I Guess Stronger Together Was It, Jamming, 23/10/2017

A story first, then some philosophy.
• • •
Sometimes, a politician hits on the right idea at a time when she can never do anything about it. Hillary Clinton had led a political life of equal parts naiveté and the most awful ethical compromises for state power.

I think there's a good heart and an ethical soul in Hillary Clinton. I
firmly believe this. But I'm also sure that she no longer knows how
to express that soul. She had to hide her values as First Lady of
Arkansas and the USA under vicious attacks that made her out to
be some feminazi monster. Now, her quite reasonable
feminism is actually mainstream.
But she spent so long and in such intense circumstances training
herself to speak in euphemism to placate millions of sexists and
racists, she can't sound believable about what she truly and
deeply believes.
But then she put a fundamental truth about human nature on her campaign signs – that we are stronger together. It’s as if she knew she’d go down in flames – never consciously, only as a last moment of ethical instinct from the most ancient parts of her brain.

Everything about her political career was rooted in noble, true instincts, but she and her husband both were the worst judges of which compromises were worth making. Believe deeply all your life in the power to heal racism in America, then pass the 1994 crime bill and welfare reform packages in the name of compromise across the aisle.

Newt Gingrich’s Republican Party was just as revanchist as Donald Trump’s. Gingrich just had some tact, so he could trick naive kind people into thinking that he didn’t wish we could just have Jim Crow back.

It’s the same about this mess with Uranium One blowing up on right-wing media. FOX began talking about this complex web of business deals, as if it shows the fundamental corruption of the Clintons. But to me, the centre of the story lies here.

Bill Clinton walked into a meeting with Nursultan Nasarbaev – President For Life of that bastion of liberal freedoms and government transparency Kazakhstan – while Hillary Clinton was US Secretary of State. Bill sincerely believed that he was arranging nothing more than a contribution to a public health project somewhere impoverished.

Bill and Hillary Clinton would never have imagined such a meeting as a pay-for-play. Corruption was the worst thing a powerful person connected with government could do – it would break the people’s trust in you to do the right thing by them. Surely, no leader of a country would take on such a burden solely to enrich themselves.

Nasarbaev lives in a world where every meeting is a pay-for-play, a corrupt deal to enrich yourself. Enriching yourself was the reason you joined the government.

Some people are raised believing that joining government means becoming a public servant – that you have a duty to your constituents. If you take that so much for granted that you can't conceive of people who join government for very different reasons, you should stay home. You won't be able to deal with these people.
• • •
Hannah Arendt wrote about a particular concept of freedom – freedom from interference, self reliance, autarky. Freedom as the ability to turn away from our obligations.

This is a freedom we all have. But it isn’t a freedom we should want. It’s the freedom to turn away from your friends and neighbours. We’re all free to decide that we should live only to enrich ourselves.

But living that way leaves us bankrupt. Humans are fundamentally social creatures – our personalities are inherently inadequate and broken if we don’t get enough contact with other humans as infants and small children. We’re each deeply interdependent on everyone else in society for our mental and cultural health.

To have a morality that turns away from everyone else – when freedom is freedom from obligation – embraces the withering of a human organ as a great ethical good.

It sounds absolutely mad. Of course we’re stronger together than we are acting only on our own. Someone who’d gladly turn his back on everyone around him would be a monster of a person.

Don’t forget that another way of life as possible – never forget that humans are very good at making ourselves monsters.

The Utopia of the Mass Grave, Research Time, 19/10/2017

There’s a common right-wing argument against utopian thinking, which is rooted in the libertarian impulse for small government. The emotional ground of that argument is an appeal to the horrors of totalitarianism.

Stalinist* Russia and Nazi Germany are the real-life outcome of what the modern libertarian (and generally conservative) right-wing considers socialist utopias. Now, for my purpose at the moment, I don’t want to argue over the facts of whether secret police states are the logical, conscious, or unintentional end-points of socialism. I want to talk about the structure of the argument itself.

Rick Sanchez, hero to those who don't know that he's actually
there to be laughed at.
* That is, Russia when it was run by the NKVD in the 1930s-40s.

