Monday, January 10, 2005

Two Comments on Radical Politics

The first issue I'd like to discuss is the "human nature" issue. I hear this relatively facile argument from conservatives, liberals and leftists: "Human beings are naturally [acquisitive, power-hungry, hateful, polka-dotted with three arms, insert whatever], so your revolution won't work and will make something worse." I don't know where this comes from. It may come from otherwise well-motivated and smart school teachers who discuss Lord of the Flies and human nature and corruption and Jung, and thus make people think that "human nature" is an argument to be bandied about like a hockey stick. The problem with this is threefold.
First, it's totally misplaced in the conversation. The context is usually, "I agree with you that these things are wrong, but we can't do anything about it." Let's say that someone were to argue, "People have a natural instinct to kill. I agree with you that murder is wrong, but there's not much that we can do about human nature, because no matter what some people will kill. So we should employ government murderers to randomly kill people and pay them based on commission by how many heads they bring back in. Hell, if they torture them first, we'll put them on a fast track towards promotion!" I have an odd intuition that you'd assume they were insane, joking or arguing with you just for the sake of arguing. But the parallel argument here is viewed as sane and rational, and I fail to see why. When leftists say, "Shitty things happen under our system", they don't just mean that these things are coincidental, but rather that the system's very mechanics rewards or at least allows these things to occur. So to say "People want to dominate people" is totally irrelevant if we agree that that's not a good thing and we agree that the current system not only allows but encourages people who like to dominate other people, and in fact gives them titles like President or Secretary of State and names them Henry Kissinger. The irony is that the people who make this argument are rarely the people who resist laws against murder - they view those things as "No duhs". But yet, when I say over and over again, "Look, the point of this revolution is just like a law: We want to create incentives for people to behave in appropriate, moral, liberatory, egalitarian and solidaritous manners, and also create disincentives for them to behave like bastards.", it doesn't seem to get through. In fact, the people who have so much skepticism about human nature should be MORE intense than I am about revolution. After all, since I tend to think people are good and okay, I can believe that there are natural ameliorating effects against statism and capitalism that lie in the human psyche. But those who believe that human nature is truly atrocious have no such reprieve: They logically should believe that they must immediately foment a radical change before the systems that encourage bad people to become worse and good people to become bad blow us all up.

Second, this conversation is made confidently, but it's only ever rhetorical, as it can be. If you want to talk about "human nature", you have to talk about what is intrinsic to the human behavior and body. That requires, as we now know, discovering something in the human biology that would cause this to occur. Otherwise, by definition, it can't be human nature but something external to humanity that makes the problem. This would then be a science question. The problem is that the science here is laughably thin. Science can't even answer the three-body problem in physics; we know virtually nothing of use about neurobiology and intrinsic human behavior. Further, the few tests that have any validity show what we know from elementary biology: Human beings are social creatures who seem to natural band together because we don't have innate capacities to be one-woman hunting and survival forces. Now, one can see in human nature all sorts of terrible and all sorts of great things: Generosity, pacifism and love even at the cost of harm to oneself, death, war, rape, hate, greed, love, loyalty, compassion, whatever you want. What to me is a meaningful exercise is to ask, "What breeds Hitler? What breeds Gandhi? What can we do to make Gandhi appear and make Hitler disappear?" We further see that even over 10 years people's behavior in terms of fashion, political beliefs, etc. change, and that over longer stretches of time we see paradigm shifts in the way people behave: Homosexuality in Sparta is considered a way to bind together the military; here it is considered militarily divisive. That's diametrically opposite, yet nothing changed of any import in people's genes.


The other topic of discussion that I wanted to bring up is one that requires some critical thought and analysis. It's a discussion of rights and freedom and why people sometimes can't understand what other people are saying. To me, confusion is often caused between, say, libertarian capitalists and libertarian socialists about what decisions would be all right were they to be carried out under a certain institutional paradigm and what decisions would never be right for a polity to make.

