The Ethics of Rebellion and Moderation: Values for Revolutionaries?

One of the ideas in yesterday’s post was the distinction between doing the sociology that supports political agitations towards socialism, and creating the ‘ideology’ (or perhaps, the ‘mythology’) that would preside over such a society, the values that it would understand itself in terms of.

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book – Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’ (subtitled ‘an essay on man in revolt’), and I think one of its major goals is, in a certain sense, to lay out what is essentially an ‘ideology’ in that sense – what I will call ‘the ideology of rebellion and moderation’. So I thought I’d devote a post to talking about it, because I like it.

A few words about what I mean by ‘ideology’. I don’t mean a set of detailed political principles or analyses, but something like an overall view of the world, of how to act, of what has value. In that sense, we might say, modern ideology contains such ideas as ‘freedom’, ‘progress’ and ‘reason’ – which can be appropriated and used in very different ways by different particular movements (though not in absolutely any way). Religions often provide similarly ‘ideological’ terms (‘faith’, ‘sin’), which are also very flexible in practice. Ideology in this sense is generally something that links together how people understand 1) their own personal lives and actions, 2) their society and its politics, and 3) the universe and human history as a whole. It’s probably closer to an ethical code than a theory of any kind. To a certain extent it will always be a tissue of obviousness, truisms, and cliches.

Critics of ideology might describe it as the lies that a society tells itself, and they’re right in that ideology is generally 1) not strictly true – though also not strictly false, nor strictly arbitrary, and 2) useful to established interests (because if it wasn’t, they’d get it changed). But on the other hand, it seems clear to me that it’s not something that can be dispensed with, and the ideology of a supposedly ‘non-ideological’, ‘scientific’ movement (turns disapproving eye on USSR) is liable to just be bad, veiled, ideology.

So – what is the ideology of rebellion and moderation? It says

-that the experience of rebellion, an ‘essential dimension of human nature’, is the best revelation of human dignity – of ‘that part of man that must always be defended’,

-that this dignity is something shared by all humans,

-that the fact that we share our rebellion, that we defy the same fate and the same order and the same unjust world, reminds us of our community with each other.

– and that to stay true to itself, this value that rebellion reveals must be understood as ‘moderation’.

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Materialism or Naturalism

It’s common for Marxists and others in the ‘class-struggle tradition’ often speak of themselves as ‘materialists’, talk about a ‘materialist worldview’ or ‘materialist philosophy’.

When pressed, what this turns out to mean is something like: there is only one world, subject to a single set of laws; human beings have evolved in this world according to that same set of laws, and there is no personal afterlife or an intelligent creator. In a phrase: ‘animal consciousness is a tautology.

Thing is, in philosophy, this position and worldview would be best described not by the term ‘materialism’ but by the term ‘naturalism’. The catchy slogan about ‘animal consciousness’ above, for instance, comes from Schopenhauer, a philosopher who is arguably naturalist but certainly not materialist.

‘Materialism’ adds the odd claim that the single basic type of stuff in the universe is something called ‘matter’, a claim which is either trivial (if matter is defined as ‘whatever exists’) or dogmatic and probably false (if matter is defined in some other way – as mathematical, as having mass, as not being conscious, etc). Maybe all of these commies are actually materialists in the stronger sense, but it would seem odd, especially since they are generlly keen to disparage metaphysics and abstract speculation, which is what the assertion of materialism proper would be.

Does this matter? Well, not very much. But I do think it’s unfortunate to have people in different arenas who, on this philosophical point, largely agree, using different, and potentially confusing, words.

Short-Circuiting the Revolution

As I understand it, the orthodox communist belief in proletarian revolution comes from three major claims:

1) The proletariat has the capacity to revolutionise society, due mainly to its central place in economic production, and to its concentration in cities and large businesses (in contrast to the isolation of peasants or small artisans);

2) The proletariat has the motivation to revolutionise society, because capitalism necessarily frustrates its interests and locks it in a class struggle that it is constantly losing;

3) If and when the proletariat revolutionises society, the result will be socialism – a society without systematic class oppression, because insofar as someone’s economic role is proletarian, it doesn’t imply a subordinate person of another class (in the way that a lord’s role implies serfs, etc).

