Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Capitalism needs a Heart

Child with Guy Fawkes Mask

Normally, we do not link virtues like compassion and empathy with the notion of capitalism. It seems that within capitalism, there is not much room for benevolence, but capitalism has rather an ingrained and deeply embedded love and adoration for money, which is, in its extent and degree not unlike the awe and fascination with God when it comes to religion. The sheer existence and raison d'ĂȘtre of capitalism are the profits that are connected with it. Put differently, a capitalist who fails to make money is considered a loser, or worse, an utter failure.

That appears to be the root of most of the problems, and therein lies the root of evil essentially. It is not money itself, which is merely a tool and can be used for beneficial and compassionate purposes, but it is the undying love and reverence attached to it, which lurks its ugly head as corporate greed. Money becomes tainted and sullied with one's crass and grandiose ambitions, which often occur at the expense of one's own humanity.

To say that I do not appreciate, respect or even love money would be erroneous. To ask me -- or most of us -- to give it all away or to share it freely with others would be ranging from heroic deed to downright folly. Money especially if earned and accumulated by the sweat of the brow or by the works of wit and creativity is entirely a matter of entitlement.

However, my savings account pales in comparison with those who have more than million-fold their basic demands and necessities for various lifetimes down the road. My dream of one day owning four walls may merely remain that, namely a dream, but I would never dream of owning a yacht or my private jet. Now that to me seems outright folly.

Why you may ask. In the past, we have had millionaires or at the very top multi-millionaires. That seemed in itself quite a big deal, but now, even with inflation counted in, we have billionaires. This is an amount of money I cannot even imagine, let alone count or run through my hands. In fact, it is, by all means and standards, a ludicrous amount.

The question that I often ask myself is the following: How did these people become so filthy (to use a more benign f-word here) rich? In many cases, I am aware that it comes through hard work and perhaps with the right amount of luck, but still this must be someone's hard-earned money from somewhere. It is money tainted with sweat and worse, even blood.

It might be a factory worker working away all day for a fraction of a fraction, for a salary which may (or may not) help her to get by barely. These profits that show up on the rich person’s bank account may be a large chunk of someone's salary who is not starving but who has fallen into the consumerist trap of buying useless (and perhaps worthless) things to make him feel happy. That happiness literally comes at a cost and may only last for a little while, and it may give him something to brag about for a moment or two.

This is the situation and scenario in the most harmless or most ethical of cases. I will not go into cases where illegal or quasi-legal transactions or investments lead to (undeserved and unmerited) capitalist gain. Those are evidently seen as wrong, but our focus here is those legitimate businesses that squeeze profits by squeezing the general public's pockets.

This is how it is in the capitalist world; you may hear its proponents say. The rich get rich and the poor stay poor. The games and opportunities are open for anyone who takes a risk or who works hard enough. Even you can partake of the beautiful staple American dream if you only try hard (and long) enough.

But the game is rigged. The American dream is exactly that, namely a dream, if not a downright lie. In a capitalist system, there cannot be winners only. In a sport event it may be all about participating, but in capitalism the line is drawn quite clearly between the haves and the have-nots. You cannot have your cake and eat it too because the cake has already been eaten, including crumbs.

Here I would like to propose a solution to this dilemma. We could eradicate poverty in our city, country or even the world if those with more than nine figures to their name actually showed some heart. If they realized that money is not everything and that what they have gained through work or exploitation can be used for the benefit and happiness of others.

It angers me to see people not have enough, while others delve and swim in money substantially and significantly beyond their possible needs. Sure we could ask that everybody ought to give a hand to stop poverty or this type of injustice, but much more can be achieved by those who have more than necessary resources. If one day (and God bless the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets who are showing at least some initiative in this direction) the wealthy said we have more than enough and let us give away a large sum of our money to help others from starving and from suffering in their daily life because those states and situations are simply wrong and unacceptable.

