Book Review: The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla

I include this book and commentary here on the blog because it is an important contribution to the American political debate, not that anyone will be listening. There are few philosophical implications not brought out in the book itself. My purpose in this commentary is to note other of my reviewed books that address this issue, and to describe, briefly, my own experience with identity politics.

First Slavoj Zizek who in his recent book “The Courage of Hopelessness” (linked) and several other recent books, gets into this subject at some length making, in Zizek’s inimical style, exactly the same points. Another is Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50 Foot Women” (linked), and also Mickel Adzema’s “Culture War, Class War” (reviewed, but not on the blog. Link is to book on Amazon) which touch broadly on the same issues. All four of these books make the same point: Identity Politics has had a corrosive impact on the ability of liberal voters to come together with a coherent program offering any hope of countering the rise of intolerant Right-Wing politics. Adzema blames all of this on the political Right, but the other three note correctly that the Left is complicit in the process.

My own experience with identity politics comes from social media, the 21st century editorial arena. I was some years on Google+ (now defunct) and so now with an outfit called MeWe (MeWe.com) which is structurally similar. I am also on Twitter. As for Face Book, I have no account, but my girl friend has and she shows me plenty! All of these forums both illustrate and facilitate the corrosive impact of identity politics. This has become especially noticeable as we enter the 2020 election cycle. Identity politics narrows dialog between groups. Social media reinforces that constriction (the “silo” or “bubble” effect well noted by many authors) by allowing users to choose those and only those whose views they will see and to which they respond.

The various identity factions simply do not (or very rarely) talk to one another. I have been hammered (and blocked) by those identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, sub-segments of the black community, American natives, or sex workers, merely for suggesting that their political interests might be better served if they aligned, politically, with a wider community. None of them seem to get it. Hyper-narrow political self interest cannot foster the kind of broad consensus needed to take and hold political power in the United States.

The present Democratic field illustrates the problem. Half the candidates in the race are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as supporters, primarily, of one identity or another. Back on social media I cannot tell you how disappointed I am to note how many of their various supporters say they won’t vote if their favorite candidate is not the nominee, exactly the attitude (on the part of Bernie Sanders supporters) that got Trump elected in 2016. If I try to point this out to people, if I try to say in one way or another that electing a broadly liberal democrat, whomever it might be, is more important than any emphasis on a particular identity I am summarily rejected from the community of that particular silo.

You might think that climate change would be the sort of issue that could unite everyone. It is, like world war, a matter that impacts everyone. But climate change, while it will become far more disastrous than any world war to date (not to mention possibly spawning the next one), grows more impact-full over generational time scales, far longer than an election cycle. Compared to the immediacy of perceived identity discrimination, no one today has the patience to work for a solution to the already-upon-us effects that will continue to grow more severe for the next three or four generations even if we acted, as a world, both decisively and immediately.

In his conclusion, Lilla extols liberals to find a vision that will transcend narrow identity issues and gather the flock. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s, but his vision promised, and mostly delivered, change-for-the-better that could be felt over a single generation. I do not know what can be offered now that will fill that requirement!

The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla (2017)

This is the story of what ails the American Left, really the center-left, the vanishing species called “the American liberal”. Lilla begins with what he takes to be the furthest left America has ever been, roughly that period from 1934 to 1970 (the “Roosevelt Era”), quickly fading and dead with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The American Left wasn’t socialist, and certainly not communist. It did represent the redistribution of tax wealth into projects that uplifted the broad swath of the American people producing infrastructure, regulation, and services that made possible all the subsequent wealth coupled with a clean environment generated from 1980 to the present. It also kicked off the social movements that resulted in a more inclusive American society. Not only was it inclusive, it was a vision of shared moral responsibility, citizenship. A vision that motivated even the hippy movement of the 1960s.

In a sense the left did too well. The social fabric of the country and its booming economy made it possible for individuals to abandon the moral demands of a citizenship and focus instead on their individual aims, goals having no moral obligation to the nation. By 1980, the Roosevelt vision of a shared America where people and their government worked together to uplift all had lost its luster. In his re-election campaign, Jimmy Carter told the American people that recovery from the excesses of “Great Society” spending and the Vietnam war would take work, conservation, a shared vision of doing the hard work now so things would be better again in the future. In short, Carter advocated austerity (ironically, had America taken that path we would be now much farther along in the process of curtailing greenhouse gas — this an aside, not Lilla’s subject).

Reagan guessed correctly at the new national mood. He resurrected the myth of American hyper-individualism in a later 20th century form (ironically beginning the debt-fueled-growth America remains locked in today). Moral obligation to “the nation” disappeared from the American dialog, all the way down to the elimination of civics lessons in public schools. This, the “Reagan Era” has continued on down to today. The election of Donald Trump marks the logical conclusion of this doctrine, the idea that if everyone just does the best he or she can to get what he or she wants, the country will do fine. But when a national people are shorn of any obligation to think in national terms they gradually lose the ability to do so. The result is a loss of shared identity, a reason to compromise with others with whom you may have political disagreement.

Meanwhile back in the late 70s, on to Reagan’s election and beyond to today, the Left, the liberals, having accepted that things had changed, made a strategic blunder, really two of them. First, they put their energy into higher education figuring that a technologically savvy America would require large numbers of people with advanced educations. Surely their choice proved correct from an economic viewpoint, but not the political. The universities became separated from the broad middle of the country, their graduates perceived as effete snobs “out of touch” with the average person.

The second blunder was worse. Liberals abandoned the “all in it together” vision that had given liberalism its power in the post WWII period. Instead, liberals began emphasizing more narrow definitions of identity, dissipating what had been previously unified. This proved highly popular with students because it reinforced their natural tendency to identify with people more like themselves instead of making broader and more difficult connections demanding compromise. The result emphasized the Reagan vision of hyper individualism and helped corrode away any pull that a broader concept of “belonging as citizen” might have had.

This then is the problem we face today and for the next (2020) election cycle. The Right’s hyper-individualism has wiped out much of the middle class creating a nation of the hyper-rich few and the mass of the rest whose economic prospects have steadily dimmed over the past 50 years. But the modern left (the liberals and progressives) have offered no unifying vision. Instead they are trapped in the monster they created, the intolerance-of-difference of modern identity politics. Lilla ends here, extolling the liberal-left to articulate a new “all in it together” vision. Alas, I see no evidence of this happening.

All of this is the subject of Lilla’s book. I have tried to summarize it here, but there is more in the details he gives us.

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

Book Review: A Warning by Anonymous

What more is to be said about this book (the Amazon review included below)? Its author clearly does not believe, giving good reasons throughout, Donald Trump is fit to be the president of the United States. In his last chapters he (or she) asks what is to be done? He (or she) tells Democrats that their visceral hatred of Trump, their “get him out by any means” attitude, is not helpful to the very process of getting him out. Although this is perhaps technically true the author does not seem to understand the origin of the reaction because he (or she) yet remains a Republican albeit not a Trump supporter. Three options are explored, the 25th Amendment, impeachment, or electoral loss.

