Monday, October 18, 2010

Time Isn't On Anyone's Side

Initially I considered starting this with the old stand-by: "I think there may be something wrong with me."

I don't do a lot of internet research. I generally profit from the research of others. I love Wikipedia, but don't scroll through a daily checklist of forums, news and blogs. Three people posted three different things, which, being read in the same hour, were profoundly interesting.

The first was an article posted by my former history prof on Facebook. From the NY Times it discusses cutting back the humanities courses at SUNY Albany (where Bennington occasionally borrowed professors). The arguments weren't particularly new: the relevancy of humanities courses in the global economy, trade schools, historic context of everyone getting a degree, utility of Emily Dickinson. Lots of talk about democratic society. Read it here:

The second thing I read was, without trying to be, very optimistic. A Cracked article from their foremost intellectual writer, David Wong, it discusses the long-term implications of the internet and free access. There are some interesting assumptions underlying his premises on the indesctrutability and inevitability of the net, as well as the irreplicable fusion of capitalism and society. And, you know, funny pictures and stuff.

Finally, from a far more capable blog, John Wiswell wrote a nice little story. It happens to be about academia and human folly:

We seem to be going back to Hegel, which is unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable. Hegel was the philosophic 'cause celebre' from the time of Napoleon to roughly the inter-war years. A few outspoken philosophers disagreed, like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Husserl, and we now tend to read them more frequently. In their own age, however, they were far from popular.

Hegel, in the simplified husk of a nutshell, basically said it's going to keep getting better. The notion was that human conditions will keep improving and perfecting as new ideas come along to better modify the lousy old ones. When explaining it to students I suggest the concept of a tournament: first you have 16 teams, then 8, then 4...

For Hegel this process had an end-point, and that was as near to perfection and God-like status as humans could achieve. It was a fine, rational concept that embraced Darwinian evolution and Industrial progress. (And Marxists, just in reverse.) But the fallacy at it's heart was an old one.

If there are 16 people alive today who came from 8 parents, that means there must've been an original 2 parents, right?

This Adam and Eve confusion is fundamentally wrong, and also part of why I found those three articles oddly bewildering. I expect a young child to be puzzled by the chicken and egg riddle, but not an adult. The egg came first. It just happened to be hatched by a proto-chicken. Just as there weren't two first humans, but some larger number of proto-humans.

For Hegel to be right would mean that there are a finite number of ideas modes of living. This may be true, but only if the earth is static. So long as the earth keeps changing, our modes of life will keep having to change along with it. As new climactic shifts occur, and new species and pathogens are made known, humanity will change course, again and again. People do not live the same way know as they do when the Plague hit Asia and Europe. But they might again, in the future.

Even if we eradicate every disease known to man new ones will occur. If we found a means to harness the weather (even though we can't even predict it currently) there would be a means of losing that power. Add in culture and politics and you have a veritable stew of unpredictability.

Technotopias erase these elements. Disease isn't an issue. Weather is fine. People are happy. Politics are a thing of the past. Culture is respectfully diverse while simultaneously uniform. It can't be otherwise: traditions are too conflicting and beliefs are the stuff wars are fuelled by.

Although an economist may disagree with that one. For the economists everything comes down to money: resources, services, ideas, land. Everything has a price tag and dollar sign affixed to it. It's no coincidence that modern capitalism was being born around the time Hegel began writing. Capitalism is based on the very same notions of Hegel's dialectic: that a competition of stuff (ideas, investors, whatever) will lead to a final end-product that is superior. The free-market argument depends on this concept. If this type of competition didn't lead to improvements then capitalism would be very, very flawed at its core.

And typing that made me shiver, because it confirms a suspicion I've been developing for years: capitalism has outgrown its usefulness. There are many telling signs: The dependency on an entrenched poverty sector. The 'dynamic' cycle of boom and bust that, when translated to people's lives, is catastrophic. The fact that some of our most important and essential societal needs we don't trust to the free market - health care, education - without devastating consequences. As David Wong points out we can't rely on charity, because for humans charity is given only when we're in a certain mood.

So, too, from the cauldron of the late 1700s European Enlightenment came another fundamental idea, this one taking the form, most successfully, as a state. Or rather, 13 states. For functioning democracy is as much a rationalist product as capitalism or Hegelianism.

Now, as many are quick to point out, we don't have a functioning democracy. The biggest flaw, that is, what I find to be the most basic and corrupting influence, isn't human nature but the role capitalism plays in politics. Vested interests, lobbyists, campaign finance and all of that bullshit are, quite literally, ruining politics. I plan to vote in a few weeks, but I know that there will be no real change. The Tea Partiers are naive to think their candidates won't be destroyed by party interests or business interests.

Corporations have the power. They have for oh these many decades. Corporations of such size can only exist with bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is one of the most powerful forces in the world, and one we take surprisingly for granted given its youth. Bureaucrats are a relatively modern invention. They are fundamentally modern, originating in the early days of the modern era, say it with me, the late 1700s.

