Archive for the 'marxism' Category


Cargo Cults

My dad mentioned to me the other day that he had read an article that had used the phrase “cargo cult” metaphorically, so he looked up and then after he told me about it, I looked it up too.

The short summary is really fascinating and should really be kept in mind by anyone who thinks about the nature of religions, society at large, the history of scientific explanation, and also consumer societies.

During WWII, the U.S. and Japan had to fly a lot of materiel to remote locations in the Pacific. It was very common for these two powers to have to set up a base of operations on these islands by building runways and then flying in jeeps, metal, and other machines. The cultures that were already existent on those island then interpreted these results, quite literally, as manna from heaven. They could not see the factories that built the planes and tanks and other machines and so saw them as just dropping out of the sky.

So, cults of worship grew up around appeasing the gods and trying to get them to drop more cargo (wikipedia says it well, as always). These cults involved the priests and religious figures building runways and worshipping by running around with guns at the ready (like soldiers) as well as wearing headphones (like aircraft communications officers). These groups never came to internalize the explanation that the planes were pieces of technology and that other technology exists elsewhere that made them.

In terms of religion, what separates from religions from cults (cargo or otherwise). Cargo cults show that religious practices are deep-seated human activities, but that they can be misguided and may not have a connection with the truth. Now, major religions may be true (not taking a stand on that), but if some of them turn out not to be, would they still, by virtue of their rich practices and historical influence, be anything other than cults? I tried to think of some answers, and one was that maybe true religions occupy themselves with the proper conduct of human beings vis a vis others that take other human beings as basically valuable, whereas cults do not. Suicide cults for example take human conduct to be important, only instrumentally, as a way to attract aliens or to get to another plane of existence (I don’t think that organized religions do the latter, but they could be accused of that if you’re cynical). Cargo cults take action to be important only insofar as it helps you GET THE CARGO. Christianity on the other hand, whatever else you want to say about it, does concern how one should act on the assumption that it matters, in itself, what kind of life you live. I have no idea if this categorization is sustainable, but I throw it out.

In terms of society, I think remote societies, far from our urban, individualistic, technological world, are fascinating insights into the basic building blocks of society writ large. Here’s an analogy. Cognitive psychologists have learned a lot about perception and brain processing from optical illusions. We learn about regular vision from looking at ways it can go haywire. The same thing goes for societies. However, be aware, I don’t think that, by and large, traditional societies are “haywire” societies, or that they are defective as societies. I do think though that it’s very hard to analyze “society” at large without becoming intimately familiar with societies that challenge the assumptions that one’s own society take for granted. For example, the west takes science for granted (or does it/ It’s actually very interesting to think about the ways in which science is ridiculed, sidelined or misunderstood) and so the idea that these peoples would or could not entertain the idea that planes transport things that were MADE elsewhere.

In terms of consumer societies, Marx thought that capitalism obscured the true source of all production: human labor. Goods appear almost as found objects, or as Manna from heaven, when in fact there is an elaborate social web of production and relations of control among various people. In that way, capitalism, according to Marx, is a gigantic cargo cult. However, other philosophers have thought that in fact Communism is a cargo cult, in that the USSR tried to imitate the prosperity of the U.S. by imitating things that are just the surface of the capitalist cornucopia. For example, the USSR tried to make a lot of steel, thinking that because the U.S. made a lot of steel, steel was key to prosperity. When in reality, it was the innovation behind the capitalistic system.

In terms of the way that science evolved, it’s also very interesting, because it shows how much human beings had to FIGHT to make science a reality. Why not just believe that fire is it’s own thing rather than the result of burning fuel of various type. Science taught us to mistrust our instincts about explanations for things and in that way DEMYSTIFIED the world by ridding it of magic. The cargo cult is just a dramatic example of that. We can construct a simple explanation for things landing in foreign countries even though there are people who leap to the belief that such objects come out of NOWHERE.

Just shockingly interesting.


48 Hours

I just watched 48 hrs., one of the supposedly “best” movies of 1982. I think this movie is a must-watch for someone like me, since it originates the buddy-cop genre of movies, which I actually really like (though of course not for their artistic merit. I like them on a duller, more reptilian level). More importantly, and more universally, this movie has some great lessons about race relations in the U.S. around this time period.