In fact, let us change policies that benefit us only (I am speaking for the rich or rather in the name of the wealthy hypothetically speaking) and let us allow or better let us put pressure on politicians to pass laws that do not merely benefit the rich but laws that are truly fair and equitable. Let us give instead of taking because we have already taken more than we can handle in a single lifetime.

Recently, I attended an interesting and moving (or downright depressing) talk that dealt with issues of poverty. In that case, the solution was seen as treating poverty as a disease and to show the government that prevention was the best method. The speaker Gary Bloch, being a doctor and an activist knew what he was talking about both because of his profession and experience with working with the poor in Canada. He and others that evening suggested and demonstrated that by investing into poverty reduction, everyone would benefit; it even made sense economically as the government (and hence taxpayers) would eventually save money down the road. 
Although it would be a noble aim to act as conscious and compassionate citizens, all in all, that would be the proverbial drop on a hot stone. Each of us has responsibilities to change things for the better, of course. We want to become more ethical, more aware, more socially and politically active.

But instead of a bottom-up approach, saving pennies and making small adjustments, if we could only reach the very top and touch the hearts of those who have enough resources to make or break whole nations, then we could make even bigger strides. Let us add compassion and heart into the equation of capitalism and let us peel away from it all that is bad and harmful. We do not want to be left with a gaping and open wound and abyss between the top 1% and all the rest of us significantly down below. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reflections on After Purgatory: Death in the Reformation Talk Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by the erudite historian Peter Marshall with the intriguing full title After Purgatory: Death and Remembrance in the Reformation World at the SFU Harbour Centre. I was quite impressed with the material as I find history of religion, particularly the divide between Catholics and Prostestants, most intriguing. In addition, the speaker not only showed knowledge and expertise alongside humour and humility, but most importantly, he was able to answer my questions in a clear and elaborate manner.

Since there were -- rather unfortunately -- not too many people attending and I had chosen the third row of seats being solitary in my own aisle, I must have been quite visible. Normally this would not pose a problem, but I have recently started taking notes on my iPhone. I looked around and noticed that others, perhaps more professional-looking people, had chosen the old-fashioned form of the scribbling pen on blank notebooks.

However that kind of note-taking is more cumbersome, less legible, and it does not have the auto-correct option. Although the latter can at times be annoying with its farfetched and illogical suggestions, I find it helps me save time, so I end up typing faster. The downside is the negative stigma attached to iPhones: it might seem that I was texting and not paying attention.

In this case, it was quite the opposite, and, incidentally, my phone was out of service for some odd reason, which made texting or surfing the Internet literally impossible. At one point during the talk, I felt compelled to make that matter clear to all the attendees present, but that would have made me look even weirder in their eyes.

But enough preamble about me and let us get to the meat of this brilliant and informative talk. The starting point and focus was how the Protestant movement got rid of the notion of Purgatory, which brought about a number of religious, social, and political changes regarding the outlook on death, its significance for people's lives as well as funeral practices.

With the abolition of Purgatory, it meant that there could be no change in the afterlife. So if you were damned or saved, it had already been decided by your life previously in this world; there was no in-between in the afterlife. As a result, it would become useless to pray for the departed since it was too late for any kind of changes anyway.

In such a situation, death becomes a more crucial and singular event that terminates life once and for all and for better or for worse. That also puts one's life more into focus; it becomes more important regarding salvation. In existential terms, it means that you have one shot at it, and if you miss the mark, i.e. spiritual salvation, there is absolutely no going back and no reconsideration. No pressure, but it is merely the slight difference between eternal bliss or never-ending pain and suffering.

This sudden disconnect between life and death, and ipso facto, with the living and the dead affected and changed the funeral practices as well. While previous to the Reformation, tombs would be prospective, namely looking forward toward the life that was ahead after death, the Protestant tombs were retrospective and mostly individual, looking back at the life and accomplishments of the deceased in question.

