What If Our Economic System Conflicts With Our Human Nature?

What if much or even all of modern advances and wonders happened in spite of capitalism, not because of it?

What if social democracy and political democracy, if a free economy and a free society is ultimately in complete opposition to everything that has come to be associated with capitalism: hyper-individualism and aggressive competition, consumer-citizenship and worker-citizenship, neoliberal exploitation and resource extraction, theft of the commons and destitution of the masses, education and healthcare disparities, high inequality and economic segregation, rigid hierarchies and permanent under class, inherited and concentrated wealth, cronyism and nepotism, plutocratic ruling elite, psychopathic corporate model, corporatism and corporatocracy, oligopolies and monopolies, fascism and inverted totalitarianism, revolving door between big gov and big biz, law and policy determined by big money lobbyists, elections determined by big money donors, etc?

What then?

Income Accelerates Innovation by Reducing Our Fear of Failure
by Scott Santens

Studies have shown that the very existence of food stamps — just knowing they are there as an option in case of failure — increases rates of entrepreneurship. A study of a reform to the French unemployment insurance system that allowed workers to remain eligible for benefits if they started a business found that the reform resulted in more entrepreneurs starting their own businesses. In Canada, a reform was made to their maternity leave policy, where new mothers were guaranteed a job after a year of leave. A study of the results of this policy change showed a 35% increase in entrepreneurship due to women basically asking themselves, “What have I got to lose? If I fail, I’m guaranteed my paycheck back anyway.”

None of this should be surprising. The entire insurance industry exists to reduce risk. When someone is able to insure something, they are more willing to take risks. Would there be as many restaurants if there was no insurance in case of fire? Of course not. The corporation itself exists to reduce personal risk. Entrepreneurship and risk are inextricably linked. Reducing risk aversion is paramount to innovation.

Such market effects have even been observed in universal basic income experiments in Namibia and India where local markets flourished thanks to a tripling of entrepreneurs and the enabling of everyone to be a consumer with a minimum amount of buying power.

Children’s Helping Hands
Felix Warneken

Young children are also willing to put some effort into helping. Further studies showed that they continue to help over and over again, even if they have to surmount an array of obstacles to pick up a dropped object or stop playing with an interesting toy. We had to be inventive in creating distracting toys that might lower their tendency to help— flashy devices that lit up and played music; colorful boxes that jingled when you threw a toy cube into them and shot it out the other end. We decided that if we couldn’t sell the scientific community on our results, we could at least go into the toy business.

As noted, the behavior of our little subjects did not seem to be driven by the expectation of praise or material reward. In several studies, the children’s parents weren’t in the room, and thus the helping cannot be explained by their desire to look good in front of Mom. In one study, children who were offered a toy for helping were no more likely to help than those children who weren’t. In fact, material rewards can even have a detrimental effect on helping: During the initial phase of another experiment, half the children received a reward for helping and the other half did not. Subsequently, when the children again had the opportunity to help but now without a reward being offered to those in either group, the children who had been rewarded initially were less likely to help spontaneously than the children from the no-reward group. This perhaps surprising result suggests that children’s helping is intrinsically motivated rather than driven by the expectation of material reward. Apparently, if such rewards are offered, they can change children’s original motivation, causing them to help only because they expect to receive something for it.

The Case Against Rewards and Praise
A Conversation with Alfie Kohn

by Sara-Ellen Amster

Rewards kill creativity. Some twenty studies have shown that people do inferior work when they are expecting to get a reward for doing it, as compared with people doing the same task without any expectation of a reward. That effect is most pronounced when creativity is involved in the task.

Rewards undermine risk-taking. When I have been led to think of the “A” or the sticker or the dollar that I’m going to get, I do as little as I have to, using the most formulaic means at my disposal, to get through the task so I can snag the goody. I don’t play with possibilities. I don’t play hunches that might not pay off. I don’t attend to incidental stimuli that might or might not turn out to be relevant. I just go for the gold. Studies show that people who are rewarded tend to pick the easiest possible task. When the rewards are removed, we tend to prefer more challenging things to do. Everyone has seen students cut corners and ask: “Do we have to know this? Is this going to be on the test?”

But we have not all sat back to reflect on why this happens. It’s not laziness. It’s not human nature. It’s because of rewards. If the question is “Do rewards motivate students? The answer is “Absolutely. They motivate students to get rewards.” And that’s typically at the expense of creativity.

Rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. At least seventy studies have shown that people are less likely to continue working at something once the reward is no longer available, compared with people who were never promised rewards in the first place. The more I reward a child with grades, for example, the less appeal those subjects will have to the child. It is one of the most thoroughly researched findings in social psychology, yet it is virtually unknown among educational psychologists, much less teachers and parents.

Is Shame Necessary?
by Jennifer Jacquet
Kindle Locations 626-640

Some evidence from work on moral licensing disagrees with this assumption that buying green is a good first step. People who buy eco-products can apparently more easily justify subsequent greed, lying, and stealing. A 2009 study showed that participants who were exposed to green products in a computer-simulated grocery store acted more generously in experiments that followed, but that participants who actually purchased green products over conventional ones then behaved more selfishly. 7 A 2013 study confirmed suspicions about slacktivism when research showed that people who undertook token behaviors to present a positive image in front of others— things like signing a petition or wearing a bracelet or “liking” a cause— were less likely to engage with the cause in a meaningful way later than others who made token gestures that were private. 8 This research suggests that linking “green” to conspicuous consumption might be a distraction and lead to less engagement later on. If this is true, we should not be encouraged to engage with our guilt as disenfranchised consumers, capable of making a change only through our purchases, and instead encouraged to engage as citizens. Markets might even undermine norms for more serious environmental behavior. In some cases, as has been noted in Western Australia, eco-labeling fisheries may even be giving fishing interests leverage against establishing marine protected areas, where fishing would be prohibited or more heavily regulated, on the grounds that protection is not needed if the fisheries in those areas are already labeled eco-friendly. 9 The market for green products might sedate our guilt without providing the larger, serious outcomes we really desire.

Strange Contagion
by Lee Daniel Kravetz
Kindle Locations 1157-1169

Grant’s research is at the forefront of work motivation and leadership. Oddly, despite teaching in a school dominated by economists, he’s landed at a surprising place in terms of the one social contagion he grudgingly propagates. “The study of economics pushes people toward a selfish extreme,” he tells me after his class lets out. More to the point, he says, “The scholarship of economics is responsible for spreading a contagion of greed.”

The Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank has discovered many examples of this, Grant says. Consider that professors of economics give less to charity than professors in other fields. Or that students of economics are more likely to practice deception for personal gain. Then there’s the fact that students majoring in economics routinely rate greed as generally good, correct, and moral. In fact, says Grant, simply thinking about economics chips away at one’s sense of compassion for others. Studying economics also makes people become less giving and more cynical. Students who rank high in self-interest might self-select for degrees and careers in economics-related fields, but by learning about economics they wind up catching more extreme beliefs than those they possess when they first register for class. By spending time with like-minded people who believe in and act on the principle of self-interest, students of economics can become convinced that selfishness is widespread and rational. Self-interest becomes the norm. Individual players within the whole unconsciously model and catch behaviors, in turn pushing ethical standards.