The 25th Amendment (majority of cabinet and vice president certify to the speakers of House and Senate that the president does not have the capacity, is not fit, to conduct his duties) route is rejected immediately. Yet despite a whole book of argument that Trump is in fact incompetent (for intellectual and moral reasons), the author believes 25th Amendment criterion are not technically met (Trump is not in a coma). Moreover, it is claimed that the exercise of this amendment would tear the country apart like nothing since the civil war. What are we being told here? Does the author believe that the violent white supremacist cohort who unanimously voted for him would explode into killing sprees across the country? Surely that this particular cohort is so fully behind him is one good reason for the visceral hatred of the man? If you hate Nazis, why wouldn’t you hate a man who gives them rein?

Impeachment the author takes to be a viable and legitimate process, but almost as divisive as using the 25th Amendment. Moreover he accuses the House Democratic majority of being distracted, by impeachment, from real work. But the House democratic majority accomplished a lot prior to beginning the impeachment process, all of it summarily blocked without even debate by the Republican majority in the Senate. If Trump is immoral and broadly incompetent, supporting his agenda must also be immoral at least. Now there isn’t anything particularly new here as concerns congress. Corruption knows no party affiliation. But given that Republicans curry votes of the rich (and most who fantasize about being rich), the democrats must curry favor with the broader swath of the American electorate. As result, the democrats are less likely to be corrupt in the direct and obvious ways true today of most Republicans.

Corporate interests have captured much of both houses of the American congress. This has been true long before Trump. But Trump has poured gasoline on the fire of Republican greed. Today congressional Republicans will vote for anything, even bloated Federal budgets they have historically opposed, so long as it promises to make them richer, not to mention getting them re-elected; hypocrisy taken to extremes! Is this not another reason for the visceral hatred now directed at their ranks?

Finally the author tells us we can vote Trump out and that this is the cleanest and least controversial way to get the job done. But we are cautioned there must be an overwhelming vote against Trump. Why overwhelming? Because, we are told, if the vote is close his (or her) reading of the man is that he won’t leave without challenging it, trying to block it in courts that he himself has packed. Could he get away with this? Not if majorities in both houses (whether democrats alone or a mixture of both parties) opposed it. But if the senate remains in Republican hands, and those Republicans stand behind the challenge, we will be in far more dangerous waters than has ever been the case here in these United States. Seems to me another good reason for visceral hatred!

How did Trump get elected? The Russians did not (as far as I know) hack voting machines and change votes. All they did was flood social media with propaganda. Once Trump became the nominee it was inevitable that registered Republicans would vote for him no matter what the Russians said. Russian propaganda had far more impact on Democrats and Independents. The more ignorant among these, not immune to the propaganda directed against Hilary Clinton, were persuaded not to vote at all, and that is what swung the tide for Trump.

More interestingly, the question is how did Trump become the nominee? It cannot be simply that he supported the traditionally Republican “wedge issues”, pro-gun and anti-abortion. These issues have swayed Republicans against their own economic interests since Reagan. Every other Republican candidate, all universally castigating Trump during the primary process, advocated the same positions on such issues. The answer lies with those white supremacists who never much voted before because no candidate, on either side, gave them a voice. Trump did give them a voice and they voted for him en-mass in primary after primary.

Personally I do fear the Trump administration. Not so much Trump personally but rather the combination of Trump and all the senior White House staff (not to mention Republicans in congress) who appear to be encouraging his destructive behavior. I fear the collection because I think Trump is an evil clown but not a very smart one, except as concerns his instincts regarding his base. I would be more afraid if he was both evil and, like Hitler or Stalin, also smart. Trouble is greatly multiplied when an evil figurehead is supported by others who are not only evil but also smart, or in Trump’s case at least smarter than him.

I do disagree with the author of “A Warning” on this one point. Those who voted for Trump, and especially those who continue to support him (whether in congress or the electorate) now three years into a term in which the U.S. has lost all international good will and generated a ruinous debt, deserve all the opprobrium directed at them! There never were, and are not now (especially) any “good excuses” in the matter. Supporting Trump can only mean outright evil for its own sake, hypocrisy for the sake of personal gain or religious delusion, or willful ignorance.

A Warning by Anonymous (2019)

Each year seems to bring out a new and negative book about the Trump presidency. I’ve read and reviewed now three of them, Wolff’s “Fire and Fury”, Woodward’s “Fear”, and now this one by an anonymous source who claims (at least at the time of writing) still to be in place monitoring the administration from inside the White House. The material is certainly recent. Published in November 2019, it relates episodes that occurred as late as October of this same year! There is good reason to want to rush this out and make sure it is as up-to-date as possible.

A Warning is less detailed than the other two books. The author does not give us detailed time lines and lists of the players involved in specific events except as needed to flesh out what he (or she) really wants to say. To be clear, the author is a republican who began his tenure in the Trump White House with every intention of carrying out the duties of his (or her) office supporting a broadly Republican agenda. What he (or she) discovered, however, is that the president not only doesn’t know the Republican agenda, he doesn’t much care. Nor does he know anything about how the U.S. government works (or is supposed to work), how the three [supposedly] co-equal branches interact, or how America fits into the global system of which it is (or was) a linchpin! I suppose it is still a linchpin, but is quickly breaking down..

The beginning of the real problem as the author sees it, is not that Trump doesn’t know how all these complex entities work and come together. Almost all incoming presidents are less than masters of one or more or these matters. The difference is that other incoming presidents care! Most stay up late reading about these things and get up early to acquire still more understanding. They listen to dissenting voices and factor their views into policy considerations. Trump doesn’t read. He doesn’t want to read, and he doesn’t care for advice from anyone either unless it reinforces his already naive and dangerously simplistic view of every issue including the very laws and principles (and history) that are the foundation of the United States! Trump has, it would seem, only one agenda: to glorify himself in comparison to everyone else. He is, in short, a megalomaniac!

That is, broadly speaking, what this book is about. It sketches Trump’s mania through chapter after chapter on issues ranging from his moral character, the domestic legislative agenda, appointments (the lack thereof) to key departments, his relation to both parties in congress, and on to foreign policy in which Trump appears to be methodically cozying up to America’s enemies while alienating every ally the U.S. has worked with for the past 75 years! Indeed the author appears flummoxed on the matter of foreign policy. Unlike Trump’s domestic problems which might be laid up to ignorance (and not caring) his actions on the world stage (about which he is equally ignorant) appear to be deliberately aimed at denigrating any world leader beholden to his (or her) people broadly conceived; both those who agree and those who disagree whether they are legislators or merely voters. In Trump’s mind, leaders who take dissent into account are weak, while he admires the autocrats who need not care much about what anyone else thinks of them (and we are back to moral character).

