Me and my doubts

8 Mar

There ought to be a club for Left bloggers like me. Every once in a while we’d get together on Zoom to talk shop. I’m sure one issue, doubt, would come up again and again. Not doubt in the factual truth of what we’re saying. There’s too much evidence for that.

Sure, we can be wrong on details, even big ones. For instance I leave room for the possibility of Bashar al-Assad being as bad as our corporate media and politicians say. Ditto that China really might mistreat its Uyghurs and Russia may indeed have serious corruption which – being over and above the legacy of Yeltsin, and Western policies in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR 1 – can be laid at Putin’s door. All things considered, I’m minded to think such accusations false or hugely hyped but there’s an outside chance they are neither. My broader point is twofold. One, our rulers have every reason to lie to us about such things. Likewise our media, whose business model ensures they stay on-message re matters (such as going to war, or taking down a Jeremy Corbyn) of core importance to said rulers.2 Two, even if allegations against states resisting the US orbit are true, they are demonstrably not the reasons why those states are demonised.3

It is at this level I know I am right. Similarly, I’m no climatologist but do know, because I took the time to study how capitalism works, that regardless of whether this capitalist or that is a Nice Chap, certain objective truths apply. A political economy based on private ownership of wealth creation, with said wealth creation driven not by human need but the profit incentive, cannot be trusted with care of the environment. Nor to preserve peace or eradicate poverty. With the best will in the world, such things are quite impossible and the reason is painfully simple. Capitalism is by its nature out of control. As dependent on profits and perpetual accumulation as a junkie is on smack, it must – the ‘niceness’ or otherwise of a Bill Gates or Jacob Rothschild doesn’t come into this – prioritise profits over every other consideration. If you don’t see this it’s because your understanding of capitalism is that of a child. Sorry to be so blunt. The hour is getting late.

So if I don’t doubt the essential truth of my claim that the future offers humanity a stark choice – socialism or barbarism – what do I doubt? Call me complacent, but I’m disinclined to attribute the difficulty of getting my message across to my shortcomings as a communicator. We can all of us raise our game, and I’m not above stealing other people’s tricks on this front, but I’m more inclined to blame the immensity of what I’m up against: in a word, ideology. People simply do not wake up just because someone has pointed out, however lucidly, and however solid their evidence, that whilst they sleep their future, and that of their children, is being systematically stolen. Think Stockholm Syndrome. Think risk aversion, however misplaced. Think don’t rock the boat. Think ostriches. Think of our conflictual nature as social yet individuated beings – we versus me 4 – in a world where greed is good.

That gets close. What I doubt, 2.46 times a week and usually in the small hours, is whether what I and likeminded others do can possibly serve any useful end. Whether I should stick to taking pretty snaps with my fancy camera kit. Or just get drunk.

But the same answer always resurfaces after such moments – as brief as they are frequent – of doubt. If you know a vitally important truth, and no one is seriously offering counter evidence,5 what options do you really have, other than to speak it as best you can?

It’s in our nature to enjoy talking shop, but maybe that Zoom meeting can wait a while longer.

*

  1. On the West’s gold rush to make killings in the former Soviet Union, see the copiously documented account of Naomi Klein in Chapters 10-11 of The Shock Doctrine.
  2. Media lies tend to be of omission. (Scour Guardian and BBC sites till the cows come home: you’ll find few column inches on Nord Steam 2 or oil drilling in the Golan, but screeds on evil Assad and thrice damned Putin.) Only when a ruling class is fully set on a controversial course do the lies of commission, inherently more risky, kick in with a vengeance. (And once the heat dies down, any necessary lies – WMDs anyone? – will be blamed on past administrations. ‘Democracy’ does more than cover for class rule; it has the side benefit of periodically wiping the slate.)
  3. “Demonstrably not the reasons …” One way of showing that ostensible reasons, often as not alleged human rights abuses, for vilifying a state and/or its leader are not the true ones is by pointing to reasons more plausible. (See the Golan example, footnote 2.) Another is to point to the same crimes by Washington, or allies like Saudi Arabia. But as awareness grows of double standards, so has a new trope entered the social media lexicon: whataboutery.
  4. Our dual nature as social yet individuated beings points to a field of discussion not only beyond the scope of this post but, by its axiomatic nature, irresolvable by facts and reason. I refer to two philosophical inquiries, both old as the hills but with the jury still out. One is the nature versus nurture debate, and the capacity of any political system to accommodate human selfishness. (To which my short answer is that we can start by rejecting a system that elevates and celebrates selfishness at every turn.) The other is whether life is one long Hobbesian struggle, in the face of which the best we can do is establish forms of rule – Pax Romanica or Pax Americana – which may be steeped in violence, thievery and ongoing injustice but allow the shotgun wedding, of pragmatism with moral order, humans surely need. (To which my short answer is that “Pax” Americana is not just unfair: it poses an existential threat, with nothing remotely pragmatic about its brand of insanity.)
  5. As for no one engaging me on specifics; rather, taking shelter in highly generalised accusations of bias and extremism, see my opening observations in The Tragedy of Corbynism.

