Creating a Better World

August 12, 2008

Alright, Jaime. I wasn’t arguing that things that have happened in the past have no influence on the state of the world at present, or that studying history has no purpose whatsoever. My point was that when talking about one specific problem, the problem of creating a more just and less oppressive society, studying the details of history just isn’t helpful. This is true because, pace Thomas, universal economic principles drive history, not, say, evil acts by evil people.

Recall that the title of my original post was “Anarchists and Socialists” and that I was comparing two philosophies: anarchism and socialism. The idea of my original post was to see how Howard Zinn’s (socialist) worldview in A People’s History compares to my own (anarchist) view. As I wrote then, I was surprised to see that we agree on the events, and even the basic framework for interpreting those events, i.e. powerful people use their power to gain maximum stuff for themselves.

It seems to me that Zinn and socialists generally would say that there is more to understanding people’s actions than rational self-interest (e.g. class struggle). My position is that narrowly defined rational self-interest (access to sex, power, and physical goods) determines the way that people act, always and everywhere. This is not to say that morality doesn’t exist, just that isn’t necessary to know anything about morality in order to understand history. Thus I wrote that if it hadn’t been the Europeans conquering the Native Americans, it would have been the Native Americans conquering the Europeans. By the same principle, I argued that if the Europeans hadn’t had Christianity to justify their plunder, they would have invented something else (which, incidentally, they might also call “Christianity,” making it really hard to distinguish the true religion from the invention).

My conclusion is that if you believe that the course of history will be changed by putting good people in power, you are wrong. The way governments act is determined by the extent of government control over resources and the proportion of the population that have influence over the government. A government that controls all the resources of an economy and is controlled by a small group of people will behave in the same, predictable way, regardless of whether the government calls itself “socialist” or “democratic.” In other words, it’s the structure that matters; the people are interchangeable.

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2 Responses to “Creating a Better World”

  1. James Says:

    Ok, its late so I am going to be brief.

    If I were to agree with you, I would have to agree with your point that all forms of oppression can be explained by the same economic factors: “access to sex, power, and physical goods.” I hope that you would agree with me when I say that what you are talking about are natural human desires, normal to everyone in society. And if I were to agree with you, we would be in agreement that all oppression occurs naturally.

    However, that implies that racism and/or racial oppression is natural. Racism is not natural because race is a social construct. If we were to think that racism is natural, then there would be no impetus in our society and in our selves to get rid of it.

  2. tripinchina Says:

    Bill-
    Your premise, that people act in their own self-interest (narrowly defined), is good. Incentives matter.

    Your conclusion, that, “it’s the structure that matters, the people are interchangable” is apt.

    The problem resides in your secondary premise: “socialists believe that once you remove the people who are currently in power, the problem will be solved” Not so!

    Socialists would agree with you that the system is at fault — they believe that an overhaul of the power system is necessary such that people *share* power. Such a system would establish incentives encouraging people to work in their own best interest without impinging upon the interests of others (or of future generations, e.g. by way of environmental catastrophe). The propensity of humans to dominate others would be taken into account as part of that system. The economic reality of the situation would be this: your needs would be satisfied. you would have no incentive to take your neighbor’s property because what is theirs is also yours. You would have the freedom to express all of your interests and develop all of your potential, unfettered by the necessity to work a terrible job all the time. (Although, to be sure, you would be expected to periodically take turns working the terrible jobs rather than relying on a systematically created underclass to do so.) Ideology would be eliminated. Culture would be based around freedom and communication and other communitarian values rather than the perverse consumerism that informs American culture today.

    This would be achieved through the elimination of hierarchy and the institution of *democracy* i.e. allowing the community to make decisions for which they would feel the full costs/benefits. Workers would control the economy by way of local worker’s councils, making adjustments as they see fit.

    Etc, etc.

    It’s fairly easy to *imagine* a socialist society that both respects individuals and encourages them to work together as a community. The problem is how to make it happen.

    Studying history IS helpful in this task (props to James) because most of the historical knowledge that you and I take for granted was actually written by “the victors” i.e. the agents of powerful interests for whom the status quo is favorable. Stories are important and, in general, we don’t hear the other side of the story. Why bother listening to these untold stories? Because they may open our eyes to new worlds of possibility.

    Next time read the book before you pontificate about it.

    Love,
    Thomas


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