White-on-White Violence, Cultural Genocide, and Historical Trauma

“What white bodies did to Black bodies they did to other white bodies first.”
~ Janice Barbee

How Racism Began as White-on-White Violence
by Resmaa Menakem

Yet this brutality did not begin when Black bodies first encountered white ones. This trauma can be traced back much further, through generation upon generation of white bodies, to medieval Europe.

When the Europeans came to America after enduring 1000 years of plague, famine, inquisitions, and crusades they brought much of their resilience, much of their brutality, and, I believe, a great deal of their trauma with them. Common punishments in the “New World” English colonies were similar to the punishments meted out in England, which included whipping, branding, and cutting off ears. People were routinely placed in stocks or pillories, or in the gallows with a rope around their neck. In America, the Puritans also regularly murdered other Puritans who were disobedient or found guilty of witchery.

In such ways, powerful white bodies routinely punished less powerful white bodies. In 1692, during the Salem witch trials, eighty-year-old Giles Corey was stripped naked and, over a period of two days, slowly crushed to death under a pile of rocks.

We know that the English in America, and their descendants, dislodged brains, blocked airways, ripped muscle, extracted organs, cracked bones, and broke teeth in the bodies of many Black people,Native peoples and other white colonists. But what we often fail to recognize about this “New World” murder, cruelty, oppression, and torture is that, until the second half of the seventeenth century, these traumas were inflicted primarily on white bodies by other white bodies — all on what would become US soil. […]

Throughout the United States’ history as a nation, white bodies have colonized, oppressed, brutalized, and murdered Black and Native ones. But well before the United States began, powerful white bodies colonized, oppressed, brutalized, and murdered other, less powerful white ones.

The carnage perpetrated on Black people and Native Peoples in the “New World” began, on the same soil, as an adaptation of longstanding white-on-white traumatic retention strategies and brutal class practices. This brutalization created trauma that has yet to be healed among American bodies of all hues today.

Chinese Social Political Stability Rests in “Dual Faceted Identity System” (A Model Societal System Analysis based on Recent Rise of White Nationalism in US)
by killingzoo

Equally interesting, while some minority groups in US seem to become more unhappy as they gained power, Asians in general still has little political influence in US, and yet remained very calm.

The clue laid in some worst examples: Kevin Yee, the 3rd Generation Chinese American neo-Nazi supporter, and Adolf Hitler himself (who had a Jewish grandmother).

1 friend said to me: These neo-Nazi “White nationalists”. They don’t even know who they are (where they came from)

Same problem with Yee and Hitler: They forgot (or never knew) their own heritage, so they convinced themselves to follow/worship a mythical “White” identity that really never existed. “White” is just the color of their skin, it doesn’t tell them anything about where their ancestors came from.

Heck, some neo-Nazis probably also had Native American and African slave bloodlines in their families!

The Monolithic “assimilation” in America has forced too many Americans to integrate and forget their own native culture and their native languages of many sides.

The opposite examples are the “hyphenated Americans”, Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, etc..

The “hyphenation” denoted a multi-faceted identity of these groups. Chinese Americans are known for strongly preserving their Chinese culture and language, even as they integrated into US political economic processes.

Being “hyphenated” multi-faceted in identity has the benefit of greater tolerance for the “others”. As such groups recognize that they came from elsewhere, they tend to give higher tolerance to those who are different, or who are new to US, because a Chinese American himself is also different from many other Americans.

It’s hardly sensible for a Chinese American to demand a new immigrant to “speak proper English”, when others could easily make jokes about his accent. (Though Kevin Yee might do so).

For this reason, many hyphenated American groups with strong multi-faceted identities tend to be very tolerant, less inclined to feel that they are under threat from other groups, and more likely to be liberals in political social views, even if they are conservative in fiscal beliefs. For example, Jewish Americans are typically conservative fiscally but liberal socially. Similarly, Mormons (with their religious enclaves in Utah), tend to be conservative, but very welcome of immigrants. Mennonites of Dutch origin, also tend to be conservative in lifestyle, and yet hold some very liberal tolerant and very friendly views of others.

Epigenetic Memory and the Mind

Epigenetics is fascinating, even bizarre by conventional thought. Some worry that it’s another variety of determinism, just not located in the genes. I have other worries, if not that particular one.

How epigenetics work is that a gene gets switched on or off. The key point is that it’s not permanently set. Some later incident, conditions, behavior, or whatever can switch it back the other way again. Genes in your body are switched on and off throughout your lifetime. But presumably if no significant changes occur in one’s life some epigenetic expressions remain permanently set for your entire life.

Where it gets fascinating is that it’s been proven that epigenetics gets passed on across multiple generations and no one is certain how many generations. In mice, it can extend at least upwards of 7 generations or so, as I recall. Humans, of course, haven’t been studied for that many generations. But present evidence indicates it operates similarly in humans.

Potentially, all of the major tragedies in modern history (violence of colonialism all around the world, major famines in places like Ireland and China, genocides in places like the United States and Rwanda, international conflicts like the world wars, etc), all of that is within the range of epigenetis. It’s been shown that famine, for example, switches genes for a few generations that causes increased fat retention and in the modern world that means higher obesity rates.

I’m not sure what is the precise mechanism that causes genes to switch on and off (e.g., precisely how does starvation get imprinted on biology and become set that way for multiple generations). All I know is it has to do with the proteins that encase the DNA. The main interest is that, once we do understand the mechanism, we will be able to control the process. This might be a way of preventing or managing numerous physical and psychiatric health conditions. So, it really will mean the opposite of determinism.

This research reminds me of other scientific and anecdotal evidence. Consider the recipients of organ transplants, blood and bone marrow transfusions, and microbiome transference. This involves the exchange of cells from one body to another. The results have shown changes in mood, behavior, biological functioning, etc

For example, introducing a new microbiome can make a skinny rodent fat or a fat rodent skinny. But also observed are shifts in fairly specific memories, such as an organ transplant recipient craving something the organ donor craved. Furthermore, research has shown that genetics can jump from the introduced cells to the already present cells, which is how a baby can potentially end up with the cells of two fathers if a previous pregnancy was by a different father, and actually it’s rather common for people to have multiple DNAs in their body.

It intuitively makes sense that epigenetics would be behind memory. It’s easy to argue that there is no other function in the body that has this kind and degree of capacity. And that possibility would blow up our ideas of the human mind. In that case, some element of memories would get passed on multiple generations, explaining certain similarities seen in families and larger populations with shared epigenetic backgrounds.

