Book Club: The Edge of Reason 10, the rational state

Plato vs Aristotle

We have arrived at the next to the last chapter in our long discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. To briefly recap, the first part of Julian’s book (chapters 1-3) was about “the judge,” i.e. the myth of reason understood as an impartial replacement for human judgment; part II (chapters 4-6), “the guide,” was concerned with the Platonic myth of reason in charge of unruly emotions and desires; part III (chapters 7-9), “the motivator,” discussed a third myth, that reason, by itself, motivates us to action. These last two installments refer to part IV, “the king,” an analysis of the role of reason in politics and society at large.

Julian begins chapter 10 by acknowledging the rather obvious point that human beings tend to run their societies in a rather irrational manner. From which it would seem to follow that it should be possible to build better societies based on reason. And yet, every time we have tried such an experiment, implementing a radical new view of how things ought to do, it has resulted in abysmal, and more than occasionally bloody, failure. Why?

As in previous sections, it all goes back to Plato (see? There is a point, after all, for the name of this blog…), particularly the Republic, which Baggini describes as “one of the most unworkable, unattractive utopias ever conceived. Plato advocated a society in which a separate Guardian class is raised from childhood and ‘women and children are to be held in common among the Guardians’. Rulers ‘will have to employ a great deal of fiction and deceit for the benefit of their subjects’, ‘mate the best of our men with the best of our women’ and ‘bring up only the offspring of the best’.”

Of course, Plato had a reason for proposing such a radical departure from the way things were done then, since he learned his political lessons from the failure of the Athenian democratic experiment (which, among other things, ended up killing his mentor, Socrates), and the general decline of Athenian power.

I think Julian is right in framing the Republic in terms of what he calls Socrates’ mistake: “Socrates begins by asking Glaucon whether he agrees with the principles that lie behind his exposition. ‘Does practice ever square with theory?’ he demands. ‘Is it not in the nature of things that, whatever people think, practice should come less close to truth than theory?’” For Socrates the problem is “to show what fault it is in the constitutions of existing states that prevents them from being run like ours.”

The mistake, in other words, is to put theory ahead of practice, assuming that whenever things go wrong that’s because the implementation of the theory was insufficiently accurate, not because the theory itself is unworkable. This type of Socratic error has been repeated in all utopias attempted ever since, on whatever side of the political spectrum.

Also, one corollary of the Socratic-Platonic assumption is the idea that there is one universal conception of justice (remember that part of the Republic has the goal of identifying the characteristics of the just state). But there are serious objections to this too, exemplified for instance by a thought experiment proposed by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice.

Consider a “story of three children and a flute, all of the children having some claim to the instrument. One says she is the only one able to play it, another that he is the only one with no other toys and the third that she made it. Sen argues that ‘we may not be able to identify, without some arbitrariness, any of the alternative arguments as being the one that must invariably prevail.’” I think that’s right: different plausible arguments could be constructed in favor of each of the three kids, without any of them being a knock-down against the others. And this isn’t evidence of some kind of failure of ethics to arrive at “truth,” but rather a good illustration that rational arguments tend to underdetermine the answers to ethical problems.

Julian faults Plato, again, rightly, in my mind, for putting reason on the side of theory, thus automatically shifting the burden of failure to practice. But reason can, and indeed should be, practical as well. As he reminds us, “pragmatic” is considered a bad word in politics precisely because of this Platonic remnant that principle is superior to practice, but “a principle that can’t be implemented is just a bad principle. … Political reasoning cannot be a priori. Experience has to have a more engaged and ongoing role to play. … That way lies the absurdity uttered by Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor: ‘Let justice be done, though the world perish.’”

What, then, is the answer? Conservatism, says Julian! Wait, wait, don’t just throw stones at him (or me), let’s first hear him out. He makes an argument that there is something fundamental on which both conservatives and progressives really ought to agree on, reasonably.

Consider “Burkean conservative philosophy [as] eloquently articulated by Roger Scruton. For Scruton, society is like a living organism, and individuals are not distinct ‘atoms’ of autonomous self-determination, as characterized by liberalism, but parts of a whole which only flourish when that whole is itself flourishing. This means that human life only makes sense, values only have currency and projects only have meaning when understood as part of a social history that extends both before and after our own lives. … Conservatism is therefore ‘an exercise in social ecology’ whose goal is ‘to pass on to future generations — and if possible enhance — the order and equilibrium of which we are the temporary trustees.’”

