Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Great (Irish) Famine

“The law stands between food availability and food entitlement. Starvation deaths can reflect legality with a vengeance.” — Amartya Sen

“ … [A]s it happens, quite a few famines have taken place without much violation of law and order. Even in the disastrous Irish famines of the 1840s (in which about an eighth of the population died, and which led to the emigration of a comparable number to North America), the law and order situation was, in many respects, apparently ‘excellent.’ In fact, even as the higher purchasing power of the English consumers attracted food away, through the market mechanism, from famine-stricken Ireland to rich England, with ship after ship sailing down the river Shannon laden with various types of food, there were few violent attempts to interfere with that contrary—and grisly—process. In many famines people starve and die in front of food shops, without attempting to seize law and order by the collar. [….]

There have, of course, been well-known cases of protest and rebellion associated with food crises, and ‘the food riot as a form of political conflict’ has considerable historical significance. Despite this important causal link, the exact period of a severe famine is often not one of effective rebellion. Indeed, the debilitation and general helplessness brought about by a famine situation is not typically conducive to immediate revolt and rebellion. This is not to deny that looting, raiding and other forms of unorganized crime can be quite frequent in famine situations. But the millions that die in a famine typically die in an astonishingly ‘legal’ and ‘orderly’ way.” — Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen

For St. Patrick’s Day, which I do not celebrate, some titles on the Great (Irish) Famine:

  • Coogan, Tim Pat. The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
  • Gallagher, Thomas. Paddy’s Lament. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1982.
  • Kelly, John. The Graves are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2012.
  • Kelly, Mary C. Ireland’s Great Famine in Irish-American History: Enshrining a Fateful Memory. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
  • Kinealy, Christine. A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland. London: Pluto Press, 1997.
  • Ó Gráda, Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Ó Gráda, Cormac. Ireland’s Great Famine: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2006.
  • Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-1849. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1991 (1962).

Further Reading:
  • Devereux, Stephen, ed. The New Famines: Why Famines Persist in an Era of Globalization. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1989.
  • Drèze, Jean, Amartya Sen and Athar Hussain, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1995.
  • Ó Gráda, Cormac. Famine: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • Watts, Michael J. Silent Violence: Food, Famine, and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013 ed. (1983).
  • Yang, Jisheng. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012 (2008).

John Dewey on the United States, Inc. … or, Liberalism’s flaccid response to Capitalism

