Evans: Confessions of a Teenage Marxist

Guest Column: Gavin Evans As the world lurches into an economic and social crisis that threatens the political stability of the the current global order, I can’t help thinking how I might have relished this moment in my misguided youth, when I imagined that capitalism, with its inherent injustices, was riddled with structural contradictions that would cause its collapse in the face of the triumphant march of the organized working class, the midwife of a new world order of rationality, equality and human progress and dignity. Like most of my peers, I outgrew the Marxist shibboleths of my youth in the last few years of my activist career in South Africa — the end of apartheid, which allowed for a revolutionary remaking of South African society, coincided with the end of the Cold War and the triumph of capitalist globalization. It would have taken epic leaps of fanatical faith to imagine that a centrally-planned command economy represented a viable alternative model; its failures were palpable and inescapable. So many of us quietly (sometimes noisily) renounced the illusions of our youth, embracing the sort of reformist social democratic outlook we had once despised with post-adolescent venom.

Still, even then, I never doubted for a moment that while we had been wrong about socialism, we had not been entirely wrong about capitalism: it could raise many people out of poverty and develop spectacular productive capacity where none had existed before, its creativity and ability to innovate were breathtaking, and, of course, it was the only game in town. And yet it also reinforced and deepened social inequality, and its free market was never going to take care of the basic needs of majority in society. The market was not going to feed and house the poor or provide the education and health systems that made for a stable society. Unregulated, capitalism was also prone to lurch from boom to bust, not least because of its fundamental inequalities. Capitalism was, to borrow from Churchill, the worst form of economic system except for all the others that had been tried.

With capitalism having once again revealed its flaws in the spectacular global financial meltdown of the past six months, and the Depression into which it appears to have plunged, I asked my good friend Gavin Evans, who recently lost his own web site to a technological glitch, to reflect on his own political and intellectual journey through Marxism, in light of the, uh, current crisis. (I haven’t used that phrase in about two decades…)

Confessions of a Teenage Marxist
By Gavin Evans

I was away on South African ‘struggle’ business when I heard Hungary had opened its doors to Austria – the first metaphorical crack in the Berlin Wall in 1989. In fact, I was a guest in the Lusaka home of a bigwig in the South African Communist Party, an organisation that for all its virtues had earned the epithet ‘slavish’ when it came to relations with countries in the Soviet orbit. My first reaction that morning in the Zambian capital, was a silent ‘oh well’. By then, I was beyond caring, which was awkward because I was a Party member with all sorts of jobs in its underground structures. My solution was to approach Party secretary general Joe Slovo (who’d recently returned from a visit to the GDR, where he was given a lovely bottle of something delicious by Erich Honecker) to request a demotion. Joe said no and I could have just walked, but instead wriggled and squirmed until a year later, when the Party was unbanned, I was permitted to withdraw, allowing a 12-year relation with the left to fizzle out.

This relationship had started in 1978 when as a fired-up teenage idealist, I was invited to an anti-apartheid protest at the University of Texas in Austin. I stayed with a flame-bearded, MG-driving Marxist lecturer called Dr Ed Steinhart, who cheerfully instructed me in the ‘science’ of historical materialism, comparing Marx’s revelations to Newton’s – objective, certain, provable. (Years later, it dawned on me that not only did Marxism lack any resemblance to science, but neither did economics, or psychology, or any of the social ‘sciences’ but I digress…) Anyway, at the time I lapped up the certainty and universality of the Marxism he was evangelizing, using it to fill the void left by my abandonment of evangelical Christianity less than a year earlier. I devoured A Communist Manifesto, and strenuously worked my way through Volume 1 of Capital, returning to Cape Town a fervent convert.

At the time, Western Marxism was undergoing its own existential crisis as working class people on both sides of the Atlantic voted, repeatedly, for the supply-side conservatism of Thatcher and Reagan. Its academic discourse was also in trouble — although the volume of Marxian babble we ploughed through at college might have suggested otherwise — its essential problem being the, uh, contradiction between the real world and its theoretical depiction. Marxist ‘class analysis’ seemed peculiarly ill-equipped to understand and predict the behaviour of nation states, governments and political parties and ideologies, just as Marxist labour theory of value offered no clues about the motions of economies. Some theorists buried their heads deep in the catechisms of “the classics”, while others made futile attempts to tie Marxist theory, with its inherent economic determinism, to what we might have called “bourgeois political science” across the yawning chasm of reality in which class struggles were clearly not shaping politics and society.

All this ought to have been cause for concern for an 80s leftie: not only did Marxism have nothing of interest to say about the world we were operating within, but its innate determinism was an obstacle to a politically useful understanding of the reality we were trying to transform. But I had no more than the occasional intellectual wobble on this score, because by then a higher calling had arrived: the ANC, the underground, the Revolution. The theoreticism of Althusser and Poulantzas and their African disciples, along with those we called the ‘library lefties’, lost its attraction, and the process of thinking for myself was also shelved.

In its place came VI Lenin – convenient, because, looking back, Lenin was not really a Marxist at all (the same could be said of Stalin, Trotsky, Mau, Rosa Luxembourg and the rest). Marxist theory was supposed to be all about objectivity and science – history being driven inexorably forward by its inbuilt dialectic until, under capitalism, the contradiction between the forces and relations of production produced a new synthesis, leading to communism. Capitalism held within it the means of its own inevitable destruction. Lenin, on the other hand, was the ultimate voluntarist – advocating an un-elected, centralised party seizing state power on behalf of the working class as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Hurry history along, in other words. The Communists were the vanguard of the ANC, its most disciplined, dedicated and far-sighted element, and so I shelved my previous objections to Soviet policy in Poland and Afghanistan, joined the Party and got the lump in the throat when singing the Internationale. Behind the scenes, I would quietly acknowledge that Soviet socialism was hardly ideal, but, dammit!, they defeated Hitler, funded and armed the ANC, and held America in check – and look at Cuba: now that’s what it’s all about!

This defence of the indefensible was made easier when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. We were all immensely relieved by his reforms and grasped onto his every word (there was even a fan base for his wife, Raisa, at least among a certain kind of leftish woman -the kind just dying to dress up to the nines). Gorbachev’s Perestroika was required reading in leftist circles, but when I finally got around to it I was in for a shock. The main thing I absorbed was his remark that socialism lacked the thing that gave capitalism its extraordinary creative power: the market. The implications of that verse, when it gelled with emerging dilemmas at a personal level, allowed the doubts to flood in. So by the time of the fall of the Wall, it had dawned on me that this market had broken the back of its putative protagonist: the other side had won, and that was that. Time to move on.