Put this way, the basic idea of conservatism, then, is that society is like a delicate ecosystem, and that therefore one should be careful about how to tweak it, and certainly be weary of any radical attempt to tear it down. Baggini proposes that “liberals” (by which he doesn’t mean American-style libertarians, but politically progressive, left-of-the-spectrum individuals) should have no trouble agreeing with this commonsensical precept. The difference is in what tweaks to make, and how much to tweak, keeping in mind that modern conservatives would readily accept the value of what in the recent past appeared as radical reforms, such as the abolition of slavery, or women’s vote (though many are still largely, but presumably only temporarily, not on board with equal rights for gays and transgenders).

The idea, then, is that “the process of designing a better society has to start by looking at the society we have, since we cannot build a new one from scratch to replace it.” And guess who was the first to propose just such an approach? None other than Plato’s famous rebellious student, Aristotle:

“He began by examining the political systems currently in existence, seeing their relative strengths and weaknesses. He never made the mistake of thinking about the relative merits of oligarchy, democracy or monarchy in purely abstract terms. … He had a realistic expectation that political philosophy can never be clear-cut and that a certain amount of unclarity and imprecision is inevitable.”

Of course, the point is not that we should accept Aristotle’s specific conclusions, but rather that his approach — in an important sense antithetical to that of Plato — is the way to go. As Baggini puts it, in perfect Aristotelian fashion, “to be as rational as possible means not trying to get more from rationality than is possible. In no domain is this true more than in politics.”

Julian then examines some of the most disastrous recent attempts to establish utopias by wiping out (as opposed to tweaking) previous systems, particularly the communist regimes of the 20th century, all of which quickly degenerated into tyranny and caused the death of hundreds of millions of people. The communist mistake, in a sense, is the same as Plato’s: despite Marx’s alleged attention to historical realities, communists have always put pure theoretical reasoning ahead of practice, attempting to turn history itself into an exact science.

I refer the interested reader to Julian’s discussion of the concept of surplus value and the role it plays in Marxist theories. He acknowledges that surplus value is a real thing, but he rejects the Marxist analysis of the role it plays in society, and therefore the Marxist recipe for how society ought to be changed.

Baggini has a little more sympathy for anarchists, but he charges them with committing the opposite mistake to that of the Platonists and Marxists: ignoring theory altogether in favor of too much emphasis on practice: “Bakunin is clearly advocating something close to what I have been arguing for here. ‘Natural and social life always precedes thought (which is merely one of its functions) but is never its result,’ while ‘abstract reflections’ are ‘always produced by life but never producing it.’ However, his inverted Platonism is as simplistic as the view it replaces. … Bakunin writes as though the truth simply flows from the facts in some unmediated way.”

Sure enough, historically speaking, anarchism — though not responsible for the atrocities of communism (and fascism) — has not really fared particularly well: “You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of anarchist cities or communes that have been established long enough to leave a mark on the world, and each lasted for months rather than years.”

I am going to skip Julian’s analysis of yet another case of exaggerated “theoretical” rationality, that of economic theory, and leave you instead with his conclusions regarding political systems: “if anyone proposes a radical new model of how we should organize society then we have good grounds to suspect that the model is grossly and dangerously simplified. … To be truly rational we need to acknowledge the limits of our rationality: nothing is more irrational than an unwarranted faith in reason.”

Advertisements


Categories: Book Club, Social & Political Philosophy

Tags:

117 replies

  1. Saphsin,

    “I don’t believe in a spectrum where on one side we have individualism and the other side collectivism. I believe there’s not only an overlap, but that in some instances, they’re necessarily reciprocal and reliant on each other”

    That would be a spectrum, with lots of intermediate combinations. Look, libertarian ideology is very clearly extremely individualistic. Marxist ideology is very clearly collectivist. Lots of other positions are very clearly somewhere in the middle. Not sure how you can possibly deny that there is a spectrum there.

    “I think the Soviet Union charge is particularly unfair.”

    Not really. It started out with the ideological work of Lenin et al. The fact that it went horribly wrong is part of the point. And it’s not the only case, during the 20th century, as you know. For Marxists to keep crying that that wasn’t true Marxism, well, maybe, but if every time we try Marxism we get a totalitarian horror maybe it’s time to stop trying. That’s what Baggini means by putting theory necessarily ahead of practice.

    Also, you keep switching between “leftists” and “Marxists.” The two are not the same thing. I’m a leftist, but have never been a Marxist.

    “specific arguments about what’s unjust about the nature of the society, and the question they pose is if there’s a way to organize society a more just way”

    No doubt. But that doesn’t go against anything I said, or Baggini wrote.

