A Society of Workaholics, Research Time, 30/09/2017

I’m never too quick to condemn capitalism. Two reasons why. One is because everybody’s doing it. We’re in a resurgence of anti-capitalist activism, equally critical of our destructive industrial practices and the financial policies that crush billions of lives.

For good reason, of course. There’s plenty about the drive to ever-more-intense industrial production that’s probably making Earth uninhabitable for us. Climate change, yes. But even beyond that, just consider the horrible effects that basic pollution has on our ecosystems.

The goal that most of us have in our lives is to spend our energies doing
something we love. That's the heart of so much career advice, even
though there aren't many folks who can do that. Even in the fortunate
industrialized West, too many people spend too much time having to do
something they don't want to do. This seems a source of social tension.
Do you know how much plastic you eat every day? Tens of thousands of microscopic plastic particles are eaten by fish and crustaceans every day. We eat those same plastic particles when we eat those fish.

We aren't just drowning in our shit – we eat it too. That’s the second reason why.

But if we can correct the mistakes and self-destruction of mass industrial capitalism, we shouldn’t abandon markets entirely. One obvious reason is because state-run industrial endeavours have rent scars in the Earth too. Consider the destruction of the Aral Sea to water massive cotton farms on the orders of the Soviet government.

Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition is a critique of the industrial society human civilization had become – among the many things it is. That’s one of the many philosophical ideas she finds in comparison with the life and morality of Polis-era Greece.

This political problem is a question – pretty simple in the ordinary way we encounter it. Do you work to live? Or do you live to work?

Consider how the economy of Polis Greece worked. Yes, there are plenty of material differences that make directly emulating it ridiculous – the drastically lower population, that it was almost entirely agrarian.

Forget that – philosophy is about understanding what concepts can guide new action for our new situations. Isolate a concept – See what actions and processes its framework of thinking can lay out. See how it changes your conceptions of what’s possible.

I grew up surrounded by values like these about your work. You should
always feel that your work is dignified, a source of honour, pride, and
pleasure too. Work should be something that, even when it may drain
your energy, you enjoy it, and it has benefits beyond your own
pleasure as well. We want to make a living in a calling or a
vocation, not merely a job. Watch Mike Judge's Office Space, and
you see how he valorizes manual labour as honourable work.
That's true. But consider public service like community
leadership, or even teaching.
So look at how their economy worked. The whole purpose was to produce enough that you could live off its surplus for the rest of your life. Put a lot of effort, labour, and work into your life and career at the beginning. Make a huge enough surplus that you can stop working for a while.

You can now afford to pay other people to labour for you – run the household, make food, do all the little tasks of staying alive that take so much time. That way, you can devote yourself to what you’ve always wanted to do, what you’ve been raised to aspire toward all your life.

Join the government.

Of course, Polis Greeks didn’t have a government like we do. There was no welfare state bureaucracy. There was the military, tax collectors and financiers, scribes recording the debates of their leaders.

Leaders would plan new construction in the city, represent their community to other cities, make decisions about how the city as a whole would handle its business. But Polis Greeks didn’t consider any of this business of leadership to be work. They wouldn’t expect to be paid.

The whole reason why they were able to become leaders is that they’d already built enough wealth to live on without having to build any more. Surplus was to be spent on supporting your public life as a community leader and statesman.

What kinds of personalities do our values today of workaholism and
unstoppable accumulation create? I don't think I'm comfortable
living in a society where our most powerful people are the ones
deranged enough to think it's perfectly good to profit off the misery
of others because unstoppably growing wealth is the primary
good in your life. Is this a reasonable way to live? A good way?
That’s what they considered retirement. Rather, they had this phase of public leadership that came between your working life and your retirement.

Contrast that kind of personality with the attitude all too popular today about wealth. You just keep accumulating. There’s no stopping you. Just keep growing and growing and growing your personal wealth in assets. Own more and more and more.

Who needs $47 billion? Even the billionaires who become philanthropists never truly divest. They hold on to so much money and assets so their value can continue to grow and fund more philanthropy.

Why did you need to lock up that much wealth for yourself at all? Philanthropy moves faster when everyone else has the money in the first place through their own jobs and careers. This is the moral ideal at the heart of today’s mania for basic income.

But a basic income from the government is only necessary because the private economy isn’t providing it. It should, because that’s why anyone goes to work all – they want to earn enough to live, to retire comfortably, or spend more time in their lives as leaders in their communities.

We’re a society of workaholics. Why should we have to be this way? How else could we live if all of us chose to prioritize our lives a little differently? Imagine what our society would be if no one ever wanted to become a billionaire at all.

Look into the most abstract features of their souls. Now you’re doing philosophy.

Each of Us Is Nothing If We’re Alone, Research Time, 26/09/2017

Now and then, I’ve wandered around Reddit having conversations about philosophical ideas. I had interesting conversations, but few of them were all that pretty. One that stuck with me – which I realized informs so much of radical far-right youth culture today – was about morality.

Someone told me in all seriousness that all forms of moral obligation were oppression. Because any means by which another person seeks to control my actions oppresses my individual liberty.

That’s really messed up. And I thought it was just the ravings of a messed up Reddit freak. But reading Robert Nozick’s radio show argument, I realized that this idea had real pedigree.

You can make an idol of Les Stroud the Survivor Man, but remember
this very simple fact. We'd never know about his incredible skills at
disappearing from civilization and living in the wilderness if he
didn't bring an Outdoor Life Network camera crew with him and
broadcast all his adventures on cable television to a nationwide
and global audience.
Now, Nozick was ostensibly writing about the free rider argument. He was arguing that it was morally acceptable to be a free rider on a system designed for the common good because a fundamental element of individual liberty is the freedom not to do something despite others pressuring you.