I should mention that for a while I’d had niggling suspicions that socialism was not exactly on the agenda for a liberated South Africa, but in 1989, when those cracks in the Wall first appeared, it became glaringly obvious that capitalism was the only game in town – in South Africa and beyond. It took the unbanning of the ANC before this dawned on the ANC at large, after which long-suppressed personal ambition was unshackled, and what followed was a feeding frenzy of acquisition. Overnight, one-time dedicated revolutionaries who had been prepared to endure torture and risk their lives for the greater good, were transformed into dedicated capitalists or worse – chasing after the shiny things denied to them for so long.

Twenty years on, we live in a world so different that the short historical spell of Soviet socialism (1917 – 1991) seems like brief diversion of no great importance. All the ideas tied up with its existence, including Marxism and socialism more generally, have just faded away because it turned out that even the anti-Soviet socialists (from Trots to social democrats) were more dependent on the Wall than they realised. Soviet socialism had been such a terrible failure – and, in the end, the reason it imploded related to that lack of anything to replace the market mechanism – anything other than a command-based structure incompatible with democracy. Once it fell, the left lost its compass and suffered from a crisis of confidence at the intellectual level, watching from the sidelines as ‘actually existing socialism’ was replaced by a rapacious, robber baron form of capitalism – in many cases accompanied by political dictatorship rather than democracy.

Capitalism was striding ahead, its waters flooding the old eastern bloc, at the same time that the system was undergoing one of its periodic technological revolutions, changing form in all sorts of ways and creating new markets within the existing capitalist world and beyond. It seemed so confident, so immutable, that many of the thinkers of the Left gave up trying to visualize an alternative. The world seemed so chaotically immune to their analysis that Leftists retreated to the navel-gazing post-modern universes of signs and symbols. The global constructs were left to thinkers of the right – like Francis Fukuyama, who declared that the highest stage had already arrived. Human society, he wrote, in language remarkably resonant of Marx and Engels, was free from fundamental internal contradictions and, eventually, all societies would move in this direction because the “logic of modern natural science” would prompt “a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism”.

In the early 1990s, a doctoral thesis returned me to the business of theorising. By now, Marx’s flaws were obvious. Hegel’s quaint notion that the collision of two forces produces a new synthesis was silly enough when applied to ideas, but when applied by Marx to history, with an in-built hierarchy topped by the sphere of production, it became absurd. Historical change was the product of vast range of forces, with the pressures and counter-pressures coming from all angles, with no in-built hierarchy of causation. Marx (like that modern Hegelian, Fukuyama), shared an inherent faith in modernization and linear progress towards social perfection with 300 years of European thought before him (from Hobbes, via Adam Smith to Hegel). Marx’s premise that progress was driven by the resolution of contradictions within each mode of production (workers vs. capitalists under capitalism), ultimately leading to a world free from contradiction. That had clearly looked daft well before the fall of the Wall, and having been released from Marxism’s spell it bemused me that I had ever believed this nonsense. The evidence against it was overwhelming: the working class was declining in relative size and strength; capital was no longer bringing workers together in larger numbers; class, however defined, was no longer the key point of division.

Curiously enough, though, post-Cold War capitalism seemed to be doing pretty much what Marx and Engels predicted. They were way off the mark about the underlying reasons for capitalism’s need for perpetual growth, but were more perceptive when it came to the scale this compulsion. “All fixed, fast frozen relations… are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify,” they wrote. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” Marx wrote beautifully on capitalism (particularly in Capital), describing its power in a way that it hard to match, and some of this seemed prescient in the 1990s as capital spread its wings with the arrival of the information age. The “network society” was, as the Spanish urban theorist Manuel Castells wrote, able to “link up or de-link the entire realm of human activity”, switching territories on and off, bypassing government control and individualising workers. Governments of the former left (Britain, Europe, Brazil, South Africa) felt powerless to intervene, instead joining in as cheer-leaders.

For close on two decades, this evolving form of globalised capitalism was the only game in town. But then, wouldn’t you know, it turned out there was indeed a paradox ingrained within it. I’m not talking simply about the fissure exposed by the current economic crisis, nor about the contradictions that Marx had obsessed about, but rather, something far more fundamental: the very thing that made capitalism so strong and vibrant – its immense capacity for innovation, expansion and growth – turned out to be the source of its most profound challenge. The reason for this is that the more we produce, the more the earth protests, which in turn could destroy the capacity for production and for life.

When I began writing about climate change, I clung to the hope that if we only geared the world to war footing, we had a shot at keeping global warming within 2-degree C of pre-industrial levels. I read the Stern Report and the IPCC report and watched Al Gore’s movie and came away with a sense of urgency. Well, perhaps I have since been reading too much James Lovelock, or too much George Monbiot, but I am now less hopeful. Monbiot cites figures showing we’ll need to cut carbon emissions by over 87 percent per person within the next 40 years to have even a 50-50 chance of avoiding the tipping point, after which climate change becomes self-sustaining and irreversible. Lovelock suggests the tipping point has already been reached and that we may exceed 6 degrees C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century – and that 90 percent of humanity will be wiped out. Our main task, he says, is to adapt to these changes. To take an Old Testament analogy, Monbiot is like the prophets warning the chosen that unless they turn from their wicked ways, plagues and pestilence will descend. Lovelock is like Abraham telling Lot that, sorry mate, destruction is certain, so get the hell out, chop-chop. But when it comes to climate change, the differences are less profound, because even if Monbiot is right, there’s not much hope of us turning from our wicked ways – or not far enough, quickly enough. An example: China is building 544 new coal-fired power stations (old-style, dirty coal) and 80 percent of its power comes from coal. Another example: the world’s population will grow from 6.7 billion to nine billion over the next 30 years. More people means more carbon emissions (just by breathing, let alone whatever else they do), as well as more over-crowding, less food, less water and more population relocation, but no government other than one-child-per-couple-or-else China, has a serious population reduction strategy.The word ‘impossible’ seems apposite.

We are currently enduring a global recession caused not just by the greed of bankers, but by a systemic failure that has exposed the limitations of markets and the importance of state intervention. It has shaken the confidence of monetarists and of supply side economics more generally, and has presented a fundamental challenge to the underlying philosophy of the libertarian right. I have to admit to a touch of schadenfreude in all this, but, beyond that, there are positive elements to this crisis. The reason I say this is because the coming years climate change will produce political and economic spinoffs far more profoundly challenging than the credit ‘crunch’. These challenges will either be met by massive state intervention – more big brother, more United Nations, more European Union – or they will overwhelm us. We’ve already seen the consequences of the politics of water shortages in Dafur and the West Bank, and its very early days yet. Add in massive food shortages, large parts of the world that become uninhabitable, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, and all the political problems that come with these inevitabilities (mass migration from south to north, more conflicts and wars that take on religious or national or racial hues, and the continued rise of competing forms of religious fundamentalism as people search for answer to the destruction of their ways of life), and you can see why strong, bossy states will be necessary.

