Thursday, June 7, 2012

Interview at 3:AM with Richard Marshall, pt. 2


Here is the second part of my interview with Richard Marshall for 3:AM magazine: Fighting from below for recognition as human. For the full interview, see here.

3:AM: Interestingly it seems that you want the discovery of a moral nature to sustain and ground your position when you say that “we have learned enough about human nature to rule out the ancient justification of slavery and to identify that institution as abusive and corrupt.” And you write about “a general capacity for moral personality” being generally overlooked by contemporary arguments against moral objectivity that overstress the significance of the choice between other goods that sustain relativist arguments. So do you position your Marxist, non-relativism as a form of naturalism, where naturalism is understood in terms of the processes of scientific investigations?

AG: Yes and no. What I think is that we have learned, historically, that slavery is not a part of a good life for humans. That is of course a naturalistic point. But as Lincoln also said wonderfully, “although volume upon volume has been written to prove the good of slavery, I have yet to meet the man who wants to take the good of it by becoming a slave himself.” This is both naturalistic and a fine example of contractarian reasoning. The naturalism - as Thomas Hobbes says look into yourself, no one wants to be murdered or enslaved - is part of and gives life to, as Rawls recognizes in the abstract, the contractarianism (alternately, the moral judgment supervenes on facts).

Interestingly, Rawls’ original position illuminates core moral judgments about the evil of slavery during and after the American Revolution. In Black Patriots and Loyalists, I emphasize this connection (I shared some examples with Rawls before he died). For instance, three farmers in Western, Massachusetts, who participated in the Shays rebellion – revolutionary farmers who had been promised that they would keep their land by George Washington as part of their joining the Continental Army and who rebelled against the banks, their creditors, who took the lands – wrote to oppose the Constitution in 1787: “Just imagine that your daughter went to the brook to fetch some water, and was kidnapped into bondage for her whole life…” One used the pseudonym ‘Consider Arms.’

Similarly, the artisan Gabriel Prosser who led Gabriel’s revolt in 1800 which would have burned down the wooden city of Richmond but was prevented by a big storm and a betrayal, was captured and hung. At his trial, Gabriel said, “I have only to say what George Washington would have said if he had been arrested by the British. I have but one life to give for my country and am a willing sacrifice in her cause.” What I call democratic contractarianism in the form Rawls offered it is a very good theoretical account of such formulations.

In Democratic Individuality, I argued for moral truth or moral objectivity with regard to examples of this kind (again, this is a naturalistic point). As I noted, Aristotle asked a plausible question: what is a decent or a good life for humans? He crystallized or further theorized the question of Socrates in book one of the Republic: what is justice? That question means at the least, something more than what is called justice around here. The latter in a strident or wolvish form is Thrasymachus’ “justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger” which is, of course, approximately true for the predatoriness of all class societies (the speciesism of the formulation toward wolves, for which I apologize, mirrors Plato’s description). But the point can just as easily be made about the working women in the Adamjee jute mill I saw in East Pakistan (now Bangla Desh). In Democratic Individuality, I defended a worked out version of moral realism. I still think this argument is right, and of course, naturalistic arguments in philosophy of science are often realist ones and much of what Brian Leiter pointed out in your recent interview is right (though since Platonic or Aristotelian ethics supervenes on facts about humans – in those cases, moral facts - perhaps not quite the line of demarcation he draws). Having said this, I think that truth (or perhaps approximate truth as scientific realists use the term) is the point. But perhaps from long experience in the social “sciences” where pseudoscience is widespread (consider that today in psychology, IQ testing and its continuing links to eugenics is widely adopted, the idea of the unconscious scorned) and you will see some of my doubt. More theoretically, moral realism emphasizes that some important judgments about the good life for humans are true, at least enough to rule out tyrannies, aggressions and genocides, inter alia. I see little difference between Hilary Putnam’s current views – he agrees with moral realism - and mine on this matter (which was not true at the time I wrote Democratic Individuality, cf. chapter 4). So it depends precisely what’s at stake in the argument about naturalism.

