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.
Holy Crud! Have you read or re-read “The Elements of Anti-Semitism” recently? Everything written there can be used to discuss Trump, Islama-phobia, and the national capitalism of 2017.
“Elements of Anti-Semitism” is a chapter in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. I am re-reading the DOE partly because I am using another chapter, “The Culture Industry,” in a class and partly to refresh my mind of the argument so I can draw on it for the book I’m working on, I Aim To Misbehave: Science Fiction Film and the New Values of the 21st Century. I didn’t expect to find much in “Elements,” but from the first line, I was mesmerized by how much the analysis applies today.
“Anti-Semitism today is for some a question affecting human destiny and for others a mere pretext” (137).
Switch in Anti-Islam or Islamphobia for Anti-Semitism, and you have a sentence that applies to today’s world. Racism, in this case against “Muslims,” that is against Middle-Eastern peoples, affects our human destiny—will we continue to be divided over minor differences or will we overcome difference and solve our problems together? But for many, it is also a pretext for their economic interest. This pretext works whether you are interested in controlling oil—a high priced and limited commodity on which all of your dead-labor—technology—rests and, thus, necessary for your profit-margin—or you are interested in the loss of jobs and, so, blame immigrants and refugees for what the capitalist has done to you.
“The [liberal] thesis that the Jews free of national or racial features, form a group through religious belief and tradition and nothing else… contains an image of the society in which rage would no longer reproduce itself or seek qualities on which to be discharged. But by assuming the unity of humanity t have been already realized in principle, the liberal thesis serves as an apology for the existing order” (137…138).
Race, we know today, is an alternative fact—it doesn’t exist, except socially to exclude some. So what unites the people under Trump’s—currently failed—immigration ban is a people of a particular religious belief. This point is both true and false. Like Christianity, Islam has many distinct sects. They are as divided as any Christian from another. Moreover, the current unity of those under the seven-nation ban is also an economic unity. Their countries—and thus the people there—represent economic interest opposed to the national economic interests of the US and the personal economic interests of Trump, who can almost be heard repeating the line from The Sun King, “l’etat c’est moi” (The State is I). In focusing on the ban, though, democrats and other left-wing liberals in the US (and across the world) ignore the underlying reality of the economy. The focus on religion or race detracts reinforces the status economic order—the great inequality that currently overwhelms conscience and Christianity.
Thus, we miss what Horkheimer and Adorno pointed out long ago: “Race today is the self-assertion of the bourgeois individual, integrated into the barbaric collective” (138). It justifies violence, as we see in this clip from 12 Angry Men, no less true today even if juries include “non-whites” on them. Thus, race, for the rulers, “serves as a distraction, a cheap means of corruption, a terrorist warning” (139). Trump’s ban and Trump’s wall distract from the fundamental inequality. By blaming Muslims and Mexicans, Trump points the finger away from himself and other rich bastards to people who are often worse off than the average American. In calling Mexicans rapists, killers, and drug dealers, he only repeats the line passed down from Reagan to Clinton to Bush.
What we have seen is anger and fear over the last 40 years, anger and fear that Trump was able to capitalize on, and which the Clinton-Democratic team also tried to capitalize on by labeling Trump the greatest fear. As Horkheimer and Adorno point out, this fear has roots in the denial of human rights.
“The purpose of human rights was to promise happiness even where power was lacking. Because the cheated masses are dimly aware that this promise, being universal, remains a lie as long as classes exist, it arouses their anger; they feel themselves scorned” (141).
Let’s ignore, for present purposes, the elitism here—an elitism we must resist. The main idea is that the vast majority of people recognize that class division, great inequalities of wealth, cannot exist hand in hand with freedom, which rests on human rights. A right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness opposes any strict class division. (Thanks to my colleague, Matt Guardino, for pointing out that this distinction may be exactly why Jefferson changed John Locke’s wording.) Classes mean that some will always have more life—not just a higher quality of life, but as has been shown, more life itself, as poor people die at higher rates than rich people; classes mean that some will always have more liberty—liberty to speak to the government, liberty to move about—who really among the working class can change where she leaves so easily, except at great cost to find another low-paying job (imagine what the lives and liberties of Mexicans must be like that the risk coming to the racist US!), or the liberty to leisure, or even the leisure to be free from paying taxes; classes mean that some will always have more happiness than others—and Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness is only the exception that proves the fact, as his escape from the homeless shelter left thousands behind.
