Lego Utopia – Building Block 1: Being

We can do it!  One block at a time...
We can do it! One block at a time…

by Sean Callaghan

The Screw It Principle

We have gone on at some length on this website about the problems we face today in our economic, social, cultural, political spheres, etc.  A few posts ago Mark McConaghy made the astute observation that the fundamental problem tying all our contemporary failures together is simply the absence of an alternative.  This is, to a large degree, the reason why we decided to put this blog together.  We wanted to begin building a better mousetrap as the saying goes.  Unfortunately, I’ve found myself bogged down with the minute responsibilities of an everyday life and have yet to put together anything concrete in terms of how I would go about building this alternative economic, social, political, whatever system.  The moment I try to put my mind to it, I think to myself – my god, it’s too big!  I need to read more to really get into its nuts and bolts.  This inevitably leads to a state of permanent procrastination.  At some point, though, you just have to say screw it.  I will never know everything, but I have to start somewhere.  As much as I would love to re-read The Wealth of Nations, and all three volumes of Das Kapital, Hobbes’ Leviathan, and Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, I just don’t have the time.  So this is the beginning of my “screw it.”

Instead of describing an alternative system in its entirety, I thought I would begin pulling together the few pieces I have that I believe will help push me forward.  Consider it a lego project.  Each piece is a brick that I will try to snap together with future blocks, and hopefully at the end I’ll have enough to build some kind of structure – a house, a tree, or Darth Vader.  And if they don’t quite work right together, I can always take them apart, build new blocks, and see what works.

The Crimson Lego Block

This first block is a simple, but important one.  I think I’ll color it crimson – to act as the heart of the whole structure.  This is the block of Being.  If you’re going to build something from scratch then it’s probably a good idea to know what you mean when you say “something is ~.”  What is this “is”?  This is actually a big point of contention amongst differing economists, though they may not necessarily be conscious of it.  The fundamental division is between what you might call positivists (on the side of capital), and dialectic materialists (on the side of socialism).  Put simply, there are people out there who look at the world and go “It is what it is,” and there are others who say “it is what it is, because it isn’t something else.” For the positivists – who make up the former group –  that shoe in front of you is a shoe because it’s a shoe.  They don’t ask the question of how a something comes to “be something.”  They just take it for granted that somethings exist, and go from there.  This, to me, is just lazy thinking.

The dialectic materialist looks at something and says it is what it is by virtue of what it isn’t.  This type of thinking has a long tradition in philosophy that starts at least far back as Immanuel Kant (ok, actually much further, but he’s a useful starting point) who tried to ground a theory of things on a type of reason that could only know what it knew because it couldn’t know what it didn’t know.  Think of this as Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.  Kant showed this by talking about antinomies.  These were the paradoxes one encountered when one tried to develop a uniform system of reason. For example, one antinomy deals with the problem of divisibility.  One could reasonably argue that objects are uniform in themselves.  At the same time, one could also reasonably argue they are infinitely divisible.  Both arguments are equally valid when taken on their own, but of course taken together they form a contradiction.  Objects cannot both be uniform and infinitely divisible.   Kant was smart enough to leave the contradiction well enough alone, and argued these antinomies marked the limits of reason.

Then came Fichte and Hegel who crapped all over Kant’s original humility.  Hegel took the antinomies and put them into a dialectical relation that could find its resolution through what he termed aufheben (some people say sublation in English).  Roughly, the argument goes if we think of anything in the world we will always encounter its negation.  With being there is non-being.  With finite time there is infinite time.  Instead of stopping here, and accepting this as a limit of reason itself, Hegel plotted this on a progressive line wherein contradictory elements resolved their differences by coming together and rising up to become more than the sum of the opposing sides.  They synthesize and rise to a greater level of existence.

Everything goes to hell and a handbasket when he applies this progressive rationality to a philosophy of history (and you get the worst parts of Marxism, colonialism a la Spencer, and liberalism a la Francis Fukuyama as a result), but that’s not what concerns me here.  The problem I have with dialectical reasoning is that it mistakes itself for the logic of all of existence.  It tells us the world consists of binary oppositions and so long as we follow these oppositions, we will come to a resolution to any and all of our problems.  For (bad) Marxism, this means we just have to wait until the contradictions inherent to capital necessitate some kind of aufheben, and the great transformation towards a new socialist reality will take place.  The worst Marxists will add a critique of voluntarism to this, and turn Marx’s phenomenally profound works into a recipe for complete political impotence.  We are simply to wait until the time is right, and then a new socialist reality will suddenly appear magically before us.  Yeah, right.  In the absolute worst case this results in a kind of radical political passive aggression in which the so-called radical feels justified in criticizing anyone and everyone who attempts to institute any type of real change.  Either you’re a reformist or a capitalist or a fascist.  I have far more respect for the Maoists, Communists, and Capitalists out there attempting to institute their particular notion of fundamental change than these types of armchair radicals.  I’ve learned how to deal with these types: smile politely, then walk away.  There’s nothing you can do to help them.

