting a wholesale dismantling of the current system of capitalism.
Hence I don’t want to confine the discussion just to business and institutional representation but rather more broadly to drill down into such aspects as the family and local small community groups.
In order to do justice to the topic, I believe it important to get an understanding of the works of Karl Marx who successfully predicted the inequalities and concentration of wealth that we now see are evident in capitalism. The atrocities associated with socialism and more importantly to Marxism have virtually nothing to do with his philosophy as they involve the inherent vested interest he rallied against in his critique of capitalism plus hideous crimes against humanity.    

Marx was influenced by Hegel who would be described as a dialectical materialist. What we mean in philosophy by a dialectic is to signify the position in which everything is always in a perpetual state of flux. That is the reality of our existence. as expressed in the the laws of nature.   
Let me give an example, such as putting your foot firstly into a stream then again a second time when there is a different flow of water. What you could say in regard to the flowing stream is you can no longer put your foot in that same stream, but always in a different part of the stream made up of that new body of water. So you no longer exist as a baby, but are now fully grown. Hence materialism refers to the idea of nature which is determined by itself and by nothing else, just simply by the laws of nature. So that if you put the 2 together you have the idea of state of constant flux where everything is always changing from one state to another, due to the indication of opposing forces.
Marx then related this idea of dialectic materialism to a historical context as in our our existence. The ebb and flow of opposing forces must eventually erupt if there is a prolonged imbalance, i.e., at a particular level of say a worker strike, this could lead to an untimely revolution once you build sufficient pressure within the capitalist system. The more desirable position then was embodied in his idea of socialism, which he saw as the naturally forming system that ceded authority to all those who worked under it.
In his social construct Marx thought that human liberation could only be achieved once the means of production were communally owned, and material equality for members of society were achieved. 
2nd edition Sociality: Themes and Perspectives               

His ideas represented a fundamental shift in the prevailing world view that supports our westernized system of capitalism. Personally, I don’t see any pressing need  for any radical departure, but rather,  to the extent  progress can be made, we move towards a more ethically based capitalist system. Certainly the ethically based funds management industry is taking steps to achieve this, as is a plethora of firms, in what remains a somewhat piecemeal approach. In any large organisation today there is what is known as governance executive, whose task is to ensure the organisation conducts itself in a sustainable and ethical manner. The more recent failures in this regard have often exposed the fact those individuals advice was ignored, in what was a cultural collapse in values. 
Returning to the Marxist philosophy, the idea of dialects also encourages one to recognize that everything is always in a state of flux so that the matter of ethics is dependent on an ongoing dynamic narrative that invites cultural exchanges and imagination.

Hence Marxism tends to invite two principal views; those who seek to demonstrate the triumph of global capitalism versus a growing number of people who are becoming increasingly concerned over inequality and lack of an environmental focus that such a system is prone to deliver. The former group will argue his ideas were false, whilst in the latter, there are those who are interested in his ideas. The reality is, of course, that the system of capitalism that existed in the extreme of Victorian capitalism was far different to that which has emerged in modernity, a construct of differing laws and practices within trading nations. But notwithstanding, his philosophy and economics provides a sharp focus on the alternatives to the present system and to the efficient operation of the invisible hand of the market proposed by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was inclined to operate at the sharp end of the philosophical pencil, as he wanted to change the world. He claimed his ideas were based in scientific principles as in the laws of motion of a modern society.