Another way of putting this issue is that some people hope for a materialist reduction of thinking to brain chemistry. But that seems to me, if determinist, misguided… Naturalism has plausibility against various reactionary religious views. But those are not the only kind of religious views (cf. Martin Luther King’s or Thich Nat Hanh’s) and one had better watch out for large intellectual quests on behalf initially of serious and important judgments (logical positivism in Vienna), which in the overall execution, produce something considerably less promising. If everything must be reduced to sense data to be “true,” what about the epistemological assertion that everything must be reduced to sense-data…? And not only fairness but even other minds, electrons, and medium size physical objects may be on the wrong side of the “metaphysics filter” fashioned by proponents of this view. On the conflict of goods example, an especially important one to me since I am, in many respects, a eudaemonist, let us take Sartre’s case of a young man torn between joining the resistance or caring for his dying father. As Charles Taylor points out, the man does not imagine as plausible moral choices being “overwhelmed by these dire circumstances” and going to the Riviera until it is all over, or taking a job with Vichy. What makes a conflict of goods a hard case or clash of goods is precisely core underlying moral standards (killing is bad, helping one’s dying parent is important). To see this point does not require a notion of a universal capacity for moral personality. But the latter is just a general way of putting the central idea that all humans are by nature (and thus must make themselves) free.


3:AM: Brian Leiter, in that interview you mention, lamented approaches to Marx that offer a philosophical reconstruction of historical materialism in its least interesting form (namely, as functional explanation, rather than in terms of class conflict) and as a call for a moralistic change in the consciousness of individuals, regardless of historical circumstances. He linked this approach to the work of G.A. Cohen. I guess one thing Leiter and others have noted is that on attitudes to issues like racism, wimmin, gays, etc the plutocrats are happy to be enlightened. But it might be argued that these issues have been used to prevent traction for arguments against economic inequalities. What’s your take on all this and on Marx?

AG: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” is the first sentence of the Manifesto (Engels adds a footnote about original communism, and actually, the latter is realized, for example, in the women-led egalitarian regime of old Crete and old Europe, and of indigenous peoples). This sentence is right, has contributed to striking historical explanations (see Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, for example) and is the core of Marxian social theory. While I liked Jerry a lot and admired the care with which he produced arguments, I agree with Brian that functionalism misses the heart of what Marx and radicalism more generally are about. Jerry himself was raised, as he once explained to me, by a mother who was a section organizer in the Communist Party of Canada; the mom and Jerry, each in different ways, had trouble with the Communist leadership, and Jerry’s Marxism was remarkably apolitical.

On the points about morals, Brian is perhaps here too much a Nietzschean. Nietzsche argues that there is such a thing as “master morality.” But this is a form of enslavement and exploitation of large numbers of people and the idea that this is an “ethic,” looked at in terms of consequences for people’s lives, is a bad joke. Nietzsche was a brilliant psychologist and writer, but his idea that all ideas of justice from below are mere products of resentment is not serious. And despite his opposition to gutter anti-semitism, his idea of the Jewish slave revolt in morality leading to the “last men” founded European fascism – the first section of Genealogy of Morals is, sadly, mostly a diatribe against alleged Jewish vindictiveness, long term cunning and deceit, and even a “stench” supposedly emanating from the last men - and has had horrific consequences. The “last men” became, for example, the leading idea of Heidegger as a Nazi and is a theme song of Leo Strauss and his political followers.

Modern academia in the US and Europe has gravitated to the idea that science and philosophy are really value-free or relativist (from ordinary social science to postmodernism, the same stale arguments get made, if, as in the case of Weber’s Politics as a Vocation which dismisses moral truth in a sentence – roughly, states have pursued diverse ends, therefore a state must be defined in terms of means, violence and “legitimacy” and there is no such thing as justice - there is anything that deserves to be called an argument. One has but to ask Weber the question: is a state that protects the physical security (lives) of all its citizens morally superior to one that wastes large numbers of lives?, to see that the intelligence of Weber’s intuition is in inverse proportion to its enormous influence in social “science.” Recall my experiences about Pakistan or Vietnam or segregation above or more broadly, look at history from the point of view of those who are oppressed (take colonialism or the bringing home to Europe of it in Nazism): saying that it is hard to give factually-based moral reasons for opposition in such cases is false.