A further problem with the theory of the dialectic is that capitalism itself is quite happy to function as though the dialectic were real – in fact, I would go so far as to say it depends on this dialectical reasoning to establish its own dominance.  The Cold War was built on a culture of fear that was engendered by the threat of a negation of the capitalist system.  This had a doubling effect – first, it gave capitalism its ideological shape – what better way to define yourself if not by saying “we’re not them!”  Second, it made capitalism behave itself.  In some ways, you could say that capitalism in the Cold War was a far superior system precisely for this reason.  If only there wasn’t that problem of mutual destruction via nuclear arms.

Lastly, who is to say all contradictions need to be resolved?  This is another fundamental flaw – to my mind anyway – in dialectical thinking.  The assumption is that a contradiction will inevitably work itself out.  Yet, the history of philosophy provides us with over two thousand years pointing to the contrary (Zeno’s paradoxes, Plato’s aporias, Kant’s antinomies, etc.).  Meanwhile, a capitalist system seems to glory in contradictions – it loves them, because a contradiction marks the site of a radical differentiation from which profits can be made.  I mean, what rational system could possibly exist to explain the Justin Bieber phenomenon?!

So What I’m Trying to Say is…

This is a long way of saying something very simple: no existent political or economic system has been developed according to an adequate understanding of being itself.  Put another way, if we are going to produce an alternate form of socio-economic or political system, we have to begin by rethinking how existence itself works.  Marxism is flawed because it mistakes dialectic materialism for reality.  The real is not rational, nor is the rational real.  Capitalism, on the other hand, is inadequate because it assumes a positivist reality (anyone who denies positivism is a long defunct philosophy should take any number of philosophy courses at your nearest college).

So this is where we begin.  At the beginning.  Our first building block: Being.

And at the heart of my philosophy of being is a philosophy of difference.

But that requires a much longer discussion, which I will get to in a later post.

Sean Callaghan has his PhD in Modern Japanese History and Literature from the University of Toronto.  He has written several plays for the small stage, and is currently working on a two act play, and a YA novel, meanwhile re-reading his undergrad economics textbook for fun!  He currently lives with his wife and two guinea pigs in sunny Vancouver.

3 thoughts on “Lego Utopia – Building Block 1: Being

  1. Sean,

    This is a wonderful article and really gives us a lot of material to work with as we think about what the political program will be that we can actually champion. Thanks for doing so much of the philosophical leg work on this, I really appreciate it.

    I think the thrust of the article is absolutely right: we have done a good job of analyzing the myriad of flaws in our current political and social moment, which I would diagnose as a liberal capitalist order trying to grapple with the internal contradictions imbedded within the system it has globalized since the end of World War Two. The problem with liberal thought in general is that it does not have a systemic critique of capital imbedded in its analytical arsenal. That is to say, the democrats, liberals, moderates, etc. really do believe that we can reach a smooth, humane, controlled capitalism that will benefit all, without recognizing its structural (rather than simply occasional/avoidable) propensity for crisis. At least conservative thinkers are more honest about the nature of the world system itself. They will fairly honestly tell you: there are winners and there are losers. Violence in the form of structural readjustment and unemployment will occur. The system is not perfect for everyone, but it’s the best we have, and it is supposed to reward hard work, entrepreneurship, sacrifice, saving, etc.

    That is why the right always seems to know exactly the kind of world it wants, because it is at home with the positives and negatives of the system it champions. The left, meanwhile, wants capitalism without capital, social democracy without high taxes, social mobility amidst class stratification, affordable housing amidst speculative real estate markets, etc…on almost any issue you could point to the myriad of inconsistencies within the political positions on the left. That is why the cheery optimism of an organization like the liberal party of Canada is so maddening- they promise to deliver everything to everyone, all the while ignoring the fact that the system their society is tied to cannot structurally deliver the goods to all people in an equal way.