    “The arguments of many modern socialists for instance, accuse modern Corporations for being totalitarian institutions”

    Agreed, but again, don’t see how that is somehow problematic for Baggini or myself. One doesn’t need to be a socialist to see problems with multinational corporations. I have libertarian friends who think they are a quintessential example of chroni capitalism.

    “So what inevitably happens is human society is extremely skewed to being designed in a way to make rich people happy at the cost of everyone else. Social Democracy mitigates this to some extent”

    Social democracy does a lot more than mitigating the problem, when it’s well implemented, like in Scandinavian countries, or Japan, for that matter. At any rate, again, the issue isn’t whether we should work toward a better society, it’s how. And all Baggini is saying is that historically whenever people have put forth a utopian vision it has failed, either because of actual disasters, or because it hasn’t lasted. Why? Because utopias are about re-engineering the human ecosystem from the ground up, instead of changing it organically over time.

    “If you don’t have a utopian vision, how are you going to be the type of person who at least helps create a society a quarter-way closer to it?”

    By having a workable, rather than utopian, vision.

    Robin,

    “The point I was making is that sometimes the theory really is good and the problems of implementation don’t negate that.”

    Indeed. But that’s not Baggini’s point. His criticism of anarchism relies precisely on the fact that “facts only” is just as bad as “theory first.” Facts and theory have to dialectically feed into each other.

    “The problem with the sort of conservatism that Baggini is talking about is that it makes gradualism a rule”

    Yes, but Baggini isn’t defending conservatism, he is just explaining it. And he is saying that progressives too obtain better results when they pay attention to the facts on the ground rather than being guided by pure ideologies. “Gradualism” too is a matter of degrees.

    Wtc,

    What I wrote should actually read:”

    “I am by now convinced that a Marxist society (in the strong term of the sense) is not feasible, and an anarchist one approaches the level of oxymoron.”

    “Strong term” means in the sort of terms that Lenin and other theoreticians have historically cast it.

    Bunsen,

    “Why on earth did the established order not leave these poor misguided movements alone to collapse on their own, but instead repressed them with viscous brutality?”

    You write as if conservatives were the only ones that exercised repression. What about the hundreds of millions killed by Marxist regimes throughout the 20th century?

    That’s precisely the point: zealot ideologies and utopias generate that sort of conviction, and end up in that sort of result.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t really know any American Leftists

    Likely, leftist would be the first sent for reeducation under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    And Marxist and Anarchist are very difference. I was Stalin who won the war for Franco by turning on the Anarchist.

    Like

  3. Not really. It started out with the ideological work of Lenin et al

    To me the USSR was socialist in name only — it’s more like ‘state capitalism’ or ‘party capitalism’

    If Socialism means ‘control of the means of production by workers or ‘the people’, then you can’t have Socialism w/o democracy. Vanguards be damned.

    Of course working examples (Sweden, etc) are more of hybrid.

    T.S. (Paper Millionaires for Democratic Socialism PAC) [a]

    [a] I may take out actual PAC papers someday — it cost next to nothing and I can pay myself a nice salary, if anybody is stupid enough to contribute <:-_).

    Like

  4. There are no modern “functional” societies that achieved that status by piecemeal reasonable reforms guided by facts on the ground instead of ideology. Or by any sort of Burke BS you care to repeat. Two centuries of repetition doesn’t make Burke’s slander of the French Revolution any more honest. Burke was a polemicist in an evil cause, not a great thinker. No ideologue conceived of a revolutionary government as devised by the Jacobins, or the levee en masse, or indeed very much of concrete importance. The goals were inspired by the Enlightenment but the means, no. Oh, Condorcet had elaborate plans but that was precisely why he was a minor figure. Robespierre was a major figure but not even he at the height of his power could make his religion reformed by Enlightenment principles anything more than a demonstration inspiring barely concealed mirth. (By the way, Burke was not prescient: He merely drew the conclusion from English history that great revolutions are bloody, and the French Revolution would be no different.)

    The modern “functional” societies all are so because they developed from great revolutions (the Dutch Revolution, the Puritan Revolution, the Great French Revolution, the US Civil War, the Mexican Revolution, Ataturk’s revolution, the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution, etc.) or from a whole series of attempted revolutions and interventions from revolutionary states plus reforms required to compete with revolutionary states (or the political heirs of the achievements of revolutionary states.) The nations that had the fewest revolutions are the least modern, and the least free, and the most susceptible to viciously reactionary regimes.