Bureaucrats are good at keeping their job safe. They are efficient only when very small. They are best at entrenching themselves. Dissolving bureaucracies is no easy task. Being tied to both the legal world and money-making they are very secure pill boxes, whose destruction requires extraordinary strength.

Four concepts: bureaucracy, capitalism, democracy, and Hegel's utopian 'Progress'. Let's play the Hegel game. If you had to pick one of these four concepts to survive what would you pick? Let's rationalize the answers.

If you pick bureaucracy then you're going to see a world where the red tape never disappears. Bureaucrats are the masters of the 'it's my job' rationale. "I'm just doing my job." It takes a certain element of human coldness to give that answer to someone who is in need, or pain, or suffering. More importantly, we've all met such people: at airports ("I'm sorry your bag...") or at government agencies ("I'm sorry but you must first...") or in a dozen other places ("I'm sorry..."). These people are often useless or inept. Consider the many, many cultural critiques and scathing remarks we have for them from the funny pages, to Kafka, to Kurosawa. We hate these people, and with good reason. Zygmunt Bauman goes so far as to detail their necessity in carrying out the Holocaust. A handful of idealists couldn't have done it: and anyone whose seen the masses of forms and paperwork that details pounds of hair and concentration camp populations, not to mention the fanatical arm tattooing and gas chamber logs knows just how horrific a bureaucracy can become.

If you picked capitalism then you are a big fan of lotteries. Careful money management is a joke. You can be as careful and prudent as you like and lose it all: your house, your job, your finances. Or you can be as reckless as they come and have a fortune at your feet. The odds are less likely in both cases, but those are just odds, and, as someone who like lotteries, odds aren't your thing. During the current recession it's easy to point fingers at Wall Street and the rest of the bastards, from banks to mortgage to insurance. To assume that they'll stop having people who are greedy at the helm, or that the board of trustees will ever be less intimidating and powerful is stupid. Very stupid. Stupid in the 'trick me once, shame on you, trick me for a century and a half... next time will be different, right?' kind of way. No amount of regulation is without loopholes, and no laws protecting us can't be overturned if money and politics commingle (see: Reagan deregulating the Wall St. reforms that had been in place since, and because of, the Great Depression).

If you pick democracy then you may have picked the right answer. It depends on whether our country's version of democracy can be fixed. Currently, no big surprise, its broken. A few problems have lead to this:
1. Curtailing free speech. Now that the Bush years are over sedition seems less likely to be an offense. But take a look at the journalistic integrity in the U.S. and weep. I have only slightly more respect for CNN or NBC than I do for Fox. This 24-hour news cycle and punditry is devastatingly ruinous to free speech.
2. Education improvement. We suck at education. Like, a lot, you know? There are many reasons for this. First, there is a gap between diplomas and dollars. To start one's life in debt and be unable to get a job with an expensive degree is beyond disheartening, it's jading. Second, there is a palpable lack of good teaching and good teachers. We need a lot of very good teachers, due to our enormous size as a country. We can either a) fill up classes to bursting and hire as many people, regardless of quality, as are willing to work for charitable wages or b) make teaching a lucrative and respected profession, so more high-qualified teachers are vying for jobs and class sizes can be smaller due to increased numbers of educators. So far we've been doing choice 'a' because it's more cost effective. But an uneducated democracy is a dangerous thing indeed.
3. Poverty. Poverty and poor education go hand in hand: they call it the poverty cycle. It is, like most cycles, very hard to break, and there is no cure-all. You need money for a good education, and a good education may get you a good job and more money. But without that initial shot of money then you get a bad education, lacking skills you get a job that requires no skill and is therefore paid poorly. Without this $ you can't send your kids to a good school. Only in rare and inspirational astral alignments due children break free of this. And, as everyone whose been on the border lands of middle class and poor knows, it is much easier to become poor than rich. There are plenty of safeguards in place to ensure that the poor stay poor.
If we are able to fix these things, at the cost of capitalism and bureaucracy, then democracy may be the right choice.

Finally, if you picked Hegel, then you are a profound optimist. Hegel's Progress is very optimistic, seductively so. Who wouldn't want a world where tomorrow is always going to be better than today?

But there is a reason why Hegel fell out of favor after WWI. WWI was about as bloody, and irrational a war as they come. Millions slaughtered, over what? And what was achieved? The whole war was tragic - not just for those who lost but for those who won. This was new. War hadn't, usually, been seen in a tragic light from the victor's viewpoint before WWI. In the Great War, the plain pointlessness of it all precluded such a reaction.

There is no guarantee that tomorrow is going to be better. Tomorrow the sun may not come out. It may rain. Or you might get Ebola. Or the president might be assassinated. You don't know, can't prepare, and will have to do your damnedest to cope. Some will thrive with change, and others will merely survive. Many, many others won't even survive. Count yourself fortunate if you do.

So if you opt for Hegel, and as I said at the start it seems he is on the popularity rise, then get ready for change - change you may or may not be able to live with. Because Progress, like capitalism and bureaucracy, lives only to serve itself.

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