One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Marx and Monkeys.

This is intended as the first blog in a series of (probably) three. When I get around to them.

Speak to any intelligent and informed person and they'll have to problem at all with Darwin's revelation that the rich diversity of species was brought about by competition. Neither will the 21stC reader have any problem taking this to the microbiological level. Dawkins' Selfish Gene idea of life shaped by the impersonal interactions of gene sequences and the Blind Watchmaker principle whereby order and complexity can spontaneously arise from simple, binary mutations, are common currency. As ways of making sense of the world we can simply take them as given. Perhaps slightly less well known, but still Out There (it's been on the telly with Jim al-Khalili) is Alan Turing's work on the chemical basis of morphogenisis which shows how complex patterns can emerge from chaotic conditions.

But when you mention's all that stuff about gulags and purges...and he was hardly any good at predicting the death of Capitalism and subsequent workers' paradise, was he...and it's all old-fashioned stuff, dead and buried. And it was hardly scientific, was it?


Let's begin with Darwin the Philosopher. Note, incidentally, that Marx who was first and foremost a philosopher - a vital thing to remember about him - was a great admirer of Darwin and cited him as an inspiration. While Darwin's primary focus was the biological world, in thinking about it he came across a mode of conceptualisation that had ramifications way beyond The Origin of Species. He discovered a philosophy that allowed him to think sensibly about Life. (That's what philosophy is about , surely? Ways of Thinking.)1

Dan Dennett has taken this on with his Darwin's Dangerous Idea. in which he argues that Darwinian ideas of evolution by natural selection are relevant to areas areas of biology, to philosophy of mind and to ethics. While I respect the man enormously, I would argue that he was behind the curve. This kind of meta-Darwinism was being done 100+ years previously, and with wider application, only under the name of Marx. See his application to everything from sociology to psychoanalysis to literary criticism.

Marx, as well as being a philosopher, was an economist. Nowadays we draw a bizarre distinction between the two. Economists are the harmful drudges who balance the books while philosophers are the ivory tower dreamers. Hah! That's why Marx failed. He was too airy fairy yadda yadda (this apart from the fact that he spent years with his nose stuck in the accounts of Lancashire cotton mills). But is it any accident that two of the world's most prestigious universities award degrees in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (My fantasy degree)...or that the same man, who mixed company with Hume and Voltaire, wrote both The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

A short aside - the last three Nobel Prizes for Economics have been for work in how communities share resources; Friction in markets and; macroeconomic cause and effect. OK - so Marxism is often accused of trying to be a Theory of Everything (and in a later blog I'll explain why this is no criticism)...but trust me...these are all areas where Marxism could make some inroads.

So...economics and Darwin. Now..we all know that business is red in tooth and claw. 'It's a jungle' is a reasonable metaphor. We also know how much a certain kind of Capitalist admires the idea of Social Darwinism. But there's more. An economist friend quoted to me 'Evolution and economics are isomorphic' [which, I see, I keep using - even though I don't know the source]. They are the same kind of system of competition. Indeed, it seems there is a whole sub-discipline of Evolutionary Economics (namecheck to Marx in that Wiki). Or how about this article which suggests that in future Darwin will be recognised as the greatest economist off all time (sorry - it's fallen behind a paywall since I read it) .

Well, possibly. But why not Marx? It doesn't really matter - ideas don't develop in a vacuum and both Darwin and Marx were doubtless drawing from the same well. Except maybe Marx had a clearer idea of what the ideas were.

So let's take Marx's Big Ideas. The fundamental structuring principle of human life is Class struggle. From this struggle derives all the social and economic structures that we see around us today. In what way is this not Darwin, except applied to human society rather than inter-species competition? OK - in terms of a predictive theory that can correctly identify the impending revolution in England/Germany/the US...maybe not. But how many Darwinists would like to predict what tomorrow's species will be? Yet Darwinism provides reasonably convincing explanations of how species are how they are - and Marxism provides a reasonably convincing explanation of how the human world works.

Two differences. Firstly - Marx provided the philosophical underpinning. This can't be stressed enough. He explained why the world works that way. In his political work he was simply applying the philosophy to the clear and present problem of the conditions of the industrialised world - but if he was tootling around on HMS Beagle, who knows, maybe his interest would have been in finches.

Secondly, On the whole, species do not have a choice in how Natural Selection pans out for them. Big fish eat little fish and there we have it. But humans are different, and Marxism provides a theory of praxis for achieving a desirable end. Possessed of an understanding of the nature of their society and of a revolutionary self-consciousness - i.e. if people understand what's going on - the proletariat can fight back against their annihilation. A self-conscious person will do this as surely as an animal will struggle against predation. Capitalism creates the conditions for its downfall.

1 In a later blog I'll be talking about how this fits into Hegelian Dialectics - but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Only Smarties have the answer

My son’s primary school had The Church in to their assembly last week. He said that they held up a jar of Smarties and told them that they might be all sorts of colours on the outside, but underneath they’re all the same.

Oh. Fuck. Off.

For a start, a contemptibly patronising message to be telling children to whom the stupid hang-ups of previous generations are not an issue. These are young people for whom issues of ethnicity, religion, disability simply do not figure. Who are used to watching men kissing on Coronation Street. Well, OK, let’s not be too na├»ve – girls still play with girls and boys with boys and ‘Gay’ is a playground insult…but on the whole and by and large today’s kids are smart enough to realise that differences just…exist. Smarties are all different (is it just me or do the orange ones taste slightly orangey?)…but none of that don’t matter. They don’t need some retrograde religious type coming in and parading his credentials.