    Further, the modernity and functionality of these societies is most respects the same thing as their economic development. The sack of the New World, Africa and Asia were essential to the economic development. The rapine of the world took a death toll of millions. Even more, the normal operations of the capitalist world of bourgeois nations meant internecine war, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions. The horrific toll of the Great War owed not one drop of blood to Marxism, or ideology. For that matter of course, Napoleon took more lives than the Terror. No one has accused him of ideological fanaticism. Indeed, he was praised then for doing away with Jacobin fanaticism. In this century, in addition to the death tolls of the two world wars, there are the millions slaughtered by the non-ideological policeman of the world, the US. Further, it is very convenient to pretend that an Adolf Hitler or a Benito Mussolini or whomever has nothing to do with capitalism. But the simple fact is it took them very little violence against the ruling class and the working capitalists to create their regimes.

    Of the modern revolutions influenced by Marxism, the less Marxist they are in principles, the less progressive, the more prone to terrible excesses. How can one assign the highly peasant based, non-industrial, i.e., non-Marxist, Khmer Rouge to the list of sins of Marxist ideology? North Korea is not dominated by Stalinism but by a crudely disguised revival of the emperor tradition. Neither juche nor songbun are Marxist ideology (and the south shares the roots of the songbun system, by the way.) Also, how can anyone separate the alleged crimes of ideology from the demoralization and social destruction wrought by the US? To ignore the effects of US warfare is to endorse it. The death of perhaps twenty percent of the population of north Korea was a humanitarian act? I suggest that this is the best example of ideology leading to endorsement of murder. Even in the USSR, Stalin’s policies at the height of the Yezhovshchina bore an uncanny resemblance to the activities of Ivan Grozny (the Awesome.) Even so, the ludicrous claims of hundreds of millions are a vicious reactionary libel. The only way to conjure up figures like this is to dishonestly assume all famine deaths in socialist countries were deliberately inflicted why counting no famine deaths in capitalist countries at all. That’s how philosophers can still take a John Stuart Mill uncritically, seeing him as articulating the essence of liberal freedom, while ignoring the Irish famine and the Indian colony as products of the same society.

    The true problem I think is the notion of “judgment,” which in practice seems to mean that Baggini can trump mere facts, on the authority of his personal wisdom.

    Like

  5. “That would be a spectrum, with lots of intermediate combinations. Look, libertarian ideology is very clearly extremely individualistic. Marxist ideology is very clearly collectivist. Lots of other positions are very clearly somewhere in the middle. Not sure how you can possibly deny that there is a spectrum there.”

    I honestly do deny it.

    “If the word “libertarianism” is taken to mean “a belief in freedom” and the word “socialism” is taken to mean “a belief in fairness,” then the two are not just “not opposites,” but they are necessary complements. That’s because if you have “freedom” from government intervention, but you don’t have a fair economy, your freedom becomes meaningless, because you will still be faced with a choice between working and starving. Freedom is only meaningful to the extent that it actually creates a capacity for you to act. If you’re poor, you don’t have much of an actual capacity to do much, so you’re not terribly free. Likewise, “socialism” without a conception of freedom is not actually fair and equal.”

    https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/07/lessons-from-chomsky

    I don’t actually believe Right-libertarian ideology is very individualistic actually, because I don’t really think they care about the freedom of the individual in any meaningful sense, they don’t understand freedom is fostering the agency & capabilities of each individual, they only think of it in terms of freedom from influence from government. And only from government, not any other authoritarian structures. So you can have extreme forms of authority, like unregulated corporations, and you can be considered “libertarian” and supposedly care about the freedom & rights of the individual. It’s a load of nonsense.

    It really depends on what you mean by “Marxism” really, because Marx himself wasn’t a “Marxist” but a complicated individual with both noticeable authoritarian & libertarian strands to his thought. But if we were to talk generally about the core of Marx’s thought in general terms, than I agree most with the scholar Robert C. Tucker’s interpretation of Marx that in reading Marx, his thought is aligned in many ways with the tradition of Classical Liberalism (with Rousseau, Jefferson, Tocqueville…) The core of Marx’s thought was basically that laborers had to own the product of their work to truly realize his capacities as an individual and control their life (later realized by Marxists like Anton Pannekeok, Paul Mattick, Rosa Luxemberg, etc.).

    He was certainly concerned with the freedom & agency of the individual, in ways Right-Libertarians never were. Not to say that Right-Libertarians never had any valid criticisms of authoritarian impulses that some people on the Left had. But like-wise, yes I do reject the spectrum.