In this way, the tombstones acquire and gain a more biographical and existential tone. You are responsible for your own success or failures and this world is the playing field in which you need to show and prove yourself. No more reliance on goodwill and wishes of others or of saints carrying you towards heaven. You got to do this on your own merits.

All of this also meant that funeral practices changed. Funeral sermons now were less about the dead and the afterlife, but more about teaching a lesson to those who were still living. Funerals were indeed a good way to teach about the doctrine of death, that each of us may be called before the Almighty and that we ought to be ready at all times with a calm mind and a peaceful heart.

One of the interesting differences between the Catholic and the Protestant viewpoints was the representation of Christ; his suffering was highlighted by Catholics, but with Protestants his redeeming aspects tended to be promoted instead.

Another difference was also the simplicity and minimalism – to use an anachronistic word for the sake of it - of the funeral practices when it came to the Protestants. No music should be played and sung, and in fact, prayers for the dead were generally discouraged. Also, even Protestant leaders like Calvin were buried with no pomp or circumstance; according to his own wishes, he found himself in an unmarked grave (more on this a bit later).

Another interesting tidbit was regarding the type and manner of death. Generally speaking, people considered a “good death” as something to be aimed for but also as a way to validate one's life and salvation. For example, if you died painlessly and unawares in your sleep, it may seem that you were blessed. But if you underwent a painful, excruciating death, that meant, according to popular beliefs at the time, that you were probably not going to make it very far even in the afterlife.

Striving to have a peaceful and dignified end was also seen as a confirmation that God was with you. One's own serenity towards death was equally an important factor. So even in matters of death, it became important to control oneself and to pray that it would be quick and painless. And those famous last words may ring through eternity for and by other generations to come in this world, so you'd better make them significant and meaningful.

Marshall also mentioned the Protestant belief that death may appear like a sleep in transition towards resurrection when both soul and body would reunite. In this case, the dead were ideally given a proper burial with their feet facing the East, where Jesus would return in Jerusalem, and the face of the deceased looking upward so that the dead would simply arise without any difficulties.

This also made the punishment for suicide, heresies or any other misdeeds that led to ex-communication a more grave matter beyond this life of ours. A person who had committed suicide, for example, would be left on the crossroads, which is supposed to be confusing for the soul and where the devil usually resides. This view of death also led to horrible acts of mutilation of the deceased in a number of wars and conflicts, which were gruesome both in actual and symbolic fashion.

All of this raised interesting questions regarding the manifestation of spirits, which Protestants believed to be not incarnations of the person but rather a plaything of demons to confuse humans. Their reasoning was simple: the dead were either in heaven or hell and either way would not be able to travel back to Earth. 

This was also the main reason why Hamlet was not sure whether he was confronted with the ghost of his own father or whether it was a trick put on by a maleficent demon or goblin. However, in most cases, popular opinion sided on the fact that they were indeed real ghosts of the departed.

Then there was the question period, and I could not resist. My question was two-fold. One was about the fact that Protestant belief with the negation of Purgatory seems to be more pessimistic and fatalistic than the Catholic view. It took away hope for those who might fall in the middle ground and sent them straight either to heaven or hell.

Marshall answered the question by assuring me that Purgatory with all its perks was not necessarily cheery or hopeful as it involved burning and torture for thousands of years. Secondly, Protestants often had the (false?) assurance –- commonly referred to as predestination or divine grace -- that they were already saved and that gave them hope and confidence for the life to come.

My second question was how the soul could find the body in the particular case of Calvin who was buried in an unmarked grave. How would his soul recognize his own body if there was no name attached to it? Here Marshall claimed that Protestants also believed that the soul would already know and recognize the body wherever it might be, even if it were devoured by a cannibal who in turn had been eaten by a lion. Good to know.