But of course, the old Marxian point – and confusion – about this (see chapter six of Democratic Individuality) is that one can object as much as one likes to the horrors of inequality, and without a serious radical movement from below, the drones will go on sailing out, the derivative market will strangle Americans, the English, Greeks, Spaniards, and Egyptians. So the explosive changes this past year, down to Occupy right now, are pretty promising. Marx had the idea that practice was primary (the 11th thesis on Feuerbach, the pivot of my book on Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens). We need to learn from these movements and to participate in debates about their direction. Really, the fate of the planet is at stake (militarism and global warming will, among other matters, make the planet largely uninhabitable in perhaps a century, with a lot of horror in the interim, if we do not change this system). The end of your question raises problems, however. Yes, identity politics has its weaknesses, and sometimes people in the elite take these things up (Mayor Bloomberg of New York was good on the Islamic center and fighting anti-Arab racism, good on gay marriage, but is hideous – Mr. 1% - about Occupy Wall Street). Sometimes they believe in the struggles; sometimes they are also mean to divert deeper understandings and struggles.

But on the face of it, the struggle of blacks and women and gays is against fundamental social and political inequalities. So the real question is the outlook which informs the struggle, one of internationalism and connection with the struggle of others, seeking to change a radically unequal system of power, as opposed to one of division, “identity,” and in important respects, weakness. Further, this tension is true with every struggle from below including ones which strike even more obviously or generally against economic inequalities. For instance, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration supported the National Labor Relations Act which legalized industrial unions. But the driving force behind this law was the Flint factory sit-in (“sit-down strike”) and the San Francisco general strike, led by the longshoremen and Harry Bridges (in fact, these nonviolent movements were threatened and attacked by the police and the National Guard). Similarly, FDR enacted unemployment insurance and social security, largely because of demonstrations by the Communist-led unemployed councils, uniting the jobless and those with work, and part of the elite was, not unwisely, worried about revolution. Surely, these struggles from below have something important to do with defeating inequality, but even radical and effective movements against it are subject to a) winning important reforms or concessions – genuine victories - and then b) relenting or dissipating for a time or being deliberately deflected. But the further development of capitalism eventually undercuts gains temporarily won (consider the wages and conditions of public school teachers and trash collectors in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana or the disappearance of the American middle class). Along with the illusions Marx describes in Capital (roughly, commodity fetishism) and as Brian rightly adds, the complexities of individual psychology about which Marx has nothing to say, this tension in political movements is something that helps the predatory few – Wall Street, Romney – revel while many suffer.

To highlight what is radical in a class approach to these matters, let us focus on racism. As Marx says in Capital, “Labor cannot be free in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” No progress in a class movement can occur without taking on the attacks on and interests of the most oppressed. White workers, startlingly for those who identify with a prominent race or status, have an interest in fighting racism. But the Civil War, Marx says, gave rise, dialectically to the new labor movement for a shorter working day (the movement that culminated in the Haymarket massacre in 1886 and the foundation of May Day by the Second International in 1890). So the fight against racism is the chief aspect of internationalism and of creativity in the American labor movement. The class movement is thus propelled by the issue of fighting racism and this is pretty important compared to seeing such struggles as a “diversion from the class issue…”

Similarly, Martin Luther King was a leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement, and moved, in the last year of his life, into creating a poor people’s movement. Fighting against the worst oppression and trying to build a movement against the oppression which affects a much larger number is a) intensely politically connected and b) morally insightful. Yes, rebellions in American cities contributed to civil rights from below, but arguably the nonviolent movement and all the exposures of injustice also created a climate in which the Civil Rights Acts came to pass. President Lyndon Johnson, one of the great war criminals of modern history (the genocidal war against Vietnam), nonetheless, was forced by this movement, against his own past history of racism and in the setting of the Cold War (where the Russians and others could use pictures of police dogs sicced on children in Birmingham to show the face, to other nonwhite peoples, of capitalism) to come to terms with black and white struggle from below. Johnson fought for passage of the bills. My friend Vincent Harding was close to King in the movement and knew most about Vietnam. He wrote the first draft of King’s speech ‘Breaking the Silence’, April 4, 1967, a year to the day before King was murdered supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis (the slogan of the strikers, “I am a Man,” says something really important about inequality). That speech named what many in the movement already believed; that civil and social rights could not be won, racism could not be successfully fought, without speaking out against “my government, the most violent government” in the world.