But whatever happens, the notion of progress that has dominated political philosophy for so long will be challenged. In contrast to the hope of moving forward to a new world, free of fundamental contradictions, there is strong chance of moving backward as large parts of the world did after the decline of the Roman Empire, so that we end up with depopulated planet, with pockets of technological progress, surrounded by oceans and deserts where people either cannot survive or are forced to return to pre-industrial modes of existence – the kind of world hinted at by the Zachry section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example.

That’s for the future. Right now, the state of the planet is more chaotic and dangerous than it was prior to 1989. For a while it appeared that the bi-polar world of the Cold War had been replaced the uni-polar New World Order, but that proved to be a temporary chimera. The United States remains the world’s largest economic and military power, but its reach has declined relative to that of China, India and oil-rich, autocratic Russia – with none of these countries sharing America’s foreign policy interests. And while I’d agree with Fukuyama that Islamism does not represent a fundamental threat to liberal, capitalist democracy, its spread (along with other forms of highly politicised religious fundamentalism – evangelical Christian, Zionist-Jewish and Hindu) presents a long-term danger for peace, stability and prosperity in large chunks of the world, not least the Middle East. Throw into this mix the world’s declining oil reserves, and the potential for catastrophe seems far from remote.

So, to return to the start: does anything of use remain of the pre-1989 world of socialist ideas? Put differently, aside from the faint afterglow of warm feelings from the past, and a touch of delight at the fate of the bankers and US Republicans, a surge of anger about the Israelis, and a reflex urge to fill the green bin, does it mean anything today to say you’re of the Left? Well, yes. For me, what remains is this: a preference for solutions to societal problems favouring the collective over the individual. For a long time this was an unfashionable view and I would get funny looks when dropping into conversations that I quite liked the nanny state, and was far from ‘intensely relaxed’ about the super rich, or when I ranted on about the silliness of the brand of liberalism that opposes identity cards or CCTV or speed cameras. But that’s all changing – in the short term through the impact of the recession, but in the longer term through the devastating impact of the climate change. The collective is back in vogue.

One last question: for people like me who were so intensely involved in trying to change the world prior to the fall of the Wall, is there anything left of that energy? I can only answer that at a personal level. The issue that still gets me excited is the debate on the cusp between biology and the humanities around human nature – in particular, the backlash against feminism from the misogynistic snake oil salesmen who call themselves ‘evolutionary psychologists’. This stuff gets me angry and exercised. But for the rest, well, the fact that I have not lived in South Africa for 16 years (and that in that time have managed to attend a grand total of two political meetings – leaving both early- and one march against the Iraq war), obviously points to an absence of activist impulse. I remain excited about Barack Obama, but for the most part I just watch with interest and sometimes write about it, but it doesn’t make me want to raise my fist, or get me churned up inside – and that applies as much to, say, Jacob Zuma, Robert Mugabe or Benyamin Nethenayu, as to climate change. These are just issues of fascination, along with many others, like religion and linguistics and anthropology. It is not cynicism – just a kind of detachment. I guess that’s quite a damning self-indictment.

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46 Responses to Evans: Confessions of a Teenage Marxist

  1. Arie Brand says:

    I was saved from prophetic Karl by that decidedly unprophetic Karl viz. Karl Popper. In the early sixties when leftists, especially in France, were shifting their sympathies from Russia to China, maintaining their faith in prophetic Karl, I read Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism. Exit prophetic Karl.

    Popper’s ideas about ‘piecemeal social reform’ seemed to me to fit in with the only agenda open to social democracy. Also, his view that it is far easier to find agreement on what is suffering than on what constitutes ‘the good society’ seemed to me to put a brake on ‘wholesale’ schemes of social reform, invariably ending in disaster, while leaving a door open for ameliorative action.

    I was and am pleased with his neat solution of the question regarding the appropriate source of power. This question , he said, is very similar to a basic question in epistemology concerning the ‘appropriate source’ for a hypothesis. The source of a hypothesis, he maintained, doesn’t matter as long as there is a possibility to falsify it when appropriate and throw it out. Likewise the source of power doesn’t matter as long as there is a structured way to remove power holders when power is abused.

  2. David Green says:

    Either you, or I have misread the evolutionary psychologists!

    I know it is a very tiny point in your article, something of a tangent. But, it might be worth re-reading someone like Steven Pinker carefully.

  3. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Ari – I agree that Popper’s antidote to Marxism is on the nose, but I suspect that what the world will require in the coming decades is a far more interventionist form of state and super-state than Popper ever invisaged.

  4. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Dave – I guess it’s a bit beyond this debate, but I have read Pinker very, very carefully and I think what he says, from start to finish, is pure bollocks. He’s wrong on linguistics, has little understanding of evolutionary biology (taking an even more fundamentalist approach than Dawkin) and the way he relates this limited understanding to psychology and human nature, is utterly absurd. In addition to falling into the worst kind of sexism that evolutionary biology specialises in, he is also a racist. His argument that Ashkenazi Jews are innately more intelligent than anyone else is no different in principle from those of his calling who argue that Ethiopians or Bushmen or blacks more generally are innately more stupid than anyone else. It is based apon a total lack of understanding of human evolution combined with an antedeluvian understanding of IQ and a complete ignorance of Ashkenazi Jewish history. Really, Dave, of all the genetic determinists, Pinker is the worst (and by the way, despite his popular press billing, the man is a psychologist and not a scientist).

  5. Justin McDermott says:

    A good analysis of our intellectual history. Mine was much the same, except that I rejected Leninism in favour of some kind of philosophical anarchism around 1969.

    However, I take a much more positive view of evolutionary psychology. No doubt it can be used to defend some quite reactionary positions, but that’s a stupid error. Really, it is simply asking us to take seriously the notion that we are an animal species.

    True, evolutionary thinking is incompatible with a certain fundamentalist form of feminism, but that kind of feminism is fading fast — i.e., the exaggerated idea that everything distinctively human is a product of culture, such as patriarchal culture, and is in no way affected by genetics; hence the pious horror at the phrase “human nature”.

    The evolutionary viewpoint is a natural successor to Freud’s in one vital respect at least — it stresses the importance of understanding the unconscious dimension in human motivation. A dog’s inner life is almost completely ruled by the Unconscious (plus an over-developed Super-ego, as befits a carnivore that hunts in hierarchical packs). Homo Sapiens is a bit different, and much smarter in his/her own estimation, but he ain’t the infinitely perfectible Homo Sovieticus.

    Again, Freud had an encouraging adage about the prospects of overcoming our merely animal instincts: “Where Id was, Ego shall be.” We are testing this rational hope right now, in the struggle to get our species to do something intelligent about climate change. Here’s hoping.

