Friday, February 21, 2014

Beliefs at Age 20 and Age 40

If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.
This famous saying is attributed to Winston Churchill (although it may predate him).
I saw this quoted recently on an online forum, in a discussion about changing one’s mind. I could only think of a few examples of major issues on which I have changed my mind. But there were a lot of examples in which I had come to appreciate the nuances of an argument and realized that my earlier position had been one-dimensional.
This realization inspired my version of the 20/40 aphorism:
At 20 I believed in simplistic answers and held firm convictions, at 40 I understood nuance and was more willing to listen to multiple sides of any position.
May need a little work to make it a snappy quote, but I like it. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Karl Marx is Back in Style

For the last few decades, and particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Karl Marx was out of fashion. You couldn’t mention him without people sneering at how out of touch you were. This was the era of triumphalism about capitalism’s victory over communism marked by the publication of The End of History.
I knew this was just temporary, because so much of the prejudice was based on a misunderstanding of what Marx had written. Now that we can’t seem to recover from the Great Recession, and more and more people are aware of increasing income inequality in the U.S., things are changing.
Robert Heilbroner, in his classic book on economics The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1953), writes that Marx’s analysis of capitalism was superb and accurately forecast many things that have since emerged but were not obvious in his day: “But for all its shortcomings—and it is far from infallible, as we shall see—the Marxist model of how capitalism worked was extraordinarily prophetic.”
Just recently I saw an online essay called Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx was Right. It’s a short article and worth the read.
Here’s a quick summary of five of Marx’s predictions that have come true:
1. Capitalism’s chaotic nature; illustrated by the regular cycles of boom and bust. 
2. Capitalism creates imaginary appetites to artificially inflate spending.  The article illustrates this with the iPhone—do we really need a new one every year? 
3. Globalization. Obvious. 
4. Monopoly—WalMart, Google, Microsoft, Amazon… 
5. Low wages mean big profits.
Heilbroner discussed Marx’s analysis of these issues, including the last point of the value of a laborer:
 [T]he laborer, like the capitalist, sells his product for exactly what it is worth—for its value. And its value, like the value of everything else that is sold, is the amount of labor that goes into it—in this case, the amount of labor it takes to ‘make’ labor-power. In other words, a laborer’s salable energies are worth the amount of socially necessary labor it takes to keep that laborer alive. [Economists Adam] Smith and [David] Ricardo would have agreed entirely: the true value of a workman is the wage he needs in order to exist. It is his subsistence wage.
In other words, capitalism’s measure of the correct wage to pay a worker is that which is just enough to keep him/her alive.
Heilbroner concludes:
In the end the figure who must be proven wrong is Marx the Economist, Marx the finicky scholar who laboriously sought to prove, through the welter of surface distractions, that the essence of capitalism is self-destruction. The answer to Marx lies not so much in pointing out the injustices of communism as in demonstrating that in a social atmosphere of which Marx never dreamed, capitalism can continue to evolve and to adapt its institutions to the never-satisfied demands of social justice.
We could add a sixth point to the list above: unsustainability. Capitalism needs constant growth in order to work; it is not a sustainable system. This is why Marx said it would self-destruct.
As just one example, how much evidence will need to accumulate that global climate change is happening before we question the right of capitalists to keep digging up more carbon-based fuel?  Marx predicted that the system of capitalism would self-destruct; it’s getting to the point where we need to start worrying whether it will take the human race with it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Helen Keller and Consciousness

Is language required for human consciousness, by which I mean self-awareness?
Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.
With these words Helen Keller began an essay in her book entitled The World I Live In (Essay 11: “Before the Soul Dawn”). She continues,
I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.
Ms. Keller describes that famous moment when she realized that the finger-movements in her hand meant “water” in this way:
That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song. Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought.
After reading this book of essays I got Ms. Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. Here she gives a more thorough account of that auspicious day. Ms. Sullivan, her teacher, had been with her for several weeks at this point, and taught her lots of words, but she had no comprehension that this was anything more than a game. One morning the two were spelling “doll” while holding an actual doll. Ms. Keller got exasperated and threw the doll on the floor, breaking it.
Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness.
The two went outside and ended up at the well-house where the profound moment happened; when the understanding that words have meanings swept through Ms. Keller’s consciousness. As they went back into the house,
I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow. 
I was very moved by this passage. The first experience Ms. Keller had after her breakthrough, other than the desire to learn as much as possible, was the complex human emotion of remorse. Somehow the use of language connected her in a profound way to the people and larger world around her. Is language the key to what makes us human?
I had never read these books before, and I recommend them to everyone as a way to gain a deeper appreciation of what it is to be human. The first impression you get is of the beautiful soul that inhabited the body of Helen Keller.
Second, you recognize that the human spirit can overcome all obstacles. What astounded me was her ability to visualize! She makes it clear that there is a physical world of vision, and a mental world of vision, and I bet that when you read her rhapsodies you’ll think as I did that the world of the mind is more beautiful and full than that of the physical. Through a lot of The World I Live In she is defensive about her ability to use words like “I see,” (clearly she was criticized for using such words), but reading her essays it is clear that she did see, and deeply.