16 Replies to “Me and my doubts

  1. My view is that, in any society, the ideas that are dominant are those of the class in power. These ideas prevail with very little effort. Everyone goes along with them, including the media. I was never so aware of the power of the media as I have been during the last year. Literally everything I know has come through the media.

    To have a point of view different from the mainstream is an aberration. It also consumes a lot of energy. It is frustrating. In my humble opinion, criticising those who hold the mainstream view as wrong, stupid, ignorant or childish is patronising and snobbish. It is also unlikely, in my view, to persuade them of anything.

    I am skeptical about the power of argument to convince anyone of anything. I’m fairly convinced that I’ve never persuaded anyone of anything. I am intrigued by this issue and so have been interested to read a short book on Kindle that examines the evidence for persuasion by argument. It is called “For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds” by Tom Stafford, who happens to be an academic at Sheffield University.

    I’m not criticising you, Phil, for your blog. On the contrary, I find them interesting and enjoyable. And probably influential. Please do carry on.

    As to how to bring about change, using organisation and action perhaps, I guess that’s for another time.

    Best

    • criticising those who hold the mainstream view as wrong, stupid, ignorant or childish is patronising and snobbish …

      Agreed. As Christians are supposed to hate the sin but love the sinner, so do I try to differentiate between a wrongheaded view and the person who holds it. (I’ve held – and no doubt still do – too many wrongheaded views myself to do otherwise.) Indeed, in a footnote to a post just two days ago, I wrote:

      It’s not that people are innately stupid. Rather, our brainwashing is such that we constantly draw ‘moderate’ Overton Window conclusions, especially when these chime with self interest real or perceived, which would strike the proverbial Martian as perverse – and almost always serve, however winding and decoy-laden the path, the actual interests of wealth and power.

      Thanks for the kind words of your penultimate paragraph, Doug, though perhaps you are a little too kind with the “probably influential” bit!

      Stay well.

      • PS – I missed the most important part of your comment, on your being:

        skeptical about the power of argument to convince anyone of anything … I read a short book … [on] evidence for persuasion by argument. It is called “For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds”

        We can change our minds on things. Indeed, on a few occasions someone has told me this blog changed their minds on something, notably Syria. And some of us do so in light of evidence and reason. (If we didn’t, we’d be extinct since, however uncomfortable a truth, sometimes it has to be faced on pain of serious loss.) But it doesn’t do to minimise our psychological resistance to unwelcome facts and arguments. If superior arguments always prevailed, capitalism, its once progressive aspects already a spent force, would have gone with the 1867 publication of Capital Volume 1.

    • Well, I’ve done a very cursory internet trawl, and the Marxist (or at least Leninist) explanation seems to be that you need 4 or so preceding conditions, including having a ‘vanguard’ party to lead the proles to a better life. But it seems to me that you only need a mass of people to be sufficiently desperate, and to have no alternatives, to have a revolution (France, Russia). Of course, you might need additional political input to arrive at a satisfactory ideal state, rather than a repeat of the old one with different actors.

      We don’t have such circumstances anywhere just now, and I don’t anticipate them until a bit after I’ve gone to meet Lenin, (perhaps I’ll opt for Mao instead – he was at least a poet, or maybe also I’ll just opt for the Buddha, if he’s still hanging around. Or maybe Rosa Luxembourg, but I might bore her. Choices, choices . . . – that’s it – no more lager tonight!) 🙂

      (We used to have a dog in our SWP occupied flat who would, on command, die for Lenin!)

  2. The most important thing to say Phil is ‘keep blogging’. Your posts are informed and informative, challenging and sometimes a bit risky – they often take me out of my comfort zone and I much appreciate that.

    It is, as you and Douglas point out, a bit of an uphill struggle to influence people’s views towards a more communistic perspective using rational argument alone – however conclusive it is. But we need understanding, critiques, thinking etc to inform other strategies that might seek to engage with people where their heads are. I agree that simply telling people that they are wrong is about the worst persuasive strategy imaginable. So, as you and I have remarked, the left needs a variety of different types of people undertaking different tasks.

    Finally, however uncomfortable or even frightening it can be, a dollop of doubt now and again is, in my opinion, handy. It can, as a sports commentator might say, help to keep us honest.

    • Hey Bryan. For the foreseeable I will ‘keep blogging’ simply because I don’t know how to stop. On the matter of our being – not quite the phrase you use but close enough – more psychological than logical animals, it’s true that the Left has a severe shortage of skilled persuaders. It’s also true that it takes all sorts to make a revolution.

