I finished reading The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man by Karl Jaspers yesterday. It took a while, as my currently rather busy lifestyle finds me without the same amount of time per day of pleasure reading that I used to have. Still, it let me savour this strange artifact of another era.
I mean it seriously when I say that Jaspers’ book, originally published in 1958, is a creature from an alien time. So many of the presumptions that animated the details of Jaspers’ conceptual investigation no longer apply. For one, the post-colonial movement, which was still in the process of liberating African states from European possession as he was writing, has flowered into a thousand different strains of economic co-optation, political interference, and internecine war.
|When Jaspers wrote, it was a popular opinion that the|
human race would be destroyed in a nuclear war within
a single generation. That itself is quite foreign to a
contemporary ear, to say the least.
Let alone the economic colonialism now perpetrated by Chinese state-owned corporations building their own mines throughout the continent. Jaspers’ invocation to let the newly independent peoples of the world find their own paths have gone unheeded. His own analysis of the end of imperialism was quite accurate about the harms colonial institutions had done to Africa and Asia, but didn’t seem adequate to the challenge of the incredible economic inequities that remained between the exploited and former direct exploiters.
Jaspers’ analyses of politics we can now see to be sadly inadequate. He discussed the politics of the nuclear era in terms only of states and polities. His slipping from direct relevance here can’t be said to be his fault. The politics of his own times were still dominated by the importance of states, and it was difficult to conceive of how agitation against the state per se could be progressive, given the era of the welfare state and the military-industrial complex.*
* For a writer in 1958 whose life had been dominated by the rise of nationalist barbarism that created a totalitarian firestorm, I can definitely understand why the relation of a free and rational citizenry to their state would be the primary political consideration. Anarchism as a serious political movement had disappeared, its last serious advocates never surviving the Spanish Civil War. Its ideas wouldn’t return until the abortive revolutions of popular discontent in 1968, and remain on the margins of political life.
The globalized economy of the era of the internet and unfettered capital have blown the presumptions of decades of political thinking into uncertainty, and we’re still as a society trying to grip the realities of the liberating and enslaving effects of a networked world.** However, the centre-less communication and community-building possibilities of network politics give a central concept of Jaspers’ analysis here more serious breathing room than it did in the days when all political thinking languished in the inevitability of the state in every argument.
** Understanding the decentralized nature of network politics opens one’s mind, however, to a return to central anarchist concepts. The context is new, of course, but the basic message that there can be more to political organization than the state remains the same.
The last chapter of Jaspers’ book expresses the high idealism that philosophy can change the world. It does so when the profundity and rigour of philosophical thinking brims forth and is expressed in every person. One at a time, thinking according to the ethical path of reason results in a world where the spontaneous action of countless individuals acting on their own in communication with each other articulates fear of universal destruction in nuclear bombardment as the resolve of a global peace movement that organizes all people to help each other in a spirit of human friendship.
It sounds so saccharine, doesn’t it? Yet this is the central faith of the philosophical tradition, even as we saw all the countries of the world fall away from this ideal. Our politics are now dominated by hysterical fear and bullying nationalism. Name whatever example you want: a Russian leadership on the path to restore Czarism destabilizes and threatens its neighbours, the media of an industrial country with advanced state medical infrastructure soars into panic over ebola, a whole region from Libya to Iraq and Turkey collapses into a fractally sectarian civil war. Jaspers’ ideals have failed.
|The global environmental movement is a giant advocacy|
campaign for mass lifestyle change, and proceeds one
person at a time.
Yet the ideal that individual-scale activity can change the world one person at a time is absolutely necessary to any political activity that seeks genuine change. That’s precisely what a social movement is: individuals communicating to discover their common frustrations and reaching, in their aggregate and collective actions, the critical mass necessary at least for the political mainstream to notice them. The size of a movement in society that transforms us all, at least indirectly through the echoes of their ideals and their rage.
This assessment of the power of philosophy to change the world is at the centre of my own work, especially my Ecophilosophy manuscript. It’s a philosophical analysis that stretches across source material from environmental activism and moral thinking, scientific principles from ecology, systems theoretical biology, and ethology, as well as a meta-philosophical argument of how philosophical reasoning functions in psychology and social movements.
That’s a mouthful, but its ultimate point is that philosophical reasoning in its various forms can change people’s minds about how they live. The changing character and priorities of their lives can constitute a social movement that changes the consumption and production patterns of the world, I hope along more ecologically mindful lines. While the precise character of our global conflicts have changed, in this, Jaspers still has much to say. Philosophy can change how we think, and thereby how we live. When enough people transform how they live, they have changed the world.