What we must resist, and what drives a great many people to be anti-Islamic, is class society! “Bourgeois anti-Semitism has a specific economic purpose: to conceal domination in production” (142). In 1944, the Jew represented the thief as a scapegoat for the real thieves, the owners of the means of production, the factories and farms. “The economic injustice of the whole class is attributed to him.” In an ironic twist of fate, today’s Muslim is our Jew, as is the Mexican and the black, and the Native Americans who are dying in the cold as the resist the oil pipeline that will poison the Missouri and, with it, the Mississippi, the great river of the US. These groups represent the injustice of the capitalist class. The Muslim threatens our freedom—that is, our economic freedom, for that is the only kind of freedom in which the politicians have any interest. The Mexican (and the Indian and Chinese) threatens our jobs—which makes it all the more fantastical that free trade has causes a loss of jobs in Mexico. The black threatens prosperity with their resistance to the state form, their laziness and welfare moms who procreate for more and more handouts, and their drug dealers who reject the 9—5 for a liberty only a capitalist could imagine.
Industrialism and contemporary life allow no reflection on these issues. Anyone who questions authority—from the Dixie Chicks to Edward Snowden—is ostracized, threatened in their economic life for voicing their opinions. The Tyranny of the Majority, divorced from the state, finds its true form in economic domination. And without reflection, we become self-absorbed, none as much as the Donald himself.
“Just as, since its rise, the human species has manifested itself towards others as developmentally the highest, capable of the most terrible destruction; and just as, within humanity, the more advanced races have confronted the more primitive, the technically superior nations the more backward, so the sick individual confronts the other individual, in megalomania as in persecution mania. In both cases the subject is at the center, the world a mere occasion for its delusion” (157)
America’s exceptionalism is a megalomania unlike any other—we must impose our form of life on others, for we represent freedom. The Muslim, like the Jew before, opposes freedom and wants to dominate us. They reject our way of life; so, we must strike pre-emptively and allow no more in. Megalomania takes the form of narcissism in the Commander in Chief who thinks he can run the country with executive orders, the stakeholders be damned. If the world does not reflect back his priorities, he is free to construct alternative facts, and the news media, already a tool of capitalist production, can do nothing to prevent him, despite their own rattling of sabers. For in the end, neither Trump, nor the democrats, nor the media can risk the revelation of the great wizard behind the curtain—that profit drives their version of the truth. Alternative facts represent that truth better than any other before: all values become marketing tools; truth and facts have already serviced capital in that role. Thus, class can never be challenged because any challenge is an alternative fact. Poverty is the result, not of capital and class warfare, but of the lack of personal responsibility. (In this, the Catholic Church has been complicit since Leo XIII declared that unions could not morally strike. We can only hope that Francis might reverse centuries of institutional drives for the heart of Christianity: charity.)
Such exceptionalism, megalomania, and narcissism points to Hitler, without hyperbole. “Democratically he insists on equal rights for his delusion, because, in fact, not even truth is stringent… Thus, Hitler demands the right to practice mass murder in the name of the principle of sovereignty under international law, which tolerates any act of violence in another country” (160). The US has practiced its own form of violence in other countries in the name of capital, demanding that The Hague bring to justice any violator of human rights, except its own citizens. The exceptionalism might lie at the root of the US, for what kind of person could strike out over thousands of miles to colonize a new land and spread over it, ignoring the people who lived the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness before them?
We cannot rest in such pessimism, though. We cannot fall into the darkness that haunts the legacy of Frankfurt School critical theory. We are always capable of choosing the direction of our future. We have to diagnose the sickness that threatens to overwhelm us—the exceptionalism, racism, narcissism, megalomania—all of it, rooted in class and capital. I do not say it will be easy, that it will be possible, only that human fate rests on this challenge. We must fulfill the promise of Aristotle, to become citizens of the world—that is, people who can direct their social living—which is restated by Marx: men make their own history.
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.
Well, it's been a week since Trump won the US Presidential Election.
People are still in shock. I spoke to several colleagues yesterday who are managing, but are just down about the election, and still find themselves doubting it. I see similar reactions on my Facebook feed.
I also see reactions of fear: fear of what Trump will mean to immigrants, to blacks, to the economy.