  3. Well, that leaves us with the problem of explaining exactly why “our brainwashing is such that we constantly draw ‘moderate’ Overton Window conclusions”.

    Those of us posting here have (presumably) avoided or seen through this brainwashing, as of course have numerous others. I don’t imagine that we are especially smarter than most other people. So why do the mass of humanity do otherwise?

    Some answers are:
    a) It doesn’t do any good to see through it as that only leads to unhappiness (at the intractability of the problem) and conflict with others,
    b) income will be threatened,
    c) some people are just not up to disbelieving what they are told,
    d) Some want to get in on the game on the (presently) winning side,
    e) some just can’t be bothered or dislike responsibility, or ‘need’ a leader.
    f) some are afraid of change, and that it might make things worse
    g) Marxist explanation – alienation and lumpen mentality
    etc.
    – and so it has been throughout history (apart from a few isolated occasions).

    But there are arguments against most of these being true – for example:
    a) If enough of us unite to change things, (which is completely feasible) then this will not continue to be true. This also applies to b),
    d) the new winning side might be even more advantageous,
    and etc.

    But this still leaves me dissatisfied. Why really, have the majority of people not seen the (very) obvious truth that they can easily, at any time, by sheer weight of numbers, take control of resources and ensure that they are fairly distributed among everyone? Just before and after WW1 for example, there was massive unrest in the British labour force – where did all that energy go? Why do most mutinies peter out into minor acts of sabotage, instead of going the whole hog and declaring a revolution? After all, it may start small but others might join in. And again, to get back to a previous remark, how do most people on the left obtain a different mindset ?

    • I think your (a-g) covers things, Jams. That there are, as you say, counter arguments does not alter this. The system need not be watertight; simply able to contain or marginalise dissent. And if we aspire to any kind of scientificity here, we must go beyond damning most of humanity. Precious good that will do us or our aspirations!

      • Yes. I suppose I’m straying into psychology as opposed to sociology, but it would be useful if we had a theory of why people are susceptible to the pressures of mainstream society – or not. (Maybe we in fact do – I haven’t read about this for decades). Then we might be able to counteract it. But it’s an immense subject. And we would probably need to recruit Robert Murdoch.

          • Worse by far Jams is your misspelling, higher up this thread, of Rosa’s surname. And on International Women’s Day! (Though I have known women make the same mistake.) It’s Luxemburg, not Luxembourg. As for Lenin, I always rated McCartney higher.

            • I stand both corrected and ashamed. I’ll try to do better by Rosa. That’s what relying on a 70 year old memory gets you. I’ll blame the spell checker again!

              But – tut tut – bigging up that Scouse git who was keen to take credit for everything he could imagine, once Lennon was safely dead and couldn’t talk back – shame on you. Although I’m more of a Stones fan.

      • “contain or marginalise dissent.”

        One method being to anticipate the existence of dissatisfaction which leads to dissent and take control of it by creating organised means through which it can be directed and managed.

        Encouraging, promoting and amplifying two apparent contradictory or polar opposites to deflect dissent against each other (divide and rule) often proves effective. Ask Glen Greenwald after this last week or so.

        The ‘culture wars” provides another effective example of this genre. Whether organically emergent or lab grown the point is if it didn’t exist another means and method of controlling and managing dissent suggests there exists a reason to create it?

        • Ask Glen Greenwald

          Here he is on why Nothing Trump did compares with the Moral Evil of Bush’s and Obama’s wars

          The ‘culture wars” provides another effective example of this genre. Whether organically emergent or lab grown …

          I’m struck by the several parallels between two conflations, on the face of it miles apart. One is the conflation of support for Palestinians with antisemitism. The other is that those who insist on the biological reality of sex – so don’t want ‘males identifying as female’ using women’s changing rooms or competing in women’s sporting events – are ipso facto transphobic.

          As for identity politics in general, this pithy cartoon is bang on the nail.

          • Both of which continue punching well above their weight as Elite Establishment narratives undermining class politics and solidarity setting off different types of class based oppression against each other in an artificially created hierarchy of oppression.

            Negatively affecting and impacting on not only the Labour Party but others such as the SNP and the Greens via institutional capture. Forcing non approved “dissenting” opinions – no matter how reality or factually based – underground and having to effectively operate in a state of secrecy from the Pureocracy imported from across the Atlantic.

            The Great Scottish Ribbon Trauma, followed rapidly by the resignation statement of a Green Party Councillor in the North East over the past few days – along with the eighteen pages of the proposed Scottish Hate Crime Bill (which I recently read through and studied) – are an indication of just how toxic the infection of these narratives are at undermining effective political, social and economic progress.

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