    “Not really. It started out with the ideological work of Lenin et al. The fact that it went horribly wrong is part of the point. And it’s not the only case, during the 20th century, as you know. For Marxists to keep crying that that wasn’t true Marxism, well, maybe, but if every time we try Marxism we get a totalitarian horror maybe it’s time to stop trying. That’s what Baggini means by putting theory necessarily ahead of practice.”

    But as I’ve said, other Marxists at the time of Trotsky & Lenin disagreed with them, and disagreed with them on the basis of their understanding of Marxism. Maybe we can criticize Marxism on the basis of not having a clear vision of how to achieve a better society beyond capitalism, and that lead it to the vulnerability to authoritarian ideologies. I think that’s a fair criticism (it’s one that anarchists have made)

    But if you think that’s a fair criticism of Marxism as an ideology, then fine. It doesn’t make sense to me as a criticism, but if we were to be consistent, it’s as much also fine for leftists & right-Libertarians to criticize liberalism for being a pro-imperialist ideology, because Mill, Locke, & Tocqueville defended imperialism on the basis of liberalism and liberals have mostly not been hostile towards militarism like members of other sides of the spectrum have in history up to the current present.

    (if you didn’t get it, the point is that there’s a difference between an ideology being vulnerable to something and an ideology necessarily leading to a conclusion)

    “Also, you keep switching between “leftists” and “Marxists.” The two are not the same thing. I’m a leftist, but have never been a Marxist.”

    A reason I hate political terminology is the multiplicity of meaning problem. But in order to be a leftist, I think you at minimum have to be considered anti-capitalist, otherwise I think we’re bullshitting terms. Since it doesn’t seem we’re just criticizing Marxism but a broader [going beyond capitalism] view, I think I used the terms alright.

    “No doubt. But that doesn’t go against anything I said, or Baggini wrote.

    Agreed, but again, don’t see how that is somehow problematic for Baggini or myself. One doesn’t need to be a socialist to see problems with multinational corporations. I have libertarian friends who think they are a quintessential example of chroni capitalism.”

    We can discuss that I guess, but socialists are saying that we should look for other options to replace corporations, such as worker cooperatives.

    “And all Baggini is saying is that historically whenever people have put forth a utopian vision it has failed, either because of actual disasters, or because it hasn’t lasted. Why? Because utopias are about re-engineering the human ecosystem from the ground up, instead of changing it organically over time.”

    I might actually agree with this on a literal basis, though for entirely different reasons. My view is that we should have a utopian vision to know what kind of society maximizes an order of ideals, and in order to make pragmatic, it’s easier to have a utopian society to understand what are the pragmatic steps we should take forward. As an anti-capitalist, I seriously doubt we can just have a revolution to change the structure of the economy in one swoop. But it also depends on what one means by “gradual change” It’s sort of a vague term. Was the removal of slavery a “gradual change”? It’s radical change because it fundamentally changed the structure of the society, but it’s gradual in that the black population still didn’t have fundamental rights, and actually, they were still exploited in a way that was very close to slave labor during the period of Reconstruction.

    So to answer this: “By having a workable, rather than utopian, vision.”

    The utopian vision is the ultimate long term goal. The workable vision is the pragmatic steps forward with the ideals of the ultimate long-term goal in mind.

    Like

  6. synred:

    ‘To me the USSR was socialist in name only — it’s more like ‘state capitalism’ or ‘party capitalism’’

    You’d be surprised just how right you are. Lenin used the term in discussing the New Economic Policy. You see, he was too doctrinaire a Marxist to believe that socialism could be achieved in a single country, let alone a economically backward agrarian society such as the then Soviet Union.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Massimo:

    ‘You write as if conservatives were the only ones that exercised repression. What about the hundreds of millions killed by Marxist regimes throughout the 20th century?’

    No, what I am doing is questioning Baggini’s conclusions regarding, at least, some attempts to establish socialist or anarchist based societies. Zealots in the Kennedy Administration may have killed a lot of people, but they did for clear ideological reasons, and no one argues that the problems faced by the Vietnamese shows that Vietnamese notions of society were somehow in violation of some kind of human nature.

    Likewise, we’ll never know whether Syndicalist approaches to society would have worked or not. Because they were violently crushed. And I’m pretty sure they were crushed because the forces doing the crushing believed that these alternatives were quite realistic, and therefore a direct threat to entrenched power interests.