    As for the problem of being itself, it is an excellent and rich one. I think you are right that some understanding of ontology is necessary for any political program to make internal sense with itself. And you are absolutely right that capitalism, despite the repetitive nature of its cyclical ups and downs, absolutely loves difference as much as repetition. Differences proliferate as so many market niches, as so many culturally specific customers, that capital can appeal to. As you so aptly put it:

    “Meanwhile, a capitalist system seems to glory in contradictions – it loves them, because a contradiction marks the site of a radical differentiation from which profits can be made. ”

    So it’s not as if the presence of contradiction alone- say, between the owners of the means of production and the workers, between the monied private-school UCC bourgeoisie and the Scarborough working class- will entail the downfall of the system itself.

    Indeed, it is the flexibility, the endurance, the homeliness of capitalism that we need to take into better account in our analyses. If the system was as dastardly and oppressive as some academics make it out to be, I think it would have fallen long before now. The truth of the matter is, people are at home in this system. They find, amidst all of its competitive brutality, ways to be happy and joyful within its folds. That is the key problem for enacting a different politics in the 21st century, is it not? How can you ask people to abandon the only home they have ever known?

    Is it that people are so blinded by consumerist fantasy that they don’t understand the oppressive nature of the system itself? Is it a case of bad consciousness? Maybe. Certainly I have a hard time even discussing the negatives of capitalism with my friends and family without seeing a whole bunch of eye rolling and boredom. It’s as if there’s this ingrained cynicism in our culture: “don’t talk about that egalitarian communist shit, the world is unfair and people are untrustworthy!”

    Or is it more that people know the negatives and deficiencies of a world mired in economic recession, but can’t imagine some viable alternative to which they can get behind?

    Are people brainwashed or just uncertain of where to turn? Both positions produce apathy, but the former is an apathy that you can’t really change, it is too ingrained already. The latter is an apathy that you can work with, that you can shape and mold in the process of conversation.

    As for being itself, I’ll just add the historian’s caveat that all being is historically situated and mediated. The existence of a kid growing up today, in full-blown digital postmodernity, is so very different than a child who grows up in the rotting ghettos of Eastern Euorpe at the turn of the 20th century. One will turn into an apathetic consumer, a 9 to 5 bourgeois; the other will turn into a Bolshevik revolutionary convinced of the desirability of a radically new world without the Czar, the old aristocracy, the landed elite, etc…the “sense of being” of these two subjects- i.e. their own sense of being alive, their physical and sensuous existence as such- is so very different.

    Thus “being” itself, as a concept, can only really be made legible when it’s looked at in a concrete historical and social situation. But as a general approach the problem of being in theoretical terms, insisting on the primacy of difference is a good biological, physiological, and historical bet, so in that sense I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    So we continue to think about “being” in the next couple of weeks.

    What good books on the problem of ontology would you recommend for our readers?

    What other lego blocks would our new politics need? Off the top of my head, I can think of the following issues:

    1) Happiness
    2) Needs
    3) Community (what is our responsibility to the Other? Why be good?)
    4) Economy (Production/Consumption of materials for survival, trade, profit)
    5) Money
    6) Credit
    7) State Organization (the problem of power)
    8) Drives (i.e. what drives people? how to make them radically change their consciousness and their lives?)
    9) The meaning of life (why live? what meaning does it have? why even worry about other people and the society around you?)

    Just some ideas.

  2. Hey Mark,
    Agreement on all counts. I’m working on the second block right now – dealing with the notion of oversight, but some other blocks I was thinking on were as follows:

    1) Primary collectivism – this is a category I developed during my doctoral studies that I don’t think I quiet explained adequately, so will take another crack at it in a less “academic” manner. Standard arguments over the economy pit communal ideals against the drives of the individual. The idea of primary collectivism opens us up to the possibility of abandoning this simplistic dualism to rethink what groups collective engagement, or rather how to think economic and political matters beginning with collectivity as the ground.
    2) Security – this is an issue that seems rarely taken up when notions of future utopia are addressed, but one that is an absolute necessity these days when you consider the strength of what one could call the technocratic-military-surveillance complex implicating itself in matters of governance. The simple question: if we like the world we create, how do we ensure it remains secure from outside forces?
    3) The transitional period. It’s all fine and dandy to have your revolution, but how do you deal with the moment of transition when the old world must be replaced with the new. Egypt right now will provide the perfect backdrop against which we can begin considering these questions.

    These may change as different ideas pop into my head, but these are the ideas preoccupying me these days. I look forward to your comments and criticisms once I get them up!

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