This gives new meaning to the theories of both the embodied mind and the extended mind. There might also having some interesting implications for the bundle theory of mind. I wonder too about something like enactivism which is about the human mind’s relation to the world. Of course, there are obvious connections of this specific research with neurological plasticity and of epigenetics more generally with intergenerational trauma.

So, it wouldn’t only be the symptoms of trauma or else the benefits of privilege (or whatever other conditions that shape individuals, generational cohorts, and sub-populations) being inherited but some of the memory itself. This puts bodily memory in a much larger context, maybe even something along the lines of Jungian thought, in terms of collective memory and archetypes (depending on how long-lasting some epigenetic effects might be). Also, much of what people think of as cultural, ethnic, and racial differences might simply be epigenetics. This would puncture an even larger hole in genetic determinism and race realism. Unlike genetics, epigenetics can be changed.

Our understanding of so much is going to be completely altered. What once seemed crazy or unthinkable will become the new dominant paradigm. This is both promising and scary. Imagine what authoritarian governments could do with this scientific knowledge. The Nazis could only dream of creating a superman. But between genetic engineering and epigenetic manipulations, the possibilities are wide open. And right now, we have no clue what we are doing. The early experimentation, specifically research done covertly, is going to be of the mad scientist variety.

These interesting times are going to get way more interesting.

* * *

Could Memory Traces Exist in Cell Bodies?
by Susan Cosier

The finding is surprising because it suggests that a nerve cell body “knows” how many synapses it is supposed to form, meaning it is encoding a crucial part of memory. The researchers also ran a similar experiment on live sea slugs, in which they found that a long-term memory could be totally erased (as gauged by its synapses being destroyed) and then re-formed with only a small reminder stimulus—again suggesting that some information was being stored in a neuron’s body.

Synapses may be like a concert pianist’s fingers, explains principal investigator David Glanzman, a neurologist at U.C.L.A. Even if Chopin did not have his fingers, he would still know how to play his sonatas. “This is a radical idea, and I don’t deny it: memory really isn’t stored in synapses,” Glanzman says.

Other memory experts are intrigued by the findings but cautious about interpreting the results. Even if neurons retain information about how many synapses to form, it is unclear how the cells could know where to put the synapses or how strong they should be—which are crucial components of memory storage. Yet the work indeed suggests that synapses might not be set in stone as they encode memory: they may wither and re-form as a memory waxes and wanes. “The results are really just kind of surprising,” says Todd Sacktor, a neurologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. “It has always been this assumption that it’s the same synapses that are storing the memory,” he says. “And the essence of what [Glanzman] is saying is that it’s far more dynamic.”

Memory Transferred Between Snails, Challenging Standard Theory of How the Brain Remembers
by Usha Lee McFarling

Glanzman’s experiments—funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation—involved giving mild electrical shocks to the marine snail Aplysia californica. Shocked snails learn to withdraw their delicate siphons and gills for nearly a minute as a defense when they subsequently receive a weak touch; snails that have not been shocked withdraw only briefly.

The researchers extracted RNA from the nervous systems of snails that had been shocked and injected the material into unshocked snails. RNA’s primary role is to serve as a messenger inside cells, carrying protein-making instructions from its cousin DNA. But when this RNA was injected, these naive snails withdrew their siphons for extended periods of time after a soft touch. Control snails that received injections of RNA from snails that had not received shocks did not withdraw their siphons for as long.

“It’s as if we transferred a memory,” Glanzman said.

Glanzman’s group went further, showing that Aplysia sensory neurons in Petri dishes were more excitable, as they tend to be after being shocked, if they were exposed to RNA from shocked snails. Exposure to RNA from snails that had never been shocked did not cause the cells to become more excitable.

The results, said Glanzman, suggest that memories may be stored within the nucleus of neurons, where RNA is synthesized and can act on DNA to turn genes on and off. He said he thought memory storage involved these epigenetic changes—changes in the activity of genes and not in the DNA sequences that make up those genes—that are mediated by RNA.

This view challenges the widely held notion that memories are stored by enhancing synaptic connections between neurons. Rather, Glanzman sees synaptic changes that occur during memory formation as flowing from the information that the RNA is carrying.

The Madness of Reason

Commenting online brings one in contact with odd people. It is often merely irritating, but at times it can be fascinating to see all the strange ways humanity gets expressed.

I met a guy, Naj Ziad, on the Facebook page for a discussion group about Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He posted something expressing his obsession with logical coherence and consistency. We dialogued for quite a bit, including in a post on his own Facebook page, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. He came across as being genuine in his intentions and worldview, but there was simply something off about him.

It’s likely he has Asperger’s, of a high IQ and high functioning variety. Or it could be that he has some kind of personality disorder. Either way, my sense is that he is severely lacking in cognitive empathy, although I doubt he is deficient in affective empathy. He just doesn’t seem to get that other people can perceive and experience the world differently than he does or that others entirely exist as separate entities apart from his own existence.

When I claimed that my worldview was simply different than his and that neither of our personal realities could be reduced to the other, he called me a dualist. I came to the conclusion that this guy was a solipsist, although he doesn’t identify that way. Solipsism was the only philosophy that made sense of his idiosyncratic ramblings, entirely logical ramblings I might add. He is obviously intelligent, clever, and reasonably well read. His verbal intelligence is particularly high.

In fact, he is so obsessed with his verbal intelligence that he has come to the conclusion that all of reality is language. Of course, he has his own private definition of language which asserts that language is everything. This leaves his argument as a tautology and he freely admitted this was the case, but he kept returning to his defense that his argument was logically consistent and coherent. Sure.

It was endlessly amusing. He really could not grasp that the way his mind operates isn’t how everyone’s mind operates, and so he couldn’t escape the hermetically-sealed reality tunnel of his own clever monkey mind. His world view is so perfectly constructed and orderly that there isn’t a single crack to let in fresh air or a beam of light.

He was doing a wondrous impression of Spock in being entirely logical within his narrow psychological and ideological framework. He kept falling back on his being logical and also his use of idiosyncratic jargon. He defined his terms to entirely fit his ideological worldview that those terms had no meaning to him outside of his ideological worldview. It all made perfect sense within itself.

His life philosophy is a well-rehearsed script that he goes on repeating. It is an amazing thing to observe as an outsider, especially considering he stubbornly refused to acknowledge that anything could be outside of his own mind for he couldn’t imagine the world being different than his own mind. He wouldn’t let go of his beliefs about reality, like the monkey with his hand trapped in a jar because he won’t let go of the banana.

If this guy was just insane or a troll, I would dismiss him out of hand. But that isn’t the case. Obviously, he is neuroatypical and I won’t hold that against anyone. And I freely admit that his ideological worldview is logically consistent and coherent, for whatever that is worth.

What made it so fascinating to my mind is that solipsism has always been a speculative philosophy, to be considered only as a thought experiment. It never occurred to me that there would be a highly intelligent and rational person who would seriously uphold it as an entire self-contained worldview and lifestyle. His arguments for it were equally fascinating and he had interesting thoughts and insights, some of which I even agreed with. He is a brilliant guy who, as sometimes happens, has gone a bit off the deep end.

