Archive for the ‘Social Philosophy’ Category

Are all activists just selfish?

Thursday, July 8th, 2021

When you are working on projects that are not financially or in any material sense rewarding, it is common to hear from fellow activists or people in communities you are working with that these people who are doing this work are “selfish” because that’s just the sort of thing that makes them happy – at least for now. I have always found this notion to be disturbing for few reasons: 1. it stands on the fallacy that starts with the premise that ‘all actions humans do are selfish’ therefore reaches the conclusion that ‘socially directed actions (broadly “sympathetic actions”) are also selfish’. 2. It strengthens the myth concocted by the capitalist ideology that humans are primarily or exclusively selfish and seek to do things that satisfy them, most of the time materially.

But there is also a deeper problem with this way of looking at our social lives. It is based on the assumption that any action (including any sympathetic action) is genuinely “selfless”, and the assumed implication is also that it is therefore morally superior, only if the source of the impulse (moral motivation) is external to the human self.  The act has to be grounded in something outside our personal wants and desires. This is a belief in which God continues to linger as the linchpin for “genuinely moral acts”. Because human is seen as naturally sinful and without God or any external authority does not have any reason to be good.

In fact, these were the accusations leveled at atheists of the 18th and 19th centuries – against people like Hume and later Shelly. That they can and will only act in a sociable way only if and when it suits them and not otherwise – so a society of atheists would be immoral, unjust, and even untenable. Similar reasoning pervades the discourse on sociability and viability of non-authoritarian forms of societies, without the guardianship of the states and corporate masters.

The only options focusing on selfish or selfless acts leaves us with are either being selfish or a slave. Instead of focusing on this wrongly formulated quasi-metaphysical question, it is more important to look at whether the actions are making any meaningful positive changes.


Monday, June 1st, 2020

The anarchist conception of an individual is simple, it says: “human beings are too complex and forever incalculable”. It can never put a person within a prescribed box of analysis or “science” from which all the grand theories and schools of thought spring.

There are only two truisms anarchists hold. From the classical liberals and romantics we have learned of the innate human urge and instincts for freedom, collective action and creating beautiful and radiant things. From the realists we have learned of the human potential for cruelty and domination. This later urge being the result of and reproduced by actions of alienating institutions which want to dull the other aspirations of human beings through its mechanical beat for the intrests of the few.

The urge for love and liberty and the possibility of domination are always in conflict. And anarchism being an ideology of change in the service of liberty and freedom, we put the actions of the realist’s institutions on tribunal of the moral principles of classical liberalism – the principle of freedom from all hierarchical and coercive institutions.

An anarchist enquiry into the social questions can only be the study of these two human possibilities. Through such an enquiry we hope to better understand our lives under the dead weight of all the institutions past and present. The full understanding of an individual has, and as Hume said, will ever shall remain outside the scope of human knowledge.

This kind of enquiry will rightly, never form any grand theory but through this social imagination can end the spell of hopeless and inaction.

Philosophy of Marxist Sociology – Part 2

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

[This article was supposed to be about ontology but I dropped that idea because it gradually morphed into this discussion.]

“If the new technology lowers production costs it will be adopted, and if not it will be rejected. In this respect Sraffa and Marx made the same assumption about how individual capitalists go about deciding to adopt or reject a new technology, which is also what other economists have always assumed.”

“Marx was well aware of, and even expressed admiration for, the fact that compared to all previous economic systems capitalism had greatly increased the pace of technological change. He assumed that individual capitalists are hard driven to adopt any new technology that lowers their cost of production because this would give them a temporary advantage over their competitors, who, in turn, would be quick to adopt cost-reducing changes for fear of being driven out of business.”

