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Marxism as Religion 31 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Modernity and Modernism, Philosophy & Social Theory.
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The September 21st New York Review of Books carried an essay about Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski by Tony Judt, in which Judt discusses at length the philosophers thoughts on Marxism. Kolakowski likens marxism to a religion or a faith statement in its social effect, and as I rode the commuter train this morning, I had one of those Eureka moments. I have never been able to make sense of the contradictions within marxism, and between the best of Marx’s ideas and the horrific outcomes of marxism in practice. I had never fully bought the apologists’ efforts to rescue Marx from his followers and practitioners, but hadn’t been able to fully comprehend why. Kolakowski’s idea that marxism is (or I would say functions like) a religion suddenly brought it all into focus.

As a graduate student, I was introduced to more in depth look at Marx’s social thought, especially his critiques of capitalism, and I even took a course where we examined Das Kapital in depth. For sociologists, Marx is one of the founders of social scientific thought, most notably in his insistence on the centrality of social relations to ideas (ideologies) and to material outcomes, his views of social systems as complex interactions, and his belief that such systems could be understood “scientifically” (that is, through systematic observation and analysis). Surely, Marx’s social science method wasn’t well developed (we owe that mostly to Durkheim and Weber), but his ideas proved central to the growing idea in European (and eventually American) universities that human societies could be understood scientifically and planned.

Marx as social theorist is pretty narrowly read today by most sociologists who don’t specialize in Marxist criticism, focusing mostly on his analysis of capitalism as a social system. In cultural studies, 20th century dialogues with Marx’s ghost is practically a rite of passage. The obvious critiques of Marx have been made over and over, particularly his historical materialism, which so often devolves into a kind of gross determinism in Marx’s writings as to make you want to throw the whole thing out. But starting with his writings on the 18th Brummaire and culminating in Kapital, Marx had shifted to a depth of analysis of how capitalism functions to mix ideologies and social relations together (his notion of the fetishism of the commodity is fucking brilliant, and more salient today than he could have imagined). That contradiction between the irritating determinism and the powerful insights has plagued my relationship with Marx for years.

As a sociologist who sometimes studies religious cultures, I instantly felt the resonance of thinking of marxism as a religion. Anyone with the most cursory knowledge of religion knows that all religious systems are morally conflicted and internally inconsistent in their morals. The same religious system can produce massive violence and suffering in one context, and on another occasion be the source of humanity’s shining moments of compassion and healing. This contradiction makes religious cultures (that is, their symbolic contents) difficult to deal with empirically, because their effects in the social world are mixed and contradictory. Further, most world religions as they have survived today rely on texts and often on founders. Again, these founders are often the source of contradictory ideas: Jesus taught both “love they neighbor” and that his religion would tear apart families and bring violence (“the sword”); Mohamed taught both that the diversity of humans was divine, and that Arabs were god’s only people; the buddha taught that enlightenment lies within and is available to alll, but forbade women to practice or learn his methods. Of course I’m being overly simplistic here to illustrate a point, that religious systems are ethically and ideologically mixed and that the mixture can be traced back to its founders.

The apologists for Marx often try to say that his followers didn’t understand his ideas; or they argue that communism wasn’t real marxism; or they insist that communism was corrupted by a handful of corrupt men. But Kolakowski sees in Marx’s determinism, specifically his view of the Proletariat as the “true people,” the ideas of inevitability and of moral certitude necessary to create the slaughters and oppressions in 20th century communist societies. Surely, Marx was in favor of a kind of radical freedom familiar to any good libertarian, but he also held ideas that, in Kolakkowski’s words, were nearly eschatological. That is, he saw history (in a modified Hegelian framework) in a way familiar to most Christians: as moving toward a glorious, if bloody, end, and the end was Good and would bring everlasting peace and happiness, despite being preceded by violence. These ideas are indeed contained in Marx, along with his biting and incisive critique of the inequalities and suffering produced by the social relations of capital.

And so to see marxism accurately, even to be able to gleen from it what is useful to me in 2006 while rejecting what is damaging or merely wrong, I can see marxism as a religion with millions of followers who, like religious originators and their followers elsewhere, truly believed what they practiced, and had in many ways left reason at least partway behind. Marxism had become, perhaps even for Marx himself, a kind of credo, an end-in-itself, an ultimate, unquestionable Good. The assumptions within Marx’s early works can and did plausibly lead to the repressions of the Soviet state; and his critiques can and did likewise lead to the social-democracies of western Europe. I think it might be interesting to actually study ‘marxists’ and see if empirically their interactions do indeed follow religious models. To be fair, I’d also love to study some market fundamentalists, a somewhat smaller and yet infinitely more powerful crew, to see if The Market doesn’t likewise function as a faith.