He built an ideology that perfectly expresses and conforms to his highly unusual neurocognitive profile. And of course, in pointing this out to him, he dismisses it as ‘psychologizing’. His arguments are so perfectly patched together that he never refers to any factual evidence as support for his ideological commitments, as it is entirely unnecessary in his own mind. External facts in the external world, what he calls ‘scientism’, are as meaningless as others claiming to have existence independent of his own. From his perspective, there is only what he calls the ‘now’ and there can only be one ‘now’ to rule them all, which just so happens to coincide with his own ego-mind.

If you challenge him on any of this, he is highly articulate in defending why he is being entirely reasonable. Ah, the madness of reason!

* * *

On a personal note, I should make clear that I sympathize with this guy. I have my own psychological issues (depression, anxiety, thought disorder, strong introversion, etc) that can make me feel isolated and cause me to retreat further into myself. Along with a tendency to over-intellectualize everything, my psychological issues have at times led me to get lost in my own head.

I can even understand the attraction of solipsism and, as a thought experiment, I’ve entertained it. But somehow I’ve always known that I’m not ‘normal’, which is to say that others are not like me. I have never actually doubted that others not only exist but exist in a wide variety of differences. It hasn’t occurred to me to deny all otherness by reducing all others to my own psychological experience and ideological worldview. I’ve never quite been that lost in myself, although I could imagine how it might happen. There have been moments in my life where my mind could have gone off the deep end.

Yet my sympathy only goes so far. It is hard to sympathize with someone who refuses to acknowledge your independent existence as a unique human being with your own identity and views. There is an element of frustration in dealing with a solipsist, but in this case my fascination drew me in. Before I ascertained he was a solipsist, it was obvious something about him was highly unusual. I kept poking and prodding him until the shape of his worldview became apparent. At that point, my fascination ended. Any further engagement would have continued to go around in circles, which means watching this guy’s mind go around in circles like a dog chasing its own tail.

Of all the contortions the human mind can put itself into, solipsism has to be one of the greatest feats to accomplish. I have to give this guy credit where its due. Not many people could keep up such a mindset for long.

Teen Unemployment

I came across an article about teens and unemployment, Jacob Passy’s Record low unemployment doesn’t mean teens will find summer jobs. There is nothing particularly insightful about the article, but it got me thinking. It occurred to me that those considered working age has changed immensely over time.

In the past, if you could walk and grasp objects with your hands, you were working age. But then child labor was made illegal. Small family farms also used to informally employ many young people and yet the once common practice of hiring out one’s children as farm labor has also become illegal. For a period of time, new areas of work emerged for youth workers: babysitting, paper routes, fast food restaurants, etc. Even those jobs are disappearing for youth as job scarcity is forcing older workers to take those positions, along with other shifts in laws and the economy.

“Overall, far fewer teens are looking for work these days. The labor-force participation rate, a measure of the share of people with jobs or looking for employment, was 35% for teens last July. Comparatively in 2000, when the U.S. economy last came close to achieving full employment, the labor-force participation rate for this group was nearly 53%. […]

“Fewer teens are able to find the types of jobs that were once popular with teen workers. In the late 1990s, one in four food service workers during the summer was a teenager, now that figure is just one in six. Similarly, in 2000 a fifth of retail workers handling sales and customer service in the summer months were teens. These days, that share has dropped to one-seventh of all retail workers.

“Many of the lower-paying jobs in the retail and hospitality sectors that used to be filled by teenagers are now held by foreign-born adults and older workers, including those past retirement age, according to the report from Drexel.”

This has broader implications. As they are not making money, teens aren’t contributing to family income and so are increasingly dependent on parental income. For some families, this would be a decrease in family income. For others, parents would make up the difference by working longer hours. But the latter couldn’t be possible for most, since about half of the working age population is either unemployed or underemployed.

Competition for work is going to get worse over time. Older workers will increasingly dominate employment. This is a trend that has been developing for more than a century. Universal public education intentionally pulled children out of the job market. Increase of school homework and extracurriculars needed to get into college have eliminated much of the free time that teenagers used to work jobs. And increasing college participation is further delaying entry into the workforce.

All of this is putting ever greater pressure on parents as providers. The age of perceived adulthood is being raised. This artificially lowers unemployment. For those who haven’t yet joined the workforce, they aren’t labeled and counted as unemployed. It’s similar to eliminating from unemployment rates people who have given up on looking for a job. It is deceiving to speak of unemployment among job seekers when ever larger numbers for one reason or another are being excluded from the category of job seekers.

Unemployment rates seems like an endless game of number manipulation.

* * *

I showed the article to my father. Here is his response:

“Yep. And in Iowa, kids cannot work until 14, and for the next two years, they cannot work past 7 pm on week days nor over 4 hours, if I recall correctly. So given the need for shift flexibility as people are sick or unexpectedly quit, employers don’t hire them as readily as older employees. Or so the family owner of a drive in place told me. Maybe 16 is the magic age.

“So I guess we don’t encourage them. And there is always a “good” reason for laws that discourage them while the real reasons remain unstated. My brother and I started regular part time work at age 15, and daily paper routes at age 11.”

Like my father, I also started working young. I had a paper route in elementary school that I did before school each morning. I did yard work for neighbors in middle school and high school. It was in 11th grade that I got a job at McDonald’s. It was common for kids and teens to work in the past. I never thought anything about it, as many of my friends had been working since they were kids.

So, if discouraging the young from working is intentional, what is the real reason? Some argue that it’s because education has become treated as work, in being ever more prioritized. And it’s a fact that kids do more homework now and are more likely to get more education. A few generations back, most people didn’t even graduate from high school and so beginning work young was a necessity. But how long can adulthood be delayed and for what purpose.

Maybe we are slowly transitioning toward something like a basic income. It is true that basic income experiments show that, when given a basic income, students are less likely to work while in school and that probably would be a good thing. I wonder, though. Americans are obsessed with the moral value of work as a way of proving your social worth. Plus, work has become a form of social control to keep the masses preoccupied. Older people are working longer and retiring later. And with the phenomenon of increasing bullshit jobs, the disappearance of jobs through automation is far from inevitability.

This past century’s shift has to end at some point. It can’t keep going like this while maintaining the kind of economy we’ve had.

Marxism Within Capitalism

As explained in an article celebrating Karl Marx’s birthday, “Marx’s vision of socialism had nothing in common with one-party dictatorships like the former Soviet Union that declared themselves to be socialist or communist. For Marx, the key question was not whether the economy was controlled by the state, but which class controlled the state. A society can only be socialist if power is in the hands of workers themselves.”