But look at what that argument actually says. The free rider problem is typically posed, literally, as taking a free ride – its typical example is hopping on a public bus without paying for it.

Nozick pumps a different example for the free rider problem and ends up in much more horrifying territory. Instead of a bus system, he describes a community entertainment program that you’ve already promised to contribute to. And he says you still have the right to back out, no questions asked.

He meant to talk about the free rider problem, but he’s argued that each of us has the right to break promises.

Having the right to break promises also means that you have the right to step away from your whole society. Because if you capitalize on your right to break all your promises, then you shout to the world that no one need ever trust you again. If you’re enthusiastic about doubling down on your freedom to break promises, no one ever will trust you again.

Your liberty is the freedom to turn your back. Let's admit that we all have this freedom. Now let’s also examine the consequences.

True isolation destroys your humanity. As an inherently social species,
we have to compromise our desires if we want to complete
ourselves as people.
Even though Hannah Arendt wrote The Human Condition 20 years before Nozick published Anarchy State and Utopia, she made one important point about the terror that results from Nozick’s idea. And I mean it when I say terror.

Turning your back on society literally means becoming a totally private person, a hermit. In the cartoon version of libertarianism, this is how the most extreme folks live. Move out to a cabin in the middle of the woods, disconnect from everything,* grow a vegetable garden, and hunt deer with your own increasingly massive weapons arsenal.

* Unless you keep the internet to stay on Reddit and 4Chan, catch up on Breitbart, follow your favourite youtubers, and watch @realDonaldTrump.

I’m being extremely sarcastic, but I’m also making a larger point about what disconnecting from society really means. You really do kind of have to become a cartoon radical libertarian to make a truly clean break – to live without the oppression of being bound by promises.

Being in Paris this week, where Arendt herself spent a good chunk of her philosophically fertile years, reminds me of the influence of old ideas, ancient concepts, on our contemporary thinking. She writes about the Polis Greek meaning of the word ‘private,’ to describe the private realm – the Greeks thought of it literally as the realm of privation.

Appearance is an essential aspect of reality, and to flee from
appearance is to fly into a shadow existence, to become a shade
instead of a person.
Someone whose entire life is relegated to the private realm is deprived. He’s a pathetic figure.** The libertarian desire for freedom – as the radio show problem and moral obligation as oppression expresses – creates a deprived human personality.

** And I feel safe saying that it’s often a he.

When someone defines their life according to such a desire, they fly away from society and human connection. All attempts at social relationships are rejected. The goal becomes isolation – isolation as the only space that can be truly free.

Arendt writes, “The private man does not appear, and therefore is as though he did not exist.” If you don’t enter society, then you don’t really exist as a person. At least, you aren’t a complete person. Your existence as a human is damaged, withered. You’ve purposely broken parts of yourself.

Those broken parts of the totally free person (on this libertarian model) are the means by which we compromise our will. I can’t just demand food for free from a restaurant, break all my promises to my friends, betray my wife, and abandon my children. All these are constraints on our freedom, when freedom is conceived as total escape from obligation.

But to cut yourself away from all those obligations makes you literally inhuman.

Each Together IV: A Family of Millions, Research Time, 21/09/2017

I’m not going to answer that question about our mortal desire for immortality right away. I don’t really have one right now. When I do, it’ll probably involve some complex examination of the relationship between memory, personality, culture, history, and knowledge of the past.

Instead, I want to riff on a few more ideas I encountered about community, social unity, and nationhood in the early chapters of The Human Condition. I’ll lay it out with a bold, blanket statement that I feel isn’t getting through to enough of popular culture as it should.

Humanity in servitude is a mass of indistinguishable organs.
My blanket statement:

There are a ton of people who hate all forms of socialism and even just basic caring for your community because they think it’s all creeping communism. And I’m sick of that ignorant shit.

I mean, there are clear sources for this. Ever since Friedrich Hayek helped launch the Mt Pelerin Society and the network of think tanks it inspired, that notion has flooded our popular culture through pretty much all channels of media.

It’s been in the right wing ever since The Road to Serfdom blew up – that any form of collective action or identity contains the conceptual seeds of totalitarian communism. Whether it’s a trade union, a single-payer state-funded health care system, or even simple community organizing to lobby a government or a private company.

For Hayek, solidarity is the same as communism. So it’s gone for a growing chunk of conservative North America. The idea began in the populist work of a Nobel Prize winning economist, and is now in the mouths of dim-witted pundits with terrible moustaches.

At least when Hayek was talking about this, his ideas had some bite. They were wrong, but they bit.

Here’s how the most brutal communism conceives of humanity. Each person has no real meaning in their lives as individuals. Our authentic roles are as members of a class, so our individual personalities express only our general class interests. Because class interests are fundamentally shared, each of our lives are indistinguishable from each other.

Friedrich Hayek gets his Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974.
For Hayek and the modern North American right wing that followed him, this is the ideology of any political philosophy which accepts any kind of collective action or identity. They see this in the labour movement and marxism.

But Karl Marx didn’t invent this concept. Hannah Arendt identifies the root of how comradeship becomes collectivization in nationalist movements and the modern concept of nation itself.

The heritage is pretty straightforward. European society was dominated by feudal relationships through the medieval period. The ethics of these feudal societies were based on paternal responsibility expressed on the scale of entire towns.

The local lord or royal is the father, and the only political relationship of which anyone is capable is subjection. The community consists of one paterfamilias and all others are bowed heads. The lord has the unquestioned authority of a household head, and all members of the community are one family.

As lords disappeared, says Arendt, the morality of subjection and the community as family persisted. That morality became a force of peer pressure to conformity in your identity and political beliefs.

A political morality of subjection, without a monarch to which we’re subject, becomes subjection to the popular morality itself. Dissent of any kind is considered immoral. It would be dissent from the only body that makes your existence legitimate – the nation.

