Sunday, 20 April 2014

Revolution

Talk with a handful of politically conscious young people and many of them will claim 'We need a revolution.' It is a vague term. What kind of revolution? The view they have in mind is that a throng of peasants will march to parliament with their pitchforks, oust the slimey politicians and we will have an egalitarian society overnight. There is a whole industry surrounding this platonic idea. Che Guevara shirts are sold, as are Lenin posters and students pamphlets. Anti-capitalist sentiment is turned by the capitalist system into a profitable exploit.

Recently the political magazine I am subscribed to, the New Statesman, had the insufferable prig Russell Brand as a guest editor. The theme of the issue was 'Revolution'. Therein he elaborated on his churlish, asinine views. The political system is 'unfair,' we are governed by a privileged elite, politicians are out of touch etc. etc. Whilst this is true, he claims that one must 'disengage' more from the political process. How does further disengagement result in any tangible change? (I remember the sense of relief when the further issues of New Statesman arrived through my letterbox with Russell Brand's childish babbling featuring less and less.)

The silly view that these pseudo-Marxists have (because surely hardly any of them have ever read Marx) is that, once the hegemony is deposed, we will redistribute wealth and devolve powers to the people. A glance at history will tell you that revolutions never are a seamless transition. The French revolution was followed by bloody Napoleonic wars. The more recent example of the Arab Spring is also a good illustration. There has not been a swift transition into democracy in any of these Arab countries. In the case of Egypt, the military has reclaimed power. Syria is in the throes of a long and brutal civil war.

The French revolution and the Arab Spring are still are the best examples of revolution. Both had coercive systems of power. The French had slavery and were subordinated to the monarchic elite. Most of the arab countries were ruled by demagogic despots. The populace felt exploited, deposed their leaders and claimed democracy. It might not had led to accord overnight, but it was the first in the series of steps to attain democracy and equality.

Yet the most cited example of revolution is the Soviet Union. Those kids who don the Che Guevara shirts love Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin, they claimed, debased what would have otherwise been a brilliant project. This system had actually already been cemented by Lenin, Trotsky and others. Stalin simply followed it through to its logical conclusion. The ascendancy of the Bolsheviks shouldn't even be thought of as a revolution. It was a coup. They were a party with low approval ratings who bombed and deposed the democratically elected Mensheviks. It was not a revolution because it was not remotely democratic. It was not that dissimilar from the several military coups which have been enacted over the years in South America and Africa.

To even contemplate revolution right now in Europe is absurd. If leftists want to improve the system, the solution is to enter into parliament. The best method is reformist socialism. You take the core principles of Marx and infuse them into capitalist democracy. I am not a radical or a utopian. I believe in a mixed economy. You nationalise sectors which need to be nationalised (education, health, gas companies, etc). You let sectors which should be private remain private. You regulate businesses which are liable to exploit others. People still have freedoms. Those countries which have followed the welfare model are actually closer to Marx than the Soviet Union in that they are more equal. The United Kingdom and Germany were presided by social democratic parties after the war and all through into the 70s. They now have invaluable institutions like free health care. The Scandinavian countries are the wealthiest and most equal. After the economic crisis, this system should have been vindicated. The deregulation and privatisation (otherwise known as 'neo-liberalism') which was introduced after the seventies led to the crash. What we are seeing now is austerity measures and a continuation of lightly regulated markets. If we care about equality, we shouldn't childishly call for revolution, we should try to reinstate the welfare state.

A revolution we do need is a cultural one. Silly trends dominate everything. People are disengaged with politics. Vacuous technological websites dominate people's lives. Cultural revolutions are exciting. They lead to the acceptance of diversity (as the 60s did for racial tolerance and civil liberties for example). They lead to awareness, interest and experimentation. Mainstream art seems to get more and more horrendous by the day. I have had the misfortune to walk into clubs and I can attest that mainstream music has hit rock bottom. New musical and literary movements could really reinvigorate things. At the same time, it could lead to more political engagement.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The bankruptcy of positivism

The positivist claim is that science is the most useful method to understand phenomena. Science should be applied to all fields of study because it is the most advanced, most refined, method. Science can 'understand everything.' All societies should have scientific inquiry as its foundation. With such a foundation in place, we will have a 'rational' society. People will not pander to so-called 'primitive' practices such as religion.