(Robin Hahnel, RADICAL POLITICAL ECONOMY: Sraffa Versus Marx, 2017)

There is nothing original in what I will be saying. It has all been said before with much more clarity, evidence and rigor by people like Stephen Marglin, David F. Noble and others. I want to say two things:

  1. It is not the case that capitalism has “greatly increased the pace of technological change” or that capitalism necessarily increases “productive capabilities”.
  2. It is also not the case that capitalists necessarily adopt a technique or technology that “lowers production costs”

In point 2, I use the terms techniques, more specifically work organizational techniques and technology interchangeably. This might not work for some cases but I believe and trust most will agree that same principles must apply in choice of production process technique and deploying a new technology in form of a machine. Significant number of the automation techniques and now digitization ones are in fact, mostly change in production process rather than new machines deployment in unchanged setting.

Returning to the first point. In England in the second half of the 18th century the spinning-jenny was one of the first machine to be used in the factory. And as one 19th century historian noted:

“The technology of wool-spinning for many years after the
factory made its appearance was the same in factory as in cottage; in both the “spinning jenny”; was the basic machine well into the nineteenth century.”

Not much technological advance there. So what was different in the factory? One 18th century factory owner commenting on the advances wrote:

“One reason for this extra advance is Mr. Harrison (the
mill manager) bought 4 handkerchiefs one for each machine value about 1/2d p. each and hung them over the engine as prizes for the girls that do most.”

I have not cross-checked but I believe the technology of handkerchief was not novel to 18th century England.

The important advantage of factory over cottage from point of view of the boss was not its “technological advantage” through new machines or harnessing the power of water sources (most factories were not using water generated electricity at all) but the increase in surveillance and discipline.

“If the factory Briareus could have been created by mechanical genius alone, it should have come into being thirty years sooner. It required, in fact, a man of a Napoleon nerve and ambition, to subdue the refractory tempers of work-people accustomed to irregular paroxysms of diligence.”

“To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright.”

Much of the technology was already laying around before industrial capitalism took hold. Even today, this narrow demand for controlling the workers has hindered technological advances. This has been studied by Noble and many other historian of technology after him. And the advances that actually do develop and in the form they develop are not through capitalist innovation or private capital – it is almost entirely through state funded research and development in form of dual-use military technology.

So the whole argument about uniqueness of capitalism in technological realm is unfounded. The uniqueness does lie in the control the boss class has over design of new technologies and the narrowness of reasons of deployment: discipline and control.

These are all human choices, and they are regularly challenged by workers. From the Luddites to the current struggles against robots. These factors too affect the course of change but unless the  control over means of production and dependence of wage slavery does not end major changes are impossible.

2. The following quotes are from a 1994 New York Times article.

“We are also concerned about having only one place where a product is made,” he said. “There could be an explosion or labor problems.” If the Boston workers struck, for example, Gillette would supply the Sensor XL to Europe and the United States from the Berlin plant, and vice versa.

“Some of those workers are making blades at Gillette plants in Poland, Russia, and China, where production costs are less than in the United States. But that is not the case in Germany. “You could ship the blades from here, but you set up there for insurance,” Mr. Vernon said. “And the justifications for this approach are not so clear cut.

The scholar might not be clear about the justification of adopting a costly method of production because maybe he had not grasped the “successful code of factory discipline.”

In the long run this control over the class enemy of the factory owner might give profit opportunity but at the same time it could be argued that the profits only gives possibility of more control – over the workforce and society generally.

Closer to home, in Chakan and  Pantnagar, Bajaj Auto Ltd. deployed 40 co-bots per-plant just prior to a wage agreement in Chakan after 3 years of on and off struggles lead by young contract workers.

The company claims increase in productivity and it might partly be due to the co-bots but many workers attribute it to increased work intensity due to the atmosphere of fear and terror from the idea of job loss.

But the timing and other factors suggest that rather than productivity gain or immediate increase in profit – in fact the robots from Universal Robots might have costed a lot in short term – the reason are more social than economic. It is hitting the class enemy with the boots in order to maintain profits and control over society – that Herculean enterprise that started in the 18th century.

The struggle is against the lack of control and the alienation of wage system. No alienating methods of so called Marxist “revolution” can ever free the working class.

In fact, Engles even said that, “[w]anting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel.” (On Authority.)

There can and should be no end of alienation and discipline for some of the Marxists.