    This is my problems with Baginni’s faux-political philosophy. Its missing any concept of power, without which, there is no politics.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I keep being surprised by just how much hostility Baggini’s ideas on reason provoke. They are dismissed from being trivially true to preposterously false. Which probably means they are close to be exactly right… Anyway:

    Steve,

    “There are no modern “functional” societies that achieved that status by piecemeal reasonable reforms guided by facts on the ground instead of ideology.”

    That is simply historically false, much of what we call modern society is the result of a number of small changes that occurred over the past couple of centuries.

    “Or by any sort of Burke BS you care to repeat. Two centuries of repetition doesn’t make Burke’s slander of the French Revolution any more honest”

    I’m not sure why you need to label as bullshit a reasonable opinion you happen to disagree with, but okay. The French Revolution was a disaster by every measure. It ended in the Terror and led directly to the restauration of an authocratic monarchy and the rise of Napoleon. If that’s not failure, I don’t know what is.

    “The modern “functional” societies all are so because they developed from great revolutions (the Dutch Revolution, the Puritan Revolution, the Great French Revolution, the US Civil War, the Mexican Revolution, Ataturk’s revolution, the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution, etc.)”

    Except that half of those are not really “revolutions,” and that the Russian and Chinese one were absolutely horrific.

    Besides, Julian’s point isn’t about revolution per se (I mean, tyrants won’t usually go peacefully), but about the problems stemming from a priori, rigid, and radical notions of what a good society must be.

    “the modernity and functionality of these societies is most respects the same thing as their economic development”

    Agreed, but now you are changing topic. The chapter is about political utopias and how useless, or even dangerous, they are. Yes, then there is all sorts of other stuff going on, including the economic and pillaging aspects you mention. I doubt Baggini would deny that.

    “Of the modern revolutions influenced by Marxism, the less Marxist they are in principles, the less progressive, the more prone to terrible excesses.”

    That’s a tad too convenient, no? That is why Popper famously considered Marxism a pseudoscience. No actual historical event seems to be taken as possibly arguing against the doctrine.

    “The true problem I think is the notion of “judgment,” which in practice seems to mean that Baggini can trump mere facts, on the authority of his personal wisdom”

    And you would replace human judgment with, what? A computer algorithm? A logical proof? Good luck building a society on that.

    Bunsen,

    “Zealots in the Kennedy Administration may have killed a lot of people, but they did for clear ideological reasons, and no one argues that the problems faced by the Vietnamese shows that Vietnamese notions of society were somehow in violation of some kind of human nature”

    Agreed, but the Kennedy administration has nothing really to do with utopias. As for the Vietnamese, it wasn’t their vision of society, it was the one (indirectly) imposed by that other abysmal failure of the 20th century, the Soviet Union.

    “Likewise, we’ll never know whether Syndicalist approaches to society would have worked or not. Because they were violently crushed”

    Not exactly right. We have a history of small anarchic utopias. They never lasted for more than a few years.

    “This is my problems with Baginni’s faux-political philosophy. Its missing any concept of power, without which, there is no politics.”

    I’m not sure on what basis you say that, given that he begins by discussing Plato’s Republic, which itself opens with a famous discussion of the role of power in politics.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. saphsin,

    … socialists are saying that we should look for other options to replace corporations, such as worker cooperatives.

    And Bunsen,

    … we’ll never know whether Syndicalist approaches to society would have worked or not.

    What is to stop people in places like the UK forming worker cooperatives or syndicates if they so wish, and what is to stop these proliferating if they are successful and popular?

    Nothing really (I can think of current UK examples, such as the Co-op and the John Lewis Partnership), but on the whole they tend to remain fringe, which suggests that either they don’t work that well or are not that popular.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers%27_self-management

    Syndicalism…has functioned more than in more than just in short lived communes…e.g., Yugoslavia.

    Union pensions own stock…though not a controlling interest.

    Like

  11. Coel

    For a variety of reasons. Because worker cooperatives are worker owned, they have to be democratically managed, and that takes popular organizing in specific regional locations. Also because these worker cooperatives work within capitalist market systems and thus can’t compete with corporations who are able to utilize every exploitative method to accumulate capital. In order for them to really play a pivotal role, we’ll have to make more broad changes on how the economic system works.

    Like

  12. I’m very wary of violent revolutions for similar reasons as Massimo said, it has a vulnerable track record to end up with a situation even worse than the previous state of affairs. Though I can’t rule it out either. For instance, the Haitian Revolution, which was jolted by the shockwave of the French Revolution, was a fantastic success. You can come up with some other examples, and even the ones Massimo denounced that leaned towards the negative side are heavily debated and surely had mixed results.