This strand of philosophy and science, which originated in the 19th century, stresses the need for empiricism. The analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer wrote an essay called 'The Elimination of Metaphysics.' In it he wrote that, because metaphysicians write about phenomena which is untrue and is not there, it should be jettisoned.  Logical analysis and philosophy of science are the only valuable fields of study remaining. This is contestable. In the first place, metaphysics and empiricism surely are worlds apart? Metaphysicians do not necessarily assert the reality of their claims. If their claims are real, empirical observation will not validate them because the possibility of metaphysics exists outside space and time. This is why debating the existence of God is so futile. If God did exist - I don't claim he does nor am I remotely interested in doing so - he exists outside time and space. Kantian philosophy says - and here I am in agreement - that the noumenon may exist, but it is unknowable to the human senses. The speculation about the possibility to discuss the noumenon should not be contested because its claims cannot be proved by empiricism. Just because there is no evidence about the possibility of something, it does not discredit its discussion.

Positivism is largely a result of western arrogance. I would not say that magic and science are equivalent. But why should science be the best method? I am not even thinking of the other university departments here. I am thinking of cultures. Aboriginal culture the world over have had their own practices and their own thought systems, entirely foreign to ours. They have been eradicated through genocide. Positivism is a western arrogance, couched in imperialism, which sees itself as the most advanced.

When scientists claim that societies should have science as their foundation, they need only take a cursory look at history. Nazism was a scientific society. So was the Soviet Union. The former used eugenics, the latter used pseudo-science to ravage the environment. The Nazis killed millions so as to create the 'aryan race.' This was a perverted form of Darwinism. The Soviets also killed millions and, in addition to that, polluted their environment with nuclear waste. Contemporary advocates of science - the premier champion being Richard Dawkins - get impatient when this is posed to them. Yes, they say, those societies were malign but it has nothing to do with 'atheism.' Yet Dawkins himself perverts Darwinism when he speaks of 'memes'. The application of memes to the political sphere should surely be just as toxic. It's a nice theory, that ideas are passed on through genes and undergo a process of natural selection. Yet Dawkins is very keen to see the 'religion' meme gone. This should be done by removing religion from the public sphere. Religion should ceased to be taught at schools. I am no fan of clerical demagoguery, but surely this is a repressive measure? I am in no position to pass judgement on memes as I am not a scientist, but many people more knowledgeable that me claim that it is pseudo-science.

Here are three things science can never understand: aesthetics, metaphysics and morality. There is no set criteria which says that one work of art is greater than another. You can look at art critically, but how on earth is that scientific? Art elicits emotions which are largely inexplicable. This is why when, we are not being critical, we are sometimes flummoxed when asked to explain why we like a work of art so much. Art means different things to different people. Certain novels are considered classics, but so what? Often, a classic consolidates itself because it appeared in the right place and the right time, not because of any intrinsic worth. I like 20th century classical music and dissonant jazz, but most people want to run to the hills when I play that music. Art is something personal to us. This is why we get pissed off when a snotty broadsheet critic tells us that such and such is good and such and such is bad.

My second paragraph partly explained why science can't explain metaphysics. Introspection is a curious thing. The more one introspects, the more reality becomes an ersatz reality. Science can't say anything about what lies beyond reality. Metaphysics starts where science ends.

One of the more perverted developments recently have been certain strands of neuroscience. Philosophy of the mind is brilliant. Any method that reveals how the mind works is brilliant. That's why we have psychoanalysis, phenomenology and now neuroscience. Yet neuroscience claims that it can explain morality. Through brain scans! Morality is a human invention, a convenience. It has been debated throughout history and later denounced by Schopenhaur and Nietzsche. Right and wrong are interesting philosophical questions. There can be no empirical datum which says that this is a good deed or this is altruistic. Morality is an intractable concept. It never changes. There are good and bad arguments for morality. Aristotle said that it was a moral right to own a slave. It might appear ludicrous now, but you can't refute him through science. Sam Harris uses neuroscience to prove that Islam is 'bad' and 'immoral.' He portrays a whole swathe of people as barbaric. A champion of science as a force of good to change the world, he has only contributed to wholly destructive measures by aligning himself with the 'war on terror.' Freud tried to solve what 'love' meant, but gave up. In ancient Greece, most science and physics was obscure and unsolvable. Now we know a great deal more. We have advanced. Questions on morality, ethics and ontology were equally obscure and unsolvable. They remain so to this day. Science can't do anything about it.

Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher worked with logical conundrums in addition to his metaphysical speculations. He understood that logic was limited. It could only do so much. Einstein also understood that logic had its limitations. Quantum mechanics, which is crazily complex (I literally know nothing about it), is a field which grows and grows. The simple logic of a syllogism becomes redundant. Science is an important practice. Intrinsically, it has its value. When you ideologise it, it becomes as toxic as religious demagoguery. What depresses me now is the authority scientists have. They are 'the voice of reason.' They pontificate about philosophy. Indeed, people have now told me 'scientists are the new philosophers.' What they have to say on philosophical matters is fatuous. You wouldn't have thought so by the millions of copies The God Delusion has sold. Scientific positivism is bankrupt. Their books are cluttered on most retail philosophy shelves. They don't belong there.