Two philosophers, (the late) Hilary Putnam and his wife, Ruth Anna Putnam, are together largely responsible for re-awakening my interest in the work of John Dewey (Robert Westbrook’s excellent intellectual biography shares some blame as well). The language in much of Dewey’s philosophical writing appears deceptively simple. And some have complained about his prose style, but in both composition and meaning, his writing proves to be rather complex and provocative. As Tom Leddy states in his SEP entry on “Dewey’s Aesthetics,” “although Dewey seems to write in an almost folksy style, his philosophical prose is often difficult and dense” (however, what I share below from Dewey is not, strictly speaking, a sample of his philosophical prose). One should therefore read him rather slowly and carefully (in principle, of course, that is what one should do with all philosophical writing, but I’ve found that, at least with some philosophers, one can at once read carefully and quickly!). Dewey and Wittgenstein strike me as two very different kinds of characters of very different sorts of upbringing and cultural background, and yet there appears, in the end, to be considerable overlap, at least in spirit, in what they are trying to convey to us in their philosophical work (I wouldn’t label Wittgenstein a ‘pragmatist’ however, even if there’s a significant pragmatic quality to his later work). That is only a tentative conclusion, subject to possible qualification or revision at a later date (as I’m also reading Wittgenstein afresh).
I recently initiated a series on one fairly well-known facet of Dewey’s philosophy titled “Philosophy of Education, Education as Philosophy & Education for Democracy,” but this post is not part of that project, even if it has obvious or implicit ties to the principled democratic motivations of the moral psychology and political philosophy incarnate in his philosophy of education. Indeed, as it strikes my fancy, I may end up posting on sundry topics from Dewey’s corpus.
*           *           *
Close to 90 years ago the wide-ranging (pragmatist) philosopher, political commentator, and activist John Dewey (1859–1952) wrote a series of powerful essays for the New Republic* criticizing this country’s “materialism” and “money culture,” including the wholesale “corporatization” of American life. In short, these contribute to a compelling indictment of capitalism that presciently identified its myriad distortions and deformations of democracy, be they patent or insidious. What follows are a few snippets I think are representative of the righteous anger (in part sublimated by the written word) and incisive critique of these pieces. It is utterly remarkable and equally telling that, with a little updating or tweaking here and there, these essays are no less trenchant and discerning when viewed through the prism of our time and place.
Dewey begins this series with reflections prompted in part by Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s pioneering work in sociology (using methods borrowed from cultural anthropology), Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929), which was followed some years later by Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (1937). The Lynds’ case studies focused on the white residents of Muncie, Indiana:
“The word ‘middletown’ was meant to suggest the average or typical American small city. While there are many places in the U.S. actually named Middletown (in Connecticut, in New Jersey, in New York, in Ohio and elsewhere), the Lynds were interested in an idealized conceptual American type, and concealed the identity of the city by referring to it by this term. Sometime after publication, however, the residents of Muncie began to guess that their town had been the subject of the book.” [….]
*Written for the New Republic in 1929 and 1930, these articles are available in book form: Individualism Old and New (Prometheus Books, 1999).
*           *           *
  • “Anthropologically speaking, we are living in a money culture. Its cult and rites dominate. ‘The money-medium of exchange and the cluster of activities associated with its acquisition drastically condition the other activities of the people.’”
  • “We live as if economic forces determined the growth and decay of institutions and settled the fate of individuals. Liberty becomes a well-nigh obsolete term; we start, go, and stop at the signal of a vast industrial machine. [….] The philosophy appropriate to such a situation is that of struggle for existence and survival of the economically fit [elsewhere he describes this in terms of a Social Darwinism, which probably owes more to Herbert Spencer and an argument from Thomas Malthus than it does Darwin].”
  • We loath to admit our everyday subscription to a “materialist scheme of value” as it would lay bare the “obvious contradictions between our institutions and practices on one hand, and our creeds and theories on the other.”
  • “The glorification of religion as setting the final seal of approval on pecuniary success, and supplying the active motive to more energetic struggle for such success [this is not limited to the influence of what today is known as ‘prosperity gospel’ or ‘prosperity theology,’ as both Max Weber and R.H. Tawney remind us], and the adoption by the churches of the latest devices of the movies and the advertiser approach to close to the obscene.”
  • “It is evident enough that the rapid industrialization of our civilization took us unawares. Being mentally and morally unprepared, our older creeds have become ingrowing; the more we depart from them in fact, the more loudly we proclaim them [among other things, this speaks volumes for the sorry state of evangelical Christianity, at least as it is expressed among those conservative white evangelicals that enthusiastically support Donald Trump’s xenophobic and racist populist nationalism]. In effect, we treat them as magic formulae. By repeating them often enough we hope to ward off the evils of the new situation, or at least to prevent ourselves from seeing them—and this latter function is ably performed by our nominal beliefs [in ‘individualism,’ in the ‘free market,’ in ‘liberty,’ and so forth].”