To reiterate his principal philosophical base as I have previously explained was one as a dialectical materialist. Hence, his conclusion was that all humanity had become enslaved within its own man made system of capitalism, analogous to the way Christian believers are subject to their religious commands.
He saw religious discourse as a manifestation of power to argue it had become subservient to the elites of capitalism, presiding soulless conditions to the workers. Like Nietzsche, he posited the idea that the Christian ethic, through meekness, became enslaved under the ruling elite. This meekness involved a slave like mentality, to prevent a revolution, from which the workers could break free of their enslavement. But he believed that pressure cooker existence will only last until it reaches its boiling over point wherein he prophesised a revolution must finally take place.       
Hence his style was that of the social philosopher, to talk in the sense of socio economic context of a class conflict which led him to practical politics. The underlying difference of Marxism to Kant was that Marxism held people were enslaved by societal conditions whereas Kant thought individuals were inherently free and the fault lay with individuals failing to exhibit courage. That is to have the courage to use one’s own understanding rather than having to rely on the guidance of other people. What view you hold to be true is a debatable and I rather think it is a mixture of both, dependent upon your location and the cultural aspects that influence existence at that point in time.    
But Marx’s radical ideas were not well received by the authorities, causing him to flee Germany, to be exiled from France then Belgium, before finally settling In London. 
There he linked up with Frederick Engels (1820-1895) who was appalled by the then about Victorian working conditions. The two collaborated to critique various philosophers of that era. 
For Marx the dominant social group or ruling class, the group which owns and controls the means of production, will largely monopolise political power and its position will be supported by laws which have been framed by it to protect and further its interests. 
In the same way, beliefs and values will reflect and legitimate the relations of production. Members of the ruling class ‘rule’ also as thinkers, as in production of ideas. (Marx & Engels 1970 page 64)
These ideas justify the power and privilege and conceal the basis of exploitation and oppression on which their dominance rests, 
Of course Marx gave priority to the economic factors, they only form part of the history, As Engels puts it, and both he and Marx argued that the ultimately determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of real life. 
In pages 488 Marx & Engels 
If somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the of the superstructure ...........also exert their influence jupon the course of the historical struggles and in any cases preponderate on determining their form. From 2nd edition Sociality
On Page 54 his work on German ideology sets out his ideas: In communist society ......nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes; society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning m fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner.
To reiterate Marx saw the inevitable concentration of power under capitalism to result in a revolution, but what transpired was not of the kind he envisaged.

The weakness in Marxism is that human nature is likely to react in the same way under either a system of capitalism or communism to ensure the accumulation of inequalities. 
However, historically Marx remains a significant philosopher whose ideas remain relevant as a talking point, to initiate philosophical enquiry into failures of the current capitalist system. That is to prompt enquiry on how it might be modified to ensure better outcomes. What we can say, at the outset, that some of his ideas have some rather obvious shortcomings.  However, it could be argued politically and in  economic terms they were never implemented in the manner envisaged by Marx, particularly in relation to the Stalin’s purge, Mau and Pol Pot, who all laid claim to Marxism.
Furthermore many of his criticisms of Victorian capitalism have disappeared in a strict legal sense, whilst continuing to flourish outside of the law and in some countries.
In summary then we might ask the question are we not seeing the end result today of what Marx prophesised?

Under his adopted idea of dialectical materialism one assumes the world is always in a constant state of flux, something is and is not, as explained in the examples provided of the foot in the stream, in tune with the laws of nature. So one might argue a form of socialism makes more sense than capitalism. Alternatively, for capitalism to proper for the majority one must bold into the model realistic forms of control consistent with the idea of dialectical materialism if we are to avoid its excesses?

So do we not see seeds of the inevitable sprouting of the revolutionary combustible tide emanating from soulless capitalism? Not that the world has got worse off, for the reverse is true. But perception is the key as in the growing awareness of inequality? To fuel popularization as in a current modern day phenomena in westernized countries? This is far more prevalent in the developed world to feel isolated on both fronts inclusive also from views emanating from privileged form of intellectualism as well?

Just to reiterate I don’t embrace any form of wholesale socialism, for you just swap one brand of control to another as in the failings of human nature manifest in a different form. But can we learn something about a soulless enslavement on many fronts evidenced by many at the moment? For the changes in thinking belong first in the street, in communities, in institutions to finally finish up I think with better governance, framed in a more ethnically based thoughtful system yet to emerge.
So that what I suggest as a principal topic for discussions, is how we restore guiding ethical values as a moral compass, into capitalism or in the mainstream politics in Australia.
How would this work in our institutions and what revisions are required in the law, how does that look in terms of a more ethically focused environment? How do we add to the existing good work has carried out in this respect, to ensure it increasingly becomes part of our culture?      

Saturday, February 22

How can anybody change culture?