But it’s even more insidious, isn’t it?

People are all the same underneath.

Actually, it’s quite a surprising message from the religious perspective, if you think about it. Surely we’re all meant to have unique souls? But I’d better leave the theology to the experts. From my secular perspective – people quite plainly aren’t all the same underneath. We all have individual personalities, experiences, cultural contexts, beliefs, perspectives, hopes, desires.


In Rev Smartie’s version of things, we need to reconcile our differences by smoothing them out. It would perhaps be uncharitable to suggest that he would prefer to see everyone embracing Jeebers – I gather he was Church of Scotland, not one of the evangies they sometimes get in1. But by promoting this ‘all the same underneath’ message with the authority of a churchman…isn’t he assuming that the cultural assumptions of the white, surburban, Scottish are the default position to which to aspire? This Is The Church’s Way? And perhaps it’s not a bad way, if it leads to love peace and harmony etc. But can’t he just trust people? Can’t he accept that people might not be the same as him underneath…but none of that don’t matter?

This sort of thing is why I’m not a Liberal. This article by notorious neo-post-Marxist provocateur Slavoj Zizek on the ‘barbarism of Liberal Multicultural’ puts it nicely. [EDIT I've linked this before. Sorry for being boring.] What is being sought is ‘the decaffeinated other’ (and, true to form, he ends with a defence of Christian values. J ). It’s a dumb way of being. In a bland monoculture…where’s the next, earth-shaking surprise going to come from? We simply can’t afford to take on board this kind of Fukuyaman ‘End of History’ thinking and assume that a neo-Liberal, Euro-American stasis is the way to be. It won’t work and it’ll end in tears.

Fortunately…the world is getting smarter than Church of Scotland ministers. Example: big, fascistic corporations (I won't give examples) have started paying at least lip service to this thing called ‘Diversity and Inclusion’. They ain’t doing it to be nice. They’ve woken up to the stark reality that they are not recruiting talent from a uniform demographic. Given that talent is evenly distributed between all sub-groups (Ya don’t say?!), if they’re underrepresented in any then they’re probably failing to recruit the best available. Worse! They’re leaving the talent for their competitors to pick up. And once they get the talent in….they don’t want any unfortunate atmospherics in the company that will make them uncomfortable, decreasing their productivitity or sending them out the door. Who’d have thought that pinko-lefty ideas were good for business? Who’d have thought that countries that spend most on health, education, welfare tend to have high GDPs. Healthy, well educated, happy workforces are productive? Imagine that!

Or in schools. The modern education system is constantly berated, although its got much, much better, year by year. OK – in Britain it still has some way to go. But all those pinko-lefty teachers are at least, by and large, now treating children as humans and teaching them to be citizens of a future world. The stuff my son has been taught on Children’s Rights is far more progressive. There’s no kowtowing to the popular ‘Ooh! There’s too much talk about Rights and not enough about Responsibilities’ tosh. Sensible teachers realise the two are the same are simply using the UNDRC as the governing principle in their schools. ‘Stop disrupting the class! You’re depriving everyone of their right to education!’

Or…when I was young, Disability was A Big Thing. You didn’t see it on the streets, let alone in classrooms2. Now…some school pals go away to special classes a couple of days a week, but no biggie. Oh…and by-the-by they’re moving the classrooms around because one child has a wheelchair…

And all this is normal. None of the kids bat an eye. They just carry on playing with…whoever is their friend. Only their parents, fixated on the past, notice that one is wearing hijab and another has cerebral palsy. But if we want lessons on how to handle our Brave New World (and probably I need some – otherwise I wouldn’t be making a big deal of it) – I’d, take them from the kids, not a Minister. On my brighter days, I think it’s almost as though humans were programmed to be sensible.

Or...I might be wrong. Maybe our kids are going to louse it up although they show rather fewer signs of doing so than previous generations). Yes, there's a certain misty-eyed liberalism in what I've said - a 'Whig View of History' which assumes constant progress for the better. Also I'll admit that there are certain Enlightenment Values that I'd like to see go forward. But mutatis mutandem. Que sera sera.

Whatever - the world is for the next generation to shape. At least they seem to be able to cope with Difference.

1 The school has an unfortunate infestation from The Scripture Union. By my other Kids' High School, the title of 'RME' (Religious and Moral Education) was changed, following student demands, to 'RMPE' (Religious, Philosophical and Moral Education). Teachers do not divulge their own faith - although one keeps mentioning Jesus. He's the one they take the piss out of.

2 More than once I've heard the issues of Disability Rights and Abortion conflated - as though the latter were a breach of the former. Abortion 'devalues' the disabled, who are simply damaged foetuses to be got rid of I like to point out that the remarkable progress that has been made in Disability Rights over roughly the same timescale that abortion has been legalised. This is not to make a positive correlation - just to point out a lack of connection. To twist the knife, I like to mention that my wife and I declined amniosentisis. There was no point because we wouldn't have considered abortion if the result were positive. But that was a purely personal matter: other mothers should be able to make their own decisions. I am, of course, fully supportive of contraceptive abortion. FULL DISCLOSURE: I am the son of an abortionist.