It’s hard to pick out all the parts of this movie that make the point I want, but there are so many examples. Nick Nolte, the white cop who brings a black prisoner (Eddie Murphy) out of jail and they go try to catch a criminal in 48 hours (or something, I think everything takes at least 72 hours).

One fantastic and hard to grasp point that this movie illustrates is that things that seem natural, unproblematic and perfectly reasonable to us at a certain time and in a certain setting, can appear strange, unacceptable, and irrational to us at other moments.

It’s often sad and disturbing to me to see some people who cannot, as it were “step outside” the situation and see things from another direction. Of course, the blame is not on them necessarily. There is a skill to seeing the subtexts and absurdities of a situation. In manifests in humorous and witty people, but it can be trained by reading novels. People with vivid imaginations often have this skill as well. Watching 48 hours, will help train this skill.

Here are some examples. First, when Nolte picks up Murphy, the analogies to slave ownership is unbelievable. He even says “I own you” as they walk out the door. Me comparing this to slavery is not my overactive imagination. Throughout the movie, Nolte asserts his authority in various way, controlling and heckling Murphy, and just generally being snide and mean without even being a badass about it. He calls Murphy a watermelon (and a nigger at another point), and there are other unbelievable striking themes. The two learn to “cooperate” after having a fistfight.

But even after that, there are moments in which the white superiority of Nolte is asserted and emphasized. Again, I can’t name them all, but there’s a scene in which Nolte tells Murphy that he can’t buy class.

Jack: Class isn’t something you buy. Look at you, you’ve got on a 500-dollar suit and you’re still a low-life.
Reggie: Yeah, but I look good.

The dialogue before that exchange might as well have been a confession of white anxiety about the growing wealth of black people in America. One can easily imagine Nolte saying to Murphy “you’re still BLACK’ the message being that money will never be able to buy black people the acceptance they deserve. Interestingly, this is the insight of some black philosophers who point out that Marxism is flawed for the exact reason that it reduces all conflict to economic conflict when in fact racial conflict is heavily involved in repressing marginalized groups of people.

Other themes are played out, such as white anxiety about black sexuality, and in the end, of course, white cop Nolte, saves black criminal Murphy.

Through it all though, there ARE moment of genuine friendship between the two, and even moments of forward thinking on race. Eddie Murphy destroys a bar under the pretenses that he is a cop and he mocks a bunch of white “rednecks” and hillbillies (interesting how moving away from racism requires deploying another stereotype about southern life  that I think is injurious, though obviously less so than racism). He revels in his position as a black person (man?) with complete power while Nolte looks on and condones his power trip. Is this a symbol of a subtle accommodation, that maybe white America was ready to let blacks be in charge, or is just a kind of fake moment of emancipation when the white power structure lets blacks merely PRETEND to be in charge?

It’s not clear, but this movie is followed up by MANY other such movies, and the permutations are endlessly fascinating. First take Beverly Hills Cop. The movie is much less racist and the friendship that develops between Rosewood, Taggart, and Murphy seems quite genuine. More importantly, it is initiated and LED by the black man (the opposite is true with Nolte). Did the 80s result in real racial progress; racial progress that was mirrored in cop movies?

The trend even continues further into the future. In Lethal Weapon, the black/white cop duo concept is taken even further and played with in various ways. STILL FURTHER, there is the RUSH HOUR series in which black and ASIAN are paired for laughs, cultural miscues, and faux racial redemption. What does this tell us about our racial world and what will future movies be able to tell us? I hope I made the point that they might say a lot.


Masters of the Universe

I started classes today, and so things might get more philosophical around here.

Today I didn’t think I had time to post anything, but then I got in the shower and thought about some ideas that I thought would be worth putting down, if I could do it quickly and then get back to work.