There are first-order questions: what decisions is it okay for what we have now to make? I personally believe, in case it hasn't been made transparently obvious, that in the realms of culture, gender, politics and economics I see institutions that must be fundamentally opposed and completely eliminated. Libertarian capitalists are often willing to preserve a zombified servant nation-state, but I'd prefer to completely get rid of the damn thing and created federated anarchist political and economic structures to propel the values we hold dear (Parecon,, by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, and parpolity by Stephen Shalom to me are both viable visions that I toy with and modify some). So, even if I approve of a road or of a welfare program, I can see that civil libertarians are at least partially right in that these decisions are being made without the real type of consultation and voluntary involvement that they'd have to be made legitimate. If, for example, there was a road that only a minority wanted and yet it was put into place by a politican, I would find that a disgusting matter, even if I agreed with that road.

Then there are second-order questions, and this is where it gets sticky. Now we have a participatory society, with de jure and de facto participation in such a manner that people have the right to influence decisions insofar as they're impacted. Now is it okay for two wolves and a sheep to vote on whether or not to eat the sheep, or for a majority to vote for whatever they want? Clearly not. This can be derived from the influence principle too, however: The sheep is affected far more than the wolves by the decision; the minority is affected far more than the majority by the decision. So we also would have things that no polity, even one that is federated and incorporates as many people as possible, could make. That'd also mean that small communities, say, might get disproportionate voting power if they'd be disproportionately affected, and that a global body would make very few decisions (but there should be one, say, for global warming or ocean pollution or other necessarily global problems, though sometimes contentious decisions there would have to go back down to national or even smaller level councils for ratification and discussion).

And there is a third-order problem: Is it okay for the polity to do anything it can to prevent immoral behavior? I don't think so, and this is where I can see something wrong even with people I find tremendously courageous, people like Michael Moore. Michael Moore commented incredulously that Kucinich had said "I don't agree with abortion but I don't think the government should say anything." Mike was incredulous that someone could take this stand, something that makes me wonder if maybe leftists should try Not To Be Like Mike (the real tip-off came when Moore gave some support to Clark, the Butcher of Kosovo, by saying that we need a Butcher of Bush, and then by violating his own advice and throwing his voice in almost enthusiastically for Kerry, to the consternation of buddies like Greg Palast). Well, sorry, Mike, someone can believe that something is unethical and not ask for the state to do something about it. Wife-beating? Unethical, violation of the right to security, privacy and safety, there has to be a response by the community. A husband and wife arguing loudly and viciously, but without resorting to blows? Okay, unethical, shitty, makes people unhappy, but that is something that the polity is just not practically equipped to deal with. Were we to try, it would involve giving even a participatory polity some scary things: Cameras in private homes to monitor what people are doing and punishments for "bad behavior", as if people were school children.
Someone could consistently say, as I do, "Look, we shouldn't be so cavalier about moral issues behind abortion: There are serious rights conflicts, it deserves some thought, it's not just something we can legislate away and pretend to be okay. BUT I don't think that the state has any right to intervene and if it does it will only encourage worse outlaw abortions, so we may as well drive the problem into the open and have a serious discussion as a culture and as a society about what we're doing without bringing in police and laws." I'm trying to avoid sounding like Ayn Rand here, but I'd prefer to sound like her than say that it's okay for a polity to paternalistically watch everyone's morals, as if it's within someone's rights to create a monolithic moral system and impose it on everybody irrespective of context of situation. There's only so much the polity and the economy can reasonably and practically do. Does that mean that there shouldn't be some kind of discussion of these problems? Absolutely not. As a Buddhist, I can recognize that we have to have debates on spirituality and ethics if we hope to anchor and situate ourselves. It's just that these debates need to occur without people bringing in coercion and running to the apparatuses of political control. For example, from a strict rights perspective, someone has a right to euthanasia if they are in pain, because it is their life. Yet from an ethical, compassionate perspective, the problem is not so simple: We want to make sure that they are not responding out of desperation or panic, and we don't want their family members to grieve, and we want to find some way of curing them and hope we don't needlessly kill them. These dilemmas are, as Marx commented once, what it means to be truly human: To truly feel pain and try to act in a complex world and do one's best with an open, loving heart. Sometimes, we just have to be happy with what we've done and not second-guess, because the alternative is a life filled with shame, pain and doubt, and that does nobody any good.

These matters require some serious thought, and I think both libertarian socialists and libertarian capitalists are too quick to bust out the "They're idealogues" line and don't try to make clear delineations between what is made illegitimate by virtue of it being done by the state and what would be illegitimate irrespective of its actor.


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