Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Moment of Radical Reflection

I do not have a great deal of faith, as those who have read my last two postings already know, in the direction that congressional health care reform is headed. Both leading Democrats in both houses of Congress and the White House are refraining from committing to systemic reform of American health care, and systemic reform is what American health care needs. Most Republicans, of course, mean something entirely different by 'health care reform'; they mean the thorough gutting of government health care entitlements for the benefit of private insurers and an essentially unfunded (the tax credit proposed in the one Republican plan I have seen is not going to help anyone who actually needs help to pay for their health care) mandate to require Americans to fork money over to same. The depressing part of the mire into which health care reform is sinking is how close to one another the plan advanced by Teddy Kennedy and the plan advanced by Judd Gregg really are. They are closer to agreement than disagreement and this should make us all worry.

This, however, is not a post about health care. It is a post about thinking and thought. I am sure everyone who follows this blog has noticed my output has shrunk significantly over the last month or two. This is not because of a lack of topics on which to write, but the fear of boring repetition and the desire to clarify thought rather than merely regurgitate it. We live in a nation in which corporate entities with no official standing wield amazing political and economic power. In many ways, these corporate entities are the extended Department of the Economy. They donate massive amounts of money to politicians and claim protection under their right to 'free speech', when the issue is not speech but institutionalized bribery. Anyone claiming that this is not a factor in the health care mire, the labor mire, or the question of economic bailouts is either guilty of intellectual dishonesty or extreme naivete. This not to say that everyone in Washington is corrupt, though it can certainly be argued convincingly that Washington culture is too forgiving of corruption, but rather a critically realistic appraisal of the facts of American political life.

'Critical realism' is a philosophical term coined by and associated with scientists of religious bent who do not consider scientific fact as we know it and divine revelation to be mutually antagonistic, but this does not necessarily give full credit to the words and this certainly not how I mean the term, though I agree with the 'official' critical realists in their argument that God and science are not mutually exclusive. I choose to redefine the term in the same way that political liberalism has been redefined in some ways from classical liberalism.

'Realism', in my parlance, is the refusal to fall into utopian forms of thought but rather to see the world as it is and will most likely remain whether that sight is pleasant or unpleasant. Anarcho-capitalism, libertarianism, neoconservatism, and Jeffersonianism/Jacksonianism paleoconservatism are all utopian forms of thought. So is the Dominionist theocratic conservatism of the contemporary religious right. All of these systems make fundamentally incorrect assumptions about reality and human nature. Democracy does not magically make human beings enlightened superhuman creatures speaking in the voice of God as Rousseau and Jefferson would have us believe. Democracy is a more equitable method of apportioning decision-making, but it does not guarantee the decisions will be better. In the same vein, while capitalism is an excellent way of producing wealth, it does not guarantee the wealth will be fairly distributed nor does a free market guarantee that everyone with the ability who makes the effort will have an equal chance to compete in that market. Many people of superior ability will never become rich or successful (Charles Goodyear never received a cent for his name on the tires and died broke long before anyone got rich off of rubber and Nikola Tesla died in a tenement in New York City) while many people will achieve wealth and fame for dubious merit (Paris Hilton and George W. Bush, anybody?) because that is the reality of life. A free market will not change that, and the complete lack of regulation that 'free marketeers' advocate is not genuine free market capitalism but corporate fascism.

Likewise, communism, syndicalism, anarcho-socialism, and anarcho-communism are also utopian modes of thought. They are dependent on human nature being far better than it is. While I believe socialist thought is necessary in a civil society, it is ludicrous to believe that enforcing a socialist system will change human nature anymore than a capitalist system or a democratic system.

Nor does the Randian justification of the morality of the dark side of human nature and the evils of altruism and socialism inherent in objectivism present a solution. Then we face a dystopia in which up is down, black is white, good is bad, and predatory anti-social impulses are ultimately justified. In a very real sense, we are living in that world now, painting it in objectivist colors won't change it but simply make us all feel good about our greed and hate. Neoconservatives already preach a Randian morality when they rail against the welfare state, and Kenneth Copeland has already drawn Ayn Rand up in frightening Christian colors with the 'prosperity doctrine.' Ultimately, as horrified as she would be to hear the argument, Ayn Rand offers nothing more than John Calvin minus God, plus a happy, smiley face.

So, having rejected utopian forms of thought, where does that leave us? I'm not always sure. Democracy may not be a magic bullet to solve the world's ills, but it is (as Ben Franklin and Winnie Churchill reluctantly conceded) better than all the other choices. Citizens must have an equal voice in society in order for society to be equitable. History has shown that the little people can make a difference, for good or ill, and we Americans must embrace that part of the American dream rather than surrender to the economic fantasy of the house, car, spouse, and two kids. That is not only a dream that not everyone will realize, it is a dream not everyone even shares.

Conservatism, especially, has a proud history of rejecting realism. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush dismissed concerns about the real costs of their philosophy of greed gone mad with platitudes about 'optimism.' Optimism is not simply faith that everything will turn out for the best in ignorance of real problems. That's willful denial of reality, or schizophrenic delusion. Nor is a critical, realistic examination of the real problem America and Americans face (coupled with the concomittant belief that those problems need to be addressed and there must be an effort to solve them) 'pessimism.' Yet liberals (whose fundamental flaw in recent years is their stubborn insistence on seeking a fair compromise with the unreasonable right) are the ones viewed as living in a fantasy world by many Americans. I will agree that they are to a certain point: the point that American liberals believe that an American politician who shares their principles necessarily shares their desire to realize their principles in the field of policy. I have harped on this before, but American 'progressive' Democrats chose overwhelmingly to vote for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the presidential primary rather than a liberal candidate such as Dennis Kucinich. Both candidates were on the record as being extremely conservative (in the genuine sense of the word, the unwillingness to risk or waste effort or resources but instead to hold them in reserve) on the issues which liberals cared most about, and Senator Clinton especially had a long record of voting with the Bush administration when it really mattered.

So we must see the world as it is, not as we want it to be or wish it were, to be 'realists.'

However, being realist is not enough. We must also be 'critical.'

We must examine the world, address its strengths and its flaws in a forthright and honest manner, and seek to buttress those strengths while repairing the flaws that can be repaired and doing our best to ameliorate those that cannot to the best of our ability. Economics teaches us that, because of scarcity, there will always be an inequity of wealth. Rather than make utopian claims that the free market, a totalitarian government, a democratic form of government, or a communist system can solve those problems we need to admit that those inequities are real and inherent in the finite world in which we live and work to reduce those inequities as much as possible in the name of a stronger, juster society and to ameliorate the conditions of those most deprived. A critic speaks the truth as he sees it, and strives to see the truth and know it as best he can from his perspective.

Capitalism is the best form of economy, just as democracy is the best form of government, but neither will solve America's problems or the world's. Socialism is a fundamental need of any civil society as well, for a society that does not serve its members will not find any loyalty from its members. The Chinese believed imperial dynasties enjoyed the 'mandate of heaven' and that crimes against society would cause an emperor to lose that mandate. Democrats, republicans, and radicals have spoken of the right of revolution for many years. A society must serve its members equitably or it must be reshaped.

American political society requires reshaping. The Republican Party of today does not represent a genuine free market, or civil libertarian ethic anymore than the Democratic Party of today represents a genuinely egalitarian or inclusive ethic. Those of us loyal to such ideals must strive to better both parties for in our current political system we have no alternative, and our current political structure gives those parties control over the political system.

Freedom requires responsibility and judgment and, as much as the hard right wishes to deny it, Orwell was right... in a free society some animals cannot be more equal than others if the society is to remain free. Human nature is stacked against a free society and we must be aware of that fact and strive against it.

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