  6. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Justin – I have five fundamental objections to the premises, and therefore the conclusions, of evolutionary psychology:

    First, it is based on a deeply flawed understanding of evolutionary biology. It assumes that every aspect of human behaviour is a direct consequence of natural selection. Instead, I would share the view held by Craig Venter (of the human genome decoding), and biologists like Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and many others, that the nature of human intelligence allows for a huge amount of flexibility in human behaviour. Even some animals (great apes, dolphins) have culture in the sense that different pods of groups learn different behaviour, but with human beings, ultimately because of the size of our brains, the abillity to imagine, to create, to emphathise, and so on, means this variation is far greater. Steven Jay Gould referred to evolutionary ‘spandrels’ in this respect – unintended consequences if you like. One example he cited was reading and writing which emerged about 10 000 years ago, long after our brains had reached their current intellectual capacity in the physical sense. I would suggest that a great deal of what the evolutionary psychologists regard as specifically evolved behaviour falls in this category. This is not to reject the idea of human nature, but rather to have a far more flexible idea of what this nature really is. As Tolstoy put we can all be kind, cruel, wise, sympathetic, apathetic…. and so on. The more I read about anthropology, the more I am struck not by how similar we all are below the surface, but at how different we are when raised in different cultural conditions.

    Second, it is based on flawed logic. The typical evolutionary psychology approach to ‘research’ goes something like this: find some aspect of human behaviour you think is biologically innate (say, men choosing younger women as their wives); do some research among a small group of students which shows a majority think or act this way (thereby supposedly proving it is innate); suck out of the thumb some supposed evolutionary reason why this behaviour might have evolved through natural selection (always going back to the pleistocene age, about which we have no information about actual human behaviour) and then put it all together in a paper released to the press, who, invariably will lap it up without question. This is no exaggeration. I have looked at the research of Pinker, Buss and various others, and this is precisely what it amounts to. In every case, without any effort, I could think of several possible independent variables unrelated to evolution which could have prompted the same research conclusions, thereby invalidating their conclusions.

    Third, it is based on a discredited notion of IQ. A great deal of their conclusions (whether Pinker on Ashkenazi intelligence, or Pinker on why men are supposedly better at maths than women) are premised on the view that IQ measures innate general intelligence. Anyone who has read Flynn’s writing (on what is now known as the Flynn effect) will know that this is simply nonsense. What IQ measures is the ability to perform IQ tests, which might also be a useful indicator of ability to perform certain other kinds of academic work. What it palpably does not, and cannot, measure is innate general intelligence (if such a thing can be said to exist). As Flynn and others have shown the average IQ a century ago, if measured by today’s standards, would be something like 60. IQ tests have to have an average of 100, which is why they get progressively more difficult. The reason why average IQ has increased obviously has nothing to do with an increase in innate intelligence over the past century (it is unlikely that innate intelligence has increased over the past 70 000 years, and perhaps far longer). Flynn explains the increase in terms of exposure not just to books and exposure to testing more generally, but in terms of exposure from a very young age to abstract logic. So the fact that some groups might have higher average IQs than others says absolutely nothing about their innate intelligence.

    Fourth, evolutionary psychology appears to operate in blissful ignorance of many of the advances in biology. I have already mentioned the human genome project (which found less than one third of the number of genes anticipated, leaving Venter and others to conclude that a great deal of what they assumed was genetic, is, in fact, culurual). Also significant are the recent discoveries relatiing to epi-genetic inheritance. This, for example, renders suspect all of the conclusions drawn from studies of separated identical twins (because it is possible that similarities in behaviour could be epigentic rather than genetic).

    Fifth, many of the pet conclusions of evolotionary psychology are being devestated by larger scale metal analysis of behavioural studies. For example, the view that women are more verbal than men is simply wrong (we use approximately the same number of words per day), as is the view that women ‘multi-task’ better than men. And academic results at elite level of girls in the sciences and mathematics (in Britain, for example, in every one of the scientific subject they outstrip boys) renders suspect Pinker’s conclusions about innate differences in this respect. Of the more controversial EP concusions – that men are programmed to rape, men are programmed to seek out younger women, men are programmed to reject their stepchildren, and so on, the huge cultural variations relating to the position of women in society, illustrate just how facile their methods are. For example, the greater the level of equality between males and females, the less the age difference between partners.

    I could go on and on, but basically I would say I place evolutionary psychology on the same plain as, say, Jungian psychology or homeopathy: pure nonsense posing as science.

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  8. John Merryman says:

    Another concept to consider is the top down order, vs. bottom up process of Complexity Theory, as it relates to any number of aspects of human behavior. Some of the more interesting have to do with theological and moral assumptions. The inherent flaw in monotheism, the “all-knowing absolute,” as described by PJPII, is that the absolute, the universal state, is the logical basis, not the apex. So a spiritual absolute, should you need one, would be the essense of being from which we rise, not a Platonic Ideal of the human soul from which we fell. Knowledge is simply a feedback loop of information and judgement.
    This applies to our moral assumptions as well, since we have idolized the primordial attraction of the beneficial, vs. repulsion of the detrimental, to an overarching code of conduct. Good vs. bad. Yet even amoebae distinguish between the two. It is the biological binary code, from which thought processes evolve. The problem is that it is linear, with not regard for reciprocity, reaction, balance, laws of unintended consequences, etc. In fact they are derided as “moral relativism.” Essentially if a little of something is good, lots of it must be that much better. It is this mindset that lays at the heart of our economic and many of our environmental problems. The fact is that while our modern thought processes have become exceedingly complex, they often rest of extremely primitive assumptions. The Sumarians invented money by using clay tablets as receipts for baskets of wheat. Then they found it easier to make clay tablets than grow wheat and the first currency bubble happened. How smarter are we really, with all our PhDs churning out financial instruments to keep the current bubble of excess currency circulating? So the government borrows it all back and spends it so those lending it can collect interest off a parched economy. How long does that last? Money functions as a public utility. Maybe if people understood that it is a form of public commons, like a road system, they would be less obsessively inclined to drain value out of communities and the environment to put in a bank. Banks could be functions of local government and use profits to fund services in the communities that generated the profits in the first place. Socialism doesn’t have to be a top down state function. It can be bottom up organic. The people on top are not there because God put them there, they are there because they managed to climb there. Remember it was the polytheists who invented democracy. All the monotheists gave us was the divine right of kings.

  9. Justin McDermott says:

    Gavin, I actually agree with many of your specific criticisms of such people as Stephen Pinker. The trouble with these early forays into evolutionary psychology is that they have a fatal weakness for writing neatly circular Just So stories. You’d have to conclude that the neurology or brain science simply isn’t remotely advanced enough to support this kind of analysis. But I suppose I am a bit more indulgent at the attempts, despite their weaknesses, as long as they get us thinking about potential tests or disproofs. And we all love speculations about the origins of language. The point is that evolutionary biology is fundamentally correct, so it can only be a matter of time before there emerges a more convincing account of evolutionary psychology.