  • “With an enormous command of instrumentalities, with possession of a secure technology, we glorify the past, and legalize and idealize the status quo, instead of seriously asking how we are able to employ the means at our disposal so as to form an equitable and stable society. This is our great abdication. It explains how and why we are a house divided against itself. Our tradition, our heritage, is itself double. It contains in itself the ideal of equality of opportunity and of freedom for all, without regard to birth and status, as a condition for the realization of that equality. This ideal and endeavor in its behalf once constituted our essential Americanism; that which was prized as the note of a new world. It is the genuinely spiritual element of our tradition. No one can truthfully say that it has entirely disappeared. But its promise of a new moral and religious outlook has not been attained. It has not become the well-spring of a new intellectual consensus; it is not (even unconsciously) the vital source of any distinctive and shared philosophy. It directs our politics only spasmodically, and while it has generously provided schools, it does not control their aims or their methods.” [emphasis added]
  • “Our law and politics and the incidents of human association depend upon a novel combination of machine and money, and the result is the pecuniary culture characteristic of our civilization. The spiritual factor of our tradition, equal opportunity and free association and intercommunication, is obscured and crowded out. Instead of the development of individualities which it prophetically set forth, there is a perversion of the whole ideal of individualism to conform to the practices of a pecuniary culture [cf. conservative claptrap about capitalism as a unique and unassailable fount of our ‘liberty’]. It has become the source and justification of inequalities and oppressions.”
  • “ … [T]he growth of legal corporations in manufacturing, transportation, distribution and finance is symbolic of the development of corporateness in all phases of life. The era of trust-busting is an almost forgotten age. Not only are big mergers the order of the day, but popular sentiment now looks upon them with pride rather than with fear [this may be less true today, as such corporate behavior generates at least a modest amount of skepticism or distrust, even if it is rarely prohibited]. Size is our current measure of greatness in this as in other matters [Donald Trump has an uncanny appreciation and inordinate fondness for this fact]. It is not necessary to ask whether the opportunity for speculative manipulation for the sake of private gain, or increased public service at a lower cost, is the dominant motive. Personal motives hardly count as productive causes in comparison with impersonal forces. [….] Aggregated capital and concentrated control are the contemporary responses. Political control is needed, but the movement cannot be arrested by legislation.” [One can well imagine what Dewey would have thought about the prevailing ‘neoliberal’ logic of de-regulation and privatization of public goods.]
  • “We live exposed to the greatest flood of mass suggestion that any people has ever experienced. [….] The publicity agent is perhaps the most significant symbol of our present social life.”
  • “The significant thing is that the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared. In consequence, individuals are confused and bewildered. It would be difficult to find in history an epoch as lacking in solid and assured objects of belief and approved ends of action as in the present. Stability of individuality is dependent upon stable objects to which allegiance firmly attaches itself. There are, of course, those who are militantly fundamentalist in religious and social creed. But their very clamor is evidence that the tide is set against them. For others, traditional objects of loyalty have become hollow or are openly repudiated, and they drift without sure anchorage.”
  • “The most marked trait of present life, economically speaking, is insecurity. It is tragic that millions of men desirous of working should be recurrently out of employment; aside from cyclical depressions there is a standing army at all times who have no regular work. We have not any adequate information as to the number of these persons. But the ignorance even as to numbers is slight compared with our inability to grasp the psychological and moral consequences of the precarious conditions in which vast multitudes live. Insecurity cuts deeper and extends more widely than bare unemployment. Fear of loss of work, dread of the oncoming of old age, create anxiety and eat into self-respect in a way that impairs personal dignity. Where fears abound, courageous and robust individuality is undermined. The vast development of technological resources that might bring security in its train has actually brought a new mode of insecurity, as mechanization displaces labor. The mergers and consolidations that mark a corporate age are beginning to bring uncertainty into the economic lives of the higher salaried [i.e., managerial and professional] class, and that tendency is only just in its early stage. Realization that honest and industrious pursuit of a calling or business will not guarantee any stable level of life lessens respect for work and stirs large numbers to take a chance of some adventitious way of getting the wealth that will make security possible: witness the orgies of the stock-market in recent days [we might come up with any number of legal and illegal examples to illustrate Dewey’s point there].” [emphasis added]