This is another post about academia, but more generally about society and respect (warning: these are generalizations of course, but I mean for this post to be a kind of social/psychological diagnosis, and so I can work with statistical regularity or cultural salience). Most people in academia, and in fact professionals happen to be a pretty arrogant group, and the reason comes partly from their smartness, which allows people to take a very wide view of the type of work they do, and so inflate their value. Take philosophers, who have almost no obvious value to society. We don’t make things or help people, but sometimes we come up with some interesting ideas. And in fact, philosophers do make a difference, slowly and surely, and oftentimes very indirectly. But since philosophers are smart, they can follow these attenuated and indirect connections to their conclusion, and so end up seeing themselves in an undeserved heroic light. The philosopher sees himself as the arbiter of thought; he decides which thoughts are worth thinking or are acceptable to be thought. This becomes very annoying, and the worthlessness of this stance becomes especially clear when the philosopher comes up against a person of “action.” Revolutionaries, military heroes, and humanitarians might fall into this category. When the philosophers sneers that there is “no justification” for the course someone is pursuing, they are trying to limit and control conduct by deciding what should count as true thought. (get a philosopher started on what they think is “rational” and you’ll see what I mean real quick).

Nietzsche makes this point well when he labels some philosophers as operating from ressentiment. These philosophers are afraid of action and choice and so retreat to an ideology of thought. For example, Hannah Arendt talks about the VITA CONTEMPLATIVA or the “contemplative life” as the ideal of some early Greek philosophers. She contrasts this with the VITA ACTIVA, which is the life of action.

Ok, so now I’ve skewered philosophers, but see how this same sort of ideological perversion is endemic to academia, and some professional careers. Think of the English major who carries the burden of being stereotyped as a snob. This type of person (not all, or probably even English Ph.D.s are like this, but the stereotype is culturally salient) sees themselves not as the enforcer of what counts as good thought, but what counts as culture. They are the guardian of high culture as against the masses who watch movies like Beverly Hills Cop I, II, and III (not pointing any fingers). Scientists are the guardians of technical knowledge, and the know-it-all attitude follows closely behind. The endless corrections about this and that constant.

But just as the philosopher can try to enforce the life of contemplation even when the life of activity is staring us in the face, so can other disciplines make the same mistake. The scientist makes the a-bomb because he wants to KNOW “if it can be done,” while everyone else wonders why we don’t just say “who cares if we never know.” The doctor says “you’re being unhealthy” and the soldier says “I’m not concerned with health.” He leaves the realm of health behind. The economist says “you’re wasting money” and the poet says “I’m in love.”

What I’m trying to say is that ideologies of dominance grow up around a profession and people begin to believe that they are somehow the embodiment of the most special value available to humans, life (doctors), death (soldiers), rationality (philosophers), knowledge (scientists), justice (lawyers).

Rather than close with a boring platitude about how we should all just get along (which we should), I want to move in a different direction, and say why I greatly admire the common man, for example, the carpenter who is always renovating the house next to mine. These people either don’t entertain, or have the basis for, such grandiose thoughts. The person who paves the roads I drive or fixes my shower, is contributing to society in pervasive and influential way, but the ideology of the working person is, as many have deridingly noted, humble and “down to earth.” There is no greater purpose or animating value that has to be puffed up with rhetoric or ideology. There is only a task and the will to achieve it.

Now of course, there is a real risk of romanticizing the working class, and I am particularly prone to that tendency having not been exposed to that life. And course, its a hard life, and it might be coercive and oppressive in a variety of ways. It also might suffer from a lack of intellectual exposure. There’s no need to sanitize the effects of pervasive ignorance on many issues. Still though, there is coercion in all forms of life, and while we work to alleviate it, we can understand why two workers carrying cement in the hot sun are nonetheless talking excitedly to each other and smiling to boot.

Marx tried to provide the worker with his transcendental purpose, so that he could be like the lawyer, doctor and philosopher. So that he could be an equal. On Marx’s theory, only the simple working man could bring a revaluation of society that would release the true spirit of human beings and repair our fractured souls. But here again we see the old tendency of IDEOLOGY; to invent a way to be better than everyone else secretly. Marx was tired of all the values that the upper classes kept babbling about and flipped everything so that in fact, those values were just masks for oppression: only the worker held the key to salvation.

But if I’m right in this post, we can see that this is just the same old trick; that of inflating the values of one sphere of life at the expense of others. Marx didn’t hide this: there wasn’t much for professional to do after the takeover; they might even have to be killed (as they were in many places). I would like to say to the marxist, perhaps even the unrepentant capitalist is engaged in a certain type of valuable pursuit? Would that be so hard to admit?

Anyway, I’m not sure if what I’m saying is that values are “incommensurable” so much as I’m saying that they are finite. No value can be stretched to cover the whole of human life, and so my going philosophy is that of the traveler who tries to experience every foreign land to learn its charm, and then, maybe, return happily to his homeland, where he lives out his days in peace.