You can see the structure very clearly in a straightforward reading of Plato’s Republic. Put all the metafictional and metaphilosophical readings of Plato’s work to the side. They don’t matter for the sake of this argument.
• • •
The most straightforward reading of any book is usually the most popular, if only because it’s the easiest to make. Same reason why The Catcher in the Rye inspires so many jerks** – Holden Caulfield’s voice dominates the narrative. Literally, because he’s the first-person narrator of the whole thing.

** And at least one murderer.

The easiest way to read the book is to let the dominant, most charismatic perspective – and the perspective that’s always justifying his actions in his own moral terms – dominate your own thinking with its charisma.

I sympathize with pragmatic libertarians who are careful and complex
in their justified criticisms of state power. But the more dogmatic folks
– and yes, I'm mostly thinking of the Rand disciples – are surprisingly
dim planners of the most obvious failures.
Same reason why so many misogynist, immature jerks love Rick and Morty – you hear Rick justifying all your worst inclinations, but you don’t realize that his words are meant to indict themselves. You have to step back from the text – get metafictional about it – to get the point. But that’s a step beyond just going with the flow.

The same problem happens with The Republic. Going with the flow of the text, without getting meta about it, it’s Plato arguing for the ideal structure of a community and its institutions. Its content is absolutely horrifying – rigid caste system and community-wide family structures. Now think about the book as a model for your own political action.

How do you build a better society? Sit around with your friends and colleagues, figure out a hypothetical structure for society that you think would be perfectly harmonious. Then, when you control your state’s military, police, nationalized corporations, bureaucracy, tax authority, organize the entire society according to that exact plan.

Change the entire country – from law to culture to thought – in a generation.

What a paradise it was.
Yeah, that didn’t work out so well. You’ve conceived of politics as a craftsman or engineer conceives of a problem to be solved. Conceive of the best possible end state, and move your society toward that state using the quickest and most intense means.***

*** Of course, the quickest means is rarely the quickest possible means.

Thinking of politics that way – as a pre-planned organizational structure to which you want all of society to conform – enables massive state violence. Consider the end, and its perfection justifies all means to achieve it.

That was Pol Pot’s revolution. The plan was the purest communism, stripped even of basic identity, and the action was to impose that structure with brute force of arms.

You don’t keep the means-end calculation out of political thinking just by declaring a few methods – like mass murder, forced starvation – beyond the pale. You’ve just drawn a limit on the same sociopathic concept to mark where you start to feel nauseous.

If you want your audience to understand the actual ethics that you
threaded into your show, you have to make your most charismatic,
interesting character its voice.
The answer is to avoid means-end thinking in politics altogether, because to conceive of a balance between the virtue of goals and the force of methods is inherently unethical. It nudges us to believe in sacrifice or contribution to common goals as a burden – the limit marks what burdens we consider too much to bear.

The calculation itself of what goals justify which methods is totally perverse because it makes you think of your neighbours, friends, and community members as raw material to build a masterminded social machine.

Making resources of those you should respect.
• • •
Now, for this post, I’ve been following an argument Hannah Arendt makes in The Human Condition. Chapter 31, if you want me to be specific. When she's talking about Plato in this way, she isn’t talking about what Plato actually intended, or her genuine account of The Republic’s meaning.

She's talking about how most people received it. Students who read maybe a chapter in an elective survey course where they got a C+. Media provocateurs who take their straightforward or half-cocked reading way too seriously.

Arendt is talking about the popular reception of Plato – an example to give insight and structure to a popular concept that creating a perfect society is the same as creating a building. Make a plan, bend some resources into shape. To draw attention to how perverse this everyday way of thinking is.

To demonstrate the need for change in human thought itself.

Fear Makes Snitches of Us All, Research Time, 17/10/2017

When I was in my last year of undergrad, I took a graduate course about Hannah Arendt. It was a beautiful course, with a professor who’s still a valued colleague and a friend.* It was my first exposure to her work, and to work about her work.

* Who I don’t talk to often enough. Nobody talks to anyone as often as they should, but maybe that’s what people who don’t talk enough say.