A community of millions who subject themselves to the will of all, as popular morality expresses it. That’s the vision of the dedicated nationalist. Human dignity is only realized in the achievements of the nation itself. This is the ideology that brought us racialization, colonialism, and the two Great Wars of the 20th century.

The nationalism that consumes the modern Western right wing makes them more like their boogeyman communists than the social democrats they hate.

Each Together III: The Immortal’s Life, Research Time, 20/09/2017

When I first read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, I didn’t understand why she made Greek thinking and values a focus of her inquiry. Surely, there are other routes to forgotten ways of thinking in other traditions of humanity.

There are. Ten years ago, I was wondering why we’d choose to return to the Greek tradition for inspiration instead of philosophical ideas from ancient China, India, Africa, or the Americas. But I didn’t yet understand that Arendt herself wasn’t able to do so.

They weren’t her traditions. I mean that in a personal sense – she hadn’t ever really studied them. Her own expertise was rooted in the Western tradition, and that began in Polis Greece. It’s also true in a civilizational sense – Arendt was a European, whose work and thinking grew from the minoritarian place of German Jewish culture (Jewish German culture?).

Why doesn't Arendt talk much about the Jewish roots of Western
culture in The Human Condition? I don't think it's because she
treats it elsewhere – I actually think it's because she doesn't
know much about the philosophical elements of the Jewish
cultural tradition. Arendt was raised a secular Jew in Germany,
a very assimilationist culture. Her works that engaged with
Judaism involved meditations on the particular culture of
Jewish people in Europe, in Germany most specifically. That's
a very different way of engaging with Jewish heritage than is
capable through the ethical tradition of a majority Jewish
I know now, and I didn’t understand then, that the best people to explain those other traditions were those who grew up in those other traditions. I’ve downloaded the classics of Confucius, pre-ordered the latest book by Leanne Betasamosake-Simpson, and I’m looking eventually to get hold of key Indian and African writers too.

I’m not about to argue that only people from particular traditions have the right to speak about those ideas. No, that would be a very limiting cultural relativism. Presuming that there can be no communication between

But you understand a culture better when you grew up in it. Because you can see all the subtle ways that complicated traditions of thinking impact everyday habits when you see those everyday habits in your everyday life.

Growing up in India, you can better understand how ancient ideas survive and shape cultural presumptions and ideas of modern India. An Anishnaabe will understand how their traditional ideas shape their culture today in the small details of ordinary life. Despite the genocidal destruction that culture has faced for centuries now.

So a European will have a better idea of how foundational cultures of the West continue their influence over everyday thinking of European-descended communities. One of the central influences of Polis Greek thinking at the centre of Arendt’s inquiry in The Human Condition is the yearning for glory.

What is glory? There are plenty of terrible definitions for glory in our society. But Arendt is interested in a peculiarly Greek sense of glory. No, let me rephrase that. A peculiarly Polis sense of glory.

This kind of glory is a matter of remembrance. Polis Greek culture and thought, as Arendt understands it, was focussed on a division of being between the mortal and the immortal – the linear and the cyclical. Nature was immortal in that it moved in cycles. The seasons would repeat just as they always have.*

Nature appears immortal to us, especially when it's big enough to dwarf
us. The tragedy of Polis Greece was that mortal humanity was aware
of our mortality and could only fight against it as best we could. The
tragedy of modern humanity is that we built our civilization presuming
nature to be immortal, and once we realized that it wasn't, we were
probably too late to prevent so much destruction.
* Forget that we now know this to be false. This is a function of modern human knowledge of the contingent and finite nature of the universe. We know that the universe had a beginning in time, is of a particular age, and will one day fade into cold emptiness. Forget about this for now. You might want to.

Each human life, in contrast to nature, was finite. But in that finitude, it was remarkable. Natural bodies like trees, animals, and mountains may be awe-inspiring, but to the Polis Greeks, such bodies didn’t have the singularity of human life. To be mortal was to be unique.

But there was a tragedy to this uniqueness because the unique is mortal. The immortal, the cyclical, consisted of indistinguishable identicals – trees, mountains, animals, all the beings of nature.**

** Again, forget that we now know this to be false, that all beings are unique, that all beings are fundamentally processes – contingent and singular at once. The Polis Greek understanding of mortality and time never understood this because the singularity of existence is a conclusion from several hundred years of modern scientific work.

Yet there was one way to escape this tragedy – engagement in the Polis. The Polis, according to the era’s Greek thinking, was immortal. It was a human creation, but its existence survived the lives of any of the particular people who lived there.

So by engaging in the political life of your Polis, you could distinguish yourself through your remarkable acts. You could be remembered in the histories of your own city-state. That’s the glory at the heart of Polis Greek aspiration – unique acts in the leadership of your community could make some part of you immortal.

You’d live far beyond your death in the memory of your own people. That was the immortal fame for which Greek people strove. It was why they gave up all the wealth they’d acquired and spend it all living in cities leading the people. For the only immortality accessible to mortals.

Of course, as you can tell from my asides this post, things were much more complicated. For one thing, Polises themselves turned out to be quite mortal. The rise of the imperial Macedonian state proved that much.

Now the question of our Greek heritage becomes this – How does our yearning for immortality survive in a mortal world?

Each Together II: The Ancient Trade-Offs, Research Time, 19/09/2017

Here's what we should preserve and revive in the polis-era political and social philosophy of Greece – the cultural blend of communitarian patriotism and individual freedom to debate and change important principles and matters of public morality.

Such an attitude to community and morality preserves what’s great about liberalism – the right to live as you wish – and turns away from what stinks about liberalism – how individualism can encourage turning away from public goods and moral obligations.