Capitalism, Radical Change, and Charity

I haven’t though carefully about the revolution against capitalism in a long time, but some very inquisitive friends of mine have provoked me to reconsider the issue again by sending me this video with Slavoj Zizek discussing the impulse to corporate charity or social responsibility. I think there’s a ton to say.

There are a lot of subtle points in this video, including a very timely observation about the commodification of helping people. We can buy coffee, tvs, and now, we can buy a feeling of good-will after we purchase fair trade coffee or shop at charitable boutiques. We buy our altruism pre-packaged as it were, and this worries people who think capitalism has a generally degenerative effect on human life.

There are more specific arguments, and one which is a constant theme in Zizek’s work, is that some things buy off resistance to capitalism as a system. If we can give charitably within capitalism, then we don’t feel so guilty about capitalism and we won’t have cause to sweep it away. Another example is environmental regulations. If we keep putting piecemeal reforms in place, we will never have to confront the fundamentally exploitative relationship we have with nature.

The problem I think with these types of arguments is that they are very nebulous. For example, Zizek says all these comments that sound pretty negative about charity but then says some words to the effect of “but of course I’m not opposed to charity, its terrible for people to suffer when it could be alleviated, I just think it’s important to keep in mind that when we engage in socially responsible consumerism, we are using the system that excluded these people in the first place to help them.” But what does “keep in mind” mean. Should we just be aware of it? Or should those thoughts effect our actions, and if yes, then what should the actions be? An answer will turn on the specifics of capitalism.

Anyway, I get kind of rankled by the vague utopianism proposed by many far left thinkers, especially Zizek.

First, Zizek talks about how commodified charity makes us less resistant to capitalism, because it makes capitalistic exploitation look friendlier. But the reverse can be said as well: opposition to capitalism as a system makes us more resistant to reforms of capitalism that benefit average people (even though Zizek says he’s of course “not opposed to charity.”) Many utopian leftists continually poo poo marginal changes because they quote “entrench the system.” Then it is supposed to be a contradiction or somehow illegitimate to believe that socially responsible capitalism can be the antidote to brutal industrial capitalism (or whatever), since they are both forms of capitalism.

But this is just a straight logical fallacy. There are many situations where adding more of the same factor that created a problem, actually removes the problem. Here’s a classic example. Adding a few UN peacekeepers to an unstable country may (in fact usually does) cause more instability because there is now a new faction and both sides can hide behind peacekeepers or blame them to increase outrage in their own faction. However, the fact that some UN troops caused problems does not show that adding A LOT MORE troops would be even worse. Sometimes all that’s needed is enough troops. The surge might be an example of this. Some troops = insurgent militias. Even more troops = largely calm Iraq (I hate using mathematical symbols in posts, sorry about that). So, because industrial capitalism is bad doesn’t mean that adding more capitalism in the form of commodifying more things (like altruism) will make things worse. In fact, it seems that as capitalism has expanded, the world has become calmer and more prosperous.

Also, I want to make two more broad points. First, we can make capitalism look better by merely making it LOOK better or by actually making it better (which in turn makes it look better) just like we can make a crappy car look better by just changing the paint or by adding better tires (which actually makes it better). Zizek seems to think that socially responsible consumerism is MERELY a cosmetic change to capitalism, but I think that’s just false. It’s true, charity makes capitalism looks better, but only because it actually DOES make capitalism better (as new tires make a beat-up car look better), and so we should favor it. Zizek may be right that we buy fair trade starbucks out of guilt, but what’s wrong with that? It seems that this guilt is what has been driving a fairer, wealthier society for many decades now.

Now my last point is one about the “essence” of capitalism. Is capitalism itself, no matter what form it takes, bad? Or are only some types of capitalism bad? Zizek seems to think that since capitalism itself is bad, no amount of reforms (such as free trade starbucks) can redeem it. But I find this to be a pretty incredible claim. What is the essence of capitalism? I think the answer is free exchange, and in this boiled down form, what could be the problem? Pretend in the utopian future, where there is no property, you want help learning to sail, and I say I’ll help you if you teach me to fly a plane. Here a bargain is struck that makes both of us better off. Ta da, capitalism! And what if we make this a standing agreement every friday and then what if i make this bargain with even more people so that all I do is help people learn to sail (fair disclosure: I’m actually terrible at sailing) in return for things I want.  Now Zizek might be right that some types of capitalism are bad (say, crony capitalism, or wall street capitalism, or gilded age capitalism, or industrial capitalism, or whatever), but if the essence of capitalism is unobjectionable (free trade) then some number of reforms (to sand out the rough edges) + capitalism will be unobjectionable as well.

