Original Inequality IV: Gotham's Greed, Research Time, 07/03/2017

Continued from previous . . . So what I want to do with these looks back through the classics of political philosophy is build my conceptual toolbox to analyze contemporary political issues and the role utopian thinking can play in the 21st century.

It’s also about writing a book that explicitly contributes to a particular tradition within the whole history of Western philosophy.* That tradition is a democratic materialism or radical democracy. It starts with Niccolo Machiavelli’s civic republican thought.

* Western philosophy = A particular tradition of developing concepts to understand and analyze the universe, which began in the Greek network of city-states and Mediterranean colonies, spread through the Roman, then Arab empires, blending with Christian theology, diversifying and fragmenting through the development of modern science, nestling in the university sector by the 19th century.

Foucault himself doesn't play a big role in this post. I just like using this
image of him, for obvious reasons.
From there, it gets its metaphysical content from Benedict Spinoza’s work,** blooms again in Karl Marx’s empiricism of ideology, disappeared as marxism was warped by totalitarian Stalinist influence, then surging once more in the new radical democratic thinking of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Bifo, and Antonio Negri.

** Why isn’t Thomas Hobbes part of this tradition? Well, he may be an imperialist, but he’s no democrat.

At our current crisis point for the West – both for philosophy as a discipline*** and our broader political culture – we need radical gestures of peace and diversity. A refusal to give in to nationalism or pressure for conformity of any kind.

*** The disciplinary crisis of philosophy being encased entirely in a university institution, and that institution’s increasingly powerful disincentives from producing any work that could ever be considered primary material – only commentaries and esoteric or technical debates.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I now know Rousseau’s thought fits snugly and dementedly into that tradition of democratic materialism. Any philosopher worth reading is, after all, at least a little demented.

Here’s another example of Rousseau’s thoroughly materialist approach to political thinking. He considers the roots of greed. Writing in 1755 Switzerland, I feel safe assuming that the popular culture of Europe considered human greed rooted in our soul.

Original sin is, in a Christian community, the foundational principle of human corruption. It’s a primal rupture in what should have been a harmonious relationship with God – a spiritual rupture.

Rousseau? The roots of greed lie in our social networks. Here’s the short version of his argument, which is pretty efficient as it is in The Origin of Inequality.

As society becomes more complex, human needs grow more complex. So we can no longer be self-sufficient, and need to co-operate to live well. At a low level of complexity, we can get by with contingent deals and contracts. But as life gets more complicated, we need to build institutions to rely on.

These relationships of mutual reliance and need are the foundation of social solidarity, which is good, because it builds community in practical reciprocal benefits.

As well as the need for cooperation and investment, the size of a social
network is a factor in enabling greed and cheating. If you interact with
people casually, you won't have the same force of solidarity as with
your close friends and family. So you don't feel as bad about swindling
those casual acquaintances who mean little to nothing to you.
But all these cooperative plans and activities require us to accumulate beyond our immediate needs. We have to prepare to invest in long-term strategies for community and personal survival – to invest in cooperative ventures.

Our institutions need to collect taxes and user fees to continue supplying the goods and services they do. Our cooperative plans like charities, businesses, and deals of all kinds likewise need investments and resources to get started.

If we start to accumulate with regard to the future, inequality will start to appear in society. Accumulation is a set of skills, and some will be better or worse than others. Those skills are different depending on how you accumulate your wealth, but luck and talent will result in different rates of accumulation for different people.

You’ll end up with a society of rich and poor. Perhaps where people become so rich that they forget about the human need to rely on others for our well-being – able to buy and sell anyone, you can easily think real solidarity is a fiction. Perhaps where people become so poor than they’re consumed by resentment and depression – unable to build any beneficial relationships at all anymore.

An entirely material root for greed, resentment, hopelessness. A politics with no God and no spirit, only human short-sightedness and selfishness as the root of evil.

For the mid-1700s, and maybe even for the early 21st century, truly radical. . . . To be continued

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