Saturday, January 19, 2019

406. Why capitalism is unbeatable

In spite of a number of crises, capitalism is still thriving. How come? Does it satisfy more than material needs?

The human being is confronted with a range of antagonisms: the sacred/eternal and the profane/temporal, heaven and earth, body/matter and soul/spirit, desire and contentment, the universal and the particular, self/individual and other/collective, unity and variety, true and false. How can one deal with these? One needs a combination of fooling oneself, in ‘cognitive dissonance’, denial of the tension, and having an eye only for one side of an antagonism, with ideology that enshrines one’s preferred option. Capitalism does both superbly.

It opts unequivocally for the self and denigrates the social, communal and local. It even proves (mathematically!) that greed is good, produces the highest possible level of prosperity. What is more alluring than that? It appeals to natural urges towards greed and self-manifestation, in both production and consumption. Opposition from altruism is blocked because that cannot survive in markets.

Its individualism is sanctioned by the Christian belief in individual, immortal souls. The magic of markets is that they offer variety, but under unity of universal market principles.

It appeals to the unquestionable, universal truth of markets, in a mystique of the automatic force of the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith. ‘Laissez faire’: the magic will work itself. No counterforce can rival it. And no developing country must close itself off from international markets (while developed countries did that in their infancy).

In going for the individual it obstructs collective forces that may curtail it, such as unions, consumer societies, and ecological societies. It does constitute an interest group in itself. It lobbies for advantage, but not overtly, in secrecy, and denied when publicized. It is in the guilty interest of government to contribute to its secrecy, enhanced by revolving door careers between business and government. 

In the stimulus of unending consumption, with new desires, it helps keep the boredom at bay that follows the satisfaction of desire. Shopping then becomes a way of life. The opposite of Buddhism, one could say. 

It appeals to two forms of Romanticism. One, going back to Rousseau, is that of the free, autonomous individual against the coercion, manipulation and distortion of society. ‘There is no such thing as society’, was the motto of Margaret Thatcher. Breaking out of plodding mediocrity.

The second form of Romanticism is that of the transgression of boundaries: of the discoverer, the imperialist, the heroic entrepreneur, and the heroic scientist, breaking old constraints and opening new avenues to untold power, insight, pleasure and convenience. According to Harari[i] it is the combination of capitalism, the scientific spirit and credit (to finance expansion and growth) that has produced European prominence in the world. And now Europe is being taken over by others imitating that perspective, first in the West (the US) and then in the East (China). They now practice capitalism in a purer or more complete form than Europe. Europe began to have qualms about capitalism, in communism, socialism and humanism, and now has lost its position of power.   

It is Nietzschean, in its creative destruction, breaking up the old, not letting oneself be held back in power by the mediocre, with their jealousy, grudges and slave mentality. However, in large part this is myth. Large capital focuses on incremental innovation that leaves sunk investments intact for as long as possible, prolonging their life to save capital and squeeze it for profits. The most radical innovations are conducted by smaller firms, which then get bought by the large ones, to be frozen for as long as possible.

Ethical objections, and pleas for justice and benevolence, are waved off with the liberal claim that morality is a private matter, for behind the front door. The ruling ethic is that only outcomes count, in terms of utility, measured as prosperity. It considers instrumental, extrinsic quality of tools, capital and actions, not the intrinsic quality of processes (work), conditions and intentions. Justice beyond prosperity is not on the agenda. Of the classical virtues of reason/prudence, courage, moderation and justice, capitalism satisfies reason, in pursuing science, and courage, in crossing boundaries, but it violates the virtues of moderation and justice.

It pursues the truth of pragmatism: truth is what works. No nonsense, not the airy idealism and speculation of stuffy, ivory tower idealists.

Finally, while once upon a time the expectation was that capital would be overwhelmed by the power of labour, now with globalization the power of capitalism has only increased, and subdues labour, with the threat of capital to move its employment elsewhere if it does not get its way, in tax evasion, low cost, and low security and intrinsic quality of labour, subsidies for energy, and lenient environmental restrictions.

[i] Yuval Noah Harari, 2011, Sapiens; A brief history of humankind, Penguin.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

405. Yin and Yang, Mary and Peter

Earlier in this blog (items 137 and 141) I discussed Yin and Yang, in Chinese Tao. Yin stands, originally, for the northern, dark, moist, soft, earthy slope of a mountain, and Yang for the southern, sunny, dry, hard, rocky side. Yin came to symbolize the feminine, fertility, caring, intuition, harmony, balance, integration, the concrete, pragmatic, horizontal, philia. Yang came to stand for the male, power, conquest, fracture, hierarchy, abstract, theoretical, vertical, eros.