And what I mean is this: given that capitalism in its essence, is so common sensibly good (trade increases net benefits for all people) any desirable social or political arrangement will be, to some degree, capitalistic. Now, there is a BIG question about how capitalistic things should be, and me, being a boringly moderate liberal, think that the role of capitalism should be fairly circumscribed by democratic institutions, but that’s much different than saying capitalism PER SE must go.

Anyway, on net, I think Zizek uses somewhat elusive language to make things like socially responsible consumerism seem much more sinister than they are. If some people buy lattes to think they are doing good, then fine: after all, they are doing some good, though they are fooling themselves if they think all their moral responsibilities are taken care of. Psychologically, such smugness might mean that these people don’t give to famine relief or vote for redistributive policies, which would be bad, but I don’t think that it works that way. I think most people buy fair trade because they, like most other people, are being more and more struck by the need to help others and work for the benefit of all people.


Josh Harris and We Live in Public

I just watched a documentary called “we live in public,” about a 90s dotcom entrepreneur named Josh Harris and felt absolutely compelled to write a post about this as it relates to my interest in social networking.

The background here is fascinating. Apparently this guy Josh Harris founded some internet companies in the 90s and became a multimillionaire with a company called, which as far as I can tell, was the forerunner to youtube, but suffered due to lack of bandwith.

But more important than Harris’ business acumen and completely anti-social and crazy behavior was that he conceived a project that he called a social experiment in which roughly a hundred people lived in an orgiastic commune created beneath new york city in which every aspect of daily life is taped. This community, called “Quiet,” (like “Rapture” from Bioshock, except the opposite of Randian and rather more communist or something else I can’t even describe) is something I find endlessly fascinating on a variety of levels. First, the community was supposedly an art project but also part experiment. In this society, everything is free including constant and gluttonous supplies of food, drugs, and alcohol, as well as an underground GUN RANGE stocked with hundreds of guns ranging from pistols to some of the most dangerous and bizarre looking automatic weapons I’ve ever seen. People would just go down there and fire off tons of ammunition so that the floor would have to be swept to be cleaned of the bullet casings.

But the big point was that participants in this society were interrogated and quasi-tortured by ex CIA intelligence agents (hired for this purpose) and then given jump suits and a pod to live in with TVs that recorded them constantly as well as allowing them to tune in to other TVs in the underground world. The ideal, according to Harris was to experiment with a surveillance society as well as to make people into TV objects so that everyone was on TV all the time, watched by others, and capable of watching everyone else. Kind of like a chat roulette commune.

Unsurprisingly, the people who signed up for this experiment are probably, let’s say, not ordinary, and became more so as the experiment wore on. People spoke of having their souls stripped from them as Harris continued to manipulate things behind scenes with his CIA hirees (there’s a scene where an interrogator and his assistant regaled in quasi-nazi attire ask a woman abusively and mockingly about the details of her suicide attempt. She starts crying as a result). There was also an extremely cultish looking temple that was built at one point as well.

Symbolically, all hell breaks lose on the night of Y2K and you get the impression that this commune was on the verge of total anarchy as you see Harris watching as a man seemingly forcibly(?) has sex with a woman in a public shower in front of hundreds of other people. The police come soon after (the first morning of the new millenium) and shut the whole thing down as complete chaos erupts. You can only imagine the  faces of the NYC police when they found hundreds of guns organized in an armory along with the “church” of this “art project.” Words cannot convey how shocking and interesting this documentary is.

