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.


Dan | thesamovar said...

It's a very interesting comparison actually, because I would say - and I think you'd agree - that Darwin is much better understood as a philosopher, or possibly even mathematician in some strange way, than scientist. This is taking the view of science as being about prediction, and philosophy as being about ways of seeing the world, and mathematics as about statements that must be true and don't require experimental evidence (which the theory of evolution has somewhat the quality of). All of which are of course simplifications, and most of Darwin's work was actually painstaking observation supporting his theory. But the kernel of the idea doesn't require all that - it's so simple and unavoidably true that simply to state it is to know that it is true.

So yes, Marx and Darwin are similar in the sense that they are not scientific (predictive), but are closer to philosophy and ways of seeing. However, there are differences. For a start, Marxism doesn't have anything like the obvious and inevitable truth of the theory of evolution. This is a huge difference. Given the vastly complex and non-obvious nature of Marxism, we shouldn't accept it without serious evidence in favour of it. Maybe reading Marx does that, I don't know. I have my doubts, as you know.

Perhaps the point is how you see the status of accepting the theory as true. Is it OK to just treat Marxism as a potentially useful point of view, but not one that you have to commit to? In which case, I have no objection, but it feels unsatisfactorily wooly somehow.

On a side note, I don't think evolution and economics are isomorphic. I know the economists want it to be so, and some evolutionary theorists too, but there are important differences. For a start, the basic object is different: for evolution it is the necessarily short lived gene. For economics, it is potentially long lived companies. Also, there is a limit to the size and power of organisms, but not for companies. Evolution doesn't need anti-monopoly regulation.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Yes...I'd say that it's reasonable to see Marxism as an interesting point of view without committing to it...except that it implies a fundamental, Dialectical Materialist point of view that it is impossible *not* to commit to. (sneak preview of forthcoming post). Once you understand it, like Darwin it's just obvious. (And I acknowledge that this might be a problem...)

You can apply Dialectical Materialism to the simplest of human transactions. Recently I've been pondering this while watching such films as 'The Godfather' and 'The Gangs of New York' wherein human struggles are shown in the raw. We could probably get even rawer and more individual.

Where it gets messier is when we scale it up. When the struggles involve more people and more abstractions of people, then firstly we approach a chaotic system and secondly the data tends to be incomplete. So with Marxism the picture will always be incomplete and open to some interpretation and - yes - you may feel that you want to reject some versions of the analysis, just as I reject those of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. But the analytic method is still sound. And I acknowledge that the above were, inescapably if embarrassingly Marxists. Lenin and Mao had theoretical insights which they applied to murderous effect.

The other important thing about Marx is the Praxis part. As you say, neither Marxism nor Darwinism have predictive value. But Marxism has an intent of action. Marx saw that Capitalism was a sorry mess which was bound to fail in a catastrophic way. His project was to try to make it fail in a good way instead, and that required Communism. But he also thought Communism was bound to happen anyway because smart, adaptive apes would necessarily evolve towards it. That or die out.

Oh...and The Dictatorship of the Proletariat is a necessary step. (Damn! I'd promised another blog on that.) We have a choice between a chaotic collapse or running our affairs in a smart way that will deliver Communism. This is why Slavoj Zizek has been telling the Occupy Wall St kids that they need to learn to follow orders. Fluffy anarchism will fail unless it's directed towards an ultimate goal.

Incidentally - that's an entirely different interpretation to the one I was going to blog a couple of weeks ago. Blame this excellent book which is very illuminating on theory:

Dan | thesamovar said...

Well I look forward to your argument that Dialectical Materialism has the same obviousness factor as the theory of evolution! Let's just say, I remain to be convinced. ;) Not that I'm a huge fan - as you know - but Popper's comment on Hegelian dialectics seems rather good to me. Essentially, it is either trivial (this is a way that change can happen) or extremely doubtful (this is the way all change happens).

Edward the Bonobo said...

I see Popper's point. But try going back to Spinoza (I recommend the excellent R4 'In Our Time'). Cause and effect? Free will vs determinism? How would we know? The world is as it is.

But Marx says that we can change it. We're compelled to, if we're conscious of where our interests lie.