    Like

  13. “Wtc,

    What I wrote should actually read:”

    “I am by now convinced that a Marxist society (in the strong term of the sense) is not feasible, and an anarchist one approaches the level of oxymoron.”

    Thanks, Massimo! No wonder I was puzzled (but I tried to make sense out of it, in the light of your other statements)!

    “And all Baggini is saying is that historically whenever people have put forth a utopian vision it has failed, either because of actual disasters, or because it hasn’t lasted. Why? Because utopias are about re-engineering the human ecosystem from the ground up, instead of changing it organically over time.”

    I’ve always felt that the difference between communism and capitalism was that the former was conceived as a political/economic system, while capitalism was never formulated as a theory (except after the fact, by Adam Smith and successors), but just grew from late medieval practice, actually “changing organically over time”, so that people living in one of the modern hybrid capitalist societies are unaware of it, like Moliere’s character who was astonished to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life.

    Like

  14. Well, if Massimo calls himself a leftist, I definitely am one, as I’m to his left, certainly on foreign policy non-interventionism!

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Per Bunsen, to quote a great, or “great,” Chinese statesman: “Power flows from the barrel of a gun.” (I’ve often wondered how much different Chinese history would have been if Zhou, not Mao, had led the Chinese Communist Party.

    Like

  16. Socratic

    The more I read up on Mao’s reign from both sides, I get more puzzled what to think about it. I really can’t stand Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin, China is more complicated.

    On the one hand, it was a brutal totalitarian regime with some questionable economic policies (aside from the Great Leap Forward, which was just stupid and horrifying) and on the other hand, it liberated the peasant society from the highly exploitive rule of thousands of years of Feudal rule and dramatically improved the vast majority of China’s population’s living standards and women’s rights. Whatever your ideological leanings are, the argument that without Mao, China would be a backwater country like India right now is very convincing. I have a principle in life, which is to not deny facts. If the facts bother your ideological perceptions, incorporate it into your perspective and struggle with it like an honest person.

    My conclusion is a mixed feeling towards the negative.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Co-op is one of the biggest grocery stores in UK. However, I don’t think it is a workers cooperative but a consumer one.

    We had such a co-op here, it had a good run, but eventually died or was killed.

    Back when interest rates were through the roof, the manager convinced the board to issue 14% bonds to members to renovate and take up-scale his store. This was an absurd idea and eventual the Co-op had to sell off the stores to repay the bonds.

    The manager that talked the board into this stupid investment ended up owning the store in managed. Renamed ‘Mollie Stones Market’ it is successful up scale store today.

    Something fishy there.

    So one trouble with Co-ops is the boards don’t know what there doing — still it did last for something like 70 years.

    Similar self dealing happened with our cooperative cable system which ended up being sold to AT&T for well under its value. The board gave a dividend of about a 100 bucks to the remembers and blew the rest in the stock market — so that the promised local origination studio never materialized.

    Like

  18. Lots of interesting history here, but the facts on the ground are that when Congress gets back from recess, the first order of business will be to push the debt ceiling of the leading capitalist country over 20 trillion dollars. Does anyone have a theory about the implications of that?

    Even something so basic as to who will be lending, who will be owing, where will it be spent, etc?

    If you want to know what is going on, “Follow the money.”

    Like

  19. Also I disagree with Robespierre and his methods which lead the French Revolution to go haywire at the end and leave destructive consequences, but I don’t see how anyone can conclude that there wasn’t a need at one point to wipe France clean, the conditions were just so bad it seemed inevitable. I think the following article explains the other dramatic developments that came as a result of the French Revolution.

    https://jacobinmag.com/2016/07/yes-the-french-revolution-was-necessary

    Like

  20. Coel:

    ‘What is to stop people in places like the UK forming worker cooperatives or syndicates if they so wish, …’

    These ideas are usually products of their time. Ideas that might have given us a very different world if allowed to succeed in an early industrialising Catalonia, are probably just no longer relevant in post industrial nation. Maybe some version of Syndicalism can be constructed that is still relevant but I don’t consider myself an expert on these matters, and so am happy to leave it to others to ponder that point.

    Also, there are these pesky things called laws that would get in the way. You see, most of these ideas had very little to do with something so minor as having all of the workers have a say in the running of a factory. They also had a lot dealt a lot with how society should organise its resource, production, consumption and distribution. Think of it as a completely new regulatory regime that is incompatible with the current one.