In the last third of the book the author turns his (or her) light upon congressional (House and Senate) republicans and looks at how and why most of these folks swung from near universal condemnation of Trump during the run-up to the 2016 nomination to near universal approbation! In the early stages of Trump’s administration, there were voices who all thought would surely help to direct the president towards a steady hand on the tiller of State. Trump named Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Many condemned his choice. “Another member of the establishment Trump promised to dismantle.” I thought: at least Tillerson was a man with years of experience in international affairs, especially in Russia. Mattis (Sec. Defense), after all, was a general. Each was competent in his domain. But to be competent means to disagree (sometimes or often) with a superior who happens not to be competent in that arena. Trump takes any disagreement personally, as disloyalty, an affront. Disagreement, and so competency, is fired from the Trump White House. All the competent people in positions of policy authority are gone.

One might certainly dismiss all of this as fiction even if the so-called source ever did work in the White House. Either that or this individual is one of the new breed of “never-Trumpers”. But I do not buy that. I was born and grew up in New York City. I am only a handful of years younger than Trump. You had to live in a cave not to have heard of his shenanigans. Back then of course nothing he did was any more odious than that done (still done) by wealthy self-important men all over the world. The problem is that what this book claims Trump is doing now is perfectly consistent with his character as it emerged on the local news since the 1990s.

In his last chapter and epilogue he (or she) extols us to do better next time. Good luck with that. What Trump represents did not start with Trump. It began with the turn away from liberal arts in American higher education in the 1970s. Politically it took shape in the 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and intolerant ideology of the Tea Party. Whether Trump stays or goes, all of that will still be with us. So much the worse for us all!

Review: Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser 2006

One would expect a book on this broad subject to leave some dangling issues. Dr. Feser’s sympathies clearly lay with Aristotelian dualism, even theism. He begins with a nuanced statement of Cartesian Substance Dualism. His aim is to explicate the logical strength of substance dualism, aware also of its primary weakness (the “interaction problem”) and then ask if the various alternatives to it, particularly those promulgated by materialist philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries, are coherent in their own right and if so, successfully defeat dualism’s logic.

As noted in the review (reproduced below with a link to the book on Amazon) Feser spends the bulk of the book on this latter task. He demonstrates that none of the suggested alternatives actually work. Some (eliminativism of two kinds and epiphenominalism) are incoherent, while others (functionalism, behaviorism, and many others) fail to capture the substance of subjective first person experience, in effect explaining it away. Most of these critiques focus on epistemological issues, but some also run into metaphysical issues, indeed the same “interaction problem” faced by Cartesian dualism (see also “From What Comes Mind” and “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”).

Having demolished the contenders, Feser asks if there is something else, a different sort of dualism that might work and yet not require or point to theism? His solution is Aristotelian Hylomorphic dualism. Alas, as noted in the review, here he fails but doesn’t seem to notice it. Either the form emerges from the facts of the assemblage that is the brain, or it is added intentionally from the outside. Hylomorphism either collapses into reductive (or supervenient) materialism, or it leads back to something that must stand in the place of, if not be, God. Feser leaves this matter dangling.

Other issues dangle. Feser cites many authors I’ve read, among them David Chalmers, but as I read Feser, he seems to misunderstand Chalmers’ “property dualism”, more or less equating it with epiphenomenalism,  the idea that our mental arena is merely an accidental by-product of brain function with absolutely no causal consequence. It is precisely the point of Chalmers’ property dualism that it does have causal consequence and so is not epiphenomenal but rather a radical emergence.

From the physics of brains alone emerges what amounts to a substance with novel properties, the upward property of subjective experience itself, and a downward causal power, subjective will, on that same physics. Chalmers, being bothered by the radical character of the emergent subjectivity, speculates on panpsychism or various types of monisms that might be embedded in physics and so support such an emergence (see above linked “Fantasy Physics…” essay for details). These various ideas for sources of the phenomenal in a hidden property of the physical are quasi-material in Feser’s taxonomy.

Another matter of interest to me is Feser’s characterization of substance dualism. His sketch is more nuanced than that usually given by his materialist peers but there are other possibilities that yet remain broadly Cartesian. For example, a property dualism supported by the presence of a spacetime field that is not physical but also not phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal).

The field need not be mind as such. It need have no phenomenal/proto-phenomenal properties of its own. Viewed from the material, mind is a radical emergence (upward) and has, as a result of its novel properties, also downward causal qualities. Its appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction with this everywhere present (and yes, mysterious) field and not equally mysterious undetectable properties embedded in physics. For a detailed explication of this model see my “From What Comes Mind?”

Of course an “interaction problem” comes immediately forward. This hypothetical field is, after all non-material. But this interaction issue is the same faced by property dualism generally along with panpsychism, and Russelian or dual-aspect monism. All of these theories propose proto-phenomenal properties embedded in micro physics or the universe as a whole, but none ever say how exactly to identify the proto-phenomenal, in what exactly its properties consist. Nor do they speculate on their origin, and how they interact with the physical we know; how exactly they perform their teleological function driving the physical towards [genuinely] phenomenal expression.

Feser notes that materialist philosophers always cite “Occam’s Razor” as reason for rejecting theism and so any sort of substance dualism. He should somewhere have noted Occam’s Razor is supposed to apply to two or more theories that equally explain all the data! Theism answers two of the questions left dangling by quasi-materialisms. It explains why it is we find the phenomenal, any phenomenal proto or otherwise, only in association with brains. It has also an origin story in theistic intentionality, the phenomenon we find at the core of the recognizably phenomenal, our phenomenal, itself!

Quasi-materialisms deny intention in the proto-phenomenal leaving the transition to intention in brains hooked (metaphysically) on nothing. None of this, not the postulation of a field or the proto-phenomenal explains how exactly interaction occurs. The problem with theism isn’t merely the interaction (about which at least “God knows the trick”) equally suffered by all the non-eliminative materialisms. The problem is the postulation of an intentional source of the field supporting intentionality as we experience it. Yes this is a big pill to swallow, but without it we can say nothing about how any of this works anyway. Rejecting the possibility of theism leaves behind more mysteries than it resolves.

Surely suggesting that there is an intentional (minded) source of intentional, subjective mind begs the question. Of course it does! It remains, however, a coherent, possibility! God can not only be conceived, his necessary qualities can be specified to considerable detail (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). It isn’t clear that the proto-phenomenal can be conceived, and even if we allow its conceivability there seems to be nothing that can be said at all about any  of its qualities.

I said at the end of the book review I would say something about free will. Feser does not mention it. Free will is related to intentionality. The ability to direct our attention purposefully is the core of the matter and some (Schopenhauer) would say it, is the essence of the conscious self! “Mental causation” or in Rescher’s terms initiation is, when not subconscious, agent-directed. We experience our agency as will (and this why the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is redundant’ see “All Will is Free”). Will’s  relation to “philosophy of mind” should be obvious. We experience our volitional agency in mind, and like qualia and intention, the nature of volitional agency is mysterious, doubly so because it is a mystery on top of a mystery!

