Interview: Staying Alive
Bad Boss: The Ultimate Piss Off
Industrial: Last Drinks
National Focus: Around the States
Politics: Radical Surgery
Education: The Price of Missing Out
Legal: If At First You Don't Succeed
History: Massive Attack
Culture: What's Right
Review: If He Should Fall
Poetry: If I Were a Rich Man
Satire: IMF Ensures Iraq Institutes Market Based Looting
The Locker Room
Bob Gould Sprays Gerard Henderson
War and Peace
A Strange Light
A Little History
Does It Have To Be?
May Day is the time workers internationally celebrate their past achievements and look to the future. Eric Aarons has spent a lifetime in pursuit of social justice for workers and humanity. After more than eighty years he is still questioning his own ideas without losing site of the key values of fairness and justice.
His book claims to demonstrate where neo-liberal values are wrong and show that human nature is the outcome of interacting biology, culture and psychology, discusses the nature, sources and function of values in human society and suggests tactics, strategies and policies for social change and environmental sustainability is clearly either written by a committee, stretching a long bow or an excellent distillation of a great many ideas in social science, moral philosophy and biology.
Eric Aarons book What's Right falls into the latter category, and could be seen as a marvelously brief summary of a lifetime of listening learning and acting with the aim of achieving social justice for "ordinary" people.
Aarons does not shy away from strong but deeply thoughtful criticism of values that he once held dear, and his discussion of why he thinks Marxism can't work and how he reached this conclusion is fascinating. As one who puts a lot of store in Marxist approaches, I found myself resisting what he was saying but I came to see what he was getting at. Aarons puts it well in his "Revelation". "On the one hand, I had begun to have serious doubts about the soundness of a number of Marxist propositions which I had previously upheld, and become troubled by the clear deviations from principles I still thought valid, particularly by the two major socialist powers. On the other hand, I still believed as firmly as ever in most of the moral principles I had espoused, namely the ideals of justice among people and between countries, of opposition to exploitation, oppression and war, and of the equality of men and women and of all human beings. These principles I had unthinkingly assumed to have their source, as well as their rational justification, in the theory.
Here is the rub. He had lived his life thinking Marxist theory and method was what drove his passion for social justice. He realized that the values and morality lay deeper than that theory, they did not come from it. So this book is an exploration of where those values and morals come from. They seem to lie deep in human history, and even perhaps partly in the biological history of sentient beings.
So he looks at human nature. What is it? We are not a blank slate to be written on by our culture, but an interacting outcome of biology, culture and pscychology. Aarons lok sat this through the work of Antonio Damasio, whose book Descartes Error takes on the view that thought is separate from physical existence. Damasio points out that emotions are not a secondary part of ourselves, that is we can't put them aside to make sure we have a "cool head" in decision making. Emotions are primary to our existence, fashioned by the processes of natural selection. Not all our emotions are at this level though, as we have emotional feelings about more abstract questions. These are secondary emotions, but they are connected to the primary ones. The secondary emotions are crucial to our ability to act on our goals, "the expression of the grandeur of the human spirit, and also give rise to our morality/ethics/values."
The modern moral malaise is what has driven Aarons to distil his thoughts into this book, which appeared just before the most powerful state in the world launched an attack in the name of moral right and religious freedom. The ethics of this and the failure of values that allowed the USA to launch these attacks are exmined using the frameworks Aarons outlines in his book. Since the early 1970s, with the end of the post war economic boom, it has become fashionable/convenient for the opinion leaders and drivers of ideology (that is dominated by an increasingly individualistic, greedy ethic) to blame baby boomers and the 60s generation for the moral decline of society.
The failure of the left has been to underestimate the depth of the moral, ideological and social change tat was inaugurated by what we call Thatcherism and Reaganism. Hence things are now driven much further than they ever dreamed of. "While being organically connected with liberalism [of the Adam Smith era], neo-liberalism's aggressive extension and elevation of the pursuit of gain, of the primacy of private interests over public, and of the individual over any conception of the social, constituted a radical, qualitative change." The ideas of Friedrich Hayek, opponent of Keynes' ideas in the 1930s and a man who had the ear of Margaret Thatcher from the 1970s found a ready outlet and many followers. Aarons looks at why Hayek's ideas seemed so timely, as his critique of socialism resonated with a reality of social control in the Eastern bloc. The stifling of individual initiative was at the core, and Hayek attempted to extend this to opposition to any form of planning, conveniently overlooking the extent of planning that corporations and right wing governments use to ensure they maintain control and power. Aarons outlines the reasons that the Marxist ideas of the abolition of markets and central planning won't work, but also why Hayek's total free market won't work. Markets are seen as necessary to humanity in some form. This is where he loses me, as whilst accepting the idea of markets, a capitalist market seems crucially and qualitatively different, just as the rise of neo-liberalism is a qualitative change from 18th century ideas of the invisible hand. Self-managed cooperatives and enterprises could form a crucial counter weight and example of an alternative. Aarons acknowledges this, but seems to feel that the need for a labour market stops them bypassing the necessity of markets. People of ideas such as Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel from ZNet have sketched in a fairly detailed way an alternative way of pricing labour on the basis of need and a form of organization they call participatory economics. Hilary Wainwright has presented Arguments for New Left, explicitly taking on the attraction of Hayek and proposing new ways of organizing and presenting examples of ways forward. I guess one reason these writers may be seen as more optimistic than Aarons is that they are of the much reviled 60s generation and experienced the euphoria of that time, from outside communist parties, and thus despite so much decline since, still retain a vision of what is possible.
This is not to deny much of Aarons argument, that the left has much work to do, and must appeal to people from all sectors on the basis of values, not theories of class.
Moral philosophers have addressed these questions, but too many have let them wash over them. The thoughts of Alisdair Macintyre on the impact of modernity on moral thought are important in Aarons view. Moral questions cannot be abstracted from social ones. Macintyre looks to the work of Aristotle as against that of Kant and Hume, to seek a "unifying narrative" of each individual.. We need to seek as a basis for individual lives, a tradition that unifies those who participate in it, so it can also be thought of as communal. Macintyre criticised liberalism's promotion of the self and revert to the ancient Greek notion of humans as communal creatures.
Clearly there is huge difference between what is morally right and the political right. "To understand the question of which values are right we have first to understand what sort of creatures we are. The major political conflicts of the 20th century were between political movements embodying differing conceptions of human beings. The advocates of capitalism maintained that humans are by nature primarily individualist and self-seeking, those of socialism that we can be made entirely collective by the right social structure. [B]y nature we are both of these things, and the failures of the large political systems of the 20th century lie in the attempt to repress that aspect of our nature which they refused to recognize.. Today's task is to stem, then to reverse, the tide of neo-liberal dominance in national and international spheres, and to gradually achieve the ascendancy of alternative humanist values. It is a task that we must accomplish within the next few decades to avoid destructive conflict within and between countries, to forestall possibly irreversible environmental damage, and to strengthen and enrich our inner, spiritual lives."
Read this book to help grapple with these huge issues, and for some ideas of alternatives, go to Znet and look at their participatory economics stuff (heaps of it,)and their debates about future strategies and visions.
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