Philosophy of Marxist Sociology – Part 1

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

Marxist analysis has made me uneasy for years. The issues, for me, in these analyses (discernable in the final exposition of the result-statements) are the intertwined relations of methodological commitments and ontological assumptions. The workshop on 20-21 July 2019 gave the opportunity to think through one or two aspects of the philosophy of Marxist sociology. Here I will talk about “concept fetishism” and “ontological assumptions” (in part 2 – spoilers alert: part 2 instead turned into a post about technology).

As this is an informal discussion I use the term Marxist for prominent Marxist thinkers without clear demarcation, who have an affinity with Bolshevik ideology, and Marxist analysis as the analysis of social phenomenon from the lens of their understanding of “dialectics” and “historical materialism”. While these are only a fraction of questions around Marxist analysis, there are more important issues (to put it very mildly) with their political program.

Concept Fetishism:

Marxists, among other things, pride themselves for being “scientific”. They were not alone in the mid to late 19th century Europe to use such language – even the anarchists like Bakunin and Luigi Fabbri fell victim to such positivist romanticism but, this soon subsided from other schools of thoughts, left or right except notably in Marxism (it did reemerge in mainstream neo-classical economic through mathematization of economics in mid 20th century.) Many Marxist still hold this positivist and to a significant extent deterministic view of their sociological “science”.

One important aspect of the scientific study of any natural phenomenon is the plurality of analysis – vertical and horizontal. Let us take an example of fluid mechanics. Lets us examine the Venturian flow of a fluid (with a Set X of properties – viscosity, velocity, discharge, etc, which are irrelevant for the point under consideration.) Venturian flow is the flow of a fluid from one pressure zone to another pressure zone. The vertical plurality of analysis of this phenomenon might include at one level the study of chemical difference (say, phase separation) in a zone of study and at another level the study of pathline of parcels (the trajectory of individual particles.)

Both ways of looking at the different aspect of the same phenomenon give the fuller understanding of the mechanism of the flow. In practice though, it is the (theoretical) understanding of mechanisms at different levels and their interactions that precedes particular analysis. This kind of plurality is common in all social analysis and even Marxists analyze segregation and sub-segregation of classes in this manner. In fact, even common-sense worldview works on this principle.

The problem in many cases arrises in horizontal plurality. It usually takes the form of the fetishism of one concept within that level of study at the cost of neglect of others – but reductionism or neglect.

Let us continue with the example of Venturian flow to look at horizontal plurality. At the second level of the previous example, the study of pathline can be done through either Lagrangian or Eulerian methods. The Lagrangian method looks at fluid motion where the observer follows an individual fluid parcel as it moves through space and time. Eulerian on the other hand looks at fluid motion at a specific location in the space through which the fluid flows as time passes. Both are looking at the same phenomenon at the same vertical level of abstraction.

I believe Power to be a level of analysis for understanding society. It is almost at the same level of Class analysis (Note: I say “almost” because one of difference, it seems to me, between hard and social science is the possibility of clearly demarcating the vertical levels.) In power analysis control of means of production (capitalist class), over mean of administration (political and social elite),  means of violence and coercion (police and military elites), their interrelations and the power of organized opposition to them could be the different ways of looking at the distribution of power in a social zone.

By various ways, Marxists have sidelined or ridiculed the idea of power because, to put it crudely, power is only used to “maximize profits”. Maximization of profits, hence, becomes the summum bonum of all social activities for “the ruling class”. This untested premiss is one of the core principles of Marxist worldview. This is one reason why Marxists had difficulty in accommodating racism and caste in their framework. Black women were not taken as test subjects for medical experiments for reasons of maximizing profits. Neither there is any evidence that Pardhi men are criminalized for reasons of profit generation.

At least, I believe. that maximization of profits and concentrating more and more capital is one way of gaining control and power in society. This is not a place to dwell on the whole of the power and elite frameworks of analysis – much of which is compatible with Marxist views.  But here is should suffice to raise the question can profit-making really be an end in itself? Do we see that happening in any sphere of social life? Or are control and power too important and quite independent components of social motivation for actions – shaping class interests? And If they are does Marxism leave space for horizontally accommodating them?