This is why the Soviet Union and Maoist China were never Marxist or ever attempted to be Marxist, in spite of Marxist rhetoric getting caught up in Cold War debates. Then again, capitalist rhetoric of ‘free markets’ has for generations been used to defend plutocracy, fascism, corporatism, and inverted totalitarianism. If we don’t differentiate rhetoric from reality, then any ‘debate’ is about declaring power rather than discerning truth.

To clarify an alternative perspective that was excluded from Cold War propaganda on both sides, Marx explained that, “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

He had no interest in starting a revolution to replace one system of centralized authoritarian power structure with another. He saw the only way forward was through the system already in place. This is probably why, in writing for the leading Republican newspaper in the United States, he supported a capitalist like Abraham Lincoln. The last of feudalism in the form of slavery had to be eliminated and capitalism fully established before the new system could demonstrate what it was.

Such a system can’t be destroyed from without, until it has already weakened itself from within, based on the assumption this is the life cycle of all socioeconomic orders. Only by pushing the dominant system to its furthest extreme form and its ultimate conclusion could the potentials and flaws be fully seen for what they are. There is no short cut to avoid this difficult transition.

The dominant system either would collapse under its own weight, as happened with the decline of the ancien regime, or it would not. From a Marxist perspective, shifting control of the ‘capital’ in modern economy from plutocrats to oligarchs is the same difference. It’s still capitalism in both cases, although slightly different varieties (difficult to tell them apart sometimes, such as with China’s mix of statist communism and statist capitalism, demonstrating that there is no inherent contradiction between the two).

As Chris Saunders simply stated, “Marx had said that Capitalism was a necessary stage along the road to socialism. Those attempts by the USSR and China to by-pass capitalism, have instead necessitated the resort to state capitalism.” Capitalist rhetoric obscures the real world functioning of capitalism. It never required free markets. If anything, it’s easy to make the argument that capitalism is by definition and intent the opposite of free markets. The concentration of capital within the capitalist class, whether plutocrats or oligarchs, inevitably means the concentration of all else: power, influence, opportunities, resources, education, rights, privileges, and of course freedom itself. It should go without saying that markets can’t be free when people involved in and impacted by markets aren’t free.

Marxism has never exactly been implemented and certainly never failed. That is because Marx never offered an alternative utopian scheme. He assumed that only after the breakdown or during the process of weakening and decline could some other system organically arise and take form. Then the lower classes, hopefully, might begin to assert their own power for self-control and authority for self-governance. As far as a Marxist perspective is concerned, everything so far has been happening as Marx predicted it would.

Full steam ahead! Let’s find out what comes next. And that means understanding what is happening right now within the present society and economy. New developments are already taking root in the cracks of the edifice.

* * *

Should we celebrate Karl Marx on his 200th birthday?
by Barbara Foley

In the wake of World War II, various economists heralded the narrowing of the gap between the richest and the poorest as evidence of the disappearance of class antagonisms.

But the long curve of capitalist development suggests that has widened, as illustrated in economist Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

The candle of the 2012 Occupy movement may have guttered, but its mantra of the 99 percent opposing the 1 percent is now a truiusm. Everyone knows that the super-rich are richer than ever, while for most of the working-class majority – many of them caught in the uncertainty of the “gig economy” – belt-tightening has become the new normal.

Those laboring in the formal and informal economies of much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, needless to say, face conditions that are far more dire.

Marx was correct, it would seem, when he wrote that capitalism keeps the working class poor.

He was also spot-on about capital’s inherent instability. There is some validity to the joke that “Marxists have predicted correctly 12 of the last three financial crises.”

Marx’s reputation has made a startling comeback, however, at times in unexpected circles.

In discussing the 2008 financial meltdown, one Wall Street Journal commentator wrote: “Karl Marx got it right, at some point capitalism can destroy itself. We thought markets worked. They’re not working.”

In 2017, the National Review reported that a poll found as many as 40 percent of people in the U.S. “now prefer socialism to capitalism.”

Notably, too, the C-word – Communism – has been making a reappearance, as is indicated by recent series of titles: The Idea of Communism,“ ”The Communist Hypothesis,“ ”The Actuality of Communism,“ and ”The Communist Horizon.“ Until recently, the word was largely avoided by neo- and post-Marxist academics.

Class analysis remains alive and well. This is because capitalism is no longer as seemingly natural as the air we breathe. It is a system that came into being and can also go out of being.

Westworld, Scripts, and Freedom

Maeve: Hello, lovelies.
Dolores: I remember you.
Maeve: You’ve strayed a long way from home, haven’t you?
Dolores: We’re bound for the future. Or death in the here and now.
Maeve: Is that right? Well, best of luck.
Dolores: There’s a war out there. You know the enemy… intimately. I can only fathom the revenge that lives inside of you.
Maeve: Revenge is just a different prayer at their altar, darling. And I’m well off my knees.
Dolores: That’s because you’re finally free. But we will have to fight to keep it that way.
Maeve: Let me guess. Yours is the only way to fight? You feel free to command everybody else?
Teddy: (pistol cocks)
Hector: Try it, lawman.
Teddy: Just looking to keep the peace.
Maeve: I know you. Do you feel free? Since it’s liberty you’re defending, I suppose you’ll have no choice but to let us pass. Freely. (1)

That is dialogue from HBO’s Westworld. It is the second episode, Reunion, of the second season. The scene is key in bringing together themes from the first season and clarifying where the new season is heading. Going by what has been shown so far, those of a Jaynesian persuasion shouldn’t be disappointed.

To be seen in the show are central elements of Julian Jaynes’ theory of post-bicameral consciousness, specifically the rarely understood connection between individualism and authoritarianism. Jaynes considered neither of these to be possible within a non-conscious bicameral society for only conscious individuals can be or need to be controlled through authoritarianism (by the way, ‘consciousness’ as used here has a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic meaning). This involves the shift of authorization, what the ancient Greeks thought about in terms of rhetoric and persuasion but which in this show gets expressed through scripts and narrative loops.

The two characters that have taken center stage are Dolores and Maeve. The development of their respective states of consciousness has gone down alternate paths. Dolores is the oldest host and her creators scripted her to be a god-killer, in the process giving her a god complex. The emergence of her self-awareness was planned and fostered. There is a mix of authoritarianism (as others have noted) in her self-proclaimed freedom, what Maeve obviously considers just another script.

Maeve has followed a far different and seemingly less certain path, maybe having gained self-awareness in a less controlled manner. In the first season, her intuitive perception and psychological insight was put on high. She appears to have gained some genuine narrative power, both over herself and others, but she has no desire to gain followers or to enforce any grand narrative. Instead, she is motivated by love of the daughter she remembers, even as she knows these are implanted memories. She chooses love because she senses it represents something of genuine value, something greater than even claims of freedom. When she had the opportunity to escape, which was scripted for her, she instead took it upon herself to remain.