Human social solidarity is broken by tyranny, when your government
forces the people into paranoia, fear of each other, incentivizing
betrayal over friendship.
One of Arendt’s concepts was the centre of complex debates in the commentary – common sense. What exactly was this concept of Arendt’s? I think I read more about the concept than Arendt’s own writing on it in that course.

That was only one of many ideas in commentary, when the course itself focussed on understanding modern international human rights law and responsibilities with Arendt’s concepts. So the course never made time for the whole of The Human Condition.

When I read her discussion of common sense in the context of reading that book, I had what I think is a good handle on it. Not enough to end all dispute in Arendt commentary, of course. That’s not my goal, thank God.

No, I just want a concept whose structure and mechanics I can understand and use well enough for my own argument on the same broader question – How can we live together in peace.

So you have my take on Arendt’s concept of common sense. Literally the style of life of self-conscious social creatures – we live in the world as if that world is shared. Not only that, we need to live in a shared world for the sake of our mental health. Social life is exercise for an essential part of the human organism – our minds and personalities.

In one of the first climactic moments of Doctor Who, he said, "Fear
makes companions of us all." Only fear of what's outside. When you
fear the ones who are trapped with you in the cave of skulls, you'll
never get out alive.
Daily life includes camaraderie, friendship, the exchange of meaningful, significant conversation. Humans need the act of bonding, the constitution of solidarity, to be our complete selves.

Our highest state as a society will be when all 7.4-billion of us are open to becoming a single, global community. Humanity’s most complete selves. Between us would be a literal common sense – the sense of living in common, as friends, as part of the same society, in all our differences.**

** Excepting, of course, the paradox of tolerance – not really a paradox, because this utopia would be a society not of tolerance, but acceptance. The refusal to be friends must never be accepted.

This utopian asymptote – universal solidarity and friendship – was how Arendt saw totalitarian structures of government and society extending back thousands of years. We’re accustomed to seeing totalitarianism as a new invention – that’s how Hannah Arendt saw things in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Totalitarian governments like Hitler’s, Stalin’s, and Mao’s was the most intense form of it in history. But the fundamental principle is the same as in the time of the ancient Greek tyrannies. Break solidarity, isolate people with fear.

The Soviet Union's NKVD, the secret police institution that ran the
government with Josef Stalin at its head, I think of as the best
example of totalitarian and tyrannical government for my ideas in
The institution of the secret police was how the modern administrative state did tyranny. Short of full-on totalitarianism, that’s the modern form of tyranny. But the basic function is the same as in the smaller communities of Polis Greece.

The tyrant is isolated from the people – they fear him, and hide from being noticed by him. The people hide from each other, avoid being noticed even by their friends. Any friend could become an informer on you, even if you hadn’t done anything. To inform is a weapon, to bring down the tyrant’s police on someone you want out of the way.

Democracies are practically the inversion. Ideally, leaders should fear the people, because the votes of the people can cost them their jobs. At the least, citizens want to be seen by their leaders – we lobby them, complain to them, yell at them that they’re doing a crap job.

In a democracy, where we can bring our institutions to our heel, we can create the space in our society to build bonds of friendship. Our interactions along these bonds create common sense – our intuitive sense of common ground with our neighbours. Near and far.

When these bonds are broken, we become weak. We’re less than what we could be. That’s the destructive power of paranoia, of the secret police.

Social Matter as Memory, Research Time, 16/10/2017

This weekend turned into a longer gap than I thought. I didn’t expect Friday to be so mental, but it ended up so full of stuff and so generally stressful that I couldn’t get much thinking done at all.

And while the weekend itself has been pretty packed full of stuff to do – catching up on marking, attending a conference on refugee integration, getting a bunch of work done for SERRC, and a pile of personal correspondence – I did at least manage to relax while doing all that.

Humanity's tendency to clear forests, I sometimes think, is rooted in
how bloody scary they are in the middle of the night. We've fought
against the prospect of our fragility with such success that we could
very well end up killing ourselves in the next few generations.
Thinking at least needs a moment. Just a moment.
• • •
The Polis was more than a city. It was more than the first democracy in the West, whatever democracy must mean if it includes modern parliaments, presidents, and these strange town assemblies.

