Friday, October 31, 2014

A Note on Ideology & Science

I'm not going to post about the Maine gubernatorial election after all, as the sort-of-kind-of withdrawal of Eliot Cutler has made it less interesting. There are still good points to be made about the class structure of this state and the political system of this country, but there will be better ways and occasions to make them.


Instead, since it's not every day that a twitter argument with an overcredentialed buffoon leads one to clarify one's thoughts about matters of importance, I would rather jot down those thoughts while I can.

The claim of Marxism to being a scientific description of the motive forces of human social action died somewhere around the time that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 350 parts per million, i.e., some time in the late 1980s. Its fundamental hypothesis that capitalism would pave the way for communism on the basis of material abundance was premised on another, less explicitly articulated hypothesis, as to the relationship between human interests, reason and action, a fundamentally Spinozist view that once people know what is to their rational benefit, sooner or later they will get around to acting accordingly. We have had a quarter century or so to see whether this would ultimately be borne out, whether the passing from the scene of the pseudo-Communism of the USSR would open space for the actual communism of an activated working class. In that time, capital has further eroded the preconditions not only for its supersession, but even for human survival.

One of the internal challenges to Marxism's self-conception, however, was its own theory of ideology, which described in fairly comprehensive fashion the various mechanisms by which class-divided societies make it difficult, if not impossible, for those who live within them to accurately discern their nature. The degeneration of certain types of Marxism into a toolbox of techniques for ideology-critique itself became a mechanism for the ideological defense of the capitalist system which their proponents had lost either the ability or the will to either comprehend or transform. The apparent antinomy between Marxism as a promise that a scientific understanding of capital could be attained through the struggle against it, and Marxism as an alibi for the apparent all-pervasiveness of capital's counter-scientific self-misunderstandings, was not irresolvable in principle, but it was not resolved in time.

Given that history, it would be easy to conclude that a scientific understanding of human society is impossible. "Philosophy persists because the moment for its realization was missed," to paraphrase Adorno from memory. Easy, intellectually lazy, and defeatist.

Rather, it is possible to understand human society ecologically, as part of a natural process, as the accumulated behaviors of an animal species whose capacity for ratiocination serves primarily as a means of communicating post-hoc justifications for an ensemble of instinctual responses. Doing so requires actually listening to, and learning from, natural scientists. It means overcoming the tendency--most clearly enunciated by Hegel in his Encyclopedia Logic, and brought most explicitly into Marxism by Luk√°cs--to regard nature as a fundamentally unchanging set of cyclical processes and human activity, whether defined as spirit or as labor, as the true source of dynamism. Rather, it is nature that is the dynamical system, responding in non-linear fashion to small changes in forcing conditions, whereas human society continues to be dominated by its own accumulated momentum, the momentum of accumulation.

Crude empiricism? Perhaps. But it's all we've got.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

On the Maine 2014 Election: Part 1, Of Bears and Men

The phrase "As goes Maine, so goes the nation" dates to a time (the late 19th century, after the betrayal by the Federal government of Black Reconstruction and liberation in the South) when the national electorate was far more white and agrarian than it is today. Maine is still far more white and far more agrarian than most of the country, and is also by some measures the most aged state: The nation that went with Maine is long gone, while the state itself remains, at times charmingly and more often frustratingly, stuck in the past.

Yet the state's politics are not as uniformly conservative as that description might imply to a superficial observer. The preemption, by the Democratic and Republican parties, of clear-cut class identification means that political polarization in the United States often manifests in reactionary and rebellious impulses, the conservative and the transformative, co-existing within the same individual or small social subgroup. For example, it was among the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular referendum, rather than via judicial or legislative action. That vote was partially a reflection of a growing concentration of socially liberal-minded people, some of them "from away," in the southern portion of the state, but it also stemmed in part from a very old-fashioned kind of New England laissez faire attitude--"What people do in their own homes is none-a-my business, and what I do in mine is none-a-yours"--even if the end result would have Cotton Mather spinning rapidly in his grave.

So observation of Maine politics is no longer of interest as an indication of the broad trends of U.S. politics. Its interest, aside from its intrinsic relevance to those of us who live here, stems from its ability to point to the deep and often contradictory motive forces for the currents and countercurrents that assume a more momentous significance elsewhere.