It’s a nice collection of theses, but clearly something is missing, or needs to be said more fully, because the supposed conclusion hasn’t been reached yet. Of course, perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to have been so soon, but it’s still striking that our closeness to it seems by many standards to have substantially declined.

What interests me is the possibility that one of these three points may be in conflict with another – in particular, that the motive mentioned in point 2. may conflict with the end postulated in point 3.

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Modalities of Oppression, Part 3 – Beyond Marxism

I’ve written a couple of posts recently about my own attempts to comprehend (in very abstract terms) the relations among different forms of oppression, and how quite different sorts of processes form a single whole. I finished the second with some inconclusive comments about Marxism, which remains the paradigmatic reference point for a historical theory of how communism will triumph. I also posted recently about socialist feminism, liberal feminism, and radical feminism, though again somewhat inconclusively.

What I to do now is become fractionally more conclusive, by directly considering the key claims of ‘Marxism’ and offering the beginnings of a broader theory that would seek to expand it while remaining materialist, in particular in the direction of radical feminism as opposed to socialist feminism.

This will involve my own understanding of Marxism and of materialism; I’ve studied the subject a little, but many others have studied it more. Marxism is often caricatured (and also often affirmed without much in the way of argument) so bear this in mind.

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Three Modalities of Oppression, Part 2: history and prehistory

Yesterday I tried to draw together a lot of different sorts of oppression through distinguishing the oppression involved in enforcing identities (and repressing the abnormal and deviant), the oppression involved in those identities themselves (whereby some people are marked as by nature needing to be dominated, and others as by nature fit for domination), and the oppression involved in multiple people expressing the ‘dominator’ identity (and hence having to fight and grind each down).

What I’d like to try and do now in the follow-up is make this a bit more relevant to history and politics. That last post showed the three modalities in their conceptual or symbolic connections, as an abstracted process happening in human minds. What I want to do now is show them as a causal system of interactions in the real world. A great deal of abstraction is still involved in trying to be suitably general, of course.

So, to take the longest possible perspective, I’d note that many animal species show us behaviour-patterns that seem like the germs of human oppression.

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Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution

I’ve recently been reading some of the work of Eric Hobsbawm, focusing on the Industrial Revolution in Britain and its causes.

Now, there’s an idea which is widespread both among ardent defenders of capitalism and among many of its Marxist and Marxist-inspired critics, that the industrial revolution, and the worldwide technological transformation which it initiated, is intimately involved with capitalism – we have capitalism ‘to thank’ for it. Mostly this is presented as a good thing, and I would overall concur with that analysis, although the environmental consequences have not been brilliant.

What Hobsbawm argues, though, is that while the industrial revolution emerged along with the growth and strengthening of British capitalism, and while the two were certainly connected, capitalism was not actually a very ‘fertile’ ground for industrial revolution, because profit-oriented production tends to be actually quite conservative. He writes:

“It is often assumed that an economy of private enterprise has an automatic bias towards innovation, but this is not so. It has a bias only towards profit. It will revolutionise manufactures only if greater profits are to be made in this way than otherwise. But in pre-industrial societies this is hardly ever the case.

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Capitalist Philosophy of Mind, Part 2: Descartes and the Class Struggle

In my last post I ran through the history of Western philosophy of mind. Now I want to look at how the philosophical developments mirror the social developments over the same period.

Now for each position there are positive arguments and there are negative arguments, and typically they have all been argued by someone. But what’s interesting is how some arguments, but not others, are able to win widespread support.

For example, there is a certain argument that goes something like this: “science in general, in particular physics, is bound to look for explanations of every event that happens, and we have no reason not to expect it to find them eventually. Thus for every event a physical explanation will be found, hence all the world is physical in nature, and no facts about it are irreducible to physical facts.”

This argument has been made in one form or another at many points in history. But the acceptance it’s won has varied. Prior to the scientific revolution, doctrines of this sort (like Ancient Greek atomism) were fairly minor phenomena. At the time of Early Modern philosophy, i.e. in the middle of the rise of science, the argument was strong enough to make full-on ‘materialism’ (in the metaphysical sense) a fashionable doctrine among many people. But it didn’t win majority assent until the 20th (maybe 19th) centuries.

And at this late stage, up to the present day, the argument does not even need to be made: it is now common-sense, the natural assumption. Almost all work is done within a ‘physicalist’ framework – either as an enthusiastic endorsement or a cautious criticism.

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