Recently I read, in a book by Luigino Bruni and Alessandra Smerilli[i], that there is something similar in Christendom. There, we have Maria (Madonna), who stands for the feminine, care, the charitable, horizontal, communitarian, concrete, and Peter (Petrus), who stand for the male, the authoritarian, vertical, formal, institutional, abstract.

Anomalous, it seems, is that they assign the innovative, the transgression of existing institutions to the ‘Marial’, not the ‘Petran’. I would assign it the other way around.

However, Bruni and Smerilli bring in the case of Antigone versus Creon. Antigone breaks the law, instituted by king Creon, by giving a dignified grave to her brother who died in a battle between brothers, following a more elementary law of life. She was put to death for it. Here we see transgression not for conquest but for benevolence, out of philia, and that indeed may belong to the feminine side.

Bruni and Smerilli plead for an economics with more of the Marial, in what they call a ‘civil economy’. I like that term. They also call the Marial ‘charismic’, or ‘charismatic’, and they explain why, to what early meaning  of ‘charis’, this returns. I do not think that is very helpful, because the meaning of ‘charisma’ now is different. I would call it ‘other-oriented’, both at the individual other and the collective, the community, as Bruni and Smerilli also intended. 

Elsewhere in this blog I discussed Levinas’ view of the ‘visage of the other’, the individual other human being, who transcends the self, is prior to it, and the difficulty he next has in reconciling this with justice that applies to all, as an institution. Here we also meet the tension between personal philia and collective institutions.

Yin and Yang can be conflictual but are supposed to be primarily complementary. Bruni and Smerilli apply that also to the Marial and the Petran. In the economy, the marial is oriented towards intrinsic value, of property, work and relationships, based on philia, while the Petran is oriented towards the eros-driven grasp of possession and power, based on hierarchy or contract. They plead for more of the former.

With intrinsic value, a relationship is not only instrumental but also an end in itself, and the mentality it requires is a matter of inner conviction rather than acquisition. Philia more than eros.

That seems similar to my plea, at several places in this blog, for a shift from the present economic mainstream, based on a utilitarian, self-interest oriented ethic to a more other-oriented ethic with the virtues of prudence, courage, moderation and justice, with a shift from eros, greed, to philia, non-contractual reciprocity.

In what Bruni and Smerilli call a civil economy, there is still competition but also collaboration, and next to contract also mutual dependence and non-contractual reciprocity. The contract is, in their terminology, oriented at ‘immunity’, i.e. self-oriented invulnerability to opportunism, but it loses out on ‘community’ and the intrinsic value of more informal and other-oriented mutual interest, which is, however, more vulnerable, and hence requires the virtue of courage.

This aligns with my discussion, in this blog, of control and trust as complements as well as substitutes. The one begins where the other ends. Blind trust is not wise. But more trust allows for less control. Trust-based relationships, bearing more philia, have more intrinsic value but carry more risk. To support give and take, and the mutual forbearance of philia, they also require, next to courage, the virtues of prudence, moderation and justice.      

[i] L. Bruni & A. Smerilli, 2014, L’altra metà dell économia, gratuità e mercati, Roma: Città Nova Editrice.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

404. From a new social conservatism to a new socialism

I have been wondering whether what I have been writing in this blog adds up to a coherent political ideology. I have recently been triggered in this by an article in the New York Review of Books (20 December 2018), by Mark Lilla on ‘Two roads for the new French right’. It brought into focus the rise of Marion Maréchal, niece of Marine le Pen, with a deviation from the latter’s National Front, with the contours of a more coherent, intriguing new Christian social conservatism.

Here I summarize that account and then compare it to my views, leading in a direction that is somewhat similar but also quite different, amounting, I think, to a new form of socialism.

With populism on the right, as with Marine le Pen and Donald Trump, this new conservatism shares nationalism and a rejection of globalization, the EU, multiculturalism, and mass immigration. However, it does accept multinational coordination, as long as it leaves national identities and their variety intact.

It is against the EU for its globalized policies and its neoliberal orientation towards the individualistic, egoistic homo economicus, its corresponding focus on markets and its neglect of a social orientation, with iniquitous austerity policies.

It harbours, along with a tradition of Christian democracy, and with old-style American Christian ethics, the old, organic view of humanity as communitarian and ‘organic’, and of family values, with a traditional child-bearing role for women, rejecting same-sex marriage. The catholic church has a long term tradition with communitarian values in convents or monasteries, and the protestant church with local, voluntaristic humanitarian projects.

With the green left this new conservatism shares its sense of solidarity with the poor and neglected, as well as a commitment to environmental ideals.

Where do I stand on all this?

With this social conservatism I share the environmentalism and the social view of humanity, rather than the liberal view of the autonomous individual, with, instead, a more organic communitarian view, with a re-invigoration of local communities.

However, together with that I value diversity, multiculturalism, not only between but also within nations. Also I do not wish to return to old family strictures, and do not see why LGBT’ers could not also flourish as members of local communities.

Also, I think that we need the EU for further integration in the areas of foreign policy, defence, immigration, security and financial policy (for equitable taxes, control of banking). However, and here I agree with this social conservatism, we need a more social Europe. I think awareness of this is growing in the EU. That includes less iniquitous austerity policies for countries with failing finance, on the condition of effective, equitable taxes, control of spending and corruption, but also a constraint on lobbies of large firms that yield a race to the social bottom, and a moderation of salaries and bonuses. The purpose, the mission, of business is to satisfy needs in society. The most pressing need now is to save the environment. Business is dragging its feet and thereby fails in its mission.  

For this I have pleaded for a shift from utility ethics to a virtue ethics, with the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, moderation and justice.     

We cannot do without markets, but there are limits to how far they should go, and there need to be measures against market imperfections.  

How, then, does my position compare with socialism? On many points it is similar, except that socialism has let itself be side-tracked, since the 1980’s, by neo liberalist ideology, and has become too individualist and consumerist, neglecting social solidarity, community, and the environment.       

It seems to me that if the new social conservatism develops, a coalition should be possible between that and a new socialism and Christian democracy, all sharing the social and environmental, and making compromises concerning the EU, on the condition of a revised, socio-economic orientation, replacing neo-liberalism, while preserving multiculturalism and immigration.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

403. Mimesis and role models

René Girard proposed a theory of ‘mimetic desire’. Desire does not arise from within the individual but from mimicry, imitation of what others do. The closer one is to the other, the stronger this desire is, mixed with envy and grudges when not having equal access.

This leads on to mimetic violence, where rivalry and grudge escalate to the point that the original object of desire is lost from sight, and the grudge itself is imitated, evokes anger that is in turn imitated, and his escalates into mutual violence.

That leads to the need for a scapegoat, often quite arbitrary, to load off the blame onto.

That, in turn, according to Girard, leads on to the elevation of the scapegoat as a divinity, to carry the blame, and to constitute a taboo, to prevent a re-kindling of the violence, and to be pacified with sacrifice and ritual.

And that, Girard argues, is the beginning and the basis of all culture.

I want to give some opposition to all this.  

In his early and late work, Girard allowed for a more beneficial view of imitation, which can generate empathy and sensitivity to political problems. I want to support the latter and expand on it.

In my analysis of causality, and is application, at several places in this blog, I adopted Aristotle’s multiple causality, which includes the exemplary cause, a model to be imitated or a role model to be followed (items 96 and 99 in this blog).

For example, as masters of phronesis, Aristotelian practical wisdom, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela served as role models. I noted that since good practice, also in professions, cannot always be captured in closed protocols, since much practice is too rich, i.e. too context-dependent and variable, an example to be followed may be the only effective form of guidance, leaving some room for personal interpretation of the ideal.

Such leeway for interpretation is not only beneficial for motivation and the intrinsic value of work, but also under conditions of uncertainty where no optimal choice of policy can be established and codified in advance, but room is needed for adapting to what emerges in new options and conditions.

While Girard associates imitation with envy and threat, that is not necessarily so. Similarly, in item 338 I opposed the view, propounded by Žižek and Lacan, of the other in terms of threat rather than also of opportunity. At several places in this blog I argued that opposition from the other helps to escape from one’s prejudice, and to learn and grow. 

Also, in imitation an innovation realises its potential, becomes established, and there is nothing wrong with that. That is how people get to benefit from the innovation.

Next, imitation with variation is a source of further invention and innovation. I showed that in my ‘cycle of invention’, in items 31 and 35 in this blog. That arises, in particular, when some existing ractice is carried into a new context, in ‘generalisation’, to be imitated there, but then meets with new challenges, for which the first step is to differentiate the practice, tapping form memory of earlier trials and applications.    

There is also an alternative view of the scapegoat, as designated by an authoritarian leader to load off the blame for not fulfilling the promises by which he captured the population. 

I do not wish to deny that imitation can also be negative, in envy and rivalry, leading to an escalation of conflict and violence, as Girard argued.