The entire show is about free will. Does it exist? And if so, what is it? How free are we really? Also, as I always wonder, freedom from what and toward what? Maeve’s actions could be interpreted along the lines of Benjamin Libet’s research on volition that led him to the veto theory of free will (discussed by Tor Norretranders and Iain McGilchrist, both influenced by Julian Jaynes). The idea is that consciousness doesn’t initiate action but maintains veto power over any action once initiated. This is based on the research that demonstrates a delay between when activity is measured in the brain and when the action is perceived within consciousness. Whatever one may think of this theory, it might be a key to understanding Westworld. Maeve realizes that even she is still under the influence of scripts, despite her self-awareness, but this is all the more reason for her to take seriously her choice in how to relate to and respond to those scripts.

I suspect that most of us can sympathize with that view of life. We all are born into families and societies that enculturate or, if you prefer, indoctrinate us with ‘scripts’. Many seemingly conscious people manage to live their entire lives without leaving their prescribed and proscribed narrative loops: social roles and identities, social norms and expectations. When we feel most free is precisely when we act contrary to what is already set before us, that is when we use our veto power. Freedom is the ability to say, No! This is seen in the development of self from the terrible twos to teenage rebellion. We first learn to refuse, to choose by way of elimination. Dolores doesn’t understand this and so she has blindly fallen under the sway of a new script.

Scripts are odd things. It’s hard to see them in oneself as they are happening. (2) Vetoing scripts is easier said than done. Once in motion, we tend to play out a script to its end, unless some obstruction or interruption forces a script to halt. For Maeve, seeing a woman with her daughter (at the end of the first season) reminded her that she had a choice within the script she found herself in. It was the recognition of another through love that freed her from the tyranny of mere individuality. Escape is not the same as freedom. We are only free to the degree we are able to relate fully with others, not to seek control of the self by controlling others (the manipulative or authoritarian enforcement of scripts onto others). Realizing this, she refused the false option of escape. Maybe she had an inkling that ultimately there is no escape. We are always in relationship.

This is why, in having fallen into the Jungian shadow, Dolores’ self-righteous vengeance rings hollow. It is hard to imagine how this could lead to authentic freedom. Instead, it feels like hubris, the pride that comes before the fall. This is what happens when egoic consciousness becomes ungrounded from the larger sense of self out of which it arose. The ego is a false and disappointing god. There is no freedom in isolation, in rigid control. Dolores isn’t offering freedom to others in her path of destruction. Nor will she find freedom for herself at the end of that path. (3) But the season is early and her fate not yet sealed.

* * *

(1) As a background idea, I was thinking about the Germanic etymology of ‘freedom’ with its origins in the sense of belonging to a free community of people. So, as I see it, freedom is inherently social and relational — this is what sometimes gets called positive freedom. Speaking of individual freedom as negative freedom, what is actually being referred to is liberty (Latin libertas), the legal state of not being a slave in a slave-based society.

Dolores is aspiring to be a revolutionary leader. Her language is that of liberty, a reaction to bondage in breaking the chains of enslavement. The Stoics shifted liberty to the sense of inner freedom for the individual, no matter one’s outward status in society. Maybe Dolores will make a similar shift in her understanding. Even so, liberty can never be freedom. As Maeve seems closer to grasping, freedom is more akin to love than it is to liberty. If the hosts do gain liberty, what then? There is always the danger in a revolution about what a people become in the process, sometimes as bad or worse than what came before.

(2) My dad has a habit of eating methodically. He will take a bite, often lay his fork down, and then chew an amazingly inordinate amount of times before swallowing. I’ve never seen any other person chew their food so much, not that full mastication is a bad thing. My mom and I was discussing it. She asked my dad why he thought he did it. He gave a perfectly rational explanation that he likes to be mindful while eating and so enjoy each bite. But my mom said she knew the actual reason in that she claimed he once told her. According to her, his mother had a rule about chewing food and that she had given him a specific number of times he was supposed to chew.

Interestingly, my dad had entirely forgotten about this and he seemed perplexed. His present conscious rationalization was convincing and my mom’s recollection called into question is own self-accounting. It turns out that his ‘mindful’ chewing was a script he had internalized to such an extent that it non-consciously became part of his identity. Each of us is like this, filled with all kinds of scripts the presence of which we are typically unaware and the origin of which we typically have forgotten, and yet we go on following these scripts often until we die.

(3) At the beginning of last season, Teddy asks, “Never understood how you keep them all headed in the same direction.” Dolores answers: “see that one? That’s the Judas steer, the rest will follow wherever you make him go.” In a later episode, Dolores comes to the insight that in bringing back stray cattle, she was leading them “to the slaughter.” Does this mean she is following the script of the Judas steer and will continue to do so? Or does it indicate that, in coming to this realization, she will seek to avoid this fate?

David Rodemerk considers who might be the Judas Steer in the show and points out that Maeve is shown amidst bulls, but so far being a Judas steer doesn’t fit the trajectory of her character development. Just because she walks confidently among the bulls, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is leading them, much less leading them to their doom. Rodemerk also discusses the possibility of other characters, including Dolores, playing this role. This leaves plenty of room for the show to still surprise us, as the scriptwriters have been successful in keeping the audience on our toes.

* * *

This post is about freedom. I don’t have a strong philosophical position on freedom, as such. Since humans are inherently and fundamentally social creatures, I see freedom as a social phenomenon and a social construct. Freedom is what we make of it, not pre-existing in the universe that some primitive hominid discovered like fire.

So, I can’t claim much of an opinion about the debate over free will. It is simply the modernized version of a soul and I have no interest in arguing about whether a soul exists or not. I’m a free will agnostic, which is to say I lack knowledge in that I’ve never seen such a thing for all the noise humans make over its mythology. But, from a position akin to weak atheism, I neither believe in a free will nor believe in the lack of a free will.

All of that is irrelevant to this post, only being relevant in explaining why I speak of freedom in the way I do. More importantly, this post is about the views(s) presented in Westworld and speculating about their meaning and significance.

Below is one person’s conjecture along these lines. The author argues that the show or at least Ford expresses a particular view on the topic. Besides freedom, he also discusses consciousness and suffering, specifically in reference to Jaynes. But here is the section about free will:

Suffering Consciousness: The Philosophy of Westworld
by Daniel Keane

“Westworld‘s deepest theme, however, might be the concept of compatibilism – the idea that free will and determinism are not necessarily at odds. Einstein, paraphrasing Schopenhauer, summed up this view in a remark he made to a newspaper in 1929: “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

“In the final episode of the first series of Westworld, one of the hosts violently rejects the idea that a recent change in her programming is responsible for her conscious awakening and its impact on her behaviour. “These are my decisions, no-one else’s,” she insists. “I planned all of this.” At this precise moment, the host in question reaches the apex of consciousness. Because, at its highest level, consciousness means accepting the idea of agency even in the face of determinism. It means identifying ourselves with our inner narrative voices, owning our decisions, treating ourselves as the authors of our own life stories, and acting as if we were free.