I am defining culture for the purposes of this discussion paper as what the majority of people think is right, good or true at a particular time without usually questioning it. In modern day terms it can be referred to as cultural hegemony; to reflect the dominant view supported through ideological or cultural means. In other words it is the values, norms and ideas that permeate a particular worldview, which may be routinely expressed by social institutions. Such a view is generally held to be true, mostly just on face value, by the majority, so that the remainder also are prone to follow on. 

The term was used in a particular context by Italian Antonio Gramsci (1891 1937) in the 1920s in his Prison Notebooks, penned whilst he was serving a sentence imposed under Mussolini’s fascist regime. More on this later on.   

One might say it is a feature or failure of human nature that ends up holding popular views on complex issues, to give credence to the idea the matter doesn’t warrant further investigation or invite a challenge to conventional thinking. Under cultural hegemony you have the idea an elite or ruling class frames its ideas or a worldview from social and economic structures that add support principally to achieve its own objectives rather than the intention to benefit the whole of society. For instance in the mass media the presentation may appear to be highly beneficial for all, whereas in practice a thorough analysis might reveal benefits accruing principally to an elite or ruling class. This then is the role of the philosopher as guardians of rationality, to examine the underlying issues with a comprehensive narrative.

Of course this kind of power is quite different to one that exerts its views by force, as is apparent in a military dictatorship. Rather, cultural hegemony exercises authority by utilizing all of the cultural or institutionalized means at its disposal. 
Today we can think of any number of issues in Australia that might roughly fit the bill indicative of measures that can be reasonably demonstrated to risk us moving the nation away from a desirable egalitarian system of governance. But the message might be couched in such a way to give the impression changes proposed accrue benefits for society overall. As Paul Keating famously remarked, assuming I can recall correctly, you can always rely on self-interest to exert its influence.          

Although not strictly applicable to ancient times, one can note how slavery flourished as an accepted norm to Athenian citizens who didn't see any problem in the system that enslaved others. Therein, according to Aristotle, this view was reinforced by Aristotle, who advised the practice of slavery was a naturally occurring phenomenon where certain peoples, are by their very nature, meant to be under the control of a master, which is in fact in their best interest.

Apart from that curtailment of freedom you will recall their culture sought a middle ground between culture and science, to present a narrative based on rationality, aimed to establishing a more informed way forward, whilst acknowledging our limitations. Their culture was aimed at ensuring the laws of the land are reflective of living the good life, based on a virtuous purposeful existence and freedom for all, unless you were a slave.  

Hence their culture supported a meaningful narrative designed to fend off the forces of darkness that are never far from the surface of our existence. Of course history informs us the first thing a warring party on gaining power does is to impose its culture and ensure it is is endorsed under the new regime to cement a high degree of ongoing control.  
Hideous examples in the more modern context were evident in the Cultural Revolution in China under Mau, who sought to build a world super power to put forward the idea to its citizens and abroad the new culture was highly advantageous, wherein it is estimated his policies directly resulted in the death of 70 million people. 
Prior to the Cultural Revolution, Confucian ethics and a more liberal democratic value system were finding their way back into the country. But Mau brought an abrupt halt to this movement and ensured the suppression of the ancient religious practices and beliefs as China became an atheist state. Post the Cultural Revolution it has thankfully moved away from these extremes and terror to work towards a more democratic society, which sits paradoxically uneasily within the confines of a communist state. However, human rights abuses continue as does the persecution of minorities.     

The political leader Pol Pot presided over a regime based on a forced culture where an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork. ... Some regard his regime as one of the most barbaric and murderous in recent history.  

Such grim reminders point to the need to preserve the positive aspects to one’s culture and embrace changes gradually that seeks to enhance such traditional values that may continue to serve us well in the future. The role then of the future philosophers might be suggested as twofold, one might be posited as in the ancient Greek tradition to argue a golden mean in rationality between different discourses and secondly as guardians of culture, to ensure change is  subject to careful analysis and debate.  