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Eastside 13 and the East L.A. “Blowouts” (walkouts)

They faced 66 years in prison. The‘Eastside 13’ and how they helped plan the East L.A. walkouts,” Los Angeles Times (March 8, 2018)

By Louis Sahagun

“As Los Angeles schools and others this week observe the 50th anniversary of the East L.A. walkouts, when thousands of Mexican American students marched to demand a better education, much attention has focused on those who became known as the Eastside 13. But who were the Eastside 13? They were 13 men secretly indicted by a grand jury June 1, 1968, on conspiracy charges stemming from the East L.A. ‘blowouts.’ The walkouts kicked off March 5, 1968, when students began protesting at Garfield High School, and spread to other campuses to decry the shortcomings of public schools in Los Angeles’ barrios. The walkouts are viewed as a turning point in the political development of the nation’s Mexican American community.
Some local leaders at the time, including Mayor Sam Yorty, denounced the walkouts as a communist plot, and in the months that followed, law enforcement responded with undercover operations, raids and arrests.

In returning the indictments, the grand jurors found there was sufficient evidence to show that the protests staged at Garfield, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Belmont high schools were not spontaneous, but rather the result of careful off-campus planning by non-students. Defense attorneys would later argue, successfully, that the protest organizers were merely exercising their 1st Amendment rights. But when the indictments were handed down, each defendant faced 66 years in prison.

Among the 13 arrested was Carlos Muñoz Jr., who recalled how the police arrived at his apartment at dawn with guns drawn. Muñoz, then a 20-year-old college student, had been writing a paper for a graduate seminar on the ‘international communist movement’ when the officers broke in. One of the officers noticed a stack of books on the kitchen table where Muñoz had been typing. He scanned the names of the authors — Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx — and yelled out, ‘We’ve got the goods on this damn communist agitator!’

Also indicted on multiple charges of conspiracy to disturb public schools and conspiracy to disturb the peace were Sal Castro, 34, a teacher at Lincoln High, and Eliezer Risco, 31, a Cuban-born editor of La Raza, a newspaper circulated in the Mexican American community. Indicted members of the militant Brown Berets, who often took the title of ‘minister,’ were David Sanchez, 19, chairman; Ralph Ramirez, 18, minister of discipline; Fred Lopez, 19, minister of communication; and Carlos Montes, 20, minister of public relations and holy grace. Others indicted were Gilberto Olmeda, 23; Richard Vigil, 27; Joe Razo, 29; Henry Gomez, 20; Moctesuma Esparza, 19; and Juan Sanchez, 41. [….]

The indictments were struck down in 1970 by an appeals court in a case that became a cause celebre to Chicanos. ‘The No. 1 thing that the walkouts achieved is that it gave our own community a voice — that we didn’t have to rely on what other people thought we should be doing or who we should be,’ said Esparza, who went on to become an award-winning filmmaker, producing movies such as ‘Gettysburg,’ ‘Selena’ and ‘Walkout,’ a dramatization of the 1968 Chicano student protests. ‘I never gave up my identity as a Chicano,’ Esparza said. ‘The struggle never ends.’” The entire article is here.

See too:

The Chicano Movement & the 1960s:
  • Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: The Chicano’s Struggle Toward Liberation. San Francisco, CA: Canfield Press, 1972.
  • Castro, Tony. Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1974.
  • Chávez, Ernesto. “¡Mi Raza Primero!”— Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Donato, Rubén. The Other Struggle for Equal Schools: Mexican Americans during the Civil Rights Era. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.
  • García, Alma M., ed. Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • García, Ignacio M. United We Win: The Rise and Fall of La Raza Unida Party. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1989.
  • García, Mario T. Memories of Chicano History: The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.
  • García, Mario T. and Sal Castro. Blowout! Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
  • Marin, Marguerite V. Social Protest in an Urban Barrio: A Study of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1974. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991.
  • Mariscal, George. Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
  • Mariscal, George, ed. Aztlán and Vietnam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Montejano, David. Quixote’s Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966–1981. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010.
  • Muñoz, Carlos, Jr. Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement. London: Verso, 1989.
  • Navarro, Armando. Mexican American Youth Organization: Avant-Garde of the Chicano Movement in Texas. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995.
  • Navarro, Armando. The Cristal Experiment: A Chicano Struggle for Community Control. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.
  • Navarro, Armando. La Raza Unida Party: A Chicano Challenge to the U.S. Two-Party Dictatorship. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2000.
  • Oropeza, Lorena. ¡Raza Si! ¡Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Viet Nam War Era. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Rendon, Armando B. Chicano Manifesto: The History and Aspirations of the Second Largest Minority in America. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
  • Rosales, Francisco Arturo. CHICANO! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, University of Houston, 2nd ed., 1997.
  • Vigil, Ernesto B. The Crusade for Justice: Chicano Militancy and the Government’s War on Dissent. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

Images (from top to bottom):
  • John Ortiz addresses fellow students at Garfield High on March 7. (H.O. McCarthy/Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library)
  • Sheriff’s deputies form a line near Garfield High on March 5, the first day of the student “blowouts.” (Joe Kennedy/Los Angeles Times)
  • Freddie Resendez rallies students at Lincoln High School. (Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library; Los Angeles Times)
  • Members of the Brown Berets, above, listen to a speaker on June 9, 1968. (Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library; Los Angeles Times)

