Like many people, I find as I get older my ideas appear to be moving to the political right. I remember when I was younger, swearing that this wouldn't happen to me. I'm faintly embarrassed by the dynamic. (Contrast MovingToTheLeft, MovingToTheCentre)
On the other hand, I find it a fascinating process. One that's worth documenting and analysing. I want to understand this shift. And partly through understanding, I want to arrest it. This is partly about understanding how the process works in myself; trying to understand what it means to be both left and right wing; and what it feels like to be either of these things.
When good kids go right, it seems to happen through the following steps :
|| Left || that suffering is immoral, something must be done||
|| Moderate left || that suffering is immoral, something must be done, but I can kind of see how it's the result of a natural process||
|| Blairite left || that suffering is immoral, but I can kind of see how it's the result of a natural process; it would be nice if something was done but I can't see much hope of overcoming the natural tendency towards it||
|| One-nation Tory || that suffering is sad, but it's the result of a necessary, inevitable natural process (and something essentially natural can't really be actually immoral)||
|| True Conservative || that suffering is sad, but let's face it, any attempt to solve it is gonna screw up the natural order of things around here||
|| Entrenched Conservative || suffering is sad, but trying to resist the innevitable is likely to lead to worse||
Phil maybe you could explain your idea of a 'natural process' here. Talk about the 'natural order of things' is indeed a worrying sign of some possibly age-related condition. However I don't believe your condition is incurable.
To my mind, politics is (generally) about social processes, which result from the actions of human beings.
Faced with a decision about how I intervene as a political agent in a social process, my own thinking tends to consequentialism rather than either of the 'Kantian' or 'Hegelian' poles you identify.
I.e., take it I can start from (a set of) values such as my belief that inequality is a bad thing.
Then how can I intervene in the social processes that you might call politics in order to help eliminate or reduce inequality, poverty, alienation and other sources of suffering?
To consider this question I want to have well thought out beliefs about how said social processes work. If you like, what are the rules of political interactions.
I would suggest that these are often quite different from the rules of 'natural processes.' I would suggest that less inevitability goes on, and the rules are more subject to change over periods of time.
If you look at the thinkings of rightists from, say, Plato to Burke, it appears that processes and institutions they believed 'natural' 'organic' 'inevitable' etc were happily disposed of by later generations. I don't see why this shouldn't also be true of today's conservatives.
This consideration should figure in the political decision problem. How can processes thought to be inevitable by political thinkers be escaped and transformed? Only through political actions of people who, whether consciously or not, reject the current 'natural order'.
This is not to say that there aren't fundamental facts or rules about political processes that make radical political action rather more difficult than many leftists have tended to believe. In particular, I think, there is a genuine 'problem of collective action' (CollectiveActionProblem) which tends to be overlooked by Marxists in particular. I.e., just because a group of people (eg. a class) shares a set of needs or interests doesn't mean it will be in their individual interests to unite to get it - owing to the possibility of free riding etc.
(This old chestnut was posed in its neoclassical form and specifically adressed to Marxists by Mancur Olson's 'Logic of Collective Action' in 1965. The left still doesn't have a decent response.)
I think discussion along these lines is more interesting than the old natural order stuff.
My tentative view is that the dynamics of social change are not nearly as favourable as leftists believed in more hopeful eras, but I confidently expect the new society somewhere in the middle of the fourth millenium.
'Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.'
You're right. "natural" needs to be unpacked. If I were to unpack what I was really thinking about I guess it would be two things.
A process whose unpleasant consequences are unplanned, unintended, emergent in some way. As opposed to some deliberate conspiracy. A "natural" system or process is created by people; but it isn't created for the bad consequences. So we can not just oppose these consequences by identifying the guilty people and eliminating them.