So that one might ask the question in Australia, where we operate as a democracy, are we nevertheless in the grips of what some might say are moves that risk taking away the safeguards that promote an egalitarian society?
I trust this paper provides some background for interesting discussions. It might be seen a precursor to another subject I wish to introduce soon “What is the Future of Capitalism”?  
A salient point I think is important to note is the current nature of our present position as part of a global village, which means the communicative tools to initiate change are more favourable than in any other  time in history. 

The author of an article in 'Philosophy Now' by Kevin Brinkman, sets out the steps one can take in modernity to change culture with some help from 3 modern day philosophers; Louis Althusser (1918-1990), Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and Karl Manheim (1893-1947).
He contends they could help us to do this.

Althusser  is regarded as the most influential in terms of rendering a respectability to Marxist ideas, as opinion is prone to recoil in horror at the mention of his name, associated as it is with the evils of the Stalinist era. His work continues to provide food for thought for philosophers and activists examining alternatives to our present economic and social construct. 
In his early formative years he became heavily involved in Catholicism, in conjunction with a membership of the French Communist Party in 1948.  Jean Paul Satrte also had a love hate relationship with the party and also with deconstructed Marxism. Althusser had previously spent the war years at a prisoner of war at a camp in Northern Germany, where he credits his ideas on communism as arising from that experience.
He was attributed as working alongside some of the more notable thinkers of his era such as Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault.
Antonia Gramsci
Similarly Antonio Gramsci was an Italian journalist and activist who is best known for his work on Marxism, economics and politics. He was imprisoned by the Mussolini’s fascist Italian government, where he wrote Prison Notebooks.
The upshot of his theory was that the state represented domination on behalf of capitalism and the ruling class. He is attributed to introducing the concept of cultural hegemony, the role of the state and how it accomplishes its ideological framework in hegemonic beliefs, via mass media to avoid thoughtful analysis.
Karl Manheim
Mannheim talked about social constructs and is known as the founding father of the sociology of knowledge. He was also agreeable to Marxism. Mannheim held each generation makes a fresh contact with the older version to slightly alter particular cultural aspects. The upshot is each new generation opens up opportunities for social and cultural continuity and change.

In Kevin Brinkman’s article that appeared ‘Philosophy Now’ he contends that these three big ideas – ideology, cultural hegemony, and the sociology of knowledge – when joined together will help us answer two big questions: Why is our culture the way it is? And what can we do about it?
On the other hand do we disagree with that idea and think there is no need to change anything except encourage more membership of institutions, such as political parties and centres of influence?  

Can we steer a middle course and as suggested by the author change culture with humility and civility, knowing that everyone is upset about something in the culture, and that many people are doing their best to make this a better world.
The Big Picture
According to the author culture is always interacting with various influences that keep it in a state of flux. Once hegemony can be challenged, and eventually replaced, by another, and it can happen in a perfectly peaceful way.
This is in contrast to the economic determinism often associated with Karl Marx, the political determinism often associated with Carl von Clausewitz, or the cultural determinism often associated with Max Weber. In all these cases, the named dimension holds decisive influence over the other two, such that the other two dimensions of human life cannot in the end affect what will happen in the determining dimension. In reality no single dimension of human life is deterministic. This is good news for those without power – those not occupying seats of economic, political, or cultural leadership – because it means the path of development of society is not set in advance. It implies that a small group of concerned and committed individuals can begin the cultural change process, which moves out to the economic dimension by its ability to multiply and sustain itself, exerts influence on the political dimension, before thoroughly influencing the cultural dimension.
He summarise the advice of this article in the words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world” (Earth at Omega: Passage to Planetization by Donald Keys, 1982, p.79).
How Did Our Culture Get This Way?
On this model, a cultural hegemony forms through three stages: its supporters acquire some power; they get institutions on board; and then let the institutions spread the culture.
Power is a natural and inevitable part of human society. Although philosophers such as Marx wanted society to ultimately move beyond power dynamics, someone, or some group, is always more powerful than another.
According to our philosophers, the last stage of establishing a hegemony – spreading a culture – is the easiest to achieve. Winning power requires fighting. Winning institutions requires negotiation. Winning individuals requires only their consent to the values of the institutions. Most of the values of most individuals are unconsciously absorbed. We do not often question the values of our culture (for example, human rights, individualism, and materialism) because, in the words of Gramsci, they have become ‘common sense’ (Selections, p.134). For example, we are pro-choice or pro-life usually because that is the stance of our family or religion.
Althusser describes the process of accepting the culturally hegemonic institutional line as moving from being ‘free subjects’ to willingly accepting subjection ‘all by [one’s] self’ (Lenin, p.182).
How Can Cultural Values Be Reformed
Cultural values are reformed in three stages: get people thinking, get people together, and get institutional change.
Culture is not something static – people are always changing culture. So the real challenge, after all, may not be how to change culture. Our three philosophers have given us a roadmap for how to do that. The real challenge may be changing culture with humility and civility, knowing that everyone is upset about something in the culture, and that many people are doing their best to make this a better world.