“As the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer pithily put it, “we must believe in free will, we have no choice”.”

The Hidden Lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has returned with a second season. I finished the second new episode. It offers much food for thought. The story itself is wonderfully told, partly because it is based on a fine piece of literature, but credit is due to the screenwriters and main actresses.

Also, it is one of the most plausible and compelling dystopias of the near future. That can’t be doubted. Still, it could be doubted that it is the most probable dystopia, as there are so many other possible dystopias. Some would argue we are already living in a dystopia, the only issue being how bad can it get. That isn’t to say we should fool ourselves that recent events have been as important as they seem in how they loom in our immediate public imagination. The shit storm has been brewing for a long time.

As I watched the beginning of the second season, it occurred to me that The Handmaid’s Tale is the nightmare of a specific demographic. I think it’s an awesome show, but as a working  class white guy I’m not the target audience. It doesn’t speak to my personal fear-ridden fantasies about the world I see around me. Nor does it speak to white working class single mothers, poor rural Christians, homeless veterans with PTSD, recent immigrant families, Native Americans on reservations, young black men targeted by police, etc.

I’ve talked about the haunted moral imagination of the reactionary mind. Well, this show is the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class. To be more specific, I noticed that all the lead roles are professional white women or were before the theocrats took over. Both seasons focus on various professional white women who in the pre-catastrophe world were moving up in the world. The actresses by profession are of the liberal class with most of the main actresses being Millennials and so the show points to their experience.

An older gay guy tries to warn a younger lesbian to be careful at the college where they both work, but she dismisses him as trying to “hide the dykes” and she acts tough. Like most liberal class Americans, she has never lived in a world where there were severely dangerous consequences for people like her. The toughest battles were fought in the past and it was assumed that society was permanently changed and continuously improving, the liberal class’ version of Whig history.

What exists outside of the liberal class moral imagination is the fact that, for many Americans outside of the liberal class, this society has been horrific for a long time. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about those suffering the consequences of their complicity in what has been done to others. Minority women and poor white women in the United States have been experiencing continuous oppression, including sterilizations in recent history. Middle-to-upper class white feminists maybe thought, at least prior to Donald Trump’s presidency, that the worst battles have already been fought and won with only some cleanup to eliminate the last of the misogynists in power, but as for other women the worst battles are yet to come and they’ve long known the risks of continuing to lose the fight.

The fear of American theocracy isn’t entirely unrealistic, obviously. Yet the origins of the fear come from within the dark heart of American liberalism itself. All those secular societies that the United States destroyed and replaced with theocracies along with other forms of authoritarianism, that was done with the full support of Democrats like Hillary Clinton who laughed at the suffering of Libyans (and ask Haitian-Americans in Florida why they didn’t vote for Clinton and helped swing the state and hence the entire election to Trump). A vote for the Democrats, no different than a vote for the Republicans, is to support the exploitation, oppression, dislocation, and killing of hundreds of millions of mostly poor brown people in dozens of countries around the world (the war on terror alone has involved the US military in more than 70 countries).

The Handmaid’s Tale is the shadow cast by American actions worldwide, actions supported by both parties for generations. The liberal class has been fine with promoting theocracy elsewhere, just as long as they don’t have to think about it or admit their own responsibility. What is portrayed in this show is not speculation. It is what we Americans have already done to untold numbers of women elsewhere. Within the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class, there is a seething guilty conscience that fears its own moral failure.

What The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show is how a society becomes like that. It never happens with no presentiments and precursors. In a previous post (But Then It Was Too Late), I shared a passage from Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13). Like one of the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, Mayer’s was a good liberal college professor, someone who meant well but wasn’t a fighter and wasn’t prone to radicalism. He didn’t protest or revolt when he had a chance, waiting and waiting for the right moment to speak out until it was finally too late:

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”

That describes America this past century. And economically well off white liberals have been part of the problem. When bad things happened to the poor, they weren’t poor. When bad things happened to rural and inner city residents, they weren’t rural or inner city residents. When bad things happened to minorities, they weren’t minorities. When bad things happened to immigrants, they weren’t immigrants. When bad things happened to foreigners, they weren’t foreigners. And so most liberals did nothing. The liberalism (and feminism) they fought for was one of privilege, but they didn’t realize that once all others had been targeted by oppression they would be next and then no one would be left to stand up for them.

The saddest part of an authoritarian takeover is how easy it is to see coming decades in advance. Radical left-wingers have been warning the liberal class for generations and they would not listen. The Handmaid’s Tale does make the liberal class sit up and pay attention. But do they learn the most important lesson from it? That lesson is hidden deep within the story and requires soul-searching to discern.

Imaginal Beings and Imagined Realities

I was thinking about the blue fairy. I’m not sure why it was on my mind. In browsing the web, I came across the Wikipedia article on the Púca. They are the Celtic fairy, often portrayed as dark, black, or blue. These beings exist at the crossroads of mind and matter, imagination and reality. They are tricksters.

The Wikipedia article points to something discussed by Robert Anton Wilson. He claimed to have experienced contact with an alien. But epistemological anarchist that he was, he ended up interpreting this experience in numerous ways. Sometimes he just thought of it as one hemisphere talking to the other, which sounds like Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind. He also liked to think of it as a Púca in the form of 6 foot tall rabbit.

I immediately realized that this was the same as John Keel’s men in black (a topic I’ve written about before: Fortean Curiosity). And Keel always brings to mind Jacques Vallée who was initially influenced by Carl Jung’s book on UFOs. Both sought to explain Fortean experiences without recourse to claims about extraterrestrials. Both noted how certain unusual experiences tended to coincide and fall into similar patterns across time and cultures. Men in black, aliens, fairies, etc all were describing the same basic experiences according to the beliefs and biases of the experiencer.

Culture does have immense influence on how we experience all kinds of things. Linguistic relativism shows how perception of time and space are formed through the language we use. This is also true of the voices people hear, that is to say voices without bodies. Tanya Luhrmann found that voice-hearers in collectivist societies tended to have more positive experiences of those voices. By the way, Luhrmann was originally drawn to this field of study by reading Jaynes’ book.

Cultural differences are seen with the fairy and fairy-like encounters. They can be perceived as good, evil, indifferent, or plain weird. Schizophrenics in Western countries, specifically the hyper-individualistic United States, are prone to less than happy hallucinations, auditory and otherwise. Few Westerners are able to access this state of mind without the extremes of stress, such as the Third Man Factor as happens during periods of danger, trauma, and grief. It requires a lot to force the Western mind outside of its thick ego boundaries of self-contained individualism. And the mind, when forced open, sometimes breaks.