  10. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi John – this is very interesting. What I like about complexity theory when applied to understanding society (as opposed to, say, dialectics) is that it allows for (and embraces) a multiplicity of unpredictable causes. I guess my problem with it is that in the way it has sometimes been used, it has tended to conflate the motion of the natural world with that of human relations, which, if you think about it, is metaphysics. Incidentally, Engels did the same thing when he tried to applied what he regarded as dialectics in botany to human history.

  11. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Justin – I guess my difference here is that I don’t see any kind of direct or reflext relation between biology and psychology, or rather, I see the relation between them as being extremely complex. The old debate between nature and nurture is largely redundant and I don’t think anyone takes a blank slate view anymore. Even if we take a condition like, say, schizophrenia, which is evidently heritable, at least in part, when you speak to psychiatrists specialising in this condition, they talk vaguely of societal triggers and so on (whether it is a chaotic early childhood or LSD), and more recent research on epigenetics has opened this sphere even wider, because what one inherits in the biological sense might not be genetic in origin. More generally, when considering human nature, I would be extremely cautious about assuming that any supposedly universal trait has evolved (through natural selection), because there is invariably a strong possibility that this trait has cultural roots. To take two examples much loved by socio-biologists: that we have evolved to have a religious bent (Dawkin, oddly, believes this) and that men have evolved to have a specific preference for female hip-waist ratios (Desmond Morris). Now, if we accept that the exception disproves the rule, then neither of these hold up because Amazonian tribes have been found with no religious belief whatsoever (the Piraha – who also devestate the Pinker/Chomsky view of a universal grammar), and with different hip-waist ratio preferences for men.

    On your point about speculating about the origins of language, I think the past conventional wisdom of a genetic trigger, originally propagated by Chomsky and, with significant variations, developed by Pinker, is also dodgy. The proof they often cite is that if a child is not exposed to language they never develop the capacity to learn it. This is certainly true, but I have never understood why this leads to their conclusions. Instead, I would look at it in terms of the way the brain develops during the early years of a child’s life. This is a very good exammple of how the impact of nurture has a profound impact on the nature of the brain. There are so many examples of this beyond language – the frontal cortex of the brains of neglected Romanian orphans developing differently to the point that they never develop the capacity to love (perhaps the origins of the narcissistic personality). And yet we don’t talk about a ‘love trigger’ in genetic terms. The more I read on the subject of the origins of humanity, the more I come to suspect that language developed very slowly and unevenly over tens of thousands of years. The first humans whose brains were anatomically the same as ours wouldn’t have arrived speaking in multi-clause sentences. This would have taken time to emerge. In other words, language itself (as opposed to the neurological capacity for language, like reading and writing which came perhaps 100 000 years later, can be considered an evolutionary spandrel.

  12. Clingon says:

    I wish all the social activists would take on the AIDS epidemic of S Africa. 1/3 South Africans is HIV positive. This will obviously impact the economic viability of S Africa. The S African struggle is not over, and is not being addressed by self promoters like Tutu or HIV denying demoagogues like Thabo Mbeki. SA is well on its way to becoming a UN protectorate

  13. John Merryman says:


    The issue I have with complexity theory is that it has been buried in business school paper churning. Frankly I don’t have trouble relating human behavior with nature, since I grew up on a farm and all mental processes are a function of juggling conceptual assumptions. Some are just far more complex than others. The model I prefer, which is reflected in complexity theory, is the convection cycle and applying it to economic and political activity. As in what contracts, heats up, expands outward, then cools down and falls inward. Think about business cycles and the pendulum swing between the social expansion of liberalism and the civil consolidation of conservatism. As I said, the problem with our linear morality is that it only sees one side of the coin and neither side accepts the extent to which they support each other, for better or worse. Which isn’t to say there is some happy medium, since that would just be a flatline on the heart monitor.
    I don’t usually discuss this in terms of politics or religion, since the divisions tend to be set, but I’ve been advancing it in terms of economics, given the extent to which the current paradigm is collapsing. Mostly I think about it in terms of physics because I see the convection cycle explaining the relationship between expanding radiant energy and the gravitational contraction of mass/structure, but physicists tend to be more reductionistic than wholistic, so there is a failure to communicate there as well.

  14. Gail says:

    Facinating! I too was a teenage Marxist – a fan of Althusserian structuralism actually.

    Now days I feel the same sense of detachment – or perhaps it’s just plain old, middle-aged exhaustion…oh for some of that teenage energy!

  15. David Green says:

    Hi Gavin

    Where to start? Let me get rid of the small points first. Is Pinker a scientist? Yes, he practices the scientific method in his research and goes through the difficult process of admitting that he is wrong when the evidence shows it. This leads to my second point – was Pinker wrong on how language developed or how we acquire it in our early life? Yes, and he conceded as much after the Barcelona conference last year. Was he wrong on the fundamental that we have an innate ability to learn language (amongst many other innate abilities)? No, that theory still stand with evidence mounting to support it.

    On your five points:

    1) This is something of a straw man. I know of no one who insists that all aspects of human behaviour is a direct consequence of natural selection. Take driving cars for example, no one in EP would argue that we are evolved to drive cars. Pinker himself spends many pages in “How the Mind Works” on spandrels. and in his recent New York times article on an analysis of his own genome he makes it very clear that a direct line between the genome and behaviour does not exist.

    2) This point really does trivialise the massive amount of very clever research that has gone into this subject. I do agree that many a hypothesis has been rushed to the lay press before good evidence supports it. And, often, the evidence does not support the hypothesis and this is not reported later. The scientific community rails against this. There are, however, large numbers of very good studies that produce fruitful avenues for research and understanding of human beings that are peer reviewed and published. EP has a growing and solid body of science behind it.

    3) Another straw man. A tiny, very tiny proportion of EP work deals with intelligence at all. The latest published work that I’m aware of (Nature a week or two ago) deals with emotional responses to auditory and visual input, even when that input does not pass through the cortex – ie it is subconcious. No IQ measurement to be seen anywhere in the research – and this is true for the bulk of the research published on the subject.

    I have not read Pinkers points on Ashkenazi Jews for a while, but I seem to recall that it was accompanied by a several paragraph explanation that he was not doing what you assert, to whit, that there was a superior intelligence in operation?

    4) Whether something is inherited in a genetic or epigenetic manner, it is still inherited and is, potentially, subject to natural selection. So, how the inheritance happens is of no consequence or impact in this discussion. Epigenetics is, however, very hotly contested. The active and “no-junk” genes are more than enough to code for everything that we know and more.