I will get to our gubernatorial election, where each of the three major candidates is of interest less for what he stands for than for who he (claims to) stand for, that is, the social groupings that each stem from and the social groupings who invest their hopes and self-respect with him. But I will begin, instead, with something that is likely to escape the notice of the national media, statewide ballot question Number 1, a citizen initiative worded as follows: "Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?" Apparently Maine is the last state in the country that still allows those hunting methods, which opponents regard as cruel.

When the petitioners came to the Portland Farmers Market trying to get enough signatures to put this on the ballot, I consciously chose not to sign. I may well be the only person registered Green Independent in the state of Maine for whom that is the case. If there's one thing I have learned in almost three years of living here, it is, don't fuck with hunters. Anything perceived as an infringement upon the right to hunt, if not backed strongly by wildlife conservation biological necessity (and sometimes even when backed by such scientific studies) will be taken as an attack upon rural "working people"--a commonplace self-identification that overlaps with but differs from Marxist definitions of the working class--and their ability to fill their freezers cheaply with calorie-dense meat in the tradition of their ancestors. It does not matter that the bear-hunting methods in question are expensive to engage in. First, there are some people who make a living in part as hunting guides. But more importantly, it takes on symbolic significance, as an example of "liberal" overreach.

The reason I put liberal in scare-quotes is that there is a peculiar way of using that word that, while I doubt it is unique to Maine, I first heard after moving here. I remember being on a flight from Philadelphia to Portland, seated next to two native Mainers who were returning home for the first weekend of deer season. One of them was complaining that his small, rural town had limited hunting to shotguns only because "the liberals don't want to get hit by a rifle bullet while walking through the woods". I asked a professor I know who lives in that town if that sounded like the sort of usage that many residents would use, and she concurred. Apparently, for some in Maine, a liberal is someone who wants to be able to walk in the woods during hunting season (without an orange vest) and not get hit by a rifle bullet. To translate that from the particular to the general, it is someone who wants to regulate the behavior of others without necessarily changing their own. Someone who acts like they know better than everyone else. (I incorporated this example into my story "The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine," recently published in M, to good effect, I think.)

I am not a liberal, in either this Maine-ish sense nor as it is more generally understood, and that is why I didn't sign the petition. As a socialist/communist, I operate from the standpoint of favoring whatever is good for the working class, since that is what is in the interests of humanity as a whole. If someone wants to go hunting for bear with dogs, bait, traps, or even rocket propelled grenades, then unless it can be scientifically demonstrated that there are ecological or bear-behavioral effects that are detrimental to other humans, it's none of my business.

But there was also a strategic consideration to my opposition to the referendum: The problem with this kind of liberal behavioral meddling is that it makes it very easy to stir up populist, rural vs. urban resentment. The Republican Party are the ones who are best set up to capitalize, electorally, on that resentment. So concretely, if you ask, who stands to benefit from having Question 1 on the ballot, it is incumbent Governor LePage. And as I will explain, even though I have no intention of voting for either of LePage's opponents, I would prefer that he not get re-elected, either.

That's all I want to say for now about hunting or bears. On to the governor's race.

Each of the three candidates represents a distinct stratum of the Maine population who have been well-represented in the state's politics. Each of these strata, and the individuals representing them, have at best done fuck-all for the standard of living of the working class in this state, and at worst, have actively undermined it, which is why I won't be voting for any of them. But there are important differences of detail and style between the three, whose true significance would be difficult for someone from outside the state to discern. That will be the subject of my next post.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Self-Promotion Again, More Shameful than Shameless

The folks at Haikasoru, in what may have been one of the worst possible marketing moves for Phantasm Japan, asked me a few questions about my story "Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self". In the process of giving my answers, I may have offended bureaucrats, poets, Trotskyists, Mainers, New Yorkers, the people of Japan, the editors of Cracked, and my own father.

Also, Big Pulp committed my words to print in the second issue of M: Mystery and Horror

Isn't it shiny?

The story contained therein, "The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine," might offend veterans, Franco-Americans, people with obscure psychiatric disorders, and once again, Mainers.

Go send Big Pulp three of those $2 bills you have left over from your last trip to the strip club and enjoy.