Monday, May 16, 2011

Paving an Interstate on the Moral High Ground

Lev Lafayette reminded me of something easy to forget:

On one level such attitudes are the result of an apparent inability to consider life from the perspective of a person living in such countries. For decades these countries have been ruled by absolute monarchs, dictatorships, or regimes with only a pretence of democracy, all of which have engaged in gross violations of basic human rights. -Lev Lafayette, How beautiful is freedom /
The same kind of alienation occurs throughout human activity every day. It variously manifests as the structural-procedural diminishing of general human interests to the end of efficiency, political maneuvering and one-sided interest-fulfillment, to things like the very structure of language meant to engineer - consciously or not - the refutation or dilution of interests competing with one's own.

The Eyes Are Not Here
At the same time, a lot of this is enabled or even generated by the psychological barrier mentioned above - the failure (if not necessarily inability) to recognize and respect humanness in each other. The effect is to dampen the ability of synchronous human activity in any synergy of human interests. The inward-looking, associated society is transformed into an outward-looking society of competing interests.

Characters like Howard Beale in Network and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now are case studies in this kind of handicap. While Beale is the target of a capitalization of human life, made a spectacle-in-death in order to accrue ratings, Kurtz is the quintessential Hollow Man, so single-minded that ethical/moral respect for human life is crowded out.

Between the Idea and the Reality

In every economic structure, the production and dispensation of value always carries with it an ethical/moral model which is primarily determined post hoc: that is, material conditions determine the actions of human beings, who in turn shape their moral doctrine and ethical principles around these actions. It is easy to forget (as this conversation at Naked Capitalism attests to) just how expansive these material conditions are: ideas, where they manifest in a socially accepted narrative, are just as material as net labor, capital, investment and demand rates.

When I was in high school, I distinctly recall a student teacher in English class describing his sense of the essence of socipathy to the class. He felt that it meant that a person determined their morality after, and as a response to their actions. I simply said, "we are all sociopaths, then."

How bizarre it is that people actually think that we are not primarily driven by our conditions. As they say, "nothing comes from nothing." We experience this every day: the choices we make are like streets negotiating human social arrangements; the more viable ones become beaten down, easy and all-too seductive for those insufficiently self-respecting to stray from the grain, or too tired to try to fight it any more. And those that do forge their own path are chained to the yoke of material reality: don't expect to find a rational framework of human activity that is totally divorced from empiricism.

And the Act

What we can do, then, to resolve the deficit of human respect, must be a restructuring of human society to engender these values. I contend that this is everywhere a re-assertion of the decentralized mode of human society. This mode is natural and historical, but no new productive society can look backwards in this way. Rather, a new form of social arrangement, born of contemporary or future conditions, is the only valid resolution.

In the academic world, decentralization could look like an egalitarian class-structure with intimate inter-student relations and idea-sharing. The Socratic method and intensive student input would be well-suited to this model. Indeed, this is in stark contrast to the extant philosophy, epitomized here by Woodrow Wilson:
"We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."
William Tory Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906:
"Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual."
And Vladimir Lenin, perhaps with a different intent:
"Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted."

A Communist Conspiracy

The same repression occurs in the workplace, and the same transformation to a collectivist-respective model will inevitably occur there if education is decentralized. Finance as a valuable form of free-market capitalism is increasingly anachronistic. Developed nations with low levels of international capital mobility are increasingly stable and invaluable to their citizens. Environmental, infrastructure and consumer standards are far superior wherever the rate of worker:corporate power is greater. The fact is that this kind of arrangement is directly proportional to the rate of socialism or worker management, of economic conditions.

As most are aware, it was Marx that famously remarked that a specter is haunting Europe: the specter of communism. Call it what you will, but the popularization of economic power is the only proper method of decentralization, the only way of balancing the effect of disparate human interests, and the only way to truly "view each other as humans." Worker collectives are the only expression of such an ideal: they free the economy from the dead-weight of proprietary ownership and selfish use of capital; they endow the worker with the full benefit of his or her labor.

This is undoubtedly what the communist ideal has been. The same is true for some of its harshest detractors: for all of the wrong turns that people like Isaiah Berlin, V. Lenin and even L. Mises, it's hard to really argue that inter-personal respect was not a critical fundament to their respective ideologies. What sets these ideas apart from each other, however, is the rate of respect for material conditions, reality, and the human interaction with them. One who dogmatically proclaims the viability of anarchistic human activity in a free market (even recognizing the problems of limited knowledge in a market) will end up lagging far behind those who can critically assess the intricacies of human relations and the transfer of value and between people.

Indeed, the recognition of these dynamics of power/value transfer are little more than another kind of the above inter-personal respect. Reorganizing society to alleviate disparities therein is simply the enactment of that respect.

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