I have said much about free will and its associated agency elsewhere in the blog. On the negative side (the absurdity of denying it) see “Arguing with Automatons”, and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”. On the positive side, “Why Free Will”, “Why Personality”, and “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”.

The two best books on the subject are “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” by Nicholas Rescher and E. J. Lowe’s “Personal Agency”. My own books, “Why this Universe” and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” both address the subject.

 

Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser (2006)

I picked up Feser’s “Philosophy of Mind”, a book in an introductory series, for the sake of little else to read at the time, but I’m glad I did. It is, perhaps the best basic-evaluation of this subject (one of my specialty areas) I have ever read. It doesn’t merely introduce and review the subject. It makes an argument, a point about the present philosophical state-of-the art on the nature of mind, and does it very well.

Feser begins by introducing the subject and settles on representative-realism (the external world is real more or less as we experience it, but what we experience as subjects is nevertheless a representation of it) as the fundamental datum which a philosophy of mind must account. He then moves to examine the various proposals put forth by modern philosophers, some with their roots back in classical Greek times. He begins with Cartesian (substance) Dualism, a rather more sophisticated treatment than is usually accorded by modern philosophy. He shows us that substance dualism rests on more solid logical foundations than is usually acknowledged even if it smacks of being unscientific thanks to its infamous “interaction problem”.

From that point Feser looks at what has been offered as alternatives to Dualism, various materialisms (eliminative, functionalism, behaviorism, pure epiphenomenalism, causalism, reduction and supervenience) and quasi-materialisms (panpsychism, Russelian-monism, property dualism). All of this treatment constitutes the bulk of the book and as he covers each solution there emerges the best taxonomy of philosophies-of-mind I have yet seen. The modern emphasis on qualia is explored thoroughly but he argues that intentionality, even given the representational realism with which he begins, is more important, more central to mind and consciousness, than qualia.

In doing all of this Feser drives home the point that none of the alternatives is without serious metaphysical or epistemological problems. All of the quasi-materialisms, in fact, come up against the same interaction problem as substance dualism, and the others are either incoherent (two sorts of eliminativism), or simply do not get at two core problems: why do we experience anything at all and why does the subject that appears throughout all experience seem so obviously causally potent?

In the last chapter Feser asks if there is anything else that does address the core issue without having to invoke what ultimately comes down to God? His answer is Aristotle’s “Hylomorphic Dualism” (also championed by Thomas Aquinas though his variation relies directly on God). To explain consciousness, to get at its core and resolve the ever-present interaction problem, Feser says all we have to do is reject the contemporary physicalist insistence that material and efficient causes (two of Aristotle’s four leaving out formal and final cause) exhaust causality in the universe. This would be, to say the least, a big pill for 21st Century science, and most of philosophy, to swallow.

Further while Hylomorphic dualism might deal nicely with the epistemological issues Feser everywhere touches, it does no better than the quasi-materialisms concerning the metaphysical. Either the form of the human mind springs entirely from the arrangement and dynamics of physical particles, in which case we are back to reductive or supervenient materialism, or it does not. But if it does not, where does it come from? That physics cannot detect any teleology in the physical universe does not mean it isn’t there. It does mean that it has to come from somewhere other than physics and be prior to individual human minds. We are on the way back to God.

There is also a notable absence. Feser never mentions free will. A discussion might be beyond Feser’s scope in this book, but I’m surprised he did not at least note its obvious relation to intentionality. I will cover this and other implications in a blog commentary.

Review: The Geography of Risk by G. Gaul

This well written book hasn’t any philosophical implications on which to comment. I put this here in my rapidly expanding “book review” subsection because of its relevance to my commentary on Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. My commentary on the Zizek book ended up being mostly about climate change and ecological disaster, something that Zizek mentions but doesn’t much talk about. My point in that commentary was that the re-making of the world’s social, political, and economic orders that are the focus of Zizek’s book (many of his books in fact) will be made mostly irrelevant thanks to the utter destruction of the present global order beginning with its economics.

That’s what I said about Zizek. Specifically, with regard to the United States I said that climate change would soon bankrupt it, and that long before the impact of the twin phenomena (climate change and [partial] ecological collapse) was fully felt. Now a couple weeks after writing that commentary, along comes this book which, while focused on a singular aspect of the problem (the U.S. East and Gulf coasts), illustrates and puts numbers to my claims.

The Geography of Risk by Gilbert Gaul (2019)

Only two weeks ago I wrote a blog essay commenting on another book I recently reviewed (Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”). In my commentary I pointed out that the on-rushing phenomena of climate change will shortly (next few decades) overwhelm the social, political, and financial capacity of any national or even supra-national organization. I accused Zizek of ignoring “the elephant in the room”. Only a few days after that essay (see my Amazon profile for blog address) this book by Gilbert Gaul appeared on my radar. Its title alone seemed a validation of my claims. I was not disappointed, though as it turns out, the focus of the book is geographically very narrow.

Dr. Gaul is an expert in the economics, geography, and risk of coastal and near-coastal communities of the United States Eastern and Gulf coasts. That, specifically is what this book is about. He is easy to read, gives us all the important numbers, but isn’t dry. He tells the story historically through the eyes of many involved: developers and politicians one one side, scientists and some of the engineers tasked with fixing a hopeless situation on the other.

Why this region? First, the U.S. Eastern seaboard, especially from New Jersey to southern Florida, and then throughout the Gulf of Mexico is riddled with barrier islands made mostly of sand, and then behind these barriers lots of shallow bays, estuaries, and low-lying land sometimes extending inland hundreds of miles. Second, all of this coast is among the world’s great hurricane and “rain bomb” bowling alleys. Third that same coast, all those barrier islands, have evolved demographically from a few fishing villages in the 1940s through inexpensive (once middle class) small summer homes costing a few thousand dollars, to multi-million dollar mansions. Fourth, back in the 1950’s the Federal Government covered 10% or 20% of the cost to rebuild thousand dollar homes when storms destroyed them, today the government covers 90% of the cost to replace a like number of million-dollar homes!

The net result of all this is that the taxpayers of all States, not just the coastal states affected, were, 70 years ago, on the hook for a few millions of Federal dollars spent on this process. Today, the number is in the hundreds of billions! As it turns out, according to Gaul, the cost to U.S. taxpayers to repair hurricane and rain damage to places that are destroyed by these weather phenomena every decade or so (sometimes more) is higher than damage from all other disasters (inland floods, fires, earthquakes) combined and by a big margin.