Talking about the Polis as a primordial democracy is very inadequate to the deeper meanings of how Polis-era Greeks lived. That is, how they understood their lives, the nature of their society, their place in the world, and their relationship to time and history as individuals and societies.

The metaphysics of their societies, in other words.

A Polis Greek person’s relationship to nature. It’s about fear, really. People knew how fragile humans were compared to the power of natural forces, the forces of the Earth.

Powerful storms could wash away their homes. A few too many dry seasons, and your whole community starves. Even just getting lost in the woods would be enough to kill someone – dying of exposure, fatal injury, drowning, or even attack by predators.

All of this is still true, but the development and omnipresence of our industrial civilization has complicated our relationship with the Earth. And made it much more violent.

Most of our record keeping about history is totally unreliable. Danny
DeVito's character in Hoffa, a movie I loved as a teenager, never
existed. Bobby Ciaro was an amalgam of two different people
who couldn't work separately in the narrative.
Leave that to the side. Think about that relationship. The Greeks conceived of nature as immortal, cyclical as the entire universe. Even individual plants and animals were thought of as immortal because they understood such non-human organisms as interchangeable. Individually unremarkable, both in their existence and how they understood themselves.

Only humans were mortal – we had distinct, singular, unique identities and we knew we were going to die one day. That’s the condition of mortality.

The Polis was an institutional means to fight our mortality. The continuity of the Polis itself maintained the records and famous stories of debates, speeches, and displays in the assembly. The leaders of the community – those who were able to leave the hard labour of maintaining their lives and households to families and servants – had a shot at immortality.

Glory and fame in your community – the display of virtue in debate, speech, and leadership – was how a mortal could survive their own death.

How real can our modern myths ever really be?
The social institution itself was a form of memory, a way of making memory collective. Societies have always had oral histories, tales of the community’s past and remarkable leaders. The stories mutate over time, though, and become mythical. Real people morph and blend into different characters.

Hell, most Hollywood studios can’t even make a biopic without merging real-life characters and smoothing out their subjects’ messy lives into straightforward narratives. That’s just a matter of a few years of production. Think about the kind of mutation that happens to a society’s narrative memory over centuries of retelling.

Achilles wasn’t simply “brave and bold.” He was a person, with all the complications involved. But by the time he got into the song, brave and bold was all he was.

The Polis was an institution that kept the histories of its leaders – their remarkable speeches, their thundering arguments, their theatrical acts in the public square – rooted. The gathering of Polis leaders was a place of governance, but most people wanted to go there for the chance of mythmaking.

Myths that would preserve their memory without transforming them. Their great acts in public leadership would be preserved as the acts of men, not becoming literature or image. The stone of the city and the square made their memory material.

Slowing History Down, Research Time, 12/10/2017

Here I am continuing the short but dense post I wrote yesterday. The real unfolding of history – the complex web of interconnecting events and processes – is too chaotic for us to understand it as a whole.

Our histories simplify the world. Look at how we discuss history over centuries at a time. We focus on a few great leaders, the activities of governments, business leaders, and massive economic interests. Zoom in or zoom out from the village to the globe, and it's the same structure to the story of the place.

Human spaces are carved into simple patterns and clear paths. All
other creatures are driven from the space. Co-existence – even
though ecological co-existence is always kind of dangerous and
rarely peaceful – becomes impossible, or at least rare.
We can contain much of the immense detail of history, but only if we either stick to a single phenomenon, or a very short period of time.

I once knew a professor of history who concentrated almost all the research articles of his multi-decade career on a few key decades of industrial development in early 19th century Montreal.

It’s immensely impressive, but I’m reminded of an image I came across once. You can achieve incredible things in a narrow specialization, but ultimately you have to put it to use. But now you have to wonder if you need more than narrow or broad knowledge to act best.

If you do need that level of knowledge, you’re screwed because that knowledge is practically impossible at the speed of human life. We can build datasets that big, but comprehensively understanding that dataset takes way longer than any time we’d have to act on what it can tell us.