Injustice is very hard to fight. To begin with one burning issue is likely to lead to connections to or entanglements with other issues, to recognize that this system is, globally and domestically, a web of interconnected harms, and that even those who move on one issue can sometimes be distracted or even enlisted to oppress by shifting the focus to another. Cries for war against an external “enemy” have always been the last and best resort of a criminal elite. The idea of democratic internationalism (see Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?) is that all these struggles against oppression are or might be linked. That was also, once upon a time, Marx’s idea in the International Working Men’s (sic) Association, and it was the idea that King gave noble words to, especially in the last year of his life. As another way of putting it, divisions among workers, for instance, the pitting of American workers against Mexican immigrants, is one of the great secrets of capitalist domination and pushed, Marx says with regard to the Irish in England in 1870, “through press, pulpit and comic paper.” So the aim is not to pit one movement or group of people against a “class” movement, but to offer a Marxian or radical account of internationalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and to discuss with others in order to achieve common insight inside a movement (i.e. not hostilely). There needs to be a willingness to learn from others as opposed to putting across a “true” viewpoint (all the destructive rhetoric about “petty bourgeois” consciousness or “revisionism” and the like, not that there aren’t real and important issues to be clarified through discussion. But as a great lesson from King and Gandhi, name-calling is not a way).

To put it in Marx’s and Engels’ language in the Manifesto, communists defend the interests of the working class regardless of nationality. That means if American soldiers are being transported to murder people in the Middle East, one doesn’t just fight against inequality in America, but also, as it becomes possible, opposes anti-Arab racism, fights to bring the troops home, to end or diminish militarism, and diminish inequality at home. Occupy is at a very beginning stage, but has raised – or has the promise of raising - these issues in a novel way and with a lot of democratic political inventiveness. Its way of posing the basic issue of inequality – one that has transformed the political dialogue – is “we are the 99%.”

I often say I am a radical democrat (I have also learned from the nonviolence of King and Gandhi). One of the things I mean by this is that we have to maintain and advance the true understandings achieved in the long struggles of the past, but learn also from novel and unexpected mass movements like Arab spring, the Greek rebellion and Occupy. For instance, the new democratic procedures of Occupy – resistant to hierarchy as well as popular but also elite publicized “leaders” and even specific demands – are part of that learning. So is an inclusive democratic or class insight which must reach out to involve the most oppressed (say, more of the black and latin teenagers trapped in the immense American prison/probation complex).

3:AM: You have distinctive arguments about how the political left should respond to the contemporary context of Globalisation. Certainly it seems as if there is a democratic deficit in the operations of the USA, of China, India, and Russia. Africa, the Middle East, Israel, Indonesia and North Korea are all examples of the different ways this deficit is working out. Your anti-imperialist position is described as “democratic internationalism from below”. You ask a key question in your book, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? In answering the question, you have four positions that offer answers: idealists, realists, neorealists and Marxians. The latter three see off idealists, but you say your “argument begins only at this point.” You answer the question “cautiously but negatively.” Can you say something about this, in particular, why you find realists and neorealists less satisfactory positions as compared to Marx.

AG: A difference with Brian Leiter with whom I often agree: there is a dialectical relationship between naturalism or realism and moral/political arguments. Idealism is a little like what Brian styles anti-naturalism. It is a catch all for often very different views, a division created too easily by a line of demarcation favorable to one important aspect of one position. Nonetheless, let us take up this terminology for the sake of argument, and consider internally great power realists’ misguided formulations about ethics and about the real interconnection of international and domestic politics. Realists and neo-realists in international politics are good at assessing the power motivations which lead to or sometimes check important conflicts. Older realists, like Hans Morganthau, depict themselves as having a moral argument – he certainly did on the Vietnam war which he attacked along with the American foreign policy which spawned it as “a coherent system of irrationality.” Properly understood, I suggest, realism is, in fact, the claim that pacifists and moralists would disarm against a great enemy, and cause inadvertently the unnecessary deaths and oppression of many thousands of people. Realists conceive their argument as a power-theory critique of moralism, dismissing in kind a misguided ethical approach to international politics. But in this debate, the realist actually insists on saving lives. Ethics, as I pointed out earlier, is about preserving human life as well as a good life. Thus, if realists are right about the facts, realism is a moral critique of moralism.