How this all came to be is much the focus of this book. In the end the answer is politics and economics. Take a barren piece of sand and put a few homes on it. Soon you begin to need services, sewers, roads, traffic control, bridges, banks, and so on. There come to be small towns with mayors, police, fire fighters, contractors (building and repairing homes), bankers, and so on. These are jobs paid for by property taxes. When the properties are destroyed (repeatedly) the tax base disappears and all these jobs are threatened. The solution is always to build back as quickly as possible and to make up for the temporary losses faster, to build more and bigger. As all of this re-construction occurred, the homeowners themselves could afford a smaller and smaller percentage of it all. To save the jobs (and ever larger community tax bases) Federal tax payers assumed a larger percentage of the replacement cost until today, this often comes out to more than 80% of costs to rebuild homes of millionaires and 100% of the ever growing network of roads, flood control projects (which never survive more than one next storm), bridges, sewers, and so on.

Of course all along these decades there were individuals in and out of government who pointed out that this cycle was absurd and would eventually become un-affordable not to mention physically unsustainable as the islands became smaller (erosion) and bays and wetlands were filled in to make yet more homes (and roads), further increase the tax base, and in consequence make it more difficult for high water to drain exacerbating the problem. The solution of course is to stop the building, abandon the islands back to small fishing villages, and let the waters do what they will. But repeatedly re-building small homes and a few services back on line meant jobs and now re-building big homes and greatly expanded services means even more jobs and trying to protect those towns (a hopeless endeavor) is always wasted work (Gaul gets into some of the crazy numbers). But millions of jobs are now invested in the continued functioning of those economies! The cycle goes on!

All of this and I haven’t even mentioned climate change. The economics and politics of this process is the focus of Gaul’s book, but he doesn’t ignore this. The bottom line here is that it would be bad enough to be loading American tax payers more and more economic risk as the economies of these storm-prone places get larger. Even if the storms and sea levels stayed constant the economic burden on the American taxpayer is already onerous and growing. Climate change will only make this worse. Gaul’s focus is the American East and South coasts whose risk grows disproportionately because of its exposure to more frequent, bigger storms and sea level rise. But he is well aware also that interior climate-related disasters, fires and floods, will grow in severity and so cost.

In my blog commentary mentioned above I said that this problem generally, this growth in the cost of disasters, would, in another decade or two, bankrupt the United States. Gaul’s book, though narrowly focused, is an argument for my claim.

Review: The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Zizek

As a philosopher there isn’t much more fun to be had than making further comment on a book by Slavoj Zizek. There is so much to be said. But my task here is a depressing one. In “The Courage of Hopelessness” it is the hopelessness that should be emphasized and Zizek, perhaps the most honest of socio-political and cultural commentators, fails to appreciate the gravity of just what it is that faces the global economy in the next 20-40 years. As usual, my full review of the book (published on Amazon) along with a link to the book itself is included below.

I begin and end with ecological and climate catastrophe, the elephants (yes two) in the room Zizek fails to appreciate. Of course he mentions them. He doesn’t much distinguish between them, adding them to the list of stressors on the global milieu. They are related but different. Ecological catastrophe refers to the collapse (partial or full) of the life web that sustains the higher animals like us. Ecology is changed and stressed by climate change (ocean warming, acidification, other knock-on effects) but the ecological catastrophe of interest here is also caused by pollutants dumped mainly in ways that get into the oceans and fresh water systems. Climate change adjusts eco-systems but mostly it extinguishes them only locally. Add human-caused pollution (heavy metals, radioactive waste, industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff, plastics) and what remains of a sustainable wider ecology can be put in jeopardy.

Mostly this commentary will be about climate change because the effects of it come on a little faster than does a broad ecological collapse. There is no escaping their dual inevitability to one degree or another. But the economic impact of climate change alone will be enough to sink the entire Western economic system. Zizek does not talk about this, yet it hovers over everything. In this 2017 article (Science News) the real truth is revealed: “Even if humans could instantly turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gases, the Earth would continue to heat up about two more degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century…” In case you are wondering, this isn’t a recent discovery as this article from 1912 illustrates.

Our present ability to feed eight billion humans on Earth is utterly dependent on modern industry and transport. If we could “turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gasses” immediately five or six of the eight billion souls on Earth would die of disease and starvation within a year or two. Really it has been “too late” since the 1950s at latest. Had we fully converted all of our energy use to so-called renewable sources 75 years ago we’d have had a chance of genuinely forestalling the disaster; of affording it. Of course the technology wasn’t in place back in those days and now it is too late. See note below on the carbon cost of “renewable energy”.

The bottom line is that this economic doom faces us no matter who wins the next elections anywhere in the world or even if tomorrow we were all to wake up in the utopian true “universal (world) communism” that Zizek envisions! Climate-related-catastrophe is inevitable. Billions are going to die world wide, and billions more displaced. Our present global civilization (such as it is) is doomed. There are only a few issues yet to be settled. Will we try to spread the disaster out over the next seventy-five years or are we going to precipitate it in the next ten or twenty? If the disaster is now inevitable, what exactly will it look like? Will any mitigating efforts we make in the next human generation (twenty-five years) make any difference at all? In brief, some of my thoughts on these questions follows.

Let me be clear about this. When I say climate disaster dooms us I am not speaking of an extinction event. Human beings will survive albeit in much smaller numbers. The ecological disaster might bring us closer to extinction but that will happen long after climate change has already broken the system. Make no mistake though, while not an extinction event, climate change alone will be the end of our modern, industrial, technological, long distance, service oriented civilization. Eventually we will return to a lifestyle in which most people are once again farmers and these will be scattered into the smaller areas still conducive to growing food.

Countries that are poorer now will suffer sooner because they cannot afford the price of mitigating what is already happening. Crops and water resources will fail. Eventually even the rest of the world will be unable to generate the surplus food needed to feed starving millions. Refugees will flood out of the poorest areas first, putting more economic pressure on everyone else. But the worst case might be the broader Indian sub-continent now Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In only a few more decades the Himalayan glaciers will be gone and a billion people will lack for water! Food production will shrink everywhere (Canada and northern Russia perhaps exceptions). North America may be one of the lucky regions able to feed itself, but even this will not be easy.

In the rich countries the disaster will take a different turn, it will be first economic because at this time these countries are spending what capital they have doing exactly the sort of mitigation the poorer nations are unable to afford. America’s deficit is in the trillion dollar range. Already weather-disaster-related mitigation consumes some $50-$100 billion/year and that to rebuild $300 billion in losses that pile up more quickly from year to year. Eventually the number and destructiveness of extreme weather events will be beyond affording. Economic activity will begin to shut down because so much of the necessary infrastructure becomes unusable as we cannot afford to fix it quickly enough. Even if the United States financial system is not broken immediately by China calling in our debt, it will become impossible to afford not only disaster mitigation, but eventually, and as a result of the effects on infrastructure, the cost of transporting food, fuel, and products from one part of the continent to another.