But I want to get some problems of Greek inheritance out of the way first. The most important obstacle – at least as I work my way through Arendt’s The Human Condition – is the precondition of becoming a citizen able to participate in public life. You had to be rich.

In our industrial era – choked as we often are by pollution – we think
of nature as a place of Eden. It's true that simply being in forest
environments improves our health
. But to live without our
technological infrastructure would doom many of us to a short,
painful life. We forget this, as our industry is killing us too.
Being rich in a society like polis Greece is very different from being rich today. I don’t just mean that there’s so much more wealth to be gained in 21st century society. But there is that too. I’m talking about the very different relationship Greeks – and all people – had to the labour it took to stay alive than we do.

People in industrial societies today don’t have to work as hard to stay alive as we did even just a couple of centuries ago. I’m not talking about working for your living – needing to find jobs, build a career. I’m literally talking about working to stay alive. Growing food, milling bread, preparing and cooking food, fetching well water, sewing clothes, tending hearth fires.

In a non-industrial society, this is a list of the basic labour you need to do to stay alive. Literally. I’m definitely far from complete because I’m improvising this list for a blog entry and have never had to take care of myself to such a degree aside from the occasional camping trip.

You just aren’t going to have time to head down to the square and debate matters of governance, leadership, and public morality if you have to get all this stuff done. It literally takes all day. So you can only enter public life if you have other people to do this for you.

Political freedom and active roles in the leadership of your community require you to be rich enough to hire household servants. They can do all the work of keeping your place functioning while you take care of public service.

Polis Greek political freedom was grounded on the labour of others. Those others were understood to have no freedom. This is why – even though the polis Greek institution of slavery had nothing of the horrifying racialization we know today from the history of the United States – it was said that a free man would kill himself rather than become a slave.

For almost all of human existence on Earth, so much of our toil and
torture has simply been the intense labour we have to do if we
want to stay alive.
Labour – having to labour – yokes you to the Earth. You’re bound to service the natural processes of your own metabolism, of your house’s metabolism. Your whole city’s metabolism.

Arendt notes at one point, during the many times she returns to the concepts in Polis Greek social morality, one way their society differed radically from ours. In an industrial society, cities are the centre of production. They’re the centres of industry, where people and businesses gather for trade, manufacturing, and corporate management.

But in Polis Greece, cities were centres of consumption. The wealth was produced in the fields, as you’d expect from an agrarian society. You came to the cities when you’d built your wealth and you were ready to spend it so you could devote yourself to public life.

You had to walk away from productive life to live freely. Freedom, for the Polis Greeks, was primarily freedom from the brutal necessity of agrarian production, of metabolism. You’ve produced all your fuel, and now you were ready to burn it up.

So what kinds of fires were a rich Polis Greek going to start?

Each Together I: Democracy and Community, Research Time, 17/09/2017

So this has turned into a pretty hectic week. I think there have been a few too many long days, and I haven’t gotten a lot of rest. I’ve been reading, but it’s been tough to sit down and write this week.

I also want to blog a bit more when GF and I are in France later this week. Our Germany trip this winter was fantastic, but we kind of lost track of time. And daylight. This time, we’re just bumming around central Paris for six days, not going back and forth from Amsterdam to Berlin.

I feel like this will be the first contemplative getaway I’ve had since I was in Calgary a couple of years ago. And the first such getaway I’ll have had with GF Gilly.

For the last century or so, we've developed a special kind of social
alienation that keeps us separate from each other. Trapping
ourselves in pods that keep ourselves from other people. We've
developed a distaste for other people. I mean, it's not as if there
aren't a lot of folks in our social circle we'd rather not hang out
with. But we lose a lot from turning away from our communities.
Understanding polis-era Greek culture and values helps us get a
sense of what we can achieve together.
Meantime, I want to get back into some philosophical thinking. My piece that I published at the Independent in St John’s last month was a good template for the kind of philosophical journalism I’ve wanted to try out.

But work on my larger projects is still rolling along. I’ve gotten plenty of ideas down about Arendt’s most philosophical masterwork that I still want to discuss.

More than discussing it, I want to figure them out with you. The Human Condition is a book that’s dense with ideas, and while I know those concepts are important for the political thinking I’m developing for Utopias, it’ll be tough getting everything sorted.

I’ll start with one thing that puzzles me about this book. Arendt refers back, all the time, to the ancient Greeks. When I first read The Human Condition ten years ago, I couldn’t understand why she did this. Also, I thought that she did so in a way that valorized the Greek way of life, that she wanted us, somehow, to return to Greek existence.

Reading the book again now, I understand better what she was doing. For one thing, it’s much too simple to read her account of the polis-era Greek identity and concept of community as wanting our return.

Only a year after thinking this about Arendt, I was defending my interpretation of Nietzsche against a peer review critic who said the same thing about him. No, of course Nietzsche never wanted to return to polis Greek ethics and sense of selfhood. He understood that this was impossible, that you can’t return to something that’s been broken down.

When I was younger, I was never very fair to Hannah Arendt.
Not many people were.
Funny, how I found it so easy to understand that about Friedrich Nietzsche but it took me a while to see it about Arendt. Everybody has to learn, I guess. At least I managed it, a little.

Anyway, there are a lot of different reasons why her work concentrates on the polis-era Greek conceptions of political life. Those reasons are threaded through the whole book, and deeply connected to her critique of contemporary life and the conditions of 20th century capitalist existence.

But that’s a bit of a heavy topic to take up in a 600-ish word blog post that I write as a philosophical exercise and to unwind at the start of a busy week. So I’ll make a few initial reflections and move on.

There’s a lot to love in the political philosophy and culture of polis-era Greek society. When you look at the history of the West,* Greece is where that civilization began. Greece developed the most valuable idea of modern society – democracy.