Here’s a place where Hannah Arendt’s discussions of Greek culture turn out to be pretty enlightening for folks living in the nuclear age. You can – with reasonable accuracy for such a big, complicated, chaotic assemblage – describe modern civilization as an attempt to grasp hold of the world by paring it down to the human story.

Raccoons are called human-adapted species because they've done so
well adjusting to life in human urban spaces. They're one of very few
success stories in humanity's industrial age.
Human geography is simple – like a European park, we shape our world into simple structures. Boxes with clear boundaries. Specific lanes segregated for different kinds of vehicles and directions of traffic. We build our cities in grids and circular patterns – simple shapes.

We bulldoze the complex patterns of multifaceted ecologies. To see the chaotic mess of wilderness disgusts many of us – unsanctioned plants are weeds. So we reduce the world to human structures – cities, highways, farms, parks – to simplify this complexity.

Then we’ll at least have a better chance of grasping hold of the world. It won’t be so chaotic, and it will have a pattern of entirely human design. The world won’t change so fast because there won’t be so many ways for it to change. In paving the world, we’ll slow it down enough to grasp it in our knowledge.

When we shape our society to make it last forever, we finally have a world that we can understand. It won’t escape from us.

Arendt finds this idea in the political thinking of Plato and Aristotle. They saw the greatness of humanity in building a world that lasted – a permanent world. It would be a world built by craftsmen, designers. That’s the image of the legislator, the mythical founder-leader who builds a city and a society just as an architect and team of masons builds a temple.

Laws and institutions exist to constrain human behaviour and
channel it in directions where it can be understood. If you
understand it, then you know how to control it without the
chafing violence of constraint.
Can we even achieve that level of constraint in human societies?
Why on Earth would we want to?
The designed order of institutions and laws would make the desperation of human action unnecessary. We wouldn’t need to fight with chaos to catch up with reality itself as it steamrolls us. Durable institutions are reliable, and human institutions are comprehensible.

We associate Plato and Aristotle with how the Greeks thought. They’re often the only Greek thinkers popular culture pays attention to. But they were rebels in their society – while they created concepts at the heart of our culture, they had little direct influence on their own for a long time after their own lives.

Most Greeks were creatures of the polis – the one durable institution in Greek society, built to hold the hurricane force of contingent, improvised action. These were the debates and duels of Greek politics.

The culture as a whole most valued fleeting glory than vain dreams of permanence. Instead of grasping for comprehensive knowledge, they were content to become the brightest light in the chaos for a moment.

Who do you think was most wise?

What Does It Take to Control History Itself? Research Time, 11/10/2017

When I come up with titles like that, you can tell I grew up watching a lot of Doctor Who. But I’m actually going there by the end of this few hundred words, I think.

I noticed a curious passage in The Human Condition, where Hannah Arendt – in her abstract conceptual approach and her historian’s style of evocative writing – starts talking about network effects.

Even something as ordinary as a timely trip to the bathroom can have
amazing consequences that are impossible to predict.
Not in any technical sense, of course. The Human Condition came long before Bruno Latour and his sociological actor-network theory, or the popular knowledge of neural networks in artificial intelligence research, or any of the networked communications infrastructure our civilization depends on today.

Arendt is talking about the capacity for a small act in any human society to have outsized effects. Consequences spiral outwards from any action, always expanding their power well beyond an actor’s intention.

What do we think of before we make any relatively significant action in our lives? I don’t necessarily mean only the obvious decisions about whether I should marry this person or bomb this country. Those are events with clear meaning and many unintended consequences.

She’s talking about events like conversations about important topics with a friend. Politics, love, business, family – anything that you’d share with someone you trust.

She's even talking about utterly trivial events like picking up a package from the post office, bumming a ride home from work with a friend, going to the bathroom.

Any event can have unintended consequences because we can’t perceive – in the moment of our action – all the indirect and systematic affects that can flow from it. We can’t see the entire web of causality – forward and backward, molecular and molar – at once.