Once this happens the nation will regionalize. The writ of the State will begin to break down. Even today, most of the “States” of the U.S. live on the Federal dole spending more than they take in on their own. The net effect will be a cascading collapse of the economy nation wide. Even the few “rich States” will grow much less rich as the cost of everything from food and transportation to clothing become prohibitive. The annual reconstruction cost each year already exceeds the capacity of the nation (private and federal) to cover it in one year! To add insult to injury, mitigating the immediate effects of these disasters releases even more carbon! Those helicopters don’t run on batteries!

Moving my focus temporarily, I get to the relation between this “elephant in the room” and the rest of Zizek’s incisive observations. On identity politics for example he is surely correct about its diffusing what little energy there is to be put into the left’s genuine “universal emancipatory project”. Some time ago I reviewed the book “Attack of the 50 foot women” by Cathrine Mayer 2017. Ms. Mayer is a crusader for women’s rights. In her book she notes that the rise of “identity politics” steals energy from the larger project of women’s rights more broadly. Why? Because an LGBT+ person who identifies as a woman puts more energy into “trans-rights” specifically than women’s rights in general. Zizek notes this also but in the broader context of labor (male, female, LGBT+ or what have you) versus the capitalist elite which is, for him, still the main problem (even besides climate change and eco-collapse) in the world politically, socially, and economically.

Is Zizek right about this theft of social energy? I believe he is, and he well notes that the capitalists themselves are happy to support LGBT+ movements for two reasons. First because they are happy to sell their products to anyone who can buy them, and happy to have productive labor no matter the sexual identification of the laborer. More significantly, the capitalists are aware that by doing this they contribute to the diffusion of social and political energy away from the more basic issue of capitalism’s unfairness. The left is the party of cultural tolerance (though some tolerance, for example honor killings, goes too far Zizek admits) and in this they find themselves, ironically, aligned with the capitalists! It is this present focus on identity politics that has eviscerated the new-left. He is right about this also. So where does he go wrong?

The main problem is human selfishness, greed, violent propensities, fear of “the neighbor”, and so on. As noted below in my review, Zizek criticizes three proposals to “fix capitalism” on the grounds that each requires a fundamental change in the nature of human beings. The problem is the same is true as concerns his “opening for the left” permitting a return to their broader project of setting right the disparity between capital and labor. When opportunities arise from the sudden breakdown of some existing political, social, or economic order (from Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1934 to the Arab Spring of the 21st Century, there are dozens of examples [most of Africa, Pol Pot] from the 20th Century alone) it is extremely rare (the American experiment being among the few and that in an unusually philosophical time) that a fairer system emerges.

To create something fairer than what preceded the defunct old-guard requires the cooperation of many individual power-centers with competing agendas. To create an autocratic system (or outright dictatorship) requires only that one power-center is well armed and vicious enough to justify its ends by any means. In contrast to Zizek’s claim that “the system cannot be fixed by tinkering” one could well point at England. The English system of political and social pluralism evolved by tinkering; six hundred years of tinkering from the Magna Carta in the 13th century to the Glorious Revolution in the 17th to its almost-modern plurality in the 19th. There was a civil war and a dictatorship in between there too, but the English aristocracy (the only ones with a “vote” at the time) didn’t break the system rather chosing a new King, one who would, at aristocratic behest, put them on the road to a wider plurality, namely themselves. It was tinkering.

This brings us back to the elephant in the room. we haven’t got six hundred years. Climate change will exhaust us economically long before that. So what is to be done? If we do nothing, if the present economic elite is allowed merely to go on as they have the extreme right, Nazism, will once again win out, perhaps not throughout the world but almost certainly in the United States. Why? Because politically a significant percentage of the population already leans in that direction and that segment happens to be the best armed. They are the most vicious and xenophobic. They will not hesitate to kill (more and more as groups and not merely individuals as happens now) to have their way. As social and economic breakdown accelerates political paralysis will follow.

The army will be the only force standing opposed to the armed right, but that too could be under the control of a right wing xenophobic government (refugee mobs will by that time be pressuring borders all over the world). The government might simply use the right to do its bidding in a way analogous to what Chavez in Venezuela (albeit from the left) did with his Bolivarian Militia

Even if the U.S. government is not right-wing, eventually they will be unable to pay the army. Given the army, along with the population, is split along tolerant/intolerant lines, the combination of the intolerant army elements and the existing armed right will easily defeat the tolerant remainder.

What becomes important then is not right versus left or even capitalism versus everyone else, but cultural tolerance (capitalist and neo-left) verses intolerance (xenophobic and racist right)! What must be done, now, by the left, is opposite to what Zizek recommends. The left must strengthen the natural [tolerant] alliance between themselves and the capitalists. Both can agree that within limits (no honor killings) cultural diversity is worth having. The capitalist elite need not become unselfish, only a little less greedy. The left has to acknowledge that corporations (see Phillip Bobbitt “The Shield of Achilles”) will become the core of the State (such State as will remain) as anything more than a minimal over-arching administration under corporate control will be too expensive to maintain. Meanwhile, the capitalists must become only a little less greedy. A larger percentage of what would otherwise be aggrandized profit will needs be returned to labor or everyone will starve and no one will remain to produce or buy anything, even locally!

By contrast, if Zizek gets what he wants, an immediate collapse of capitalism, the economic disaster will occur immediately. This will not stave off climate disaster merely because industry more or less ceases. Instead, as the effects of the collapse gain momentum regional and local communities will be thrown back on whatever resources they command to produce energy, transport what little they have and so on. There may not be as much industry in real terms but what industry there is will become dirtier again as no one will be able to afford pollution mitigation. Our air and water will be poisoned even more quickly than they are being poisoned now.

The ecological collapse will be accelerated (who is going to protect nuclear waste?), and this by the [formerly] rich countries! Moreover, our (rich nation) capacity to even partly rebuild from climate events will cease now instead of twenty or fifty years from now precipitating an even more rapid social disintegration. There is no left-wing anywhere in the world prepared to take advantage of this except of course China. But in the U.S. it will be the armed right that will dominate. The United States could well become the post-apocalyptic nightmare envisioned in so many novels and films.

I perhaps am getting out into left field here, but what Zizek should recommend (has he read Bobbitt? He doesn’t mention him, could he bring himself to contemplate this?) is that the present left take the lesser “worst choice” and align with capitalism! The old left’s “emancipatory project” is doomed one way or another because climate change will render the change-over economically impossible or to put it another way, in the time we have left, corporate capitalism is the only standing system that can, starting now, organize and move resources (while we can still afford to move them) to mitigate individual disasters as they arise. By that I do not mean forestall the climate-precipitated economic disaster, now impossible. What I intend is to ensure the largest possible population survives to come out at the other end however long that takes. This move is already taking place in the U.S. as more and more of what used to be functions of the political State are privatized and spun off to corporations.