    5) I’m not aware of the meta-analyses to which you refer. But lets accept them at face value. If we do not yet have an accurate understanding of human behaviour, then these studies can only contribute. The larger point is, if science challenges some strongly held beliefs about who we are, how we behave, or where we came from, attack the science. Galileo, Darwin, Galton and others should be a lesson to us that strongly held beliefs are not enough to dismiss science …. even if it is our non-sexism or non-racism that we perceive to be under attack

    From Pinker’s debate with Dawkins:

    “Much of the research in evolutionary psychology has shown that many ignoble motives have some basis in natural selection. An example is the desire, most obvious in men, to defend one’s honor and reputation, by violence if necessary. Another is the characteristically male motive to seek a variety of sexual partners. It’s easy to work out why those motives evolved, and there is by now an enormous body of evidence that they are widespread among humans. But people reject the explanation because of what they think is the subtext. If these motives are part of our nature, if they come from the natural world, well, everyone knows that natural things are good — natural childbirth, natural yogurt, and so on — so that would imply that promiscuity and violence aren’t so bad after all. And it implies that since they are “in the genes,” they are unchangeable, and attempts to improve the human condition are futile.

    I think both parts are wrong — the first part is so obviously wrong that it has been given a name, the naturalist fallacy, the idea that what we find in nature is good. What we find in nature is not necessarily good; as Richard has put it, the universe is not good or bad, it’s indifferent. Certainly violence and philandering and all of the other sins are immoral whether their cause is the genes, or the wiring of the brain, or social conditioning, or anything else. It behooves us to find the causes, but the causes don’t change the moral coloring of those acts.

    Also, the human mind, I argue, is a complex system of many interacting parts. Even if one motive impels people to do immoral acts, other parts of the mind that can subvert its designs. We can think of the long-term consequences, and we can imagine what society would be like if everyone acted on a particular motive. The part of the mind that has those thoughts can disengage the part of the mind that has less noble motives. “

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  17. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Dave – I won’t go through each of your points one by one but I will pick out a few of them.

    You dispute my point about the ‘just so stories’ methodology of EP. Let me give you one of many, many examples I could cite. All British quality newspapers last year reported on a study by one of the most esteemed of American evolutionary psychologists, David Buss of the University of Texas. He was attempting to show that people are more innately drawn towards blood relations than others (terrible news for step children or adopted children, by the way). His method involved trying to prove that we are more drawn towards our maternal cousins than our paternal (the odd rationale being that we can be sure our mums are related to us, but not our dads). He therefore interviewed 90-odd students and, low and behold, the majority were closer to their maternal cousins. So, voila! That supposedly proved his point that we are innately drawn to our blood relations. Now, I could, from the top of my head pick holes in this series of logical leaps, but let’s just settle for the most obvious one. Having lived in Texas, I can say with confidence that most students would have been raised spending more time with mom than with pop, which probably means more time with mom’s kin.

    My point is that with every one of the popularly publicised EP claims that I have come across I could find independent variables that could easily have prompted the same conclusions, rendering questionable, to say the least, their claims of genetic origins.

    Onto the contention, first made by the animal behaviourist-psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson and echoed with great enthusiasm by Pinker, that stepfathers are biologically programmed to sexually abuse and beat-up their step-children: This is based on statistics suggesting that, on average, step-children are more likely to suffer this way than biological children. The obvious counter-explanation relates to the psychological and economic strains involved in setting up a second family, but for Pinker et al, this is clearly a case of hard-wiring (partly related to their view that parental love is genetic). But if this is true, why is it that the majority of stepfathers do not abuse their stepchildren, and why do a minority of genetic fathers abuse their own children? As sociologist Hilary Rose points out, this idea is refuted by substantial examples of the opposite behaviour such as the indifference shown to slave owners to the children of the women slaves they impregnated and the examples of infanticide of female babies in India and China because genetic fathers insist on male children.

    Next, the contention advanced most fervently by Buss that women are programmed to seek out older, richer men. Again, the exceptions disprove the rule because there is statistical proof that in societies where the gender gap in income and job prospects narrows, so does the gap in couples’ ages. In Britain – hardly at top end of the scale when it comes to gender equality – there has been a steady rise in the proportion of couples where the woman is the older partner and/or prime earner. And, by the way, this also applies in more traditional communities (Borgerhoff and Mulder’s research, for example, shows that Kipsigis women no longer favour wealthy men).

    Let’s then move onto Pinker himself. Pinker notes that “men are better at mentally rotating shapes; women are better at visual memory. Men are better at mathematical problem-solving; women are better at mathematical calculation.” Or when it comes to work-home balance, “men … are more likely to chase status at the expense of their families; women give a more balanced weighting.”

    His stabs at evidence are drawn mainly from American studies. He cites the ‘Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth’ (in which 7th graders were given the school-leaving SAT test, designed for university-bound teenagers). Here the male-female ratio of those scoring over 700 is, he says, 2.8 to 1. But the more interesting result is that 25 years ago it was 13-to 1. Quite aside from the question of what it is that SAT results measure, the rapid shrinking of this discrepancy strongly suggests that educational and cultural changes must be implicated, a point Pinker chooses to skip over because, like all evolutionary psychologists, he insists social differences are over-rated in explaining gender differences, and biological ones under-rated.

    Pinker’s claim, backed up by research by the Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, that males are innately predisposed to learn about objects and mechanical relationships while females are innately predisposed to learn about people and emotions, is very much a minority taste within the field. Professor Elizabeth Spelke, director of Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Behaviour Institute, refers to 30 years of studies of the cognition of babies showing gender convergence in these areas: “Do we see sex differences?” she asks, “The research gives a clear answer to this question: We don’t. Male and female infants are equally interested in objects. Male and female infants make the same inferences about object motion, at the same time in development. They learn the same things about object mechanics at the same time.” Spelke and her Harvard colleagues study mathematical abilities in children from five months to seven years old. “In that age span,” she says, “you see a considerable number of the pieces of our mature capacities for spatial and numerical reasoning coming together but while we always test for gender differences in our studies, we never find them.” She adds that the same thing applies to the childrens’ interest in other people – supposedly a female trait: again, no differences. Spelke refers to research from cognitive neuroscience and other disciplines which break these systems down to their root elements and then examines a range of studies of infants in these areas, to illustrate the point that there is no innate male superiority in constructing number concepts or in mental rotation ability (a favourite of Pinker’s – the old upside down map thing). As she puts it: “There is not a hint of an advantage for boys over girls.”

    I could cite many other even more absurd claims of sexual difference made by Pinker but I’ll restrict myself to just one. This one, from a debate at Harvard, I particularly enjoyed: “Among baby vervet monkeys, the males even prefer to play with trucks and the females with other kinds of toys!” (The explanation mark is his). Do I need to say more? If we drew up a 0 to 10 scale nurture-nature scale, with, say, John Locke and his ‘tabula rasa’ on a no-nature 0, and, say, Robert Ardry or Desmond Morris on an all-nature 10, then Pinker would be a good fit for a 9.3. He’s a nativist extremist, in other words. Read his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, and what emerges most powerfully is his gullibility when it comes to research supposedly illustrating his contentions (not least in the methodological flaws in the twin studies he cites, which come with gems like the heritability of milk and fizzy drink intake is high but of fruit juice and diet drinks is low). But the truly odd thing about this approach is that Pinker, like Dawkins, allows himself a get-out clause. Not wanting to think of themselves as automatons, always at the mercy of their DNA, they talk of the thrill of “rebelling” against their genes and such-like, which rather raises the question: if they are doing it, why not all of us?

    Finally, I want to return to my point about Pinker’s racism (and he is by no means alone among EP fanatics in this regard – just look at the racist nonsense put out by the likes of Richard Lynne and Satoshi Kanazawa. But let’s stick with Pinker. , who enthusiastically endorsed a paper based on thoroughly laughable logic that claimed that Jews of European heritage had IQs of 7 – 17 percent above the mean for the white population and that this superiority is based entirely on genetic rather than environmental factors and reflected innate intelligence (Pinker, like all of his ilk, accepts uncritically the dubious notion that IQ measures ‘crystallised’ intelligence, and he also insists IQ is 80 percent heritable – his words, not mine). The claim that he so enthusiastically and publicly endorsed was based on four premises, none surviving serious scrutiny. First, IQ is a valid measure of innate intelligence. Second, IQ is highly heritable and not affected by family environment. Third, the history of money lending by Ashkenazi Jews favoured genes associated with intelligence. Fourth, related to this, there is a link between recessive genes implicated in hereditary diseases prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews (like Tay Sachs and Torsion Dystonia) and high intelligence (as measured by IQ). In his spirited endorsement, Pinker made further reference to the number of Ashkenazi Jews who were Nobel prize winners and so on – the proof is in the pudding kind of argument.

    I’m sure it’s not necessary for me to through this argument, point-by-point – merely to say it is based on utter ignorance about the evolution of the human brain, utter ignorance about Ashkenazi history (his own blue eyes should give him the clue there – that Askhenazi Jews are no more homogenious than the rest of us, a ridiculous and utterly discredited idea of IQ, and some astounding logical leaps (like what percentage of Jews were money lenders and where’s the evidence that they sired more children).

    And if you doubt that this is a racist argument, try applying the same conclusions to say, Aryans, and see where that takes you.

    Just one more point, on epigenetics. The point I was making is that if some characteristic is inherited epigenetically, it falls outside of the realm of natural selection in that respect. It is a very good example of the interplay between nature and nurture, in the sense that the sins of the fathers (or mothers) are vested onto their children unto the third or fourth generation (to paraphrase the Old Testament). How you behave can have physical effects on your children and grandchildren without affecting the genome.

    Finally, you asked about the meta-studies I was referring to. Here I will mention just one example. About 3 years ago the journal American Psychologist published a fascinating paper by Dr Janet Shibley Hyde of the University of Wisconsin, who analysed 46 meta-analyses on gender traits and abilities, carried out in a 20 years time period. In a few of these traits and abilities there were indeed profound differences – most notably motor skills (such as throwing ability), aspects of sexuality (including frequency of masturbation) and heightened physical aggression. But in most of the psychological variables examined (including cognitive abilities, verbal and non-verbal communication, self esteem and leadership inclination) little or no difference emerged. Males did not interrupt more; females were not more self-revealing. And where there were small differences these seemed to depend on the context they were measured in. Her findings make for interesting reading because they challenge the current – and ancient – conventional wisdom that our minds are wired in fundamentally different ways. And they provide a profound reposte to academic mysogney of the likes of Steven Pinker.

  18. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Clingon – thanks for your point about HIV-Aids, and I share your sense of urgency and despair. While I doubt your figure than one third of South Africans are HIV-positive (16-million people?) I agree the problem is immense.

    I think you are right to place much of the blame with Mbeki (which was one of the reasons why I was delighted by his demise – having Barbara Hogan as Health Minister is a significant victory). But I think we must also put some of the blaim at Nelson Mandela’s door. Despite pleas from Aids campaigners like Edwin Cameron he declined to utter a single peep about the disease while he was president (or before) – and this was the time when a concerted lead from the top could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Of course, he saw the light later, but by then it was too late.

    Just one other remark: to call Desmond Tutu a self-promoter is just silly. I first met him 34 years ago, and have watched him closely ever since. At every stage he’s been heroic and at most stages he’s proved to be correct in the positions he has adopted (often against the grain). And at a personal level he has always been kind, thoughtful, warm and welcoming. The man is a giant.

  19. David Seaton says:

    What isn’t often mentioned is the tendency of millenarians to expect the millennium in their own short lifespans. If the heavens don’t open up with trumpets right away disappointed millenarians often have a dark night of the soul and leave whatever church they attended. Even Marx himself seemed to expect the revolution in his lifetime.

    I have found myself rereading Marx for the first time since the 1960s and I am amazed at how relevant he is today… It just takes time (lots and lots) for the contradictions of the system to finally become unmanageable.

    What Marx didn’t seem to foresee (correct me here)is that the system would literally give money away to people for them to spend it in consumption as a way of squaring the circle of stagnant salaries brought about by over production and the resulting glut of product.

    Global warming is of course the final monster sired by capitalism and the one that will ultimately devour it. That is why it is being passionately denied by so many.

  20. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi David – while I don’t agree that the particular contradictions highlighted by Marx are ones that will unsettle capitalism (founded in the capital-labour relation), I do agree with you that he wrote powerfully about the growth of spread of capitalism. And I certainly agree with your final point about global warming being the monster that will ultimately devour it. That’s a good way of putting it (although what worries me when I say this, is that I too might be guilty of the same kind of millinarianism that I criticise in Marx).

  21. David Seaton says:

    We will see what the capital-labor relation is without the anesthetic of endless credit, the true “opium of the people”. Perhaps Marx’s greatest failure was not to foresee the time-payment schemes that permit poor people to forget that they are poor. Without a credit card you might say – to coin a phrase – that man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

  22. Gavin Evans says:

    Yes, well, another problem there is that the working class, as conceived of by Marx, in terms of a relation to the means of production specifically, is declining in both absolute and relative terms, and there is no indication of any power surge within its collective ranks – quite the opposite in fact. And from past experience the political tendency in economic depressions, if indeed we are headed for one, is towards the right (fascism in the 1930s) and not the left.

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  24. David Seaton says:

    The working class has been in part substituted by the “consumer class”, which in reality is more and more the “working poor”. Productivity gains have impoverished the workers just as Marx predicted, but the circle was squared with credit. This of course was a huge Ponzi scheme. It is only now, without the Novocaine of credit that we could be looking at the beginning of some sort of rebelliousness as Marx classic analysis finally kicks in… finding us with gray hair and tired legs.

  25. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi David – if one is determined to stick with Marx one can’t simply substitute the working class with an amorphous construct like the ‘consumer class’ (which, really, is everyone). I mean, the whole essence of Marx’s economic theory is his reworking of David Ricardo’s labour theory of value, and the implication of this is that production, and the two classes it contains, are at the centre. And I think you would be hard-pressed to show that productivity gains have impoverished the workers, at least not in absolute terms. Yes, certainly, the gap between rich and poor has grown over the past 20 years, particularly under Anglo-American capitalism, and unlike the Blairites in the UK, I believe this to be hugely significant, but this is not the same thing as saying that the working class is poorer in absolute terms. It isn’t – and especially not in the advanced industrialised world.