Friday, February 14

Death ever teach me

What attracted my interest was the recent award winning essay in New Philosophy entitled ‘Death oh, oh ever teach me ......, which provides a useful existentialist perspective.  

If raises the interesting question what can we learn from death, since we have yet to experience it? 
Wolfgang Gilliar, uses the title ‘Death oh, oh ever teach me….’  And therein, to denote his personage (I) as a young trainee nurse to whom he addresses his thoughts, who does not know anything about death; i.e. he lacks all understanding of it as he makes no mention of it.

So, to appreciate this essay one needs to firstly cast aside any religious, and ‘after life’ ideas one might reasonably have. Rather the “I” as in the young trainee at the hospital is restricted to discussing the effect and impact on the people surrounding the dying man, and subsequently hopes to learn something.
What he learns is exemplified in the titles given to each part of the unfolding narrative: Death, the inquisitor, Death the invitation to see, Death the unwelcome, Death, the giver of meaning. 
But one notices such revelations are about living with the prospect of death since death remains inexplicable. 

He begins by questioning how to define the family upon whom the death will impact and the next of kin to be contacted when death occurs. For many of us that may not be a problem as it may be clearly documented or understood in close knit families, but for the young trainee’s experiences that position in practice remained unclear: to whom and when will such a  communication of death be first sent. He asks the question is it the official next of kin faithfully recorded on the medical records or some other proxy, such as the executor of the will who recently added a codicil on the patient’s death bed so to speak, but finishes the essay still not knowing. 

His experience in the hospital allowed him to observe first-hand how patents opened up to him, when he customarily asked if anything should happen to you, or if God forbid you should die, who is the person to first contact. Here he began to learn about the human condition, sometimes to be in the privileged position to be with patients who would soon die. Death the invitation to see. 

He makes the valid point that most people are not so much afraid of dying but show concerns how they will die, or we might add how those who are left will cope. But he cites the emergence of often unexpected resilience as people’s character are exposed as if under the gaze of a high powered microscope, to illuminate the authentic self. In that sense, death, in a strange way, might be seen as the Liberator. Death the liberator. 

He was assigned to look after the needs of Dr Nouvel, for several months, who was suffering from a severe form of eye cancer. But the patient turns his face away from him as if to deny him the chance to look death in the eye so to speak. Similarly staff voiced the same weary complaint ‘when will it all end’, to dance around the word to die or death. Death the unwelcome. 

Dr Nouvel had been a gifted physician, a physician’s physician, whose prior vocation was resplendent in lifesaving approaches.   Staff now talked about his momentarily lapses into despair, manifested in yelling fits at people over trivial details such as the way his toast was not crisp. Death in living form. 

Sitting with the patience the author describes the hideous sight he sees. But in a quite movement he reflects on Purcell’s Dide and Aneas “Where I am laid, am laid in earth .......May my wrongs create no trouble ...........Remember me, remember me .........but ah, forget my fate. This moving piece from his only opera composition by Purcell, is played each year on Armistice Day by a military band at the Cenotaph remembrance ceremony in London’s Whitehall.
 “Death the quiet invader.” 
In the final section Dr Nouvel had directed an intense family family conference, where his will had been updated with his attorney present, where he exhibited amazing clarity as if he was directing traffic for the after world. Thereafter, having put his earthly house in order, firstly his spirit and then his body departed.   
Death, the giver of meaning.