So, all in all, I was fascinated by this talk and for the span of an hour and a half had become completely oblivious to my own problem of not having any service or signal during the whole afternoon. This is one of the main downsides of living in a developed world where if you do not have an Internet connection you are as good as dead. And even Purgatory won't save you then!

Friday, August 29, 2014

On the Reproduction of Capitalism Book Review

Book Cover with white letters on black background

In his book On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser expounds his ideas on capitalism with its daily operations and functions, while highlighting Marxist theory in its revolutionary purpose to overturn the capitalist way of life.

For the most part (with the exception of occasional philanthropy here and there), virtues like compassion and empathy are incompatible with the notion of capitalism. In a sense, Althusser may be right that capitalism means exploitation of the workers. It must be so because capitalism is about money and profits.

If you have the capital to purchase land or a business, you can hire people (labor) to work for you; in exchange you give them money or compensation for their work and time (a wage). The lower the wages, the higher your gains. There is then no wonder that minimum wages work on bare minimums, meaning people barely make enough to get by.

However, in order to ensure the continuous existence (or reproduction of relations) of capitalism, people need to be imbued with the idea that capitalism despite its glaring greed and injustice is actually fair and beneficial for everyone involved. 

This (false) impression is created in a number of ways, primarily through the ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses). In fact, according to Louis Althusser, pretty much any ideology one can think of could be summed up under the umbrella domain of one and the same state ideology.

For Althusser, ideology is material and for the most part it serves the state and the continuing exploitation of the dominated classes, i.e. the working class. For example, the church is more often than not in line with the bourgeoisie as this particular economic and political system and relationship benefit the clergy (and their pockets) quite well. 

This has been done throughout history when the Catholic Church supported worldly leaders, kings and emperors. Although religion still has a stronghold on people today, the functions of the church have been mostly replaced by the educational state apparatus.

Schools are to ensure that both discipline and respect for authority and for the law are instilled and drilled at an early age. These ideas are taken up and propagated by the family institution as well. By having people obey the given rules, it is mainly the capitalist system that reaps benefits as there is little disruption to its functioning.

In case of possible trouble or conflicts, there is always the law. The law, Althusser believes, is a capitalist creation of the bourgeoisie which under the guise of liberty and equality mainly benefits a select few, namely the rich. 

It is the wealthy that have the power and access to circumvent law through loopholes and other means. In the meantime, the rest of the populace take laws to be fair and just and equally accessible to everyone, ideological lies that are served to the masses.

If the law is not followed by the masses, the repressive state apparatus with police, riot force and ultimately the military are called in to ensure that it is followed to the letter. Yet that is the exception not the norm; for the most part, people are taught to respect the law so that it becomes internalized and such disruptions can then be avoided with preventive and preemptive manners.

For example, most people follow the law and believe in its intrinsic value, that it is a moral and right thing to do. In all those instances, the ideological foundations of the person make the use of force both redundant and unnecessary in most of everyday life.

(How often do we take it as a "normal" thing to wake up early, show up at work, take abuse or loads of work and pressure from our bosses only to go home and to have the same occur day in day out. Rarely do we challenge our bosses because that is not what good workers are supposed to do; they need to behave and follow orders from perceived authority figures, the manager, so no need to call the police to settle issues.)

However, at certain times where there is open defiance and revolt, for example the May '68 events that were occurring during the time Althusser was writing this book, the riot police and military need to ensure that the capitalist system is not endangered or injured in the process.

According to Communist ideology a successful revolution ought to ensure that the bourgeois state apparatus is completely destroyed and replaced with a new kind of system (Althusser seems rather vague on what and how this new system should or would look like). This type of overturning the state had occurred only partly during the French Revolution because the bourgeoisie managed to take control over the state. They had successfully disposed of the aristocracy but now the bourgeoisie themselves, the growing merchant class, began to call the shots and to oppress the workers, the proletariat.

There are some fascinating bits in this book. Althusser's discussion of ideology and the state apparatus are interesting, timely, and relevant in a number of ways. It must have had some influence on works by Noam Chomsky, especially his Manufacturing Consent. We can see it today since people are constantly brainwashed by media, sports, and politics, not to mention culture and religion, all of which have parts and components that benefit the ruling class, the capitalists.

I was most impressed with his discussion of individuals and subjects. Althusser claims that we are all subjects and have lost our individual freedom and autonomy contrary to what we may think in the Western world. Subject, in fact, is an ambiguous term, which could alternatively mean either a person who acts freely and of his own accord (as a noun) or its exact opposite, that is, a person who is studied or is following enforced rules and regulations he is subjected to (as a verb).

Althusser claims that we are subjects even before we are born, as we are born into a family that has expectations and preconceived notions about us and our gender. In fact, we are passive from the onset since our names are chosen and given to us by others. Add to that cultural and religious practices and the ensuing years of schooling, and we can see that we are greased cogs in a capitalist machine.

In fact, Althusser gives a brilliant explanation of religion, which is to him an ideology that subjects all of us. Any ideology presupposes that we recognize ourselves in them (otherwise they would be quite useless). So, for example, me, that is my name and all the properties attached to what makes me who I (think I) am, would recognize myself as being a Christian. This is followed by a number of highly ritualized practices, such as baptism, going to church, praying etc all of which makes me - or rather is supposed to make me - a good Christian.

But all of this occurs and is done because it is seen as relevant to me and my life. That means that there is a guarantee that I will personally benefit from this particular ideology I have espoused and the belief or faith that this is indeed true, that, for instance, God actually exists and will reward me (after my death!) for my continuous efforts of being a good Christian.

In that sense, God would be the Subject that is dominant over all his subjects on this planet. It would mean that God would need humans who are created in his image. This would make him as dependent on us as we are on him. God could not be God without being recognized as God by us humans. In other words, he needs us and he is, in fact, able to put up with our unruly and sinful behaviors because it is better than nothing. (This could be why he saved Noah and his family from the Flood, out of basic necessity not out of compassion or love).

Evidently, there is a touch of Hegel in here, especially regarding his ideas of God (the Father) bridging the gap between the divine and humans by “duplicating” himself as a human, Jesus (the Son), who is both man and God, while the Holy Spirit is the mirror-connection, image or glue between the two. All this is fascinating and makes the open-minded theists scratch their head.

Yet I do have some bones to pick with some of Althusser's ideas. First off, he as well as Communist ideology in general rather seem vague on a number of points, especially when it pertains to what the new state ought to look like. It is like a doctor describing the symptoms quite well without knowing how to cure the disease. 

In fact, it seems that Communist governments have been copying or reproducing the bourgeoisie, particularly in terms of state apparatuses; Communist regimes have come to control and master them rather perfectly as the self-appointed "dictators of the proletariat." So the ISAs may be the same or even worse operating under different names and ideologies.

Secondly, I do not fully share his view on education. I believe I am justifying or representing my own role as an educator here, but I intrinsically believe that education and knowledge open the mind. Of course, education is a broad concept, and there are qualitative differences, but education is overall a means to achieve self-knowledge and freedom because it ideally leads to critical thinking. At least that is my view on what education is or ought to be.

Thirdly, I do not believe that human rights and ethics and even philosophy are all enslaving us to capitalist ideology the same way I do not think that churches necessarily represent true faith. These are, in and of themselves, very worthy and noble ideas and traditions that are unfortunately being used (or rather ab-used) by the authorities to cement their own power and influence. But to claim that ideology per se is an illusion - and hence false - is not something I can accept, which is the main reason I consider myself an idealist not a nihilist.

But I thoroughly enjoyed this book and want to thank Verso Books for publishing such thought-provoking and -inducing works and for also sending it to me for review. This review took me a long time to write (sorry!) because the weighty ideas expressed in them take sufficient time to digest, but this book is definitely worth your time, effort, and yes your money.