What are the lessons? Well, it’s hard to tell exactly. At some points this commune seems to be an indictment of a certain kind of obsessively artistic mindset, which as some people interviewed remarked, was a kind of aesthetic fascism. Other times, one gets the impression that this was simply a large group of mentally ill people being manipulated by one extremely smart but also mentally ill person. Other times one thinks that this was a fantasy world of a man that confesses to being raised completely by TV. One imagines that this was his ideal television world. Lastly, one thinks that “quiet” was kind of a dystopian warning trying to convince us to rethink our relationship to technology. Presciently, Harris’s predictions have largely come true with the advent of social media – we are approaching the limit case of sociality on the internet in which everyone desperately attempts to share every aspect of their lives and becomes a slave to the eyeballs that check in on them during every second of everyday.

My own take, given my somewhat conservative mindset, is that “quiet” is just what it purports to be: a kind of hipster aesthetic obsession taken to it’s extreme in which slavery and chaos rather than liberation is the end result. I think aesthetics plays a valuable role in our lives, and I think that I’m progressive enough to understand the importance of breaking taboos and pushing the envelope for the goal of new experiences and new molds of human conduct. This project however seems to be the end point of a kind of totalitarian and melodramatic preoccupation with making everything into art. The result is just bullying and the collapse of human self-worth. Art, if it is to be special, cannot be everything. There must be the everyday and the quotidian for their to be the sublime.

In any case, this is must watch documentary, since I cannot do it justice with this brief description.


self defeat

I was having a talk/argument with my roommate, and we were discussing human history. This is a broad topic, and there’s not too much to say that’s really true about it since its so varied. There are, however, different lenses to view human history, and all of them provide insights. Hegelians and Marxists believe that the world is moving in a single direction toward some ultimate goal. Other ideologies believe the world is working toward Armageddon, collapse, or chaos. Some think that the fortunes of human human life oscillate or drift and that there is no real direction, only aimlessness.

As I said, all of these views hold some truth to them, and another way, which I think is interesting, is to think of human life as an exercise in self defeat. Not total or outright self defeat, but subtly sabotage. On a small scale, we see how human beings can be self defeating in a variety of ways. We want what we can’t have, or we give up on wanting something when we find out we can’t have it, or we want something and then once we get it, we want the opposite (the grass is always greener…somewhere else). We pursue one goal only to find out that it didn’t lead where we thought and in fact sealed off other possibilities. On a grander scale, we see human innovation and the wonder of creativity containing the seeds of its antithesis or opposite (now I sound kind of Hegelian huh?). Some examples: the peace of WWI guaranteed the advent of WWII. The fall of the roman empire, and the consistent tendency I see in modern political life to take a good idea and run with it until it dies or runs out of its magic.

Take liberalism. Originally, it seemed like a great idea. It helped to topple monarchies and to usher in democracies, rights, a private sphere for the individual and a vast array of improvements. But it might be time to wonder if liberalism is dying. Democracy has morphed into the mass society, and rather than a spirited antagonist to monarchy, it is now a half-ignored process that runs our country on auto-pilot. Liberalism has won its ultimate triumph in the form of a corrupted culture and the deification of arbitrary choice. We choose our friends and choose our news, and in the process lose out on both, which require a resistant world for us to engage with all our powers.

Now I don’t want to join the alarmist rhetoric of some political camps. There has been real progress, and I don’t think liberalism has exhausted its ability to provide insights, but the day is coming when it, like the Roman Empire, and yes, even the American empire, will pass away. What will replace it? What new idea will bring fire to the eyes of people and inspire the next round of revolution and change? Whatever the idea turns out to be, its revolutionary power will reign supreme for a time, and then, slowly, like all ideas, its presuppositions and self-defeating assumptions will catch up to it, and decay will set in again. We will have defeated ourselves again. Two steps forward, one step back.


analytic and continental philosophy

There is a big divide in philosophy that roughly maps, geographically, on to the large body of water known as that Atlantic Ocean. Europeans focus on very different questions than British and American philosophers, and the methodologies of the two schools is different as well.

Continental philosophers focus on politics, but also make more frequent use of sociology, aesthetics, and Marxism. Analytic philosophers are, in a word, more boring. They write in a kind of mechanical and scientific style, and are more likely to have Nozick and Rawls than Adorno and Horkheimer.

Now this is just rough stereotyping on my part, but here is a startling fact that gets the difference between these philosophical traditions across in an easily digestible anecdote:

Almost none of the writing in the analytic tradition after 1945 mentions WWII or the Holocaust. By contrast, almost every continental philosopher takes WWII as a significant challenge to philosophizing.