That’s the power and gravity of human action, according to Arendt. Any one of our actions could occur at what turns out to be a critical juncture of causes and processes. Even our most trivial action can have knock-on consequences that transform the world.

That would be a fantastic novel to write, actually. Also reminds me of what I’ve read about Laozi.

What would it take to grab hold of chaos? To bend chaos to your will and make sure that only what you planned would happen.

Confronting History as Chaos, Composing, 10/10/2017

So a lot of my research so far for Utopias has been about political philosophy and thinking. Here’s another look at how I’ve approached the research for it.

Like I’ve said, there are three parts. The first one is about the human relationship with time, how we understand and engage it in our daily lives and in our larger self-conceptions of society and history.

The second is about how we can use the different aspects of that relationship to understand the dynamic processes of reality – the constructive, productive power of time.

Just around the corner, the limit.
The third figures out what ways to understand time best harness humanity’s most constructive, sustainably productive powers. Doing that also identifies what those powers are – the powers of enthusiastic, free solidarity in all sectors of human society.

I’ve been researching the third part mostly for two reasons. One is that the political philosophy concepts are where I needed the most work. I wanted to improve my knowledge about a particular direction in democratic theory.

A processual way of thinking about the development of communities, states, and societies, skeptical of all dominations, hopeful about the power of pluralism and freedom.

I’d already developed my concepts for part two writing Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. We understand ecological matters – and the general development of the universe – best when we think in terms of processes and dynamics.

My expertise on part one’s subject – humanity’s relationship with time – is a blend of the two positions. I’ve done a lot of the research about process already, but not yet about how we come to (mis)understand ourselves – historical, narrative humanity.

Analyzing how we understand history and humanity's development
through asking What Happened? is also a pleasant chunk of Gilles
Deleuze's writing. I actually see many similarities between his and
Arendt's concepts, even though there seems to have been no
influence between them.
Reading Hannah Arendt’s work is very enlightening, given that this is the setup of the project. I consider her a predecessor – in my pretentious moments – because The Human Condition is simultaneously about how humanity really develops over time, and the different ways we understand that development.

We understand our development by asking What Happened? Then we figure out the best ways to get answers. Once we have enough facts, we make a story – great actors, pivotal events, the power of humanity acting together. That’s our history.

History is what we tell ourselves when we answer the question What Happened? But that’s a retroactively written history – history with themes, great characters, running currents, a kind of unity. Whether it was a secular unity, or a Providence, Zeitgeist, Invisible Hand – it's still unity. Events as they’re unfolding have no such unity.

Events are chaos – maelstroms of colliding processes and forces. Military institutions like states smacking into each other. Terrifyingly complex economic and industrial systems span the globe, but emerge from thousands and millions of individual acts.

The system transforms those acts, but this feedback loop between a huge system and its constituents physically constitutes human civilization. There’s incredible variety here, a huge diversity of powers, processes, stories, lives. The history of humanity as it actually unfolds is an authorless history.

Despite the convergence I see in their concepts, Arendt and Deleuze
had utterly different philosophical approaches, styles, and thinking.
I think part of that is rooted in Deleuze's relative privilege compared
to her. Deleuze rode out the Second World War in relative safety,
losing only his brother, a resistance fighter. He was 20 by the war's
end. Arendt escaped the Holocaust and was a political refugee for
many years in her life.
Arendt makes very clear how utterly terrifying it is for human history to be truly authorless. Those metaphors about maelstroms are appropriate. We tell ourselves coherent histories – whether in scholarly books, or popular films and novels, or epic poems and myths in Athenian squares thousands of years ago.

It’s meant to give us a means to grapple with the chaos of time – to turn events into history through understanding. Sometimes, it works, and we understand the world in the best way to thrive.

Often, we lose track of how the world develops, clinging to old certainties out of inertia, or because we’ve culturally bathed in them for so long that it becomes difficult to conceive of anything different.

A complete conception of the real development of events is totally incoherent because of that chaos. Every simple story is too simple to be true – in the real complexity of history, all contraries are compossible.

But it’s seriously difficult to conceive of that kind of world. It takes complexity in thinking, and the ability to confront the terror of a rudderless reality.