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Rising Seas, Sinking Cities

The title of the post is from the subtitle of a recent book by Jeff Goodell, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World (Little, Brown and Co., 2017), which I’ve yet to read but is reviewed by Meehan Crist* in the London Review of Books: “Besides, I’ll be dead” (Vol. 40, No. 4 · 22 February 2018). Goodell’s book concentrates on one of the more disconcerting and eventually devastating effects of the rise of temperature causally tied to climate change (hence ‘global warming’): the imminent threat of sea level rise which, according to Elizabeth Kolbert, is explained “with characteristic rigor and intelligence. The result is at once deeply persuasive and deeply unsettling.” And, as Crist helpfully and succinctly reminds us in her review,

“Global sea level rise is hard for scientists to predict, but the trend is clear. Massive ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic have begun to collapse, in a phenomenon known as ‘marine ice-sheet instability,’ which previous models of global sea level rise didn’t take into account. When the Paris Agreement was drafted just over two years ago, it was based on reports that ice sheets would remain stable and on the assumption that sea levels could rise by up to three feet two inches by the end of the century. In 2015, NASA estimated a minimum of three feet. In 2017, a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the pre-eminent climate science agency in the United States, revised estimates up dramatically, stating that by 2100 sea levels could rise by more than eight feet. Last year, a study estimated that if carbon emissions continue at present levels, by 2100 sea levels will have risen by as much as 11 feet. Higher sea levels mean higher storm surges, like the nine-foot surge that inundated Lower Manhattan and severely affected neighbourhoods in Long Island and New Jersey, but also that low-lying coastal areas, from Bangladesh to Amsterdam, will be underwater in less than a hundred years. It’s worth remembering that two-thirds of the world’s cities sit on coastlines. In a high-emissions scenario, average high tides in New York could be higher than the levels seen during Sandy. A rise in global sea levels of 11 feet would fully submerge cities like Mumbai and a large part of Bangladesh. The question is no longer if – but how high, and how fast.”

I want to highlight the section of Crist’s review which raises a number of psychological questions and topics surrounding the well-attested and apparently recalcitrant phenomenon of “climate change denial:”

“Sea level rise is a problem humans are particularly ill-equipped to handle. We’re not good at thinking on geological timescales and ‘we are not wired to make decisions about barely perceptible threats that gradually accelerate over time.’ [I happen not to like the metaphor here, and don’t believe constitutional myopia is simply an ineliminable part of human nature.] To help explain inaction in the face of rising seas, Goodell invokes, as others have, the five stages of grief outlined by the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, [and] acceptance. He suggests that in Miami at least, denial is giving way to anger and bargaining, with overtones of fear. But classical grief paradigms, in which the object of attachment has gone and must be mourned, don’t map neatly onto the experience of living in a city that may soon be submerged. Reading this, it seemed to me that there is another psychological paradigm, less often invoked in discussions of climate grief that might be more apt. In the 1970s Pauline Boss, studying families of soldiers who had gone missing in action, coined the term ‘ambiguous loss’ to describe the arrested mourning that follows a loss without closure or understanding.

Boss describes two types of ambiguous loss: when the object is physically absent but psychologically present (as with soldiers missing in action), and when the object is physically present but psychologically absent (as with Alzheimer’s disease). The first helps illuminate the arrested mourning often experienced by climate refugees. How do you mourn a home that is sinking into a faraway sea, but remains psychologically present? The second type of ambiguous loss is appropriate to the experience of living in an area threatened by a rise in sea levels. The object of attachment is there but not there – still present, but slowly disappearing. How do you mourn the loss of someone whose hand you can still hold? How do you mourn a home increasingly prone to flooding, but not submerged, yet? The parallels aren’t perfect, but even the disjunctures reveal how wickedly hard the problem of climate grief can be. When a beloved person is slowly disappearing into the fog of senescence, the endpoint is known. With rising seas, the endpoint remains unknown. Three feet? Eight feet? Grief is stalled by uncertainty. For what eventuality should you and your community prepare? Of what do you need to let go in order to move forward? The incentive to wait and see is powerful. But hoping for a rise in sea levels of just one or two feet by 2100 is starting to look a lot like self-delusion, and for those who have the luxury of choice, clinging to life at the waterline is increasingly an exercise in self-defeat. For politicians and the rich, who prosper from maintenance of the status quo, it is increasingly unconscionable.”