A process which is not arbitrarily chosen by people; but whose pattern or structure is itself emergent from / constrained by deeper non-social principles. For example, I've been thinking about the characteristics networks for some time, and have long been a believer that 1-way links allow you to build a network more efficiently than 2-way links. Very recently, while thinking of examples of this (OneWayLinks) I realized that the invention of money was one such example. It changed the trade network from being something based on 2-way links (barter) to 1-way links and therefore enabled the trade network to grow with less co-ordination cost. If this is the case, the use of money, rather than barter is not an arbitrary human decision; it's based on constraining principles which are outside social convention. (Yes, we could have chosen a barter economy ... but no we couldn't have chosen a barter economy as big / efficient as the money economy that wouldn't have been more costly in some sense.) (NB: Optimaes doesn't seem to be finding much evidence of this improvement at the moment, but I suspect that is a fault of the current model.)
So I guess in summary : a natural system is one whose pattern is partly determined by constraints that are natural; and who'se consequences are unintended / emergent from that patterning.
You also point out : If you look at the thinkings of rightists from, say, Plato to Burke, it appears that processes and institutions they believed 'natural' 'organic' 'inevitable' etc were happily disposed of by later generations. I don't see why this shouldn't also be true of today's conservatives.
But because something is superceded doesn't mean it isn't natural. Nor that it was arbitrary. A process or institution may be superceded by a better one. But because of the constraints outlined above only a few specific ones may count as better.
Are you in fact accepting this when you say social change is harder than the optimists thought?
Still not happy with this use of 'natural', but that's as may be.
Returning to what you originally said, i.e:
'that suffering is sad, but it's the result of an innevitable natural process'
this time I'll have a go at the inevitability part.
Because something can be superceded does not mean it is not natural. But because something is natural does not mean it is inevitable.
A process or institution may be both 'unplanned' / 'emergent' and the result of constraints which may indeed be 'natural' in some sense or even 'inevitable'.
Taking money as an example. I can agree that, for one thing, money was not any one person's invention but rather developed over many years through a long chain of individual initiatives that together form an 'unplanned' process.
Secondly, money may have outstripped other institutions that played similar roles because it was better at solving human problems under a number of constraints.
I may agree that some of these constraints are eternal, inevitable, and beyond human convention. Though I'd find it very hard to pin down just what such constraints are or be 100% certain that they are really beyond human convention rather than just my current understanding of what is humanly possible.
To avoid that issue I'll agree at least that we could identify some constraints that are clearly fixed and unavoidable as far as we can see.
I doubt that these constraints would on their own identify money as the only possible solution. This institution is one possible solution that satisfies seemingly fixed constraints.
Maybe we can debate other suggested possible solutions. Maybe none I can think of stand up. Or maybe I can't even think of any. Of course this does not mean that other solutions don't exist.
To be 'left' here is maybe harder than being 'right'. Because either I have to come up with some new solution to put up against something that is already existing and established. (Hence the role played by Russia for many old lefties and now vacated.) Or I have to have the optimism to believe that such a solution does exist even though I don't know about it.
As I said, one way of sustaining myself in this is observing that time and again other solutions have been found, or 'emerged', than those which were believed to be inevitable.
If we think that we have found such an alternative solution to eg, the need for money, what do we do about it?
Does the fact that the existing institution came out of an 'unplanned' process mean that we can't take conscious action that aims to replace it with something else?
I think no. I think you have to recognise that complex social institution result from complex social processes determined by many factors we might identify as natural, arbitrary and also planned. The money system wouldn't have developed as we have it without the existence of some possibly unalterable constraints. It wouldn't have developed as is without specific human initiatives made with conscious purposes. And it wouldn't have developed as it is without conjunctions of chance.
If as an individual or group you want to intervene in complex social processes it helps to have as good an understanding as possible of the constraints you will come up against. And you should be aware that you can never forsee to any great degree the full consequences of your intervention. But this doesn't mean you shouldn't act, just that you should do so with care.
Anyway, if you look at right-wingers who preach quietism on the grounds of upsetting the 'natural order' with 'grave consequences', you see that these considerations are never meant to stop them engaging in serious political interventions themselves, only the lower orders.
(See also OnInterventions, Optimaes)
Darius : I think you misunderstood the money example I was making. It's not that money emerged from many people's experiments; nor that it is a "better" system under certain constraints; but that the reason for it's "betterness" is that it's a particular example of a more general principle, namely that networks of OneWayLinks scale-up easier than networks of two way links, and this principle is plausibly NOT grounded in social practice, or anyone's decisions.
It's not just about whether we can think of a plausibly better alternative. It's that the current system is "derivable" from deeper, less socially contingent axioms.
This doesn't have to lead to a "rightist" conclusion. Insights like this can help us find better alternatives. It isn't that money is good in itself, but good because it's a kind of 1-way network. Now we know that, if we can imagine alternatives which also obey these deeper principles, they're likely to be better alternatives than we've come up with before. (For example, I've been talking to Hilan about building simulations of alternative economies eg. true gift economies; to see if we can identify ones which have viable properties.Optimaes)
(re-reading Darius again, I realize he understood better than I gave him credit for in his talk of constraints. I misunderstood him rather than him, me. – phil)
(See also InformationalistReductionOfCapitalism)
Phil: looking at your last paragraph we now seem to be in agreement.
We can agree that it is possible to identify principles that underlie many social processes. Some such principles may be ahistorical, always present or true. (Maybe that discussion should continue in the epistemology section.)
If principles exist which govern wide ranges of social processes, anyone who is interested in intervening in social processes to achieve what they believe are better outcomes would be wise to try and understand them. As you say, this does not have to be a rightist conclusion.
We still haven't got to the bottom of why you feel yourself 'moving to the right' though.
In many cases, I think, the right prognosis is 'disillusionment'. People who start off on the left often become disillusioned with leaders or role-models they once believed in, with ideas, or perhaps worst of all with their fellow human beings.
Whichever, disillusionment means the loss of belief. Eg. the belief that it is possible to find alternative kinds of social institutions that stand up to certain underlying principles.
One possible cause of the intellectual variety of disillusionment is that left-wing intellectuals have fallen well behind establishment thinkers and would rather snipe at the 'bourgeois' from behind ghetto walls than engage with the issues thrown up in the last 100 years in disciplines like economics. So what often happens is that intellectually-inclined people who start off left-wing after a while start questioning the proposed solutions and finding that the other side's arguments are stronger than they had been told ...
I don't think it's disillusionment. It's more enchantment. I've started to feel impressed and attracted by the idea of the market as self-organizing information processing system; of property as a new conceptual framework which allows new kinds of relationships (See PropertyRights); and bored by the idea of a top-down, centrally planned society. But as I point out in LeftAndRightAndScale, despite this, I think that the left argument must be grounded in morality. If, ultimately, for all it's intellectual attractions the self-organized market is consequentially worse for people than the alternative, it must still be rejected.
FalseDichotomy - can't escape ethics by an appeal to nature
There's a false dichotomy between the self-organized society and the top-down society. Neither fully exists. In any society there are some individuals with more power than others. In as much as individuals with greater power act to affect society as a whole it tends towards top-down. They (as everyone else) can act in the interests of themselves, their class, social, justice a religion, whatever they like. These individuals can be democratically elected leaders, propertied aristocrats, demagogues, priests etc. etc.
Yet society is also self-organising; power is auto-catalytic but there are also certain natural checks and balances. Society is undoubtedly a network, the trick is to find a stable equilibrium in which there are not too many wars famine etc. and as much social justice as possible. But abandoning society to the market isn't any more natural than any other way of dealing with it; nor will it fail to create individuals with power who will influence it top-down - usually to re-inforce their position. In the current world, though global wealth is greater than ever, global inequality is also greater than ever, and happiness indexes have decreased steadily since the 1950s. History suggests that unequal societies are unsustainable; they usually end in revolutionary catastrophe. It also suggests that some sort of Keynesian social democracy with a balance between democratic management and a free market delivers pretty good social justice, prosperity and happiness.
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