Existing corporations also, of course, will be mostly wiped out. No matter what we do many millions will die even in rich countries. The question is will it be millions or tens of millions!? Trade and economic activity generally, especially energy use will shrink geographically, roughly to where it was in 1800. The corporate-capitalist mechanism can [possibly] survive and provide what possible writ of law can exist in that future time. Corporations are, if nothing else, supremely good at resource organization. They can bring whatever resources remain to bear on the problem of climate disaster mitigation.

There is no guarantee that a universal left, even were it to emerge and fully consolidate itself in time (there are not many decades remaining) will focus itself on survival for as many as possible rather than (as is more likely) the survival of a small vicious elite. Corporations have motive that politics by itself has not. Capitalism requires a sufficient number of labor and especially consumers, the more the better. The “rich elite” cannot get or stay rich unless there are people making them the money.

I hadn’t intended this commentary to rest so heavily on climate change, but there isn’t much else to critique about Zizek’s book. As always his social and cultural commentary (occupying 75% of the book) is beyond reproach. The problem is, and this has been his problem in the last few socially-focused books, he treats climate change as merely one more stressor on the system overall. It is that today, only one more stressor. But this one will grow steadily now until it overwhelms all the others, or perhaps triggers them (xenophobia to nationalism to war to nuclear war) instantly collapsing the entire world edifice and killing almost everybody!

There remains one more thing to be said. Zizek tells us many times that there is no “right time” for revolution. Revolutions happen when circumstances come together to make the collapse of a present regime possible given the ardor, number, and organization of the revolutionaries. If the regime is strong enough it will not collapse and instead will break the revolution. But with or without a revolution the present day world-order, however anarchic it is, will shortly collapse for economic reasons without anyone having to do anything in particular to bring it about. Perhaps Zizek and I will not live to witness this event, but I wonder, as must he, if the Left will be ready to take advantage of it when it happens?

Having written this commentary I stumbled on this book: “The Geography of Risk” by Gilbert Gaul. My commentary is here with a link to the book putting numbers to my claims above.

Other books I’ve reviewed by Slavoj Zizek

Less Than Nothing

Living in End Times

Trouble in Paradise

Refugees, Terror and Other Trouble with the Neighbors

[note: carbon cost of renewables] What does it take to make efficient solar panels, build a wind farm, drill for geothermal heat, or construct a gigantic solar farm in the desert? It takes mining and processing of rare earths, ships to transport it all, trucks to construct, and new electric grids (yet to be built) to replace the inefficient ones we have today. All of this new infrastructure then needs maintaining indefinitely. That too requires energy, carbon. Electric vehicles are only a partial answer. Those batteries powering modern electric cars, they have a carbon cost in manufacture and they don’t last forever. Sure we can recycle 90% of their components, but that too requires enormous amounts of energy both to transport and recycle the materials. What the batteries save us is only a fraction of the estimates given by our news outlets and industry pundits.

Zizek Courage of Hopelessness

In the last few years Slavoj Zizek has written the same book several times. He gives us the same argument backed up with different stories. The argument is (1) global capitalism is leading us down a road to disaster of many sorts, (2) the problem cannot be fixed ultimately by tweaking the existing system, but only (3) by destroying it utterly can something better (hopefully) emerge in its place. With each iteration of the argument (a new book every year or two) Zizek has plenty of new material ripped from the headlines upon which to comment. This book, written in 2017 has the fait accompli of Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and all the hysteria surrounding it. Thanks to how polarized our politics has become (and not merely in the left vs right sense) his task in this book is perhaps made a little easier. To put it another way, the more extreme things become, the easier it is for him to make his points, or to put it yet another way, the easier it is for us to grasp them.

The book begins with an examination of capitalism and three proposals (roughly economic, political, and social) to fix it. He points out that each of these three ideas fails for the same reason. All depend on human beings becoming better than they are now, for example that they become genuinely caring of “the neighbor” or lose the greed that characterizes the capitalist and many others as well. Zizek is, of course, correct in identifying this problem but he also admits (and states) that after all these things (selfishness, violence, and so on) have been problems for humanity long before capitalism existed. This then becomes the problem he never quite addresses. No matter how capitalism is adjusted or replaced the human problem will remain and the potential (even likely) consequences of this are dire. He should know that almost better than everyone.

Following the opening chapter there ensues a long (most of the book) digression into the modern social, political, and economic problem illustrated with news ripped from recent headlines. Refugees, sexual consent culture, identity politics, eco-disaster, fault lines on the political right (religious fundamentalism and social/sexual intolerance verses racism, xenophobia in general and Islamophobia in particular, and so on) and on the left the complete abandonment of the “universal emancipatory project” in favor of political correctness and identity politics supported and welcomed by global capitalism itself! There is no better and more insightful social commentator today and no one, I mean no one, skewers political correctness quite like Zizek.

Throughout all of this commentary we get the usual Hegelian reversals. Nothing is quite as it seems. If one observation is prescient, something can usually be made of its obverse and this too gives us insight into the real situation. Zizek is a master at this (not to mention that third thing that stands for the difference between the first two and has a life of its own) and he delivers on it page after page. All the usual characters are present, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan, and savy political, economic, and social movers and shakers (of the political right and left) present both in and out of our headlines. I do not know how Zizek has the time to find and collate all of this material between books written only a few years apart, but that is why he is the master!

Not until the penultimate chapter does Zizek fully return to the political sphere and lay out his program. Why did he favor Trump? Not because he likes him (his palpable dislike of Hillary Clinton is also on display) but because Trump will break everything opening up the space for the left to return to its “universal emancipatory project”, while Clinton would merely be tinkering around the edges as we slide complacently toward disaster. Zizek is here rather disingenuous, and for this reason I give him four and not five stars. Imagine you are a young person who would, under normal circumstances, live another forty or fifty years. But you have an incurable disease that will kill you in the next five to ten years. The best medical science can do is give you a normal life for that time in the hope that a cure can be found. Along comes Dr. Zizek who offers you the possibility of a full and immediate cure. If you take the medicine you will be either fully cured or you will die in moments and further, the probability of immediate death is 90%.

No one should know better than Zizek that when a social, political, or economic system (and all three are intertwined) is dismantled too quickly, there is a 90% chance that what follows from it is far worse for most than what went before. In one of his earlier books he admits as much. In this one, he mostly fails to mention it. Capitalism as an economic theory is not the problem. The problem is today’s capitalism given the nature of human selfishness. But the problem of selfishness remains no matter what one does with present socio-political and economic foundations (and the ecological catastrophe is inevitable no matter who wins elections), and that means the outcome of breaking the system will likely be very bad for almost everyone. Zizek offers us the 10% chance of a cure and the 90% chance of death; not only soon enough but immediately! I’m not sure I want to take that bet.