Why Gay Marriage? 21 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights.
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Regular readers know my deep ambivalence about the cultural idea of gay marriage, the probably impact it could have on gay men’s and women’s cultures. But from a legal standpoint, that is, from the point of view of equal treatment under the law, it’s a no brainer. If you’re still unsure about whether or not gay marriage is a good thing, consider what gay and lesbian couples have to go through, because they are not legally protected. Especially if you live in places like Colorado, where such unjust and inhumane laws are under consideration in two weeks, and you are considering voting against gay marriage, please take two minutes to read these real life examples of what happens to gay couples because their relationships aren’t protected. You’ll need to scroll down below the commentary about John McCain to the stories in small print about real-life gay men and women who suffered greatly by not having access to the rights taken for granted by heterosexual married couples. [The John McCain stuff isn’t why I’m directing you there, but it is also interesting.]

Catching Up 20 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Evolution, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Political Commentary, Politics, Religion, Secular Humanism, Teaching, War & Terrorism.
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Wow, since I’ve been out of the blogging loop, so much has happened, I don’t think I’ll be able to catch up. So here’s a roundup of the things that have interested, fascinated, horrified and angered me over the past few weeks (in no particular order, other than how they popped into my head):

1) The Foley Affair: The man is a creep, not a pedophile. The Republicans have no shame, playing on pedophiliphobia (to coin a word) and homophobia for their own spin needs. It appears they have failed, however. I have no sympathy for closeted public officials who use their power and self-hatred to oppress gay people.

2) Outing Closeted Republican Politicians and Staffers: As many elsewhere have noted, there is nothing wrong with the outing of public officials. The only reason you could think outing was wrong is if you accept the premise that being gay is shameful or wrong in some way, which it is not. Although I’m more sympathetic to private individuals, elected officials have no excuses or expectations of privacy on this matter.

3) Legalizing Torture and Creating a “Unitary Executive”: Where were the riots? Where were the protests? My students didn’t know this had happened and didn’t care. Why are Americans asleep on this issue? This is exactly what the anti-Federalists were afraid of back in 1789: An Executive would become a King. Meanwhile, we have become what we used to hate.

4) 650,000 Dead Iraqis: Although I think there may be some problems with the methods of this count, the point isn’t missed: Iraqis are suffering immensely under our efforts to “save” them. We must look at the consequences of our actions as a nation, and rethink them immediately. The solution we tried didn’t work (duh). Time for a new one.

5) Military Coup in Thailand: You cannot defend democracy from a corrupt Prime Minister by overturning the democracy.

6) Nuclear Bomb in North Korea and Bush’s Dissembling Remarks: Why did we attack Iraq? Why was one of the first actions of the Bush administration’s foreign policy machine, early in 2001, to cut off talks and withdraw an agreement with North Korea?

7) Reading, The Working Poor: Shipler’s book, a couple years old now, does an amazing job of painting the complex matrix of circumstances, personal choices, and social institutions that work to keep people on the bottom of our society on the bottom of our society. Without waxing overly sociological, he uses the research and brilliantly conveys the lived experience, the oppressive conditions, the physical and psychological effects of poverty. And he concludes by excoriating the right-wing view of government and it’s effect on tens of millions of people’s ability just to live in the United States.

8 ) Reading, The Trouble with Difference: I’ve been personally struggling with the effects of some kinds of multicultural theory and practice lately, as it seems to me that our focus on “cultural diversity” as an end-in-itself has actually led us to ignore real inequalities around us. Michael Benn Walter’s little book makes this argument eloquently (although sometimes lacking in what my sociologist brain requires: evidence) and powerfully. I’ll do a whole post on this book later this weekend.

9) The Economics of Working in Higher Education, or I Need a Raise: I realized yesterday that because of the funding of my University and the contract for faculty, I would be at this pay scale for 5 more years, with probably no cost-of-living increases (joke) and no merit increases (eliminated from our contract) and only a minimal raise when I get tenure (6%, I believe). That means I’ll be living like a graduate student for the rest of my life. In material terms, I’m starting to question if my 8 year ordeal to get a PhD and secure a tenure track position was really worth it.

10) England’s Total Misunderstanding of the Principle of Free Speech, or How Wrong-Headed Versions of Multiculturalism Will Fuck Us If We’re Not Smarter than the Brits: First, they throw an anti-gay bigot in jail for distributing anti-gay pamphlets; then they throw out a gay police association’s advertisement out because it was “mean to christians”. How could people in the land of John Stuart Mill have such a fundamental misunderstanding of the freedom of speech?