Neo-realists trick up realism with additional, misguided philosophical (empiricist) slogans. For instance, a realist says that great power politics should be left to diplomats and not a democratic populace (see George Kennan, American Diplomacy). That is a comprehensible political argument, though mistaken, even from Kennan’s point of view, about the Vietnam War and what he names “our military-industrial addiction.” For in the Vietnam case, the anti-War movement, not the diplomats, represented “the national interest.” Neo-realists, however, appeal to a supposed methodological doctrine of a separation of levels, radically distinguishing the powers of international politics from the particular regimes of comparative politics. This is an epistemological overlay obscuring real political arguments, and is deceptive and self-deceptive. Neo-realism, for instance, ignores obvious counterexamples such as the US-British alliance which ate Iraq in 2003 and thus shaped its “domestic” politics. But my argument on democratic internationalism starts at just this point. It grants, for the sake of argument, international contention of powers and then asks a question (to begin an internal critique): what would be the effect on democracy (or a common good among citizens) at home of such rivalry? The answer is: a devastating one. I suggest that in all inegalitarian regimes (all capitalist ones at minimum, but many “socialist” ones as well), leaders will have a motivation to wage war or intervene abroad in order to build popularity (nationalism) and choke off movements for reform or revolution at home.

On this view, citizens of the intervening country, i.e. America in Vietnam or Iraq, have common interests (in their lives, freedoms and wages) across national borders with the people aggressed against – democratic internationalism from below. Realism and neo-realism do not see this because a) their view assumes a common interest of citizens in most of the government’s policies (harmful impacts on most citizens are eccentric on this view, not the norm), b) has no clear idea of a common good and is misled to think that its own view does not deliver moral judgments, c) arbitrarily disconnects international and domestic politics, and d) does not think about reform movements from below and how foreign interventions or aggressions may undermine them. But as I also point out about Vietnam, or in the writings of Robert Gilpin and Robert Keohane, realists and neo-realists, nonetheless, trace how the prevailing policies of the state harm most citizens. Democratic internationalism is thus a more consistent and broader account of what is good in realism and neo-realism. In addition, note the importance I attributed earlier to Rawls’ original position. Rawls told me he liked what I call in Democratic Individuality the integrity of ethics – that one may ask what a decent life is for humans and find, through inference to the best explanation, important answers. For instance, there are true or objective answers to the question who is aggressed against and who is carrying out self-defense, who is hurt – most citizens – or helped by belligerence and how oligarchic or militaristic elites use nationalism and aggressions abroad to stifle protest at home.

In his interview with 3:AM, Brian Leiter worried about whether Nietzsche’s vision of creative genius being stifled by democracy is right. There are reasons to worry. Still, democratic tribunes can be ingenious - Lincoln or John Brown or Frederick Douglass or Walt Whitman or Thoreau or Emerson, for example. While I like some features of Nietzsche and Heidegger (the latter has helped spark deep ecology, for example), they have no monopoly on brilliance. In fact, as Brian says (in relation to Foucault), they have amazing foibles and prejudices themselves, arguably in Heidegger the main moral and political point about his works and life… Clarity about the integrity of ethics also helps to ward off quasi-democratic outrages like the murder of Socrates or the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan. Democracy when it protects the rights and well-being of each has moral merit or illustrates, in Rousseau’s language, a general will. But democratic decisions can also simply be a destructive or tyrannical will of all (i.e., segregation laws).

On the last issue raised by your question, the meaning of my book’s conclusion, that international politics can but need not constrain democracy - a cautious but negative response to the book’s title Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? – I might suggest today that illustrated by Arab spring and Occupy, democratic internationalism from below points a mutually inspiring way forward.




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