There’s much food for thought here, and you can select from the menu for yourself, but I want to note that there appears to be, in addition, a number of (related) cognitive and so-called social biases, as well as sundry irrational cognitive mechanisms and informal fallacies of reasoning and argumentation that might account for the persistence of climate change denial and the corresponding failure to acknowledge the motley possible and probable harms identified with climate change as direct and by-product effects of modern (hyper-) industrialized societies to properly comport themselves with the ecological systems and processes that sustain all forms of life on our planet (some of the effects may turn out to be beneficent, but these are considerably outweighed by the growing list of environmental harms): cognitive dissonance, the confirmation bias, conservatism with regard to belief revision, hyperbolic time-discounting, neglect of probability, normalcy bias, wishful thinking, denial, status quo bias and system justification, in-group bias, undue reliance on the availability heuristic, argumentum ad ignorantiam, fallacy of composition, and fallacy of prejudice come quickest to mind.

I urge you to read both Goodell’s book and Crist’s review, well aware that the diet of news on the home front as well as news from abroad (e.g., the ongoing war in Syria, the bombing of Yemen, the worldwide refugee crisis, acts of genocide against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, terrorist bombings, reactionary and often fascist political parties and movements, and so forth and so on) can be rather depressing. But our religious traditions and philosophical worldviews have cultivated an abundant supply of spiritual exercises or therapeutic regimens and time-tested means for cultivating mindfulness and a proper sense of perspective that should keep us from sliding into despair and depression, prevent us from feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed, and steel us for the ongoing struggles for a saner and more just world, one which further contributes to the historical progress made thus far in the quest for general human emancipation, progress that has been at times episodic and uneven (and it not of course assured) yet the general direction remains constant and encouraging.

We’ll bring things to a close with the conclusion from our review:

“What will happen in the next eighty years remains far from certain. There is a tipping point after which ice sheets will fully collapse – Greenland holds enough water to raise sea levels by roughly 22 feet – but researchers don’t know where that point lies. In January, NOAA released a major report on sea level rise that factors in current ice-sheet collapse and more than doubles the median rise in global sea levels predicted at the time of the Paris Agreement, from 2.3 feet to 4.9 feet. Goodell’s conclusion is crystal clear: ‘If we want to minimise the impact of sea level rise in the next century, here’s how we do it: stop burning fossil fuels and move to higher ground.’ If humans stopped using fossil fuels entirely by 2050, we might face two to three feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Instead of 4.9 feet. Or 11 feet. But the water will come. The future depends on how humans rise to meet it.” 

* Meehan Crist is a writer in residence in biological sciences at Columbia University. She hosts a podcast called “Convergence.”

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Amartya Sen and the Marxist Critics of Capitalism

Is Amartya Sen “the century’s great critic of capitalism”? The short answer is no, he is not “the century’s great critic of capitalism,” but surely Sen can be included in our pantheon of the foremost critics of capitalism. The conclusion that captures the essence of Tim Rogan’s piece in Aeon is as follows: “There have been two critiques [i.e., the ‘moral’ and the ‘material’] of capitalism, but there should be only one [i.e., a critique that does dialectical justice to both the material and the moral modalities]. Amartya Sen is the new century’s first great critic of capitalism because he has made that clear.” I don’t think Sen needs to be elevated to such “commanding heights” if only because it casts a shadow over all his comrades who have likewise been laboring on this selfsame endeavor, proving themselves equally adept as great “critic(s) of capitalism” according to Rogan’s criteria. In any case, the fact that the majority of Sen’s books were published in the previous century makes this premature or living “canonization” a bit silly (a social scientific or cultural variation on the ‘great man’ theory?).