The shock is legitimate given the message in the media leading up to the election. I think it is also legitimate given how insular many have become, existing in bubbles on facebook or other social media, and in their neighborhoods. I still recall being shocked when a neighbor told me he was voting for Trump; and I'm someone who was expecting words like that from people, I just didn't imagine they would come from someone next door--though had I still been living in Mount Angel, OR, I would have. Which goes to show that often our shock emerges from what we are normally exposed to. And for two solid years, the major news outlets had set us up for the coronation of Clinton. So, when Trump won, it seemed like a major upset to most.
Obviously, the fear is also legitimate. We've seen many racist actions since the election: a black doll hung in effigy in an elevator at a Catholic college in New York. Swastikas painted on buildings at another institution of higher education. One of my colleagues told me that the independent group that tracks confirmed racists incidents has recorded 250 since the election--more than they do in a year. And we need not limit ourselves to fears about race for women were attacked over and over, and we already suffer from a terrible culture that normalizes and legitimizes rape. Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale seems more relevant now than ever. Here, women are valued only for their ability to reproduce, and those who cannot are sent to work cleaning toxic waste dumps.
What will life be like for people of color, for immigrants, for women in the near future? I cannot imagine, or perhaps what I can imagine is too horrible to allow myself to think on it.
So I want to be sensitive to the concerns of all people.
I also want to remember the people who elected Trump--the people who voted on class issues. I've made this point in this blog and previous ones before: we cannot separate out identity politics from class politics. That is the dangerous road we walked this election, and the one that allowed me to accurately predict Trump's win. I think, in fact, that Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story warned us about these issues: Trump could appeal to blue-collar and very poor, disenfranchised persons more than Hillary ever could. Hillary was not Bill, who could make this appeal, who campaigned on the slogan "It's the economy, stupid."
The Left has failed to keep in mind that race, gender, immigration, and the environment are tied intimately to capitalism. Will misogyny remain after capitalism? Maybe. It certainly existed before. Yet, as Silvia Federici shows, capitalism exploits latent misogyny and new and more horrible ways. What about racism? Ditto. Study after study has shown that race is determined by class conflict, as wave after wave of immigrant was labeled "black" until the next wave, because they competed for jobs. And immigration? Immigration is always a class issue--an issue of access to resources.
A week on, I do not see anyone in the press dealing with these issues. I've heard few people discussing them. A few people did at the Radical Philosophy Association, but not many.
A week on, we need to recognize--to diagnose--the ills of our society accurately, so that we can work to move forward.
Yes, many are shocked. Most of us are afraid. Now is the time to act, to organize.
Now is not the time for blame. Now is not the time to wallow in our misery. Now is not the time to become depressed. Now is not the time to throw in the towel or wash our hands of politics. Now is not the time to sit back.
Now is certainly not the time to listen to pundits: how did we go wrong on the polls? What mistakes did Hillary's campaign make? What about the third party vote? Was it because Hillary was a woman?
All of the questions that you will hear on television and in the news media over the next days and weeks will not be the right questions. The Fourth Estate is part of the disease it's trying to diagnose. Self-diagnose is usually not the best.
So, we, the people of the United States must wake up to what we have wrought, just as the people of the United Kingdom had to wake up to Brexit the day after, just as so many have had to wake up in the past to what they had wrought. Now is the time to begin asking the serious questions that we have avoided for so long. Questions about labor and employment, yes, and questions about misogyny and racism, yes. But also, and more importantly, questions about fear, questions about the future, questions about who we are?
The Left has a greater share of burden in these questions. For too long, the Left has ignored the proletariat. The Fourth Estate has already begun placing the blame there: white men without a college degree swung for Trump at 67%. This fact should not cause us to disparage those not educated in college. It should, instead, cause to ask, what are we doing in elementary and secondary educational systems?
Humanity faces a question every generation, and sometimes that questions becomes more dominant, more demanding of attention, than at other times. Each of us must face this question over and over in our lives.
Do we choose love or fear?
I predicted Trump would win, not because i believe in fear, but because I knew that the pundits and the political machines, especially the political machine of the democratic party, does not recognize how fear can make people vote. Maybe pundits and democrats cannot do so because it would require them to recognize their own fear--fear of the white, non-college educated, fear that to do so would question their own values and beliefs in free-trade, fear that maybe they cannot rationally control the fear, fear of their own misogyny buried deep beneath beliefs about what it means to be liberal.
Did Hillary lose because she's a woman. Yes.
But only because she is a woman with the name Clinton.