* In this context, when I’m talking about the West, I mean the civilization that began from the waves of Greek settlement around the Mediterranean and later Roman Empire. So this includes the Latin, Germanic, Slavic, and Arab cultures.

Sounds great! Greece invented democracy. But it wasn’t the modern democracy that foregrounds individual rights. Greek democracy would never have had space for anything like Robert Nozick’s radio show argument – that our necessary liberties include the freedom to renege on our promises and obligations.

A lot of our popular conceptions of polis-era Greek culture are filled
with oversimplifications and misconceptions. Hell, until recently, we
didn't even realize that they'd painted their statues.
The first democracy was a thoroughgoing communitarian set of values. Today, a lot of us tend to associate these values with authoritarian societies. As in, there’s a dominant culture that we all have to defer to. That’s how a lot of socially conservative thinkers portray their values – communitarian means conformity.

But that wasn’t true for the polis Greeks. They were communitarians, but the values of the community were subject to change. That was literally the activity of the polis squares. People went there to face off and debate the moral values of their community, and the leadership decisions they should make when dealing with neighbouring nations.

It was an atmosphere of friendly rivalry. Individual ideas could square off and argue over a ton of different visions for how the community should live. Leadership proceeded by consensus, and consensus was achieved by convincing all the other community leaders of your path.

Most of the time, it was a matter of negotiation. Some ideas fall by the wayside and some are adopted. Some put away for a while to re-emerge later. Some outright rejected.

That old society where our first values of democracy began was a curious and fruitful combination of communitarian solidarity and individual freedom to contribute to the decision-making process of your whole community.

That’s a vision I think 21st century social democracy should work to restore in our public morality and politics.

But Greek civilization isn’t something we should resurrect. Nor should we want to.

Our Greatest Dignity Lies in Weird Humanity, Jamming, 12/09/2017

What I admire most about Hannah Arendt is her fearlessness. There’s an intellectual daring running under so much of her work that’s remarkable in the philosophical tradition. She had a force of spirit to stand at the same levels of the great philosophers of the 20th century.

She does. Read her work and take it seriously as philosophical creation – not as an instance of any other field, not as political history, feminism, the theory of human rights. Michel Foucault’s skills included the same versatility across disciplines as she did. But Michel is called a proper philosopher a lot more easily than Hannah.

There's a tension in our relationship to numbers. We resist being called
by number. "I am not a number! I'm a free man!" We think of it as a
means to destroy our humanity, maybe when we see numbers tattooed
on forearms. Yet each number is a uniqueness, as each of us are.
Here's the solution to that problem: 2 can't become 3.
Funny, that.

Arendt’s philosophical talent operates most freely in The Human Condition. I’m going to spend the next little while working through the book again for the first time in about ten years.

Reading the introduction of the latest edition, scholar Margaret Canovan discusses how many people consider this book impossible to categorize. Its subject matter ranges over so much of human concern, you could call it an investigation of universal thoughts.

To me, I read it and it’s clearly a work of philosophy. Yet a scholarly plurality (the best scholars’ consensus can ever get) maintains that The Human Condition is somehow frustrating, difficult to pin down, unexpectedly difficult. From the ordinarily popular and accessible Arendt. Yes, Hannah.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Creativity is the essential power of humanity, Arendt says. We are creatures whose greatest power is our ability to create. So the greatest human freedom is always the freedom to create, to be unique.

As I think about it, to become singular – to live a life whose character diverges more and more from the ordinary of society. The unique as a path in phase space, a continuing development that gets continually deeper into weirdness.

Becoming weird is the best use of our freedom. It’s the freedom to create the new, a different direction by choice and plan. There are few more weird things to create than an entirely new concept, a new framework of thinking itself. Philosophical creativity creates launchpads for new paths of becoming weird.

In The Human Condition, Arendt got weirder than I think she ever did in any of her other books. Her writing was at its most free.

As much as Bertrand Russell himself lived a full, worldly life,
especially in his political activism, I can't turn down this image. He
embodies the destructive stereotype of philosophy as the armchair
intellectual, if only as an icon, a figure.
It’s a wonderful rebuke to academic orthodoxy. It’s not a rebuke to Martin Heidegger, her former older professor lover. For one thing that’s a really insulting way of reducing her original thought to the mere expression of jealousy.

Funny, isn’t it? How a woman gets her work reduced to an expression of obsession with a man.

Her personal feelings about Martin were much more complicated than even the most complex philosophy. Besides, she was a powerful enough thinker that any attempt to reduce her ideas to anything less than their own scale is laughable.

Try to tell me that Arendt was a mere reactive woman after actually reading her work and letting it stimulate your own thinking. I’ll tell you that you must be an illiterate.

Heidegger becomes, at most, a distant symbol in her work. He indicates everything that can go wrong in a thinker thanks to his masculine, dominating, self-certain ego. In his nature as a figure in Arendt’s thinking, he becomes just the most intense expression of a philosophical and scholarly ego that was bloody everywhere.

That’s at the centre of her confrontation with the philosopher’s focus on contemplation, retreat from the world and society inside the mind to search for truth. Forget politics and science, says the philosopher, I can find the truth of God in my office armchair.

Thought mutates into stir-craziness when it turned inside itself. Real creativity comes from thinking in the complex mess of worldly life.

Seeing Without Judgment, Composing, 11/09/2017

The last Perry Anderson book I read was his latest one, The H-Word. It was a good historical source of ideas about a concept that I want to use in Utopias.

Any philosophical book about how to overcome the ecological and humanitarian disaster of our current economic system has to deal with global power dynamics. How do these creatures called states relate to each other?

I’m not going to go through The H-Word in the same detail as I went through Anderson’s other works that I read a while ago. It inspired an interesting chain of thinking, though I’m not sure much ultimately came from it.

As much as I have many valid criticisms of Justin Trudeau's government
(the hypocrisy, the half-measures, the sad superficiality of his entire
communication strategy), I have to admit that I'm proud he's done
one thing. He's encouraged Canada to become more loved around the
world. Granted, I think this might be easier for him, given the
very large contrast we have in our powerful neighbour's leader.
Here's basically what I got from that book. It was a good summary of different ways the concept of hegemony has been used in political thinking over the years. I have a good list of basic ideas for those. Ultimately, all 2500 years of thinking about hegemony has revolved around the relationship of military power and cultural influence in a country's global prestige and leadership.

That's a key dynamic in global politics, and the book inspired some great thinking on my part about fear and love as forces in how people think of different parts of the world. Of course, I'd rather be loved than feared. It only makes sense to be loved.

Yet ultimately, that was it. I don't have to write a two-week string of posts about this concept, because I understand it very well already. My take on global power and hegemony is that it's better to be loved than feared. I already figured that out reading Machiavelli. Even The Prince.

I did learn a lot from Anderson's voice, but my old friend Mike commented the other day about his view of Adorno’s ideas. And he was right – Anderson seemed sure, but too quick to make such a huge judgement about the entire philosophy. It’s easy to mistake certainty in a person’s voice for correctness. He might have been a little too pithy.

Here’s an example to show you what I mean. The other day, I cracked open Gilles Deleuze’s last book What Is Philosophy? for the first time in a while. He speaks in very quick and certain terms about fundamental aspects of very complex and profound thinkers.

Yet I trust what Deleuze says more than I do Anderson.

Perry Anderson is a historian. The task of a historian is to investigate what has happened in the past, and stake a clear argument about what happened. Anderson speaks in truth claims.

He peeks his head out from the shadows
again. "Remember, do what I did."
The problem is that he largely discusses philosophy that way too. Anderson writes that the Frankfurt School’s political thinking was based on a metaphysical blend of Heidegger’s existentialism and Friedrich Schelling’s Christian metaphysics of salvation applied to nature.

He intends to sum up the complex and complicated works and writing careers of four legendarily complex thinkers – Schelling, Heidegger, Adorno, and Max Horkheimer – in one sentence. Okay.

I contrast Deleuze with Anderson, and I find he isn’t speaking about these different philosophers in the same way. He’s not interested in summing up the whole corpus of a thinker in a few concise words.

Deleuze speaks about other philosophers casually when he’s just mentioning a particular concept or idea. When he’s been talking about that idea for a while without mentioning whose work it first appeared in. They’re his examples.

He’s not trying to make some profound pronouncement on their work. When Deleuze does make profound pronouncements, they’re usually the length of an entire book. He got profound talking about Kant over about 80 pages. About Spinoza, over 600. Hume, Proust, Leibniz, Foucault each got around 200 pages.

In the books that aren’t specifically about some particular thinker or small set of thinkers, Deleuze just uses them and concepts from their work as examples to make a more abstract point. Those are the books that are about developing concepts of his own.

Anderson was useful in tracing the evolution of marxist philosophy over time, and he encouraged interesting reflections on my own part about the relationship of theoretical knowledge and work to community activism.

But he’s very much a historian. When I’m researching and formulating ideas for Utopias, I’m a philosopher. That’s all.

Contradictory Heritage, A History Boy, 08/09/2017

I have a pretty stand-offish relationship with Theodor Adorno. I think it’s a result of my first exposure to him. That came through an older university librarian I knew by the philosophy department circles back in my undergrad years at Memorial.

He was the philosophy specialist in the library’s procurement, and his own PhD research focussed on Adorno. CD was a smart guy, and although I found him a little pretentious, he was a good person to hang out with. I have to say, though, he wasn’t very good at selling Adorno to me.

I reconsidered his work as I got older, but never really made the jump to studying his philosophy in full. Mostly, it was because I was working on a totally different tradition and approach in Western philosophy during my doctorate – informing environmentalist ethics through philosophy of biology and ecology, with a leg up from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on the conceptual framework.

Remember, freshmen, there is no art without suffering.
No education without folly.
No philosophy class without a surly smart-ass.
But I think it was also because of his reputation. I’m not usually one to cower in front of a reputation, but with Adorno, I did. His work wasn’t just philosophy to me – it was an edifice. I came to that image through the Adorno specialists and students I knew – they treated him like a figure of awe.

Nein broke that image for me. He injected some levity into Adorno for me, and made him and his work more approachable. I don’t want to read some unapproachable edifice. I want to read a thinker.

So I’ll probably hit up some Adorno soon. I’ll soon be transitioning away from looking at left-wing philosophy as it’s more traditionally defined. But after a walk along the path that I’m heading for, I think I’ll go back to some Adorno, no matter how strange his work might be.

How strange might that work be? Well, here’s Perry Anderson’s take on it. This is probably what I admire most about Anderson’s writing and thought. He’s a historian of ideas who can genuinely grapple with the real strangeness of some ideas and still find witty and concise ways of explaining it.

Maybe it helped that I was already familiar with the context. I mean, I haven’t read much Adorno myself, but I’ve read almost everything else that influenced him. So it’s not like I have no idea what kind of concepts are flying around there.

Here are the concepts that Anderson throws down to explain the underlying ontology of Adorno’s philosophical writing. Same goes for the rest of the Frankfurt School more generally.

He describes Frankfurt School thinking as on the same plane as these following two philosophical frameworks. One is the philosophy of Friedrich Schelling. Anderson describes this as adapting the metaphysics of Christian salvation to the human relationship with the material Earth. So the path to humanity’s redemption from our fundamental corruption is a kind of devotion to harmonious material nature.

Schelling is another German philosopher who I
could just never get into. Everything I heard about
his ideas, even from people who loved his work,
made me think I would hate it all. I haven't heard
anything much different yet.
The City of God becomes the City of Man when it’s no longer a city, but a forest. And we must treat it as such.

Two is Heidegger’s critique of technology, his account of the technological attitude as the rupture of man from nature. This rupture is the ongoing social, cultural, and philosophical goal of dominating the Earth – we dominate Earth to make commodities from it, and we define our lives through our commodities, our stuff.

In the words of the Frankfurt School’s marxist heritage, capitalism is the rupture of humanity from Earth, from nature. So a liberated society, in Adorno’s thinking* is a reconciliation of humanity and Earth.

* According to Perry Anderson.

It’s a beautiful vision. As someone who holds environmentalist political and ethics values, I definitely like it. Despite the way Anderson’s account tends to reify nature. Actually, that’s a serious problem for me. By pulling Schelling’s Christian salvation narrative into an immanent material relationship – humanity and Earth – you turn the planet into God.

Earth isn’t God. It’s Earth. If you believe it’s God, you’re making a serious mistake. God as a Christian concept was designed as the ultimate Other – the Fall means that humanity’s nature is utterly and totally anathema to the Divine. That we’re virtually like poison to divinity.

If this is really the underlying metaphysics of the Frankfurt School, I can’t even say they’re radical left anymore. To make a Christian God of Nature is making an idol out of a word that shouldn’t even be capitalized.

There’s an even deeper conservatism underneath the ideas of what the radical right today call the communist conspiracy of the modern era.

What If Thought Has Always Been Practice? Composing, 07/09/2017

It's an old joke that philosophy doesn’t have anything to do with practical life. That’s manifestly untrue for many, many reasons, but it’s not like the philosophical tradition didn’t do this to ourselves. At least in the West.*

* In the Chinese tradition, which stretches back as long as the Western with the works of Kongzi and Mozi, philosophical thinking has always been united with practical life – with virtues and ethics, knowledge for and in action, and governance.

If you’re content to think of philosophy as footnotes to Plato, then you’re thinking and working in the shadow of his early, powerful image of philosophy as contemplation. You have to step away from daily life to see the truth of things in thought on your own.

Walking beyond the cave. Retreating from a world on which you can’t rely.

The kind of materialist tradition I’m studying – and to which I want Utopias to contribute – lives in a social, physical, dynamic world. Thinking is an activity in such a dynamic world. Not a way to plan activity – that’s still a very contemplative way to consider it. I mean that thinking is itself action.

Not to say that there’s no such thing as contemplation. Contemplating and meditating, turning away from your life for a while, are one of many different philosophical activities. But they aren’t the only ones.

As Perry Anderson writes, Theodor Adorno considered theory itself a form of revolutionary practice. So did Louis Althusser, as I discovered in his own writings. Anderson depicts this as the conclusion of a long history of theorist/activists in the European labour movement.

What is that revolutionary practice of thinking? Imagination guided by reason creates new moral and political ideas. New ways to understand what it is to be human, to live in a society, to live and exist, period.

Our creative powers of thinking unite with the skills of reasoning and logic to understand what we do and perceive as no one else in our society thinks. Philosophical thinking is inherently about revolutionizing thought itself.

The ironic heritage of the mid-20th century Frankfurt School
philosophers like Adorno is that the left utterly failed to consider
cultural change as the bedrock of successful activism. I
sometimes think the early victories of anti-racist activism
through the American Presidency and the courts in the 1960s
made most activist strategists rely on those routes exclusively.
The nationalist social conservatives – particularly Andrew
Breitbart himself – read Adorno and thought of applying the
strategy of cultural change to the goal of radical nationalism.
Plato was right that philosophical thinking makes you a revolutionary – and potentially an outcast, or at least a weirdo – in your society. But you don’t have to leave your daily life to revolutionize your thinking. In fact, it’s probably easier to achieve revolutionary thinking by studying the living world more closely.

If you’re developing revolutionary ways to live as a person, then you’re developing ways to revolutionize a culture. Because if you change the mind of one person – even if it’s just yourself – you can encourage other people around you to change how they think and live. When you’ve changed enough people’s thinking that the whole culture is noticeably different from what it was before, you’ve made a revolution.

This is how I think Antonio Gramsci’s ideas apply to that materialist tradition I’m tracing through my research. He was the first thinker in the revolutionary labour movement of the modern era that culture and values are where revolution really starts.

The primary purpose of politics is to change culture – changing people’s fundamental ideas about what humanity is, how we should live best, how we should live with each other, and our place on Earth and in the universe.

You can’t change a government without the culture going along with it, because otherwise the people will resist. You either have to do both at once, culture first, or inevitably fail. Gramsci learned that the hard way. Changing the culture would be the most effective.

That’s what practical philosophy is all about. It's also what Utopias, my next big book of philosophy, is basically going to be about.

Can a Marxist Tell the Difference Between Theory and Thought? Research Time, 06/09/2017

That was a nice break, even if I did get rained out of our campsite and had to travel home from Algonquin Park on a Highway 60 that was more river than pavement.

I want to get back to this problem of history and philosophy blending together. The example, drawn from some old history books of Perry Anderson, is the marxist tradition of political thinking as the theorists grew separate from the activists.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were both terrible activists
at the time of their greatest influence during their lives. Their works
were ambitious and known for being terribly difficult, but their
connection to the political movements of the period was, overall,
pretty tenuous, if it existed at all.
But I look at them during this time, and I instinctively imagine
each of them thinking, "Man, I'm too old for this shit!"
The direct cause was the brutal censoring of original thought in Western Europe’s communist parties on directions from Stalin’s Soviet government, and which lasted until pretty much the fall of the Soviet Union. The theorists’ refuge in the United States found them isolated from political activism of the same kind in the university system.

This is, I think, a flaw in Anderson’s analysis. He’s wedded – at least in this early book – to Lenin’s model of theorist / party leader. So he doesn’t really consider the personal connections of people like Max Horkheimer and Angela Davis, or the involvement of Jewish refugee professors at black colleges in the Civil Rights Movement.

It worries me that Anderson seems to downplay the importance of race as a vector in oppression or progressive politics.

But a key advantage of radical left theorists being shunted away from direct activism and into the university system is that they became, more completely, philosophers. Let me explain how with a few one-time-only definitions-for-the-sake-of-explanations.

In the marxist tradition, a theorist is a thinker-activist according to the models of Karl Marx himself, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. You’re on the front lines of the political movement, organizing different party members, support from trade unions and other civil society groups. But in your off-hours, you’re writing political theory.

Notice that I didn’t say philosophy. That’s because, for the sake of making this distinction, I’m using the two words to mean different things.* A theorist, in this example, is someone whose work is specifically about updating the marxist theory of history as dialectical materialism to the modern conditions of your society.

I get the distinct feeling that Perry Anderson was too invested
intellectually in the British and European politics and experience
of the labour movement to understand the politics of racism,
particularly the complex American version so steeped in both
extremism and denial that there's even a problem. So while I
find his historical insights intriguing in their abstract form, this
empirical blindness seriously concerns me.
* Even in my everyday writing, outside of this illustration, I don’t really use ‘theorist’ in the same sense of ‘philosopher’ that most folks do. I mostly alternate ‘philosopher’ and ‘thinker.’ I consider that a more accurate pairing.

In contrast to a lot of message board marxists today, the early 20th century’s most important theorists didn’t consider an ideological / economic analysis of mid-19th century western Europe to apply equally well to our multi-centred globalization and high-speed communication networks. That would just be silly.

Just as Marx himself built dialectical materialism and applied it to understanding the European economy and society of his own time, early-20th century marxist theorists applied the same conceptual tools to their own time. Conservative Hegelian metaphysics blends with qualitative economic and social research to confront the political mainstream with a radical socialist alternative.

In the 1960s, thinkers like Louis Althusser and Theodor Adorno blew this tradition apart by introducing concepts from non-marxist philosophical traditions into marxist theory. Althusser brought Spinozist ideas to the tradition, while Adorno blended marxism with existentialism and the more complex cultural criticisms of Walter Benjamin.

I’m not sure whether I should credit either Adorno as a forerunner of the radical democratic tradition that Utopias will develop. Althusser certainly is, since he was the first thinker to see the continuity of the concepts of Marx, Machiavelli, and Spinoza.

Adorno, I’m still not sure. I may look into more of his works later on. There are still parts of this bed of concepts that I want to fill in from my sure bets. More on that coming soon. Or eventually.

History as Back Catalogue II: Liquidation Sale, Research Time, 01/09/2017

When I said “no tolerance” was I ever right. Perry Anderson, in the early chapters of that first book he wrote on the history of marxist theory, describes the intellectuals and theorists working in western European communist parties in the 1930s.

Back then, those communist parties were getting their doctrinal and policy marching orders from the Soviet Union. Essentially, I’m going to stare that libertarian / new liberal message setting Stalinist communism as the necessary endpoint of all socialist democratic politics.

Igor Gouzenko reads one of the first editions of his novel to two
marginally interested bystanders. The Fall of a Titan is a terse drama
about the fateful assignment of a young historian and university
administrator – who has also been a top-quality NKVD spy since
joining the Bolshevik side of the Russian Civil War at age 19 – and
the fiery and frightened community of people wrapped up in what
amounts to a secret police public relations job.
Let’s start in the moment, with a voice who lived that moment. Lately, I’ve been reading The Fall of a Titan, the one novel of Igor Gouzenko. Gouzenko defected to Canada from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa. He came with piles of evidence of Soviet spying on Canada, the United States, Britain, and many of its other ostensible allies against Germany.

This was only a few days after the official end of the Second World War. For the rest of his life, he and his wife Svetlana* lived relatively quietly in Mississauga for the rest of their lives.

* Svetlana usually went by Anna after defecting, so her name at least wasn’t nearly as ridiculous as Igor’s – George Brown.

Igor would sometimes appear on television as a pundit expert on Soviet culture and spying. He would also do it with a bag over his head to protect his face from being seen by KGB monitors.

Gouzenko lived his young adult life in the Soviet Union at the highest intensity of Stalin’s purges. Year after year, Stalin would prepare another edit of the official history of the Soviet Union. Accompanying this, Stalin would have hundreds of thousands of people killed.

Gouzenko starts one chapter with a common, but sly – and for me, informative – joke. “People go to banquets for different reasons: the Frenchman to shock people with the low neckline of his lovely wife, the American to tell his neighbour a couple of spicy jokes, the Russia to prove to his comrades that he is not yet liquidated.”

This was the atmosphere in Russia all through the 1930s – a country whose religion was no longer Christianity and not even communism, but anxious fearful submission to the NKVD. That same violence came upon the communist parties of Europe before the war broke out.

NKVD agents were at conferences and gatherings of the Communist International, giving the parties of neighbouring countries their doctrinal marching orders. Most importantly, they were reporting which Comintern members seemed skeptical or hesitant about those orders.

Such skeptics would occasionally have some unfortunate accidents shortly after enough time had passed for such a report to wander through an NKVD management committee. Funny, that.

So Stalin’s secret police was crushing any doctrinal creativity in the communist parties of Europe at the height of the NKVD’s power. Even after the NKVD was purged out of existence and Stalin had his convenient heart attack, the relationship continued.

Anyone with a hint of theoretical or philosophical creativity wouldn’t have been welcome as an active member of the communist party. But after most of their truly restless intellectuals settled into university positions, the university turned out to be a great place to be if you were a truly open-minded intellectual.