I have long publicized the social scientific and philosophical virtues of Sen’s work, at least when provided the opportunity (in intimate conversational settings, in public lectures, in blog posts, etc.), so I’m inclined to find Rogan’s argument largely persuasive. As Rogan rightly states, “In Sen’s work, the two critiques [i.e., the ‘moral’ and the ‘material’] of capitalism cooperate. We move from moral concerns to material outcomes and back again with no sense of a threshold separating the two. Sen disentangles moral and material issues without favouring one or the other, keeping both in focus.” Sen has never self-identified as a Marxist or Marxist economist, although he has often acknowledged his debts to Marx (among others, from Aristotle to Adam Smith), which perhaps explains why Rogan is anxious to single out Sen’s critique of capitalism for celebrity-like acclaim.

Over the years, more than a few progressives and ostensible or sincere Leftists have been rhetorically reticent about invoking Marx or Marx’s theoretical ideas (and by extension, Marxists), motivated perhaps by motley and occasionally justifiable reasons, not the least of which is the oppressive and even suppressive or repressive political and cultural climate in this country. Here is where I part company with one of the founders of the (New Left) Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), emeritus sociology professor (and still a local activist and friend), Richard Flacks. In Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (1988), Flacks proffered advice to this generation’s youngest activists, arguing that they should refuse the temptations of a “Leninist” answer to “social democracy,” that “the appropriate counter-position” is found in “pacifism—as a philosophy to guide extra-parliamentary activism and as a practical framework for deriving strategies of radical action.” There is much of principled and strategic value in that counsel, even if I don’t like the term “pacifism.” Flacks does not want this generation to repeat the (strategic, political, and moral) mistakes of earlier Leftists (not few of which he experienced first-hand), at least those that hankered after conventional political power, looking (often uncritically) to models of revolutionary praxis abroad in countries with colonialist and imperialist histories, countries with precious little by way of democratic experience or bourgeois legal rights, and thus with historical, socio-economic and political conditions starkly different from the capitalist democracies (welfare state regimes) in the affluent North in which they lived:   

“Activists who choose a radical path and an elitist practice must begin their journey by refusing absolutely to reach for power, seeing instead that their mission is to serve as exemplars of moral being and action. They must refuse absolutely the belief that history can be short-circuited through violent intervention. [I think I understand what Flacks means by this, but others may not choose a charitable interpretation.] They ought to study Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Muste, and King as models of history making, rather than Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Che, and Fanon.”

First, notice that Flacks fails to cite Marx on either side of his ledger! I happen to believe young radicals on the Left should study all of the above, even if their ethical dispositions and orientations find them favoring, say, Gandhi, Muste and King, over Lenin, Trotsky and Mao. The latter remain worth of study, for any number of philosophical and practical reasons. As the late philosopher Hector-Neri Castañeda wisely put it,

“Some fail to see the richness and complexity of human experience, yet, more importantly, some fail to see that the world is capable of being different in different contexts or perspectives [a point made rather systematically and emphatically in Jain epistemology]. Often the presupposition is straightforward: there is one world and an indivisible unity of man and world, hence, they assume, there is just one theory of the structure of man and world.”

Our well-considered or seasoned moral and political commitments should not be threatened by a thorough examination and (in part moral) assessment of Leftist figures, theorists and strategists of all stripes. Nor should Rogan fear acknowledging and according due attention to those Marxists who, with Sen, do justice to both the moral and material modalities of the critique of capitalism. There is no need on this score for a Rawlsian-like veil of ignorance or rhetorical dissimulation.

Rogan ignores contemporary Marxist critiques of capitalism that, in the widest—and what I prefer to think of as the best—sense do indeed have a strong moral dimension, exemplified, for instance, in the works of G.A. Cohen, Michael Harrington, and Jon Elster. This rendering explicit what is often implicit in Marx himself (and not just in the ‘early writings’) is given a rather more systematic articulation (one need not agree with all the particulars) in the Rawlsian-inspired or –provoked work by R.G. Peffer: Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (1990). And this moral component has not come at the expense of “material” concerns and foci, as David Schwieckart’s books, Against Capitalism (1996) and After Capitalism (2002) amply demonstrate.