We know that when women run, they tend to win elections. Clinton couldn't do that because she's a Clinton. Yes, the Right and the Fourth Estate, which in the end is only a pawn of the Right, have vilified Hillary for 30 years because she's a woman. The real issue though, that cost the election, was not that she was a woman, but that she was a Clinton, and that came with two strikes. First, people simply do not want to see dynasties in the White House--they would require them to face the reality which they fear: we are not a democracy, but an oligarchy. If we keep changing persons in the White House, we can still pretend that we are a democracy. Second, because the Clinton name stands for center-right liberalism combined with a hate of the poor and unemployed and an abuse of blacks.
If the Left truly wants to know what to do now, then it has to begin by thinking about these issues more carefully and thinking about how to overcome that fear.
In short, it must turn away from fear and into love. Just because fear has won for the moment does not mean that all is lost.
Now is the time to breath in love, and let fear slide away.
Now is the time to ask, what does love require of me in this moment for my community.
Now is the time to look with love at those who disagree with us and ask, what have I failed to see, what do I fear seeing?
Now is the time to rid ourselves of the love of money, the love of self-indulgence, the love of fear.
For now is the time to build a community. For it is always the time to build community. For always, we ust answer the question of fear with the strength of love.
It is characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people. In this consists its social power: the power to build a community. In the final analysis, both those who work and those who manage the means of production or who own them must in some way be united in this community. In the light of this fundamental structure of all work-in the light of the fact that, in the final analysis, labour and capital are indispensable components of the process of production in any social system-it is clear that, even if it is because of their work needs that people unite to secure their rights, their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.
Read that first line again: labor unites people; its social power consists in building a community.
Last night, I had to wonderful opportunity to participate in a panel on the movie "Why not home?" by Jessica Moore at the Sarah Doyle Women's Center at Brown University.
The movie is simply wonderful, showing the beauty of homebirth while discussing--in a most balanced way--the issues involved. If you have the opportunity, please attend one of the screenings around the country. I am thinking of attending the one at Brookline in order to meet the film maker.
In the US, we spend more on birth than any other industrialized nation ($111million), while suffering worse outcomes. For example, the C-section rate has increased to 32% in the US over the last 12 years, while maternal mortality has increased--more mothers dying from birth. Further, our infant mortality rate has fared poorly compared to other countries--deaths have decreased only 13% in the US while they have decreased by 23% in other industrialized countries.
One other interesting point from the movie: the main study used in the US to discriminate against homebirth refused to include the major study from the Netherlands. Thus, the Netherlands' study involved 500,000 homebirths, while the US study involved only 50,000.
As I stated last night, when we deny people information, when we limit people's choices, when we refuse to share information with others, we dehumanize them. In the US, our medical field and the media dehumanize women and children every day, every year, killing many and making many others suffer. I ask you to inform yourself and your loved ones and all you know about the facts around birth, midwifery, and family life to make the best decision for you.
"There's nothing more revolutionary than a woman giving birth"
"Men make their own history"
Reproduction can either affirm the status quo or revolutionize the world. This fact is true whether we are speaking of birth itself--the physical labor of bringing a life from the womb into the world--or about the birth of society--the reconstitution of social, political, economic life through our everyday activities.
When one goes to the hospital and pays the obstetrician to with insurance or a medical card or a credit card, one affirms the status quo. Part of our challenge is to rethink how we do birth so that we challenge the status quo. This challenge does not mean getting rid of the obstetrician. Some mother-baby couples need that extra medical attention. The question is, how do we affirm or challenge that relationship?
Part of what I am bringing out here is the economic aspect. We spoke so much at the HBHE conference about so many topics. I thought that underlying some of our talk was a challenge to the status quo that is capitalism. So Romiro's comment about women giving birth as revolution is a challenge for us to think about how the way we do birth today buys into the capitalist mode of reproduction and how a birth might challenge that capitalist mode of reproduction.
A mother giving birth is revolutionary because it is the most loving act. It is more loving than death or dying for another. For in the act of birth, the mother affirms life and love itself. In the act of death, of martyrdom, the moment of love occurs at the hands of another. In the moment of birth, the act of love comes from the mother's hands, her heart, her whole body. I do not deny the value of death or of martyrdom. It challenges the status quo often. Yet, the moment of martyrdom is a memory to be celebrated. The moment of birth is bringing into the world something new grounded in love. It is essentially a denial of the violence that often mars life.
Thus, in giving birth, a woman makes history by declaring her agency to the world. She also gives agency to another--she brings into life an agent, an actor, in history.
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.