  26. David Seaton says:

    Now, as to who is a “worker”. One definition that I find fairly solid is that of someone who basically has nothing but his work to sell. With that definition you could say that we still have an enormous working class.

    I read that US salaries (adjusted for inflation) have been stagnant since 1970. That the average American’s purchasing power has in fact declined. Prosperity was an illusion effected by endless credit.

    When all the smoke of the exploded bubble, which Soros says has been inflating for the last 60 years, blows away, I think that even “labor value” will need another look.

    In short, I have the idea that Marx was like the ant in the fable of the ant and the grasshopper and the postwar capitalist economy was like the grasshopper. Since this credit bubble has been inflating all our lives, it is difficult to process the significance of its bursting. We are suddenly back to where we were before credit cards and the “never, never” were invented.

  27. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi David – on your definition of a worker: a surprisingly small percentage of people (and a shrinking one at that) within the advanced industrialised world own nothing but their labour power. Most own their homes (or at least a part of them), their cars and so on, and many own shares. The value of all of these might have diminished because of the recession, but it still means that the boundary between who is a worker and who is an owner are blurred. In non-Marxist terms (which make more sense to me than those of Marx) the class that has experienced the most consistent growth over the past generation has been the middle class. Overall, I think one has to accept that class is no longer the key point of division in society.

  28. David Seaton says:

    What you are talking about are “personal possessions” not real “property”, which is more in the line of “means of production” or substantial capital… that is something that people are discovering in this crisis… we are not “one big happy family” after all. This supposed prosperity was all a scam.

    Arriving at this new state of consciousness is not going to be an overnight thing, of course, but with their house devalued or foreclosed, their pension fund plundered etc, a certain class consciousness may return. I think we are seeing a bit of it in the AIG bonus affair… more to follow.

    The “key point of division in society”, will be discovered as society divides… into “winners and losers”.

  29. Shlomo says:

    I think we’re generally in agreement.

    I never fell for Marxism. I remain cognizant that class conflict plays a role, but it is never the sole factor and is often not even the major factor. As a religious guy, I have always been a little dismayed with the way Americans have been chasing around money lately. When we should be worrying about the collectivity, we pay too much attention to our wallets. I’m not just talking the banking crisis, but certain forms of neo-colonialism as well.

    For example, all our problems with Iran now might not be there, if we hadn’t decided to overthrow Mosadeg to keep the black oil flowing. Taliban? We could have prevented them from taking root. All we had to do was, after spending a decade enflaming Afghan society to stop the Soviets, we could have helped Afghanis establish a decent government. Now, we’re seeing the same thing repeat in Somalia, with a ten-year time delay. We went in Somalia to aid the poor, left after a few minor casualties–and now we’re paying for it, as an incredibly violent Jihadist group called Shbab is about to take power. Greed and short-sightedness have not served us well. Charity and good teachings, or whatever collective identity you wish, would serve us better.

    There is one thing I want to warn you about. Seeing that you are a recovering economic determinist, do not lapse into environmental determinism. I do not think the Darfur Genocide came from politics of water shortage. Water crisis certainly was no boon to Darfuris, but a worse bout of massacres occurred in the lush hills of Rwanda fifteen years ago. Somewhere, we must remember the role of ideology and culture to sow hatred or bring harmony, independent of material conditions.

  30. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Schlomo – I agree with your points about the implications of following the dollar at the expense of morality in foreign policy. My point about the role of water in the Darfur genocide is not that it was the sole cause of the conflict, not even the prime cause (and I agree with you about ideology and culture – in this case not only widely differing forms of Islam, but widely differing lifestyle between Arabs and Africans), but it is one conflict where water shortages and the effect of these on agricultural land, clearly exacerbated the tensions. Incidentally, the same could be said, obviously in very different circumstances, in the conflict between Israelis and Arabs in the West Bank – water is playing a big, and growing role.

  31. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi David – well, I hope you are right. I would love to see the current economic situation giving rise to collective expressions of working class consciousness (however the working class is defined) and for this to have an impact on politics. But I suspect that it will go the other way – not exclusively, but primarily. If we look back to the the post-1929 depression we can certainly see examples of workers uniting – the growth of trades unions in the United States, Britain and elsewhere being one example. But if we look back, the dominant tendeny was towards the right – the growth of fascism in Spain, Italy and Germany. It seems likely that the political implications of recession, and more so of global warmming, will be towards various forms of xenophobia, focussed significantly on keeping foreigners out. As I have said many times before, I believe the most telling political issue in the advanced industrial world over the next century will relate to human migration – and it will be ugly politics.

  32. David Seaton says:

    There is certainly a danger of fascism. Paradoxically, however, the fact that there is no real Communist movement at this moment or USSR anymore may allow a progressive consciousness to develop with some spontaneity before capital begins to promote xenophobic protectionism to fight it: such xenophobic protectionism would obviously hurt globalization which in turn would be very bad for multinational business. In a sense the system is hoist by its own petard.

    I think we are looking at some uniquely auspicious possibilities at this moment.

  33. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi David – as I said, I hope you’re right. Maybe it’s just that I’m nearing 50 and have been burned before, so I find it easier to draw more pessimistic conclusions.

  34. David Seaton says:

    I’m 64. I have been burned out more times than Wayne Newton.

  35. I would like to see the inscription “to be continied”:-D

  36. Liz says:

    I remember the teenage Marxists in the Struggle in the 80s at the University of Cape Town. Christ, what an insufferably arrogant and boring lot you were. You seemed utterly unaware that this great role you thought you had in telling the rest of us what to think was a bunch of crappy little theories that YOU LEARNED IN SCHOOL, for God’s sake. The “Left” is made up of middle class students who have studied Marx, it’s not an organic position of holy fucking righteousness! Get over yourselves!
    And it was SOOOOOO obvious to a lot of the rest of us that the theories you had swallowed hook, line and sinker were incredibly simplistic. As a group you lacked imagination to a staggering degree, and it was a huge laugh to watch you all ‘become disillusioned’ as it became obvious that the new South Africa was made of people with ordinary human failings and not some demographic on a computer game invented by blinkered little techies.If you could have your lives again and see what it is like being a teenager without the whole self-important structure of Marxism holding you up, you would see that that’s what you were in the end…. you were just teenagers.

  37. Liz says:

    In fact, I’m almost cheered up by AIDS denialism, just to watch you lot scratching your heads over where the hell that came from. “But Mein Fuhrer it iSS not in ze Equation ve formulated, viss our incredible subtle understanding of ze human mind!”

  38. liz i was really unable to understand your point here…

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