No doubt the (bourgeois) academic legal theorist and philosopher Brian Leiter would dismiss most of this literature for its “normative” (moral and otherwise, as not all norms are moral norms) orientation, as simply the sullied product of Western academic Marxists (distinguishing between its Anglophone and Continental European incarnations) writing for fellow “bourgeois academics.” This is not the place to attempt a rebuttal of that dismissal, but I do want to remind readers, in the words of Jeffrey Reiman, that

“Marxism has made two recent contributions to moral philosophy. The first has been to stimulate a deep and wide-ranging discussion of the moral status of capitalism, provoked by the attempt to determine whether the Marxist critique of capitalism is a moral critique and, if so, on what moral ideal the critique is based [here I would add that it is arguably more than one moral ideal and at least several moral principles and values]. The second has been to force moral philosophers to confront the problem of ideology.”

Reiman later points out that “Marxism’s practical and partisan nature is what brings it into contact with moral philosophy,” and this, I think, gets to the heart of matters; that is, at least if we view ethics and morality (which is not reducible to a first-order morality of formal or structured propositions and judgments, be they deontic or utilitarian) as integral to what it means to flourish, to live “rightly” and well, to aspire to “the Good.” For the Marxist moral and material critique of capitalism speaks clearly and urgently to our everyday (dispositional) “nexus of distinctive sensibilities, cares, and concerns that are expressed in distinctive patterns of emotional and practical response” (David Wiggins), as contemporary Marxist philosophers and theorists have demonstrated with uncommon intelligence and vigor.

I close by citing a somewhat neglected and no doubt forgotten work that embodies the merits of a material and moral critique of capitalism: Maurice Cornforth’s The Open Philosophy and the Open Society (1968) (the title alone may account for its neglect). Cornforth’s book is a well-argued and perhaps quaint defense of Marxism against the well-known attack on Marx’s theory by Karl Popper, one that artfully combines moral and materialist sensibilities in its critique of capitalism. I leave you with a taste of his ardent and incisive defense:

“Dr. Popper confuses militancy with advocacy of violence. Marxism advocates that mass organisations of working people should not be prepared meekly to abide by instructions issued by authorities not controlled by themselves and victimising working people for the benefit of their exploiters. They should be intransigent in their opposition to any sort of control of power by the exploiting class. And they should be united in their demands for what they immediately want done, and prepared to back their leaders and those in whose hands they entrust power in getting it done. This attitude of opposition to the dictation of an exploiting minority should not be confused with an attitude of violence directed against democratic institutions.

Marxism makes no proposals for the use of violence to destroy legally established democratic institutions, where such exist. [….] For us, the question of violence can only arise as a question, on the one hand, of how to resist violent attacks on democratic institutions, on the activities of democratic organisations, and on the implementation of democratic authorities and, on the other hand, of how to overcome violent methods of preventing democratic institutions and democratic rights being won. As Marxists have said again and again, if the ruling class resorts to violence, either to deprive people of existing democratic rights or to prevent their winning them, then violence must if necessary be used to defeat this violence [in the lexicon of forest fighters on chaparral ecological terrain, sometimes one needs to ‘fight fire with fire,’ keeping in mind that this is not the principal strategy or tactic used in ‘wildland’ fire suppression]. But without a doubt, the better organised, the more disciplined and the more united the democratic mass movement is [cf. the United Democratic Front in the South African struggle against apartheid], the less opportunity is there likely to be for the ruling class to resort to violence, and the less violence will be required to repel violence if it occurs. [….]

The underlying economic reason why the bourgeoisie became champions of the rule of law is clear enough. It is because this was an indispensable condition for security in the commercial development of the home market. Without it, they could never have become as prosperous and powerful as they did become. And this necessitated laws to protect the right to exploit and curtail the right to oppose it. Marxists are opposed to exploitation, and oppose it even when the law steps in to protect it. But that, says Dr. Popper, means we want to break the rule of law and carry on without it [which is to confuse anarchism with Marxism], whereas without law [at least in our time and place, during this epoch of history] there can only be anarchy or tyranny.

The law which Marxism opposes is law in so far as it has been instituted to protect the rights of exploiting classes. We are not in favor of submitting to laws which are designed to protect the security and right of exploiters and hamper the organisation of the masses. We propose to nullify such laws. But that is not to oppose the reign of law in general.”

Please see, “Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism,” by Tim Rogan in Aeon, 27 February, 2018. 

Further Reading: