- Another facet of capitalism which is sometimes overlooked is the phenomenon of corruption. A little while ago, I heard it said that about one quarter of Africa’s GDP is siphoned off to corrupt elites. This is just beyond belief. Even so-called aid money – ostensibly intended to bring relief to that continent’s wretched millions – is considered fair game. A 2007 report estimated that corruption costs Africa something in the region of $150 billion and reckoned that most of this cost is carried by the poor. The net effect of this is that prices are 20% higher than otherwise would be the case, investment is discouraged, and development held back. Obviously, corruption is far from being an exclusively African phenomenon. It may not be as pervasive and overt in the so-called developed world, but it most surely exists there, like some fungal infection in the dark murky world of finance. Needless to say, greasing palms would not and could not happen in a society based on the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. Nor would people have cause to feel jaundiced and cynical about others in society; something which is capable of eroding social cohesiveness and thereby creating alienation.
- One of the most compelling arguments in favour of communism is that war and the preparation for war are almost integral to capitalism. Whatever protagonists may claim, wars invariably involve a dispute over economic interests. In some instances, this may be fairly obvious: One side may declare war on another over some piece of territory, a trade route, or access to a particular resource or market. All colonial wars are clearly economic, with a nascent, indigenous bourgeoisie seeking to assert its interests against a colonial power. In other instances, the economic basis may be harder to discern beneath the blather about ‘freedom’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘terror’, or ‘jihad’, But it most surely underlies such conflict, whether it amounts to a desire to secure strategic interests in a particular region, or relative poverty becoming the recruiting sergeant for religious or nationalist groupings seeking to wage a war. What also has to recognised nowadays is that many, if not most wars, do not conform to the classical model of two or more states becoming embroiled in a decisive and time-limited conflict. Many amount to – what with unintentional irony are termed – civil wars. But here too, economic interests or factors – are inseparably bound up with these wars, as has been demonstrated by the rival factions in Sierra Leone’s cruel little civil war seeking to control the production of ‘blood diamonds’ or the Taliban’s amusingly impious attempts to manage opium production in Afghanistan. Setting aside the horrendous misery and psychological damage visited upon those who survive capitalism’s wars, the material cost of these wars (which have continued unabated ever since that ‘War to end all wars’) is incalculable: Beyond the obvious costs of waging wars and the ensuing destruction of homes, offices, factories, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, dams, and so on, there are innumerable indirect costs which are often not even factored into the headline figures ( an example of which might be a recent (2007) report by the US Congressional Budget Office that $2.4 trillion would have spent by the US on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by 2017). Consider, for example, the unforeseen environmental consequences, the disrupted education of individuals who might otherwise have had much to contribute towards society, the social problems directly or indirectly resulting from the consequential fracturing of social institutions that might have helped individuals to lead ‘normal’ lives, the cost of treating and rehabilitating injured combatants and non-combatants… the list goes on and on. And yet this is not all: Even when countries are not actually engaged in a war or wars, significant amounts of their resources and manpower are channelled into building up and maintaining their so-called defence forces. (How is it possible for two ‘defence’ forces to ever engage with each other, one may wonder!) The annual military expenditure for the entire world in 2004 was $1100 billion (Obscenely, the US accounted for about $600 billion of this). Now, if the premise is accepted that war and military expenditure are integral to the running of capitalism, then it behoves anyone wishing to cobble together some sort of apologia for this divisive, wasteful, conflict-ridden form of society to justify this outrage. Just how many of the huge intractable problems facing most of the world’s population, like hunger, illiteracy, malaria, or AIDs could be resolved at a fraction of the cost? A single Chinook mk3 helicopter costs over £52.5 million today to be made operational, for example (Dominic Lawson, The Independent, 14th July 2009, p27). Just how many Third World schools could be made operational with this sort of money? Moreover, just as there are less obvious consequences to the waging of war, so are there less obvious consequences to the preparation for war. I shall just mention one: The huge amount of money and scientific personnel involved in military research and development. At an international seminar held in New Delhi in November 2006 it was claimed that military R & D accounted for 10% of all R & D worldwide. This percentage is rising, and literally hundreds of thousands of highly trained personnel are involved in this ignominious endeavour across the world. One can only speculate how much better the world would be were they to apply their talents in other more socially beneficial directions.
- Yet another argument bearing out the viability of communism has to do with the fact that technological progress nowadays day is increasingly thwarted or misdirected, and consequently, humanity is being deprived of the benefits it might otherwise have enjoyed. This happens in various ways: I have already alluded to the remorseless growth in military production and research. The development of security and surveillance technology is arguably another instance of misdirected technology insofar as it has very little to do with bettering ordinary people’s lives, but a lot to do with protecting vested interests. It is also true to say that some technology may be hampered because it is financially too risky trying to develop it, or because the investment required is simply too large; the development of nuclear fission being a case in point here. Similarly, certain areas of scientific endeavour may be ‘disincentivized’ because the financial rewards accruing from such activity are deemed insufficient, or because the market for the products arising out of this endeavour is considered too small: The warped logic of capitalism’s ‘dismal science’, economics, has it that if people do not have sufficient money to purchase a product, then obviously there is no demand for it, notwithstanding the fact that they may be in desperate need of the item in question, be it food, housing, medicine or something else of an essential nature. Paradoxically, it is also the case that some products, even if highly useful, may not be developed simply because the costs involved would be so small that the prices they commanded would therefore have to be minimal too, thus rendering their production not worthwhile. Thus, in the UK, there has recently been some controversy over the lackadaisical attitude of pharmaceutical companies towards developing a ‘polypill’ containing 5 different ingredients intended to prevent cardiovascular disease: Notwithstanding some very promising results achieved in trials, indicating that it might save literally thousands of lives if used prophylactically in all over 50s, pharmaceutical companies have been loath to get involved as the cheapness of the ingredients would make it commercially unviable. The ‘Independent’ newspaper was even drawn to wryly comment upon the contradictions of capitalism in reference to this failure to meet a real need. Technological advancement may also be thwarted through the patenting system which expressly prohibits the exploitation of a patented idea without both seeking the permission of, and paying royalties to, the owner of the patent. My reference to the owner of the patent, rather than the inventor, is tendentious as it is well known that there are lots of dubious outfits engaging in activities as patent trolling and patent hoarding. Thus it is often the case that the gestation period for many sound ideas that could improve the lot of humanity is a painfully drawn out affair because vested interests are at stake. Conversely, and dare I say, perversely, many ideas that are not at all helpful tend to be enthusiastically taken up for purely commercial reasons. Thus we find computers carrying crippleware which effectively disables programs, and ‘terminator technology applied to seed production. A closer look at the latter will show just how far commerce can deviate from common sense in its blinkered pursuit of profit. (In so doing, I shall draw heavily on a case study by Thomas Petersen and Bryony Bonning of Iowa State University in its Bioethics Journal). The so-called ‘trait protection system’ (which is covered by US patent no: 5723, 765) ensures the non-viability, or sterility, of the offspring seed of plants grown from parent seed which has been genetically engineered specifically to produce this outcome. Consequently, farmers who purchase this seed from agribusiness companies – primarily because it has been genetically engineered to produce a much higher yield – are prevented from harvesting the offspring seed for growing the next crop, and obliged to purchase more seed for this purpose. Alarmingly, the process of ensuring non-viability also entails chemically treating the parent seed. The implications of this technology are multifarious and often undesirable, notwithstanding the fact that it is likely to result in significantly higher yields: for one thing, a loss of biodiversity is likely to ensue, both on account of native seed being replaced by genetically modified seed, and the fact that not many varieties of any crop are suitable for genetic engineering. It also has to be said that this new technology poses the risk of killer genes being transmitted to related species of plants in the locality via pollen, and potentially wiping them out. This new technology may also do away with the role farmers have traditionally fulfilled of breeding plants suited to the local environment. The cost of genetically engineered seed being higher; many third world farmers will not be in a position to purchase it. Those who do, on the other hand, will be dependent on the big agribusiness companies for their seed supply, but could face ruin were this supply to be disrupted in any way. The upshot, in other words, could be that control of world food production would largely fall into the hands of these companies; small in number though they may be. Does such a development have any advantages for humanity as a whole? Well, it handsomely rewards the shareholders of the aforesaid companies. But it hardly benefits farmers in general; or indeed consumers, who will inevitably have to pay more for the product. What is particularly galling about it too is that not only is the process of engineering killer genes wholly irrelevant to the quality or yield of the product, it also carries so many potentially serious risks and undesirable consequences. The whole business begs the question: why could geneticists engineered the genes simply to produce a higher yield (although such an innovation is not without controversy), and left it at that? The answer has to do with capitalism’s blinkered and avaricious nature, in which the wider and generally subtle complications of any commercial operation do not figure in the balance sheets, and are effectively disowned by the perpetrators.
- If this barrage of facts has as yet failed to breach the walls of scepticism, allow me to cite one more. Some time ago, I watched an outstanding television series called ‘Earth: The Power of the Planet’, presented by Dr Iain Stewart. Something in one episode was rather disturbing. The presenter and a fellow academic were exploring a frozen lake in the icy wilderness of Northern Siberia. In one spot on the lake, they cleared some of the overlying snow, and peered down at the transparent ice below. In it, they saw a myriad of trapped bubbles. After cutting into the ice, they held a flame over the hole they had created. What happened next must surely count as one of nature’s stranger phenomena: A truly huge tongue of fire suddenly erupted from this frozen pit. And the reason for this was that the bubbles were, in fact, trapped methane, slowly being released with the defrosting of the Siberian Tundra. Methane, of course, is a very potent greenhouse gas, contributing towards global warming. It is 21 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, which it does by absorbing infrared radiation that would otherwise leak away into space. Although it is found in natural gas and is biologically produced within anaerobic environments, over the last few centuries it has increasingly derived from all sorts of human activities; from farming to the production of motor cars. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the concentration of methane in the atmosphere has risen 150% globally since 1750 (although this rise appears to have tailed off recently). What is worrying, indeed frightening, about this high concentration of methane is not just the greenhouse effect it exerts per se, but the fact that in concert with a host of other global warming factors, it may help to bring about a ‘runaway effect’, leading to hugely devastating and possibly irreversible changes in the planet’s ecosphere, with each of these factors augmenting, and in turn being augmented by, all of the other factors via the contribution they make to global warming. It is worth looking at just a few of these in order to appreciate their interrelatedness:
*With rising temperatures, methane will, of course, continue to be released from melting permafrost peat bogs (perhaps as much as 70,000 million tons of the stuff). But it is also known that there are vastly greater amounts of methane trapped as methane clathrate deposits beneath sediments on the ocean floors. Since methane clathrate actually occurs in the form of ice, a rise in sea temperatures could trigger a sudden release of marine methane. But the scale of this would be immense and almost apocalyptic in outcome, resulting in a 5ºC rise in temperatures globally. It has been hypothesized that it was just such a scenario which led to the mass extinction event that occurred during the Permian-Triassic age.
*Talking of the oceans, something else that is likely to occur with global warming is a diminution in the capacity of this vast sink for carbon dioxide to actually absorb this greenhouse gas, resulting in increased levels of carbon dioxide, and therefore in higher temperatures. Raised CO2 levels are also likely to cause acidification of the oceans, which will in turn detrimentally impact on corals and other marine organisms.
*It is also the case that water vapour, which is by far the most potent greenhouse gas, accounting for something like 36% to 66% of the greenhouse effect, will become more concentrated as temperatures rise; something which is likely to result in turn in to a further raising of temperatures, and consequently to a further increase in water vapour concentrations.
*We know that ice, being white, reflects heat, and that the sea absorbs heat. With global warming, of course, there will be a reduction in the area of the earth’s surface covered by ice (resulting in a reduced albedo) and an increase in the area covered by sea, leading to a further rise in global temperatures, which, in turn will exacerbate this situation.
*Finally, it has been noted that, amongst the many and varied effects of global warming, in many mid-latitudinal areas, such as Mediterranean Europe or Australia, there will be a greater frequency of droughts. With these droughts will come an increased incidence of forest fires, and when the latter occur, huge amounts of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere, thereby compounding the problem of global warming.
What we can see from this small selection of factors is that they will feed off one another as the rise in global temperature is both cause and effect in each case. It’s a frightening situation: We are only now beginning to get a glimpse of the hellish future that awaits us if we fail to properly address this issue. But, what has this to do with capitalism, you may ask? Well, in a word, everything: Scientific opinion across the world is now practically unanimous in concluding that the relentless course of global warming is mainly attributable to one factor: man. More specifically, to his barely restrained burning of fossil fuels, his slashing down of vast tracts of rainforest, and his disembowelment of the earth in pursuit of minerals and metals. And what drives these destructive activities? In a word: money (or the lack of it). Now, it may seem unfair to bracket desperate Brazilian peasant farmers compelled to clear a patch of virgin forest in order to grow cash crops with avaricious executives of a car manufacturing company. But for both of them, their situations offer little option other than to do what they have to do: Not to take the environmentally damaging option may well have an adverse effect on their personal fortunes, perhaps even disastrously so. What’s more, there will always be less scrupulous competitors willing to step into the breach and carry out these destructive activities. Moreover, because of capitalism’s short term outlook, where planning looks no further than the next shareholder’s meeting, and it’s blinkered approach which disregards all but the need to make a profit, the longer term consequences and ramifications of economic decisions are rarely accorded the consideration they deserve. This is inherent in the system: No matter what vaunted declarations emanate from the IPCC, beneath the mantle of high-mindedness and reasonableness affected by statesmen, the economic id of capitalism will bubble away, seeking out the smallest chink through which to pour out its poisonous energy. That it might thereby threaten our lives and the lives of our children seemingly counts for nothing.
- Let me conclude this demonstration of the feasibility of communism with some speculations on the subjective aspect accompanying future political developments in the direction of establishing a world-wide society in which private or state ownership and all the appurtenances thereof, such as money, wages, and profit, would be replaced by common ownership, and everyone would have free access to goods and services. Over the last few pages, I have been at pains to argue that this revolutionary change in the way society was ordered would necessarily be premised on a momentous change in how people en masse regarded both human nature and the communist project. It is reasonable to suppose that support for this project would grow exponentially. In other words, the actual rate of increase would dramatically rise until a sort of runaway effect would draw in the mass of humanity, resulting in a democratic revolution. My grounds for saying this are as follows: Firstly as I indicated some pages ago, the notion of communism that I have been promoting is rarely considered in the public domain. People reflexively associate communism with the heinous regimes of the Soviet Empire, with China, with Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and so on. Once it is generally realized that these have nothing to do with communism, once this knee-jerk reaction to the very mention of the word diminishes, people will begin to look afresh at this concept. I suspect that the interest aroused will spread on account of the sheer ‘novelty value’ of looking at this tag in a wholly different light, and the fact that people will gradually become aware of the need to redefine the term in political discourse. Secondly, as people increasingly begin to see how many current social problems may be attributable directly or indirectly to capitalism; pari passu, they will gradually begin to see that communism, to a great extent, provides a comprehensive solution to these problems. Thirdly, it is reasonable to suppose that a sort of ‘resonance effect’ will be created as the idea begins to take hold, as more and more voices begin to be raised in support. This will give the whole notion more credibility and palpably change the political climate. Today, the prevailing outlook is fatalistic, superstitious in some quarters but cynical in others, medieval in many parts of the world, pessimistic, anxious, alienated, and saturated with deep fears about terrorism, war, crime, economic collapse, global warming, and more. As increasing numbers begin to embrace communism, hope will begin to permeate as the realisation dawns that is within the gift of humanity to bring about change for the better. Fourthly, as interest in the concept of communism begins to spread, more research and academic study of the subject will be undertaken; thus further bolstering the case for communism. Finally, material support for the cause will grow, enabling increasingly more effective propaganda strategies to be developed.
The foregoing points constitute both a formidable critique of capitalism and a vindication of the case for communism – genuine communism – I would contend. Defenders of capitalism will sometimes acknowledge that this may to some extent be true. However, they almost invariably then sagely shake their heads, and proclaim that the notion of a society built on the principles of common ownership, democratic control, free access and liberty does not square with ‘human nature’. What is it, one wonders, that makes them so certain about this? Dogmatism, a failure of imagination, misanthropy, a touch of schadenfreude, or plain old cynicism? Perhaps it is a bit of each. These same apologists will say that they are being ‘realistic’. But what they singularly fail to take into account is that it is fundamentally the very ‘dog-eat-dog’ nature of capitalism moulds some of into selfish, aggressive specimens, and consigns most of us to lives of ‘quiet desperation’, as Thoreau put it. Small wonder then that the prevailing take on human nature is anything but flattering. So what I intend doing now is to have a closer look at the whole question of ‘human nature’, and then show that an altruistic approach to life – specifically, an ethic that enjoins one to leave this world a better place – sits very comfortably with our ‘human nature’. What I would like to propose is a somewhat slippery notion, one that pulls together many strands of my discussion heretofore: Let me call it (somewhat unimaginatively) the ‘Organic Model of Human Advancement’. (As will become evident, the term, ‘organic’, is appropriate for a number of reasons; not least because the component propositions sit well with one another, because it highlights the physicality of human beings, and because the term resonates with the espousal of mutuality). What the model amounts to is this:
1. We human beings are a highly complex arrangement of atoms, and our capacity to think and feel is somehow contingent upon certain key features of this arrangement. When this arrangement breaks down – when we die – no vestige of us remains. We do not have an afterlife. Ultimately, this is not something that can be verified for the obvious reason that verification would entail ‘crossing that bourn from which no man returns’. What we have here is a situation analogous to imagining nothingness: This is impossible for the reason that the observer cannot be excluded. Likewise, non-survivalism could not be verified without excluding the verifier whose very testimony would bear witness against non-survivalism. That said, there are a number of very strong arguments against the proposition that we are somehow able to survive, to maintain an identity, to remain sentient conscious beings, after we die:
In the first place, no one has ever returned from the dead to tell the tale. Certainly, all manner of phenomena have been cited as evidence for some sort of connection or contact between the living and the dead: Ghosts, poltergeists, séances, regression hypnosis, near death experiences, and so on. But in not a single instance has there been any verifiable proof of a connection or contact with dead people being established, nor grounds for excluding any other explanations, known or unknown, for the phenomenon in question. Far from being a dour materialist who scoffs at the notion of mystery, I am more than happy to admit that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than is known in my philosophy’. It is the proponents of survivalism and all manner of other non-empirical notions, such as God and destiny, which have the world cut and dried. Even on the question of an afterlife, I am prepared to admit a degree of agnosticism, albeit one heavily skewed towards the non-survivalist position for the reasons I am providing. Furthermore, I am persuaded in this by the fact that over the centuries, under the hot glare of scientific scrutiny, non-empirical explanations of an ever-increasing number of phenomena, from the motion of the planets to the aetiology of diseases, have simply evaporated. Those phenomena still currently saturated with ethereal, untestable explanations are now few in number, and there is no reason to think they cannot in principle succumb to empirical elucidation. Science is not above criticism, but those who take a virulently anti-science stance often tend to confuse poor science or the application of science with the scientific method per se. The latter being an elaboration of ‘common sense’ and logic, the common sense and logic exercised by detractors of the scientific method could be called into question.
A second argument against survivalism (and, by default, in favour of non-survivalism) is that it trips up on its dualistic premises, on the notion that we are essentially composed of two sorts of substances: body and mind. I am not inclined to wade into this particular metaphysical swamp, but it suffices to point out that dualism – or, more particularly, that species of dualism known as ‘substance dualism’ – is beset with a number of problems, such as where and how causal interaction between body and mind could occur, and the fact that phylogenetically and ontogenetically human beings start out as purely physical entities.
A third reason for rejecting the notion that we somehow survive death is one that impresses me personally. Having worked for many years with patients suffering from various forms of dementia, I am very aware of how these tragic conditions can effect a diminution of what – for want of a better word – one might term ‘the mind’. Crucially, such patients begin to lose their memories; initially and most noticeably their short term memories. And memories, of course, are the threads from which personal identity is woven. They also begin to lose awareness; in particular, self awareness. All of the orientating information pertaining to time and space which ordinarily hums along in the background simply fades away: They may not know where they are or what day it is. Nor might it occur to them that they should look both ways before crossing the road, for example. It may sometimes seem that their behaviour is analogous to acting on the basis of the conclusion of an argument without being apprised of its premises. Unforgivingly and tragically, their mental wattage drops lower and lower. What we know, of course, is that this deterioration proceeds pari passu with changes in the brain: the greater the destruction in the brain, the greater the destruction in the ‘mind’. Now, what I would like to argue is that, extrapolating from this, it is reasonable to suppose that when the former is total, as happens in death, then the latter is total as well. Those who argue for our survival after death have also – I would contend – to address this brain damage issue. Even if they could theoretically show that we do somehow survive death, it would be incumbent on them to also show how the mind could recover its former functionality if in life its ‘owner’ had been subjected to a dementing illness.
A fourth argument is that, notwithstanding the very similar genetic make-up of man and his closest cousins, the other primates (It has been shown that even the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) shares nearly 60% of its genes with us) or the impressive similarities between us and other animals in respect of physiology, anatomy, and even embryonic development, we have no difficulty in comprehending the fact once an animal dies, it does not then pass over to some idyllic Valhalla. Heaven is not swarming with butterflies and bees, nor filled with the yapping of euphoric poodles. The fact that all life originated from unicellular cyanobacteria that carpeted the sea floor billions of years ago, should in itself disabuse us of this notion of an afterlife. From an evolutionary perspective, possessing an afterlife would have to be considered an ‘emergent property’, if hypothesised, and that would raise a host of how, why, and when questions.
There are doubtlessly many other arguments against the proposition that when we die, we somehow live on in some de-materialised state. But the foregoing are sufficiently powerful in themselves to put paid to this delusion. Incidentally, in pooh-poohing this idea, it is not my intention to thereby cast gloom all about me (Who would not wish to go to heaven if such a place, state, or condition existed. It even sounds a bit like communism, if you ask me!) Rather, I would argue that this idea stands in the way of attaining happiness in the only place that really matters: The world we can see and touch.
2. For us what really matters in life is happiness. That said, happiness is far from being a simple notion. There are different sorts of ‘happinesses’. The most profound sort is intrinsically bound up with what we are, with our personality, and this amounts to what some might care to characterise as a sort of spiritual bliss. However, it is not really what is in ‘inside’ us that accounts for our experience of happiness. The ultimate sources of all forms of happiness must surely be located outside of ourselves, or derive from our interaction with things outside of us; not least significant others. Even our innermost thoughts, from which we may derive a measure of consolation or elation, are profoundly informed by the world around us. The quality of this external world determines our experience of happiness, albeit through a variety of modalities:
- At the most basic level, happiness of a sort, more akin to contentment or satisfaction (particularly when other needs are simultaneously addressed) may be had through the satisfaction of basic bodily needs for food, water, sex, elimination, sleep, shelter, and so on. Whilst satisfying these needs may not be a sufficient condition for the attainment of happiness, in extremis (for most people, bar the odd ascetic) this must surely constitute a necessary condition, as anyone who has ever suffered from severe sleep deprivation will confirm. Insofar as we can legitimately distinguish between ‘ourselves’ and our bodies (and whether this distinction is legitimate or not, it is certainly one that is commonly made), the latter are seen as having a special status within the realm of things outside of us. I would not wish to defend this Cartesian construction, but I would simply point out that our bodies interact very intimately with a wider physical environment, and this interaction can vary in terms of its beneficiality, in regard to accompanying subjective experiences.
- Feeling secure, or unthreatened in any sense, though not synonymous with happiness, must surely be conducive to happiness. Conversely, feelings of insecurity are likely to detract from ones happiness. Admittedly, such feelings in individuals stem in large part from actual interactions with significant others. However, wider and more diffuse social factors have a way of impacting even upon such intimate relationships too. For example, it has been amply demonstrated that financial worries are a major factor in marital disharmony and breakdown in today’s society. The threats to society as a whole, such as terrorism, civil strife, economic meltdown, and ecological disaster can also generate feelings of angst which can potentially blight any enduring sense of happiness. I have argued passim that these threats may be directly attributable to the very nature of the society we live in today, namely one that is practically universally characterized by a capitalist mode of production.
- Then one has to consider the importance of being loved and giving love in return. The poignancy of the nigh universal drive to find a reciprocating love object outside of ourselves is expressed in the countless personal ads placed in newspapers and dating websites around the world. So much in the external world can stand in the way of achieving this goal, not least lacking the material wherewithal to dangle before potential lovers. This is no small consideration as the foregoing remark about financial hardship impacting on marital relationships indicates. To embark on a search for love requires one to feel reasonably secure in oneself as there is so much at stake – one’s self esteem not least – because a measure of confidence is required to lay out one’s wares, as it were, and because feelings of insecurity may put off potential lovers. Being loved and loving in return epitomizes the argument that the ultimate sources of happiness lie outside of us. When feelings of love are reciprocated, one’s entire inner life becomes animated, and priorities begin to slot into place. One experiences ‘happiness’ and will do one’s utmost to preserve this state of affairs; instincts and reactions being marshalled to this end. But, of course, the external world has a way of thwarting an individual’s desire to attain or remain in love. The sheer banality of modern life may seep into the rock of a marriage. Most cruelly, the very conditions that facilitated love can be its undoing: The ‘seven year itch’, I guess, is what you get when the nesting material begins to scratch.
- There are, it has to be said, many sorts of love: apart from the love one might have for a partner, there is the love of one’s children, one’s parents, one’s siblings, one’s friends, one’s social grouping, and indeed, of humanity as a whole. These bonds of attachment can be very rewarding insofar as they can enhance one’s sense of happiness and contentment in all sorts of ways; from receiving a declaration of unconditional love from one’s child to attaining a badge of identity from a group to which one belongs. Yet, here too, society can put a spoke in things: In countless ways, many of which can be traced back to the very nature of society, these bonds may be strained or even torn asunder. Thus we find dire poverty driving parents in some parts of the world to sell their own children, their own flesh and blood, into bondage. And even the most ardent humanitarian may find his or her commitment to mankind sorely tested by the sheer depravity of the modern world with its wars, exploitation, criminality, oppression, and so on – all of which connect with one overriding factor: Capitalism. One other sort of love that bears a mention is, of course, love of oneself. Now, loving oneself is by no means a bad thing. Many psychologists will tell you that self-love is a necessary condition for feeling good about others. But how one feels about oneself is intimately bound up with one’s self esteem, and this is what I want to touch on next.
- Self esteem is a goal which, in the main, may be realized through fruitfully interacting with others, through realizing socially prized goals, or through being well-regarded by others. In part, it is about awarding oneself a status ranking, and thus implicitly involves comparing oneself with others, taking into account the generalized views of others. The external world mediates in the way one judges one’s social standing in various ways. What is so ironic about the elevation of the ego, the relentless promotion of the individual at the expense of the ‘collective’, which we find in advanced capitalistic societies today – particularly in the West – is that it can actually result in crushing the ego. Why so? Firstly, because, in the materialist consumerist milieu created by capitalism, how one feels about oneself, as I pointed out earlier, often hinges upon how one measures up to assorted style, or indeed ‘lifestyle’ exemplars, what or how much one consumes, or how much conspicuous wealth one can display. Conversely, poverty often creates feelings of worthlessness, and self-hate, for all sorts of reasons; for example, being compelled to do things against the grain of one’s nature in order to make ends meet, being powerless to change one’s circumstances, or simply not being able to afford the paraphernalia indicative of a certain level of social status. Basically, capitalism creates losers, and let’s face it, most of us are losers in this ‘celeb-obsessed’, fetishistic society. Secondly, as Marx pointed out, apart from alienating workers from other workers, from the act of production and from the products themselves, capitalism alienates workers from their very essence, from what they essentially are – human beings, rather than mere machine-like functionaries. This obviously rebounds on how workers value themselves, which in turn may be greatly reinforced by the attitudes conveyed by others, who may not see beyond the roles played out – particularly in many ‘low status’ jobs, such as those of cleaners, waiters, factory hands, and so on.
- Self-actualisation, though not identical with happiness, must surely be integral to that profound, abiding, almost ‘spiritual’ contentment enjoyed by a fortunate few, if only because to fall short of this goal could leave one with an intrusive sense of dissatisfaction that is bound to detract from one’s happiness. What is self-actualisation? It is simply realizing one’s full potential; or fulfilling one’s ‘destiny’, as those of a more esoteric bent might have it. It is argued that people who manage to attain self-actualisation exhibit various concomitant traits like being creative, highly ethical, autonomous, capable of deep interpersonal relationships, capable of awe, pleasure, wonder, ecstasy, democratic vis-à-vis others, honest. Now this is interesting. Because much of this resonates with what I’ve said about communism/socialism (I use the terms interchangeably). Communism, I would contend, is certain to create a social climate that would be fundamentally democratic and egalitarian in nature, as no one individual or grouping would lord it over others. Without the profit motive driving a coach and horses through ethical deliberations, decision-making under communism would be directly and highly attuned to what is right and wrong, with the pros and cons of any proposal being subjected to democratic arbitration. Autonomy would be integral to this sort of society: People would at last be able to make up their own minds as to what they wanted to do with their lives, and not be railroaded into taking up stultifying and soul-destroying occupations because of the necessity to make money. I could imagine that some would consider a multiplicity of roles, hoping thereby to achieve a sort of rounded development of their potential. Genuine creativity would be fostered in communism as artistic activity would no longer be distorted by the necessity or drive to make money out of one’s talents, or by the requirement to compromise or ‘dumbdown’. In short, because it would allow individuals to more readily plough their own furrow – providing them with the means, the education, and encouragement to do so, and not hindering them with financial and other worries – communism would most likely be infinitely more conducive to individuals realising their full potential. Conversely, individuals would probably be more likely to see self actualisation in social terms: Instead of simply aspiring to be a ‘great scientist’ deserving of approbation and a salary to match, for example, a youngster might be more disposed to think in terms of the contribution he or she might make to society via the pursuance of a career in science.
Those with a background in psychology will have recognised that what I have proposed bears more than a passing resemblance to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It will be recalled that Maslow suggested that needs at the bottom of the hierarchy take precedence over those higher up: Faced with a famine, an individual will be driven to rummage for food, rather than seek to realize his or her destiny to become a concert pianist. In a way, this is an acknowledgement of our ‘epiphenomenal’ nature: we are physical beings first and foremost and our ‘psychological’ needs are, in a sense, secondary. This dovetails with the point that when our bodies no longer operate then we are no more.
3. As subjective entities capable and desirous of experiencing happiness, it is in our best interests to ensure that the external world, the source of our happiness, is optimally developed to deliver happiness. This is what the establishment of communism is all about at a macrosociological level: Not only would communism ensure that everyone’s basic needs (like having enough to eat and a roof over your head) were met, and eliminate nearly all of the large-scale causes of stress and insecurity (such as war, crime, and poverty), it would also create a psychological climate far more conducive to the development of happiness than today’s angst-ridden, fractured, cynical, greed-driven zeitgeist. Self-actualisation, the Holy Grail of the ‘me’ generation today, would become a commonplace because obstacles, such as inimical conditions or not having the wherewithal to achieve this, would have been largely eliminated.
4. Now here’s the really slippery bit: If it is accepted that once I am dead I am no more, then it behoves me to contribute in whatever way I can to the happiness of the countless generations either surviving or following me for the simple reason that at the point of death the distinction between myself and others suddenly disappears (as does any rationale premised on this distinction for remaining aloof from the suffering of others). And if anything matters subsequently it can only matter to other conscious subjective entities; extant or as yet unborn; each of whom will ultimately be directed – as I am in life – by a resolute longing for happiness. It is their subjectivity that will persevere – at least for a little while – and the world, being in some sense a subjective ‘construction’, their existence could be said to ‘make the world go around’, to give it relevance and meaning. What I would like to draw from this is some basis for behaving altruistically towards others. Although not easy to do so, I should like to demonstrate how my very non-survival as a conscious, subjective entity after death constitutes grounds for me taking an altruistic stance in respect of those surviving or following me. Furthermore, I would contend that the most significant act of altruism which humanity collectively might undertake would be to establish communism as this would more radically impact upon the welfare and happiness of succeeding generations than any other collective act of will (Individually, we are powerless to alter the modus operandus of our world, and our individual acts of altruism – although they might advance the happiness of specific others – could ironically perpetuate this modus operandus; firstly, by making it more bearable, and secondly, because focusing exclusively on the symptoms of the many problems afflicting present day society channels people’s energies into fixing these at the expense of addressing the underlying causes)
Let’s look at it this way: ‘I’ cannot be equated with the memories others have of me, nor with my life’s works or my physical remains; all of which may persist for some time after I have gone. (Interestingly, those who argue for an afterlife are often transfixed by the spectacle of physical remains, as though these served – as a kind of comparator – to suggest that one might leave somewhat more enduring ‘psychical remains’. One has only to look upon the ‘cadaver tombs’ such as can be found in Wells Cathedral to see that this could be a subtextual meaning in these emblematic works of arts. Who knows, were we simply to vapourise at the point of death, the notion of an afterlife may have had less of a hold on people). Whilst alive, what I am, an individual with an identity – rests upon my being a conscious, subjective entity capable of thinking, feeling and willing, and aware of myself as such; however we construe this. In my workaday life, when not engaged in rarefied discussions about metaphysics, I assume that much the same can be said about others as well. That is to say, I ordinarily take it for granted that the faculty for being aware of oneself as a conscious subjective entity is universal, albeit one that individuals exercise in different ways; with more or less frequency or intensity, for example. What will obviously be unique to each individual is, as it were, the content of this awareness: Apart from the unique unfolding of experiences every second of the day, this content includes the myriad facts that feed into one’s overall identity, what has been designated the ‘me’ component of a conscious subjective entity (as opposed to the ‘I’ component – the subject in this act of ‘internal perception’. This might be termed the ‘subject/faculty’ meaning of ‘I’, which differs from the ‘identity’ meaning of ‘I’ deployed when one says, for example, ‘I am an accountant’. In the latter usage, the fact stated is incorporated into the ‘me’). Now the reader may protest that I have surreptitiously introduced analogy into this account in the form of a homonunculus that sits inside one’s head, observing what goes on. Amongst other things, there is the problem of infinite regress here – does the homonunculus itself not possess a homonunculus, and so on? But the homonunculus account is not something I would wish to defend. The only, dare I say, non-philosophical and perhaps trite point I would wish to make in this regard is that, as I have said, when not engaged in philosophical discourse, we are all aware of ourselves and others as being conscious subjective entities. This pedestrian perception – even if metaphysically suspect – is a working hypothesis in our everyday lives. It is also, in fact, embedded in many of the humanities and social sciences, from history to psychology. How one might justify it philosophically is another matter, and the reason I do not wish to pursue it is that I am more concerned with ethics right now, rather than metaphysics. And ethics have to do with ‘ought’ questions, rather than ‘is’ questions. All manner of unverifiable notions about what is the case may implicitly underlie ethical deliberations. A convincing rebuttal of the former does not disprove any particular ethical position; it merely deprives it of certain justifications (In fact, ethical positions are not something one ‘proves’ or ‘disproves’). In this respect, ethical positions stand apart from scientific hypotheses. That we should see the world as peopled with others like us – which nearly all of us do on an everyday basis – simply squares with adopting an altruistic stance, as altruism is intrinsically all about others. In other words, if you don’t see yourself and others as conscious subjective entities, then I’m afraid what follows may not convince you.
As a conscious, subjective, and indeed self-aware, entity, my own happiness is of fundamental importance to me, and I am the ultimate arbiter of whether or not something has made me happy, though not necessarily the best judge of whether something has the potential to make me happy. So I will spend my days attempting to pursue goals conducive to my own happiness. The drive to attain or retain a sense of well-being – what one might loosely term ‘happiness’ – surely underlies most, if not all, human volition. There may be something circular in this: Happiness in one of its multifarious guises is often the affective reaction of the individual managing to successfully exercise his or her will, and yet it is also the object of the exercise. Moreover, in one way or another, much of my volition will concern other people. That is to say, my happiness is bound up with other people, either in a purely instrumental way – where I regard others simply as a means to augment my own happiness, or humanistically/altruistically – where my happiness is conditional upon theirs, upon the recognition that they too are conscious, subjective entities. That, of course, cuts both ways: Others may view me in the same light.
But with my death, all of this simply ceases: With the blink of an eye, the slideshow that is the human condition moves on, and the very next slide no longer features me. Existentially-speaking, others are now no longer ‘others’ because, in this context, the very term implies a distinction between myself and comparable entities. From my standpoint, which itself instantly collapses when I die, that dichotomy expires with me, notwithstanding the fact that in ordinary parlance I may still be referred to as if I retained an identity, an ‘other’ to others. Perhaps it is appropriate, therefore to differentiate between a ‘public identity’ and a ‘substantive (or self) identity’ (cf. with the different meanings attached to ‘I’ referred to earlier) – one that necessarily entails being aware that one is alive. The latter necessarily ceases when I die. Not only am I then absent: Any concern or indifference I may have entertained in my lifetime regarding the happiness of others abruptly ceases as well. Such feelings or attitudes I can only entertain during my lifetime as an outsider, never able to directly access the minds of others. This ‘outsidership’ is ultimately what allows me to distinguish between my interests and yours: I can never directly experience your pain and distress, so the drive to eliminate these will for me lack the immediacy and force that it has for you and derive from a wholly different source, call it empathy, sympathy, or perhaps just guilt or a sense of propriety. But, of course, being outside your pain also allows me to say that, in the final analysis, I can walk away from it, I can chose not to be burdened by it. When I die, however, I can no longer be outside anything. Assuming there is no afterlife, this capacity for ‘outsidership’ ceases with my death: I cannot then view my death from some external vantage point (if we put aside more literal reports from people who claim to have had ‘out-of-body’ experiences, and seen their bodies on operating tables, etc); I don’t find myself in some spectral cocoon looking down upon the world. I surrender my ‘I-ness’, or subjectivity, and all that that entails. ‘I-ness’ now only resides in those surviving me.
It is not my intention in utilizing this neologism, ‘I-ness’, to suggest that I have a vested in the happiness of others because, after my death, I can somehow recover my own ‘I-ness’ through paradoxically becoming someone else – becoming reincarnated. Such a view is not one I would go along with. It is to fall for the illusion that death is like switching a light off and then finding oneself in a different body and a different room when the light is switched back on. To succumb to this illusion is to succumb to spurious analogical reasoning; the analogy being based on that old Cartesian chestnut – the ghost in the machine, where the ghost has abandoned one machine in favour of another. The key to understanding the non-survivalist point of view is to accept that, really, there is no existential continuity between me at the point of death and others after my death. There is simply nothing. Such an understanding is far from easy. In fact, paradoxically, it is almost impossible because nothingness cannot be perceived or imagined without throwing a spotlight on the observer or thinker – as a solipsistic something in a sea of nothingness – thus invalidating the exercise. At best, nothingness can only be understood abstractly (or perhaps even mathematically?) as a negation of everything. If one concurs with the non-survivalist view, then there is no ‘me’ when I am dead, and the very statement, ‘I am dead’, is metaphysically (though obviously not metaphorically) impossible to assert – or at least could never be literally true were I, the person writing these words, to utter this sentence. Contrast that with the statement, ’He is dead’, as uttered or written by another in reference to me: This is one that is both meaningful and empirically verifiable (albeit thankfully incorrect at the time of writing), and it is also one that I could use in relation to another, whether I was a non-survivalist or not. After my death, if anything in the world is observed and understood, then it has to be the case that there is at least someone relating to the world – engaging in observation and understanding – as it were, from the inside, as a conscious, subjective entity, as an ‘I’, just as I am relating to the world at this very moment of putting pen to paper. Let us call this standpoint an ‘I-standpoint’. Basically, an ‘I-standpoint’ involves looking out on the world from an inside perspective, and contrasts with what might be termed an ‘other-standpoint’ – any standpoint presented by someone other than oneself; the status or content of which can only ever be apprised or indirectly inferred by drawing upon shared symbolic resources (language in particular), cultural intelligence, and knowledge of the supposed mental correlates thought to accompany particular sorts of observed behaviour, amongst other things. An ‘other-standpoint’ presupposes an ‘I-standpoint’ engaged in processing manifestations of the former. That the world will continue to be observed and understood after my death, and moreover, observed and understood from a myriad ‘I-standpoints’, may be inferred from the fact that the world will continue to be acted upon in ways indicative of the exercise of human volition, as opposed to simple physical causation: the sowing of a crop is the outcome of human volition, but the passage of the seasons depends purely upon physical events. Moreover, you, the reader, could hardly fail to bear witness to there being other ‘I-standpoints’ other than the one in which I, the writer, am ensconced. An ‘I-standpoint’ of necessity does not incorporate direct observation and understanding of the actual ‘possessor’ of this standpoint from any other standpoint – I literally do not see myself through other’s eyes or automatically entertain the notions they have of me: I can only imaginatively reconstruct, more or less successfully, how others see me and what others think of me; the reconstruction being essentially my own. Because it is a reconstruction, my knowing how another sees me or what another person thinks of me cannot literally be construed as or equated with the ‘I-standpoint’ observations or understandings of this other person. To me, from my ‘I-standpoint’, this other person’s views can only ever spring from an ‘other-standpoint’ – of necessity. But at the same time, external observation and understanding of a possessor of an ‘I-standpoint’ indicates that the person doing the observing and understanding likewise possesses his or her private ‘I-standpoint’, to which the former presents as one possessing an ‘other-standpoint.’ If the latter is similarly scrutinized, that too would betoken the existence of yet another. The potential regress involved in this interpersonal scrutiny mirrors the regress entailed in that putative homonunculus referred to earlier which is supposedly located in one’s head, intrapersonally eyeing one’s own inner world – as well as looking out upon the world. Except that the regress in the former case is not potentially infinite, but is limited to the number of conscious subjective entities in existence at any one time (and ’homonunuculi’ are merely abstractions, not actual entities). The picture that emerges therefore, is of a world peopled with ‘Is’, each of whose standpoint is totally their own. Another way of putting this is to say that the world out there can only be known through the prism of a person’s consciousness, through an ‘I’. That is to say, that the world is rendered subjectively real (although, intending not to confuse epistemological claims with ontological claims, I would not wish to say that the world is merely a ‘subjective reality’ as such). This means that there are as many ‘worlds’, or rather, ‘takes’ on the world, as there are conscious, subjective entities. After my death, the world will still be known through ‘Is’ – but not through me as my own ‘I-standpoint’ will have, as it were, been switched off. Any observing and understanding that goes on, including that entailed in scrutinizing others, will be undertaken by living beings, each of whom will be aware of him or herself. This is not something I shall ever be able to prove because my demise will preclude me from doing so. However, it is reasonable to assume just this because right now we all continue to observe and understand things going on around us, notwithstanding the fact that other people die in droves every second of the day.
Now go to A Point of View 3