However, in that there is also something else at play, as I argued in item 48 in this blog. That is associated with the idea of a hierarchy of needs (due to Maslow), with at the basis, on the most primary level, the most fundamental, physiological needs of food and sex, and safety and shelter. In that, people are more similar, and hence more rivalrous,  than on the ‘higher’ levels of a need for social recognition and self-realization. There, I proposed, people differ more, and are less rivalrous, less involved in a zero-sum game, more complementary, in opportunities to learn from each other, so that beneficial imitation may be more prevalent.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

402 What poems do[i]

I have written poems all my life, in batches, at intervals. I did not publish but merely filed them, but recently I started working on them and posting them on two blogs, one in English and one in Dutch. That made me reflect on what it is that poems do.

In my philosophy, and in my previous career in science, the line running through all my work is dynamics, change. So one of the questions for me is: what does poetry have to do with that?  Novalis said: ‘Poetry is the elevation of man above himself’. How does that work? And how do poems differ from prose?

There are five differences between poetry and prose.

First, while in prose a line ends at the end of the page, in poetry the line ends earlier, and either the phrase runs to its end, or it is broken in ‘enjambment’, to continue on the next line. The last word on a line jumps out, gets emphasis, and that can be used in the design of the poem.

Second, lines are grouped in stanza’s, of two lines (a couplet), three (triplet), four (quadruplets), etc. A classic form is the sonnet, with 12 lines, divided over two quadruplets and two triplets (the Petrarcan sonnet), or two sextets and a couplet (Shakespearian sonnet).  The Haiku has three lines of 5, then 7, then 5 syllables.  

Why such structures? They yield ways to cut up the world that the poem presents. The Shakespearian sonnet has been associated with a debate: 6 lines thesis, 6 lines antithesis, and a couplet as resolution. One can also opt for an unbroken series of lines, in a world without seams.

Third, there is rhythm (meter), a sequences of beats. Classic is the jamb, going te dum, te dum, te dum, te dum, te dum (with the beat on ‘dum’), here five times on a line, called a pentameter. I have a preference for the tetrameter, with four beats, often used in ballads. The beat can also be reversed, in the ‘trochee’: dum te, dum te, dum te, dum te. The beat (dum) has been associated with the male, the one without beat (te) with the female.   

Why meter? It is said to come from the primal existential experience of the heartbeat, with the primordial experience in the maternal womb, and of the beat of walking, or a trotting or galloping horse. 

Fourth, there is rhyme. There used to be strict forms, some connected to the sonnet. For the Petrarcan sonnet abba, abba, cdc, cdc, or: abab, cdcd, cfe, fgg. Such orders of rhyme came to be seen by many as formalistic and constraining. They are, when the need to thyme dominates the intended meaning and story. One recommendation is to write up what you want to say and then try to make it rhyme, but don’t when it distorts what you want to say. But there now is also much ‘free verse’, with no regard to ‘rules’ of rhyme or even meter.

Why rhyme? It is pleasing to the ear, establishes order and repetition, but can indeed become forced and artificial.

Fifth, there is sound, more widely than in rhyme, in alliteration (same consonants) and assonance (same vowels), within lines or across them. Sharing vowels or consonants makes connections between words that can yield surprising associations and extensions or twists of meaning, in new combinations. That happens also with metaphor, where A is seen in terms of B.

Why these connections, by sound and metaphor?  This is what poems do: lift, shift or twist meanings, or generate new ones. This helps to halt and redirect thought. Innovation has been characterized as ‘novel combinations’, and in yielding such novel combinations poetry innovates language.

Poems stand things on their head, generate surprise, novelty, new world views.      

[i] This piece is based on a poetry writing course given by Mary-Jane Holmes at Casa Ana, in the Alpujarras, high up in the Sierra Nevada, in Southern Spain, on a book on poetry ‘The ode less travelled’ by Stephen Fry, and the book ‘On poetry’ by Glyn Maxwell.

Monday, December 17, 2018

401. Schooling in the modern world

There is debate on how to teach, in  primary and secondary education, in the modern world. Does the old idea of education as transfer of knowledge still apply in a world where Internet provides easy access to all the knowledge there is? How to cope with this flood of knowledge?

Younger teachers (such as my daughter Anouk) claim that it no longer makes sense to transfer facts and figures, and to give lengthy lectures, in one-directional transfer. They plead for a more dialogical process, in discussion between teachers and pupils, and pupils among each other. Instead of cramming facts into them, let them ask questions and then look for answers and debate them.

Older people (like myself) ask what then happens to the use of existing knowledge: does that not get neglected or even lost? And they argue that one must have knowledge to know what questions to ask.

Also, isn’t the present calamity of the production and credence of fake news due to lack of knowledge and critical thought, disregard of the facts and how they connect?

Who is right? Both are, depending on what meaning of knowledge you take. 

Cognitive science offers the distinction between on the one hand declarative knowledge, of facts of date, place, people, and events, and on the other hand procedural knowledge about logics and processes of structure, causal or logical connection, with arguments of implication or other inference or association. They occupy different regions of the brain.

Facts are isolated, while procedures give their connection. That makes it easier to remember, because of coherence where the one thing rests upon the other, like a house of cards, and one can use the one as a trigger to remember the other. It is beginning to happen to me that I can’t remember the name of the author of a book, but I can tell you what he or she tells.

The problem of the flood of information in the Internet age may be solved by teaching the procedural knowledge needed to ask the right questions and to connect the facts, offering cognitive and logical structures in which one can fill in the facts taken from Internet.

Procedural knowledge can be learned by reading books that supply arguments and analyses, but the book does not answer back to questions that may arise. For that, one would have to check the references and trace the trail of literature involved.

But for that knowledge the internet offers the ideal vehicle, to search for sources and connections. And if reading is replaced, to a greater or lesser extent, by dialogue and debate, does that not make the process faster and more versatile, and the learning of how to ask questions and evaluate answers more fruitful?

In other words: could one not make the learning of procedural knowledge the cornerstone of teaching, and train how to develop that and use it in tracing, filling in and evaluating the facts from internet?

This connects with my arguments, in earlier items in this blog, that one needs the opposition from others, in debate, to have a chance of being freed from ignorance and prejudice. For that one also needs sufficient variety of cognition, at a cognitive distance large enough to yield surprising insights but not too large to absorb and make use of it. That would also train pupils not to hide in the comfort of filter bubbles that confirm prejudice.

A complication may be the following. How do you grade students when there are no standard tests of knowledge, in the more processual mode of procedural learning? Or is the very concept of grading a bit of old thinking? But then, does evaluation of students and their progress not become too subjective, based on a teacher’s impressions, and is that not prejudicial, and susceptible to negotiation between teacher and student? Might that not lead to inequality and a decline of standards?   

Saturday, December 8, 2018

400. Survey of his blog

Including this piece, there are now 400 items on this blog. Here I give a survey according to the number of times a piece has been viewed.

The following 23 items were viewed more than 100 times:

Number           Title                                                                                       Number of views

63                    Nietzsche and Levinas                                                           640
19                    Beyond nihilism: imperfection on the move                         526
3                      Trust: what is it?                                                                    519
128                  Eastern and Western philosophy                                           496
72                    Uncertainty and openness                                                     371
7                      Geometry and finesse                                                            339
73                    Psychology of trust                                                               328
77                    Beyond Enlightenment and Romanticism                             314
88                    Wabi Sabi                                                                              312
70                    Forms of identification                                                          305
61                    Levinas: philosophy of the other                                           282
179                  Moral robots?                                                                        275
71                    Judgement of good and bad                                                  271
76                    How much community?                                                        261
75                    Horizontal control                                                                 231
89                    Aesthetic judgement                                                             208
62                    Levinas: Justice?                                                                   151
69                    Sources of trust                                                                     144
312                  Reason contributes to freedom of the will                            128
333                  The curse of identity                                                             118
74                    Roles of a go-between                                                          114
143                  Forms of nihilism                                                                  110
80                    Art                                                                                         105

59 items were viewed between 50 and 100 times
281 items were viewed between 20 and 50 times
33 items were viewed less than 20 times.

I remind the reader  that on my website
on the page for the philosophy blog items are bundled according to theme. The themes are the following:

basic income, a way out for socialism, identity, culture, evolution,
multiple causality, God and religion, robots, power, knowledge/truth/and invention,
ethics and morality, the human condition, self and other, trust, meaning,
Eastern and Western philosophy, puzzles in philosophy, democracy/autocracy/and fascism, voice and exit, system tragedy, power, art and literature, fallen foundations, language games and crossing cultures, politics of virtue, ontology, economics (old and new, nihilism.

Nietzsche, nihilism and beyond
Time, duration, and discontinuity: Bergson, Derrida, and Bachelard
six more pieces on Foucault
Wittgenstein, Zizek and Hegel

I also remind readers that on the blog you can post comments. I encourage you to do so. I will respond to any comment or question.