Jeffery L Nicholas
Philosophy and social theory
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners - all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty - and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.
You have to love Dr. Martin Luther King jr. I think it’s a sign of humanity to do so. I’ve taken a moment this year to reflect on his Noble Peace Prize speech and discovered wonderful utopian moments in it.
He begins by reflecting on struggles of black people just days before accepting the speech. We could do the same ourselves, I’m sure, and not only harms done to blacks but to Native Americans, to the LBGTQ community, and to many marginalized people. But he continues with this:
After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time - the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.
A theme I am doing my best to develop—and I admit that this work is so hard today, in the Age of Trump, in the face of the rampant racism and sexism that drive US politics, and that drove much of the politics behind Brexit and what I know of politics in Poland—but trying to do my best to commit to the idea of non-violent peaceful resistance. And, of course, my doing so is easy—I’m a white (appearing), cis-hetero-normative male. I easily fit into the dominant culture.
But my role in the resistance has never been about violence or other physical resistance—it’s to use philosophy, theology, and social theory to support a vision of a better world and, when possible, to use my words, my writing, and my research to engage in local politics. This I am trying to do with midwives in the New England area.
The struggles that we face—we who are united in solidarity with the poor, the colored, the oppressed gendered—they are real, and non-violent resistance seems impossible. Yet, MLK speaks to us through the echoes of history.
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.
Justice is wounded and lies in the blood spilled from our black brothers and sisters shot by police for no reason than a broken tail-light. Justice lies wounded across the land ripped and torn and punctured for lust of oil—black money. Justice lies wounded in the dorm rooms, the strip-joints, and the bedrooms across this land in the violated bodies of our sisters and our queer brothers. But we cannot be cynical in the face of this violence. Our armor and our inspiration is unarmed truth and unconditional love. We cannot demonize those who oppose the right way. This path is the one that leads to the dark side, that turns us into the monsters we wish to free ourselves from. The orange-one is only the face of such monstrosity, just as Hitler was only the face of national-racism in the service of capital and commodity.
No, we cannot, we must not, demonize. For to demonize the other is to demonize ourselves—to become demons.
We have to believe, instead, in the positive, utopian vision that MLK jr. painted.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.
And in doing so, we must remember that Dr. King was executed, not because of his defense of the black person, but because he stood up for the poor.
I remember—I could never forget—standing outside the hotel where he was shot. I pray that we will never know such violence. And I pray more that a thousand-million Martin Luther King jr.s rise up and lead us on the march to justice.
Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism is a must read if you want to:
Understand economy and politics
Understand the world today
Understand the 2007-2008 economic crisis
Understand why the US has been involved in so many wars
Let me state that the last purpose--understanding Marxism--is really how Harman addresses all of the other issues. And having said that, let me add that this is a must read book. For everyone, not just Marxists, or pseudo-Marxists like myself.
The one insight that, according to Harman, Marx provided and explains political economy, war, the economic crisis, the long-boom of the 20th century, and the failure of first, Keynes, then the Chicago school to explain any of the booms and busts of capitalism is this one: the falling rate of profit. As Harman notes, this concept is (1) the most difficult of Marx's to understand, (2) taken by him from Smith and Ricardo, and (3) rejected by mainstream economists and many Marxist economists. Yet, if Harman's analysis is right, it is the only thing that explains the whole history of boom and bust in capitalism, which no economic theory has been able to do.
So what is the falling rate of profit?
In short, capital investment grows more rapidly than the source of profit. As a consequence, there will he a downward pressure for the ratio of profit to investment--on the rate of profit.
Labor is the source of value--a point denied by mainstream economists yet used by governments to determine their incomes (go figure, right?). Capitalists must increase the value they squeeze from labor by investing in the means of production--tools, machines, computers, etc. Yet, these never add to value, they only extract it at higher rates. So, at some point, the capitalist will reach a point at which he can extract no more value from labor but he has these investments. Thus, the ratio between investment in the means of production to labor (the source of value) reaches a crisis point. The profit rate falls.
As soon as the profit rate falls, individual capitalists extract themselves from further production, laying off workers and ending loans to others. These actions create a feed-back cycle in which other capitalists lay off and stop investing, until the system crumbles... or at least, until the system contracts so much that we hit a recession or (God-forbid) a depression.
Harman uses the first quarter of his book to lay-out Marx's theory. This presentation is clear, though difficult at times (for a non-economist like myself), is short on graphs, but has enough to make his points. He clears up some debate within Marxist economic theory in the process, again never getting too complicated, but only trying to help the reader understand the present world. Part Two of the book examines different explanations for the long-boom of the 20th century, when growth occurred without recession for 40 years. He finds these explanations faulty, and presents the falling rate of profit as the appropriate explanation. Part Three examines global instability after the long boom on similar lines. The last quarter of the book examines the limits of the capitalist system as a whole.
The most important here is what you might find in Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything but presented from the perspective of economic theory and Marxism. In short, capitalism faces a limit in what it can extract from the Earth, and we have nearly reached that limit. Yet, capitalism, like a zombie, continues mindlessly eating and eating its own.