11) Michigan Rejects Intelligent Design: Hooray!

12) Teaching the Evolution of Mind to Freshman Science Majors, or How Can Freshmen in University in California Be So Clueless about Human Evolution?: A guest lecture this week went very well, as I tried to explain in 50 minutes the naturalistic theory of cultural evolution. What I wasn’t prepared for was a group of science majors who had no clue about the basics of evolutionary theory and how scared they were as I talked about “human ancestors” in trees and starting to walk upright and growing big brains. Surreal experience of the inadequate K-12 science education.

13) Nobel Peace Prize for the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh: I have always been sharply critical of capitalism in general, because of the social, human costs of an unfettered market. But in my old age, I’ve moderated a bit, to start thinking about how capitalism might be controled and used (I’m adamantly opposed to Market Fundamentalism and Laissez-Faire) to create the wealth necessary to alleviate poverty and suffering. The market is powerful, but not all-mighty. And so I was fascinated by this idea of “microcredit”, giving loans to small entrepreneurs in Bangladesh instead of large donations to often-corrupt governments in the developming world. Building a successful middle-class is a key part of democratization, because you have to have a social base of people who feel they have a stake in the society before they can have a participatory democracy.

14) Why I Have a Crush on Olbermann: Listening to him eloquently and bluntly thrash George W., & co., just makes me horney, baby.

15) Anti-gay Violence: Man Lured to His Death in New York: There seems to be a sudden spurt of anti-gay violence around the country these past few months, and it’s starting to piss me off.

16) The New Virginia Ballot Proposition that Would Ban All Legal Rights for Same-sex Couples: You not only have to outlaw same-sex marriage, but you also have to prevent all same-sex couples from having any legal arrangements or contracts with each other at all? What the fuck is wrong with America?

17) A Series of Rapes in the Castro: The anti-gay violence comes home, as a series of three brutal attacks on gay men in the Castro followed by sexual assault. The press and police keep talking about how baffled they are by a group of straight men raping men. That is just ignorance. Men have been raping each other for thousands of years, because it’s about power and humiliation. This is not a new kind of hate crime against gay men; it’s just that we now live in a society where we can actually talk about it in public. And in England they punish the gay policemen for saying that anti-gay Christians are legitimizing anti-gay violence?

18) Dissension in the Ranks of the ACLU and a Turning Point for What Has Been the Most Important Civil Rights Watchdog Group in American History: The dissenters are right to criticize the current board of the ACLU and to demand the open dialogue and disagreement that has been the hallmark of the organization until recently.

19) Mirror Neurons Are Cool: Don’t have much to say here, as I’m just learning about them. But they are fuckin’ cool.

20) Will Stephen Pinker and George Lakoff Please Stop Pissing All Over Each Other? Yeah, Lakoff is kinda a hack; but Pinker makes claims way beyond what’s warranted by his evidence. I’m just irritated at what seems to have devolved into a pissing match, instead of a constructive argument. This reminds me of some of the more irritating exchanges between Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould re: punctuated equilibrium.

21) Rethinking Sam Harris’s Book and Richard Dawkins’ Rationality Meets Salon’s Effort at Being “Provocative”—Dear God, I’m Tired of Religion: At first, I thought Harris’s book was overly simplistic, but as I’ve digested his argument over the past year, I’ve come to agree. Religious moderates must take responsibility for their part in making fundamentalism acceptable. And Dawkins’ interview in salon about his new book made me want to slap the interviewer.

Hooray! Torture Is Now Legal in the United States! 18 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, War & Terrorism.
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[Note: I’m almost through my manuscript crackdown and will be back to regular posting soon.]

Here’s Keith Olbermann’s commentary and an interview with a Constitutional Law Professor concerning the president’s recent signing into law of the bill that grants him the power to torture “enemy combattants” and to basically incarcerate and interrogate not only foreigners, but any American the administration wants to, without warrant, without council, without public hearing, and without trial by jury.  The Bill of Rights died last week, and America was silent. The legacy of generations of men and women who died for this country was just sullied and tainted by the arrogance of our Dictator in Chief. (Thanks Belaja for the youtube link.)

GovTrack.us: Tracking the U.S. Congress 1 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Politics.
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As if I didn’t already have enough distractions, I just found (how come I’d never heard of this before?) the web site GovTrack, which monitors the progress on all bills moving through the House and Senate, which allows you to monitor the idiocy of your representatives. I was much relieved this morning to discover that my rep, Nancy Pelosi voted against the torture bill this past week (which doesn’t surprise me, but I wanted to be sure).

GovTrack.us: Tracking the U.S. Congress