    Finally, you might like to take a look at what happened in the recent past when countries decided to go their own way, and move away from the order constructed by the wealthy ones. Latin America is a good example, especially something like Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. You’d be surprised how much money and blood was expended in an effort to make sure these movements didn’t succeed.

    Like

  21. Saphsin: “To given an example of how people are able to organize society without any sort of social theory, there are places in the US where the Christian Right have been able to design their own localized economies that have been able to maintain some level of independence from the rest of the U.S. Capitalist system. They have this very extensive network of merchants & services within their Congregations who collectively make decisions in aiding those who are in economic need, and that creates great cohesion and cooperation within the Christian Right in an age where people feel they just can’t just rely on the ravages left of the neoliberal policies, especially in the rural areas.”

    You might almost be describing Utah in the 40s and 50s, when I lived there with my Mormon grandparents. I’m sure there’s more church/state separation now, but as I remember, the pervasiveness of the Church was taken for granted, in the media, the government, the public schools, and life in general.

    Like

  22. I never thought I would see the day when criticism of Mao and Stalin would be qualified at PF. And by two separate people! I guess if you live long enough, you see everything.

    Like

  23. A more-than-two-word answer to the UK astronomical answer to Steven Pinker and Gottfried Leibniz on the best of all possible worlds.

    If you’re on Twitter, please feel free to vote on my “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brockie” poll! https://twitter.com/SocraticGadfly/status/900892100899860482

    Like

  24. saphsin,

    My history of the East is limited, but the fact China has been an empire for a couple thousand years and India really wasn’t a state before the British, should be part of the equation.

    Like

  25. brodix

    No I don’t think so. The living expectancy of China was under 40 years right before Mao’s reign, it was a really screwed up backwater country. India on the other hand was quite advanced by the rest of the world’s standards in the era before it was conquered by the British.

    Dan

    Don’t know what your statement means but I’ve talked to all sorts of people across the political spectrum. I’ve talked to Conservatives who made light of American Slavery and justified Pinochet & some fringe Marxist-Leninists who still praise Stalin. I think these people’s views are crazy, but they’re not at all stupid. They have their knowledge of historical facts & statistics and think about things, and if you don’t learn as much as you can on your own and challenge everything, you would definitely lose in a debate with these people.

    Like

  26. Hi Bunsen and saphsin,

    If a radically different far-left way of organising the economy were to come into being, the best way of doing it — starting from, say, something like today’s Britain — would be a twin track of: (1) populaces tending to vote for the further-left option, leading to a gradual drift left (but in the UK, at least, the populace picks the centre-right option as often as the centre-left), and (2) worker cooperatives getting established, and then expanding and proliferating.
    I’m unconvinced by the arguments for why this can’t happen.

    Because worker cooperatives are worker owned, they have to be democratically managed, and that takes popular organizing in specific regional locations.

    So? Then organise it!

    worker cooperatives […] can’t compete with corporations who are able to utilize every exploitative method to accumulate capital.

    In the UK today, given minimum-wage legislation and worker protection, it’s now hard to “exploit” workers that much.

    … there are these pesky things called laws that would get in the way.

    Which laws specifically? (Note that the UK does have some worker cooperatives.)

    I recall a notable example in Britain of a coal mine that the owners wanted to close as un-economic. The employees disagreed, so they took it over as a worker cooperative, and ran in on the sort of principles you’re advocating. They were pretty successful, selling the coal at a profit and then expanding and taking on more people. Ten years down the line, two things had happened: First, the mechanism of mass meetings for all significant decisions had proven too cumbersome and produced incoherent decisions. Executive power had been delegated to a smaller group of managers. Second, the people who had worked there for multiple years resented the idea that newly-taken-on workers would have the same status and rights as them (and the same dividends from profits). They wanted “ownership”. Thus, what had been an enterprise owned by all the workers equally, had changed to one were the long-standing workers became shareholders with ownership rights, shares that could be bought and sold. Essentially the enterprise had voluntarily morphed into one that was pretty much the same as most other companies, though with most of the shares being owned by the workers (where mass employee share ownership is regarded as a good in many centrist and right-wing ideologies also; it was pushed a lot by Thatcher).

    Like

  27. Political models do express a combination of physical realities and humanity’s views on them. We can’t change the physics, but occasionally we can change our views on the nature of this reality. That does percolate through to the politics.

    Liked by 1 person

%d bloggers like this: