Thursday, September 03, 2009

Humanism For Dummies

Lawrence J. Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corporation, was paid $193 million last year. If we go down the list of highest-paid executives a little, just for perspective, we see that no. 14, Steven A. Burd of Safeway, took home $67 million in a single year. On the list of richest Americans, choosing at random, we discover that Orange County developer Donald Bren, number 20, has a net worth of $12 billion. We also notice that positions 4 through 7 are occupied by members of the Walton family, those folks that gave us Wal-Mart, with a combined net worth of about $93 billion.

My initial reaction, my mental reflex, if you will, is “How unfair.” But if I stop and pay closer attention, a more interesting thought—a question, really—emerges: “What in the world could any one person do with that much money?”

Even allowing for the most fantastically excessive luxury—multiple homes, cars, and so forth—there is a limit to how much one can enjoy materially. I wonder, then, if the rest is simply saved for the perpetual comfort of the family—an inheritance to one’s descendants that will last for generations. But the huge amount of capital involved is grossly out of proportion to any such planned security, and the wealth still exceeds human desires even when divided up among progeny.

The real reason is simple, although it opens up wide avenues for thought. Wealth is not merely a means for possessing material things, but the means to power. And I’m not talking about personal power, the power of an individual to control his conditions. Nor am I referring to political power in the narrow sense, even though many rich people, such as Michael Bloomberg (no. 8 on the net worth list at $20 billion), choose that form of enjoyment. To be sure, people like the Waltons have only the most limited kind of private interest in mind when they act, but I maintain that they truly operate on a principle that is unconscious, and does not need to be conscious in order to be effective: power as the interest of their class. It matters little whether or not someone is born into a class, or in the case of the so-called self-made man, works his way “up” to it. The class system works according to its own laws because it is a principle of social organization that determines action, economic or otherwise, regardless of our intent.

Recently, for instance, we have seen the phrase “spreading the wealth” used negatively to characterize proposals to increase taxes on the rich in order to repair the economy. One could make a reasonable argument that a more even distribution of wealth would be good for business—consumers would have more income, and would therefore be able to spend more money on goods and services, which makes more money for corporations, therefore achieving greater stability in the system. The rich will still, for the most part, oppose such ideas, not only because the logic of “the market” always presupposes maximum short-term profit as the greater good, but because greater economic equality is a threat to class itself as a determining factor in society. When we internalize class as “the way things are,” anything that makes the class system more fluid threatens our sense of stability. The irony of “individualism” as preached by American conservatives is that it subordinates the diversity of individual goals to the blind mass of economic determinism. Power supports the stability and authority of the system. It does not support “freedom,” despite all the lip service paid to it. Individual freedoms are maintained only by the constant vigilance and effort of individuals who are aware of and find value in other principles besides power.

In the section of Capital entitled “The Working Day,” Marx enumerated the suffering, destitution, and death experienced by workers under industrial capitalism. The entire chapter has a tone of outrage and indignation, strikingly different from the analytical tone of most of the rest of the book. Yet Marx never bothered to explain why we should be indignant. He fashioned an ideology of “historical materialism” that ended up rejecting humanist values as impotent bourgeois sentiment and mysticism. Since economic conditions determine value, human beings are inevitably a means towards the achievement of economic ends—in Marx’s case, communism—and there is no explicit reason to be indignant about the historical process as it works out. Consequently, those countries that have attempted to use Marxism as an alternative social structure have merely created a different form of the class system. It never seemed to have occurred to Marx, for instance, that the party itself, and its military and police power, could constitute a ruling class, but we witnessed just that result in Russia and China. Without even the “bourgeois” notion of individual freedom to stand in the way of “progress,” the Marx-inspired governments committed murders and cruelties on a mass scale, while mouthing grotesque slogans of victory for the “people.”

This line of thought may seem like a diversion, but I have briefly discussed Marxism as way to make a larger point. Economics are only one aspect of the human as such. As the power principle that determines social organization, it is a failure. With money as the center of human striving, the reality of existing individuals becomes a mere means towards the maintenance of power. The reason we are indignant about poverty, hunger, and all their attendant sufferings, is not because of mysticism or “bourgeois” illusions. It is because human life as it is actually lived and experienced is in itself the only true end, encompassing all realms of emotion, relationship, affection, intellect, and enjoyment. Our environment, especially including the food that sustains us, is a gift from nature that belongs to us by right and not by the prerogatives of avarice, competition, or war. The same holds true for shelter and physical health, which are the inherent responsibilities of a human community. The subjective values of freedom of thought and movement, of self-determination and psychic well-being, also spring from a need inherent in human nature as such. Law is necessary to maintain the stability of care, respect, and nurturance as assumed values. Law became arbitrary and oppressive because power became the primary principle of society rather than a means towards these ends. In the end, the class system expresses an undeveloped animal instinct that has never matured into a truly human form of social organization. The perennial struggle for a just society is a gigantic attempt to evolve from a pre-human way of life.

I call my point of view, for lack of a better term, humanism. The daunting challenge posed by humanism is that it exists primarily as an aspiration in the hearts of men and women, and finds only fitful expression in religion, the arts, and other forms of culture, all of which have been infected at the same time with inhuman forms based on the power principle. Because the entire record of history is almost exclusively that of class, the humanist is always in a position of uncertainty, of a striving towards the unknown which is often only dimly seen. With dreams of utopia come the dangers of ideology—once again, we build a prison when we imagine ourselves as means towards an ultimate social end. The futility of the utopian enterprise leads the humanist, in the modern age, the age of arrogance, to the refuge of anarchism.

Anarchism has of course, been turned into just another scare word, a threat of social dissolution. But what is extremely valuable in anarchist thought is that it rejects the economic definition of the human being. An anarchist consciously maintains a subjective independence from class as a value. An important consequence of this is an affirmation of ourselves as we are now, in the present, as inherently valuable and important. As a leftist, I have often experienced a great weariness in the midst of a constant struggle towards social justice and equality—in the face of agonizingly slow progress in the long term and constant defeat in the short, leftists can become grim, humorless, and bitter. We often become obsessed with the “enemy,” consumed with anger at the opponents of freedom. It is easy to see how we can become that which we hate, daydreaming about trials and firing squads and the settling of accounts. I have heard progressives say that we should waterboard Dick Cheney, architect of the recent American torture policy, and they are not aware of a contradiction when they say it.

The anarchist rejects this joyless march to the future in favor of an affirmation of the possibilities of freedom, love, and enjoyment in the present. This does not preclude social action; rather, it grounds such action in a conscious awareness of human value and well-being as existing realities that can find expression today.

Another essential aspect of the anarchist view is the rejection of work as a dominant value. The class system assumes that two-thirds of our life should be spent working. What are we doing and creating that is so valuable that it takes up most of our time? We’re just oiling the machine so it will keep running. A majority of the labor is deadening to our faculties and devoid of pleasure. The class system creates a chimera of “prosperity,” an illusory wealth that goes largely unenjoyed. Anarchism takes a stance outside of work; posits work as a minor aspect of life that in any case should be a means towards actual well-being in the present.

The modern humanist, then, must take a radical position in order to validate the human as such. This is not an arbitrary choice—we either value ourselves as we are, or we don’t, and the affirmative choice is one of necessity if we are to be both aware and happy in our awareness. The bad news is that justice and equality cannot be imposed from “above” by rearranging power relations according to theory, although progress within the system in order to relieve suffering and provide a kind of “breathing room” is generally to the good.

The good news is that at least we know where the solution lies—within ourselves. We must understand, however, that “ourselves” does not refer to a mass of atomized individuals, but to the only reality that matters, and consequently the only value worth having.


Liberality said...

I have heard progressives say that we should waterboard Dick Cheney, architect of the recent American torture policy, and they are not aware of a contradiction when they say it.

excellent point and one that needs stating again and again.

Karlo said...

The Marxist focus on the economy is based on the realization that the economy--or the relationship between labor and ownership to be a bit more precise--drives everything else. As an analytical framework, this is really useful. Your point about the human is well-taken though. At some point, a fundamentally philosophical question must be answered along the lines of: What is it to live well? What's a beautiful life?

DED said...

Great essay, Dash. There's a lot to ponder here and, while I realize the questions are rhetorical, I find myself unable to provide any answers. I suppose I'm still trying to figure it out for myself.

However, there was one question...

“What in the world could any one person do with that much money?”

Depends on the values one was raised with, or developed upon adulthood.

Elon Musk's current work is a good use. Even Bill Gates has developed something of a conscience.

I'd feel compelled to do something constructive, unless I was feeling cynical and then I'd cash out and retreat with my closest friends to a fortified island or ship out to Mars, Ganymede or Alpha Centauri. ;)