The book presents our doom facing us, yet does not end negatively. Harman points out different possibilities for changing the system. In the chapter, "Who Can Overcome?" Harman defends Marx's reliance on the proletariat and provides enough statistics to convince this former-skeptic that the proletariat is large enough in the world to mount a revolution. As I have argued elsewhere, Harman argues here that the system creates needs that it cannot satisfy, leaving the working class frustrated. The task is for the working class to overcome the fragmentation within it to unite in solidarity and overthrow the capitalists who keep them--us--down.
The news papers, the blogosphere, the left, are all wondering, What do we do now? The US has elected, through the electoral college, a man who is the least qualified and most divisive person in modern times. Donal Trump won primarily because of his demagoguery, but also because the major new media played this demagoguery over and over and over, without questioning it until it was too late. What do "people of good will" do now?
We need signs and messages of hope. Bobby Kennedy provides one such message through the echoes of history: one small act sends forth a ripple of hope. It was so wonderful to run into this quote as I walked into a coffee shop today. That ripple spurred on this little offering of mine, which I hope is ripple to any who reads it. For it is multiple ripples of hope that build a current and sweep away the walls of oppression.
We are not lost my dear people. Or as the song says,
But as long as a man
Sitting at Mass on Christmas eve, my spirit lit up on here the first reading:
The people who walked in darkness
We have walked in darkness so long. The last 18 months have been a gloom, for when Trump first announced his candidacy, I predicted what many people feared and many others thought impossible.
But a great light still shines for us, for we are that light. One man can do nothing without our permission. We each have a respondsibility to make ripples.
As we think about how to make the world a better place, as we work to develop strategies and envisage steps forward, we face a significant problem: all of our models involve mass violence.
See, the problem with changing consciousness is that it requires two things: education and experience. You can get some education through experience and some experience through education—but you really need both to change consciousness, to see the world in a new way, in short, to either become more committed to the values you have or to change your values. And the challenge to changing consciousness through experience is that, we need a change of values on the level of society, not just the level of individuals. Don’t get me wrong, a change at the level of individuals can work wonderful changes for society—witness the rise of Christianity, and then of the Protestant Reformation. The turn to modernity and to capitalism did not happen overnight. But what violence brought these changes about: religious persecution, the burning of witches, slavery, etc.?
We might want to put our hope in the idea that only one person will have to suffer—one man or woman—to die on the new cross. Just such an event happened in Tunisia, sparking the Arab Spring: the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, who, unable to find work, began to sell fruit on the side of the road, only to have it confiscated by government officials. While Bouazizi’s suicidal sacrifice helped spark a wave of uprisings throughout the Arab world, that uprising has failed to bring about the great changes people hoped for. Moreover, his death has only so far affected the Arab world. The deaths of hundreds nay thousands, of black men at the hands of the state in the US have sparked protests, sometimes reaching across cities, but nothing that inspires a mass movement—or at least an effective mass movement.
Thus, the problem is two-fold: first, we only know how violence can change consciousness at a social level and, second, the violence required right now would be massive, world changing violence equivalent to, if not worse than, WWII. If we look to science fiction, we see few instances of social change that happened without violence. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias series imagines a movement that changed international law to get rid of corporations. But what are the steps that lead to this change, because the current society that elected Trump and passed Brexit is not capable of creating such laws? Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing imagines an uprising of women that was mildly violent, but it’s unclear why the US military-industrial complex would not kill old women who stand in its way. The most realistic image I know of is Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, in which environmental collapse changed the way most people think about and interact with nature and with each other. In this last case, billions died.
Yet, Starhawk’s challenge stands before us: magic is the act of changing consciousness. Moreover, we can no longer believe in doing the same thing over and over again: violence leads to violence; usurpers become the new rulers. Her beliefs mirror those of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, who insisted that we must engage in dialogical action and education to resolve the differences between people. The question that remains is whether such dialogical communities can exist in isolation and surrounded by capitalist, imperialistic states. We can take some inspiration from places like the Findhorn Community in Scotland, and other intentional communities. We can begin to grow our own such communities. In the meantime, we must still contend with capitalism and with imperialism, as we try to move forward.
I do not mean to abandon hope. Rather, I mean to inspire hope, for in the end, we can change things if we want to. Capitalism and imperialism work only because we allow them to work. And yes, that means changing our own consciousness. Such change can happen, but maybe it will not be overnight as in the stories. The Brazilian midwife, Ramiro Ramero, tells us that the grandmothers say that change takes nine generations. On the one hand, that is a long time. On the other, we are at the dawn of a new year and the dawn of a new world, and more importantly, still at the beginning of a 2000-year cycle on the Mayan calendar, a cycle that promises enlightenment and peace.
So, let us start.
Please share your own ways of changing consciousness and building a better world in the comments feed below.
Jeffery L. Nicholas (Ph.D philosophy, University of Kentucky) is an associate professor at Providence College and an international scholar on ethics and politics. He serves as research associate for the Center for Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics at London Metropolitan University and a foreign research associate at Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá Colombia. Dr. Nicholas is co-founder of and executive secretary for the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry. He is the author of Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre's Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory (UNDP 2012), as well as numerous articles. Dr. Nicholas writes on midwifery and birth, the common good, friendship and community, practical reason, and Native American philosophy. He aims to develop a philosophy of integral humanism that synthesizes the philosophical traditions of Alasdair MacIntyre, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, and Feminist Care Ethics.