Review: The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt

I publish this review without further commentary as it is already long and covers all the bases. This review was published in July 2015. I will say that this book fits in with a number of books recently read and reviewed broadly on the subject of “the world order”, and I link those reviews here. Among this set, Bobbitt’s books stands out because he is the only one to suggest what specifically “comes next”, namely “the corporate State” in various forms.

Richard Haass “The World in Disarray”

Henry Kissinger “The World Order”

Francis Fukuyama “The Origins of Political Order” and “Political Order and Political Decay”

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson: “Why Nations Fail”

Slavoj Zizek Various books all linked here

The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt

This rather long book seems to have been written with multiple goals in mind. First the author wants to connect up evolving military technology, guns and particularly artillery, with the political evolution of states from the renaissance in Italy to modern times. In particular, evolving technology and the tactics that deployed it, fostered certain directions in political evolution primarily for the purposes of being able to afford and utilize the new technology. In between the major wars were peace settlements that ratified and solidified the evolving political forms mostly of the victors. His focus is on this evolution in Europe, but as he approaches modern times he does more and more apply his insights to an interconnected world.

The book is divided into three books. Book I focuses on the link between military history and the evolution of the modern state beginning with the French invasion of Italy in 1494. In book II the primary focus is on the nature of the peace settlements that evolved from the over-arching conflicts of various periods. In book III he sets out to describe in some detail the newest (post 20th century) form of the evolving state.

Beginning with the “princely states” of Italy, the political forms evolved over 5 centuries into “kingly states”, “territorial states”, “state-nations”, “nation-states”, and today, following the “long war” that Bobbitt describes as encompassing most of the 20th century from World War I to the end of the cold war in 1990 (with the collapse of the Soviet Union) the evolution of yet a new form, the “market-state”. In all of this description (taken up in book I). Book II reprises all of this ground, but this time focusing on the peace agreements between the great-war periods and how those agreements reflected the relations (what today we call “international law”) between the newly evolved and evolving political forms of states. Bobbitt gets into quite a bit of detail here (he is a law scholar after all) even to describing the philosophies (in a broad sense) of some of the prominant jurists (or political philosophers) of each period always focusing on how these philosophical beacons interpreted the peace agreements for specific problems emerging between states during the inter-war periods. It is one thing to establish a treaty that provides for general guidelines of behavior. It is another to interpret those guidelines as they apply to specific situations, and then yet another, even after an interpretation is broadly accepted, for evolving polities to act or chose not to act at all. Bobbitt chooses from among the luminaries examples who are both apologists for the newly evolving forms of state, and also a few polemicists. Much of this description evaluates various interpretations of what “international law” consists as compared to law as understood within the boundaries of the state.

As a descriptive work it is an excellent and well balanced read. Bobbitt is sensitive to the fact that thoughout history the political model did not evolve at an equal pace throughout Europe never mind the rest of the world. Some state forms in some locations resisted further evolutionary pressures for some time. In certain places such resistance made sense given what the earlier form encompassed geographically and ethnically, but in every case, eventually and usually by war or more technically the peace settlement after the war these entities either evolved or were broken up into geographic chunks more condusive to that evolution. Bobbitt is also very sensitive to the fact that the way this evolution did work out is not the only way it might have worked out, and this is true of both the nature of the world’s political forms as well as of present interpretations of the relations between entities internationally. I applaud him here for his balance in all of this descriptive work. He takes no interest in how things might otherwise have been, but beginning now, that is at the end of the “long war” from 1914-1990 he does seem to relish his projection of what he takes to be the newest form of large-scale polity, the “market-state”.

As above with his recognition that history might have been otherwise, his explication of the newest turn in the political screw, the evolution of the market-state (the focus of part III), is balanced by a recognition that things might go otherwise but his argument is otherwise persuasive at least as concerns broad brush strokes. As with his historical explication he is more concerned with relations between states than what is internal to the state itself, but he needs (and does) to describe something of the internal as this form is not yet as familiar as the others. He is writing in 2002, 12 years after the end of the cold war. Some of his shorter term projections as concerns the relations between states are down right prescient, while others seem entirely fanciful. Some of his prose in this section seems written almost tongue-in-cheek. But nothing that has happened in the intervening 13 years invalidates his overall vision. As in the previous 5 centuries, the broad outlines of large-scale evolution only become visible over several generations at a minimum. In between there is much room for unanticipated variation even retrogression and Bobbitt knows this well.

But Bobbitt does come off a little intoxicated by what he takes to be the next turn of the political wheel. He describes the over-all demands that will be made by and impinge upon the new “market-state” including some issues that now belong to the global community. Some of these are unique (global environmental issues and weapons of mass destruction in particular nuclear weapons to take two examples) to the modern period because they simply did not exist in the past. The particular problems that emerged between states of the prior period made no mention of genuinely “global issues” because there weren’t any. There weren’t enough people to cause genuinely global environmental issues and communications and transport technology had not yet begun to build serious economic or military dependencies that ran around the entire planet. I have to applaud the author for recognizing that the newly evolving market states are internally more inconsistent than the nation-state they are beginning to replace. He distinguishes three broad forms of market-states, the entrepenurial, the mercantile, and the managerial. The first two are genuinely novel and as such are subject to potentially more radical social disconnections than the third which is much more an amalgamation of the old and new forms, but that very blending causes (or rather is projected to have) inconsistencies of its own. The raison d’etre of the nation-state is the welfare of its citizens taken broadly (I presume) to mean that everyone who makes any effort to participate in the economy and politics of the state gains enough thereby to live something of a healthy and self-determined life. Of course even among the late 20th century society of nation-states some have succeeded at this more than others, but at least the rationale has some metaphysical basis in that individuals having self-interests are real entities. By contrast, markets are oblivious to the cares of individuals except in-so-far as enough of them succeed economically to be consumers and producers and so keep the markets functioning. Bobbitt is aware that given any of the market-state forms (except the managerial whose own internal inconsistencies stem from raised transaction costs imposed on its own market entities) some individuals will be big economic winners while many more will be net losers. Today, 13 years after writing this book, his vision here seems to be among the more prescient. As with the first two parts of the book, Bobbitt tries hard to maintain his balance. He calls [future] history as he sees it evolving and makes no attempt to be either apologist or polemicist.

Turning back to the society of states (ever his theme here) Bobbitt sees no end to conflict (war) of one kind or another. It is not his task in this book to suggest how this might be otherwise, only in this case how it might be channeled into hotter or colder forms. Inherently international markets, even cut-throat markets, function best when the social collectives that are their producers and consumers are not hurling bullets at one another. As such market-states have a greater incentive to keep conflicts between states cooler rather than hotter and this might be helpful globally even if from a perspective internal to any one state many of its citizens are worse off than they were under the older form of nation-state.

All in all a good explication tying military history (particularly European) and international relations together through the peace agreements (and the ways they were interpreted) that intervened between the cycles of political evolution.