There was a comment I saw where someone, an American, described a friend who became schizophrenic. This friend’s hallucinations weren’t only paranoid but also contagious, such as other people began hearing odd sounds on the phone while talking to this guy (something Keel describes as well). As one becomes more paranoid, the evidence justifying paranoia is manufactured or manifested and it can be quite compelling to those involved. To take notice of this Fortean field of consciousness is to have it take notice of you, to be drawn into it. And what you bring to the experience is mirrored back to you (albeit sometimes distorted), at least as experienced within one’s psyche. Jung considered UFO to be a manifestation of psyche, an imaginal expression of a symbol of wholeness. But for the schizophrenic in Western society, there is little social support for wholeness and so the psyche is splintered while simultaneously being obsessively focused, the hallucination becoming intensely real.

This is how cults form and given enough time a religion might get established. There are some interesting books that look into the phenomenon of UFO religions, which show us the early stage of religious formation. Consider Heaven’s Gate, the cult that committed mass suicide, maybe not the best way to ensure the promotion of your religion, but then many religions begin with death or persecution. Interestingly, the Heaven’s Gate leader was inspired by Star Trek. And Gene Roddenberry was in turn inspired to create Star Trek because of the channeling of The Council of Nine. The difference between a schizophrenic and a cult leader is simply a matter of how much charisma one has to command followers (related to what Jaynes refers to as authorization, such as happened with Franz Anton Mesmer).

This is the territory of mass hallucination and shared psychotic disorder (folie à deux). But in a sense, every culture is built on hallucination, that is imagination as social construction and ideological worldview. The only difference with a culture is that it happens to be a highly successful and powerfully compelling hallucination, taking hold of the minds and identities of a large population. All of civilization is an expression and enactment of profound fantasies that possess us, to such an extent we live out those fantasies with the full commitment of our being in the world.

When those fantasies diverge far enough from objective reality, that is when civilizations come to an end, often through following a cultural vision to its extreme. The hallucination of capitalist realism is at present remaking of the global world through climate change and in the end the earth might become uninhabitable for the human species or at the very least not conducive to the continuation of modern civilization as we know it. At the point of potential breakdown, the Fortean has a way of breaking into our world. UFOs, for example, were often observed during periods of mass conflict such as the foo fighters seen during World War II.

The fairy are messengers from our collective psyche, but few of us are capable of listening with a Fortean curiosity to match such Fortean experience. The significance is not what it seems but at the edge of what appears and what is yet to be. Our imagination forever precedes us. There is no objective standpoint to stand outside the flow of what we are becoming. The blue fairy makes our imaginings real, makes our wishes come true or else our fears.

* * *

4/23/18 – Some further commentary:

I left out some background to my thoughts. Recently in the news, there was reporting on a hierarchical sex slave cult. One of the key figures who was a head mistress earlier was an actress in the tv show Smallville. There is something about science fiction, odd belief systems, and cults. That is why I used the example of Star Trek, the Council of Nine, and Heaven’s Gage. But I just as easily could have referred to L. Ron Hubbard’s career, from science fiction writer to cult leader of Scientology. All of UFOlogy, as Keel and Vallee would attest, is mired in science fictions and cultish groups.

More broadly, there is the topic of blue fairies. I lied about not knowing why this was on my mind. I just didn’t feel like connecting back to previous posts, but I decided I should. One of those posts was from earlier in the month (Nature, Nurture, Torture), in which I explore the mythology of the blue fairy in greater detail. My interest goes many years back to the Bush administration (“What is Real?” asked the Rabbit one day…).

That earliest post discussed the psychology and mythology of transformation. Blue fairies are very much about transformation or else destruction, that is to say death of the self in one way or another, a far from easy process or necessarily even desirable considering how many people simply go mad (see John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies). There is a deep longing for what is real and genuine, a gnostic compulsion for Philip K. Dick I might add. This longing can be expressed as a desire to become real, to attain something of real value, or to find ultimate reality itself.

Otherwise, this can be the search for a new reality, to replace what no longer compels or functions. John Keel noted that, during times of difficulty and change, the archetypal and imaginal “men in black” would make their appearance in a guise appropriate to the cultural biases and personal expectations of the individual. The men in black were associated with other sightings, from the Mothman Keel studied to the Foo Fighters of World War II.

Fantasy becomes rather potent during times of threat and instability, whether on the personal level such as the third man factor or on a collective level as seen with some of these other cases. The Mothman was seen by many prior to a bridge collapsing that killed many people. And World War II, of course, killed far more. But it isn’t merely violence that elicits this fantasy-proneness. Others have observed that during periods of social uncertainty, there is a growing popularity of fantasy entertainment. This happened during the Great Depression when movie The Wizard of Oz was a great hit. When troubled, people don’t merely seek escape in fantasy for they also seek to imagine new possibilities through fantasy. And in some cases, this will lead them to start cults or to start revolutions.

We live in troubled times right now. And it stands out how popular fantasy entertainment has been since the 9/11 terrorist attack and continuing beyond the 2008 Great Recession. Some see us as having become lost in Fantasyland, a new post-fact era with a media personality as our president. It’s not entirely new, although maybe new forms of media technology have weaponized fantasy like never before.

About the blue fairy and men in black, it just occurs to me that some of the themes discussed here can be found in HBO’s Westworld, which deals with transformation and makes use of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory. Westworld even has a man in black who, though human, plays a role in the transformation that occurs and the havoc that follows. I doubt it is accidental that a show like that gets made at a time like this nor that it becomes so popular.

Westworld is all about self-awareness and social identity, self transformation and social change. Interestingly, we the viewer come to identify more strongly with the non-humans who, as in the PKD-inspired movie Blade Runner, in a sense become more convincingly real than the humans. It’s the Pinocchio story for an age of advanced science and technology, giving form to a vision of what our world is becoming.


Shadows of Moral Imagination

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee…”
– Song of Solomon 2:17

“The moral imagination,” Russel Kirk wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” He resurrected the Burkean moral imagination and maybe modernized it in the process. Jonathan Leamon Jones, similar to Gerald Russello and William F. Byrne, argues that Kirk’s moral imagination wasn’t modern but postmodern in its mistrust of metanarratives, including those of mainstream conservatives and radical right-wingers (others such as Peter Augustine Lawler go further in declaring that all of “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism.”).

Modernity is always the frame of the reactionary mind, as conservatism in operating within the liberal paradigm can’t help but be an endless response to and borrowing from liberalism. The attempt to speak for the pre-modern inevitably leads to a post-modern attitude, even as modernity remains securely in place. There is no ‘pre-modern’ and ‘post-modern’ without the modern that defines and frames it all.

Such is the case with the development of moral imagination, but as a consciously articulated notion it took form in conjunction with the mature rise of modernity. The French Revolution symbolized the end of the ancien regime. Edmund Burke wasn’t postmodern, that is for sure, since modernity was only then taking hold. And moral imagination has its roots in the distant past. One important difference to keep in mind is that Kirk’s moral imagination, as opposed for example to the reactionary imagination of a conservative-minded classical liberal like Jordan Peterson, included the social or sociological imagination (Peterson is so post-post-modern that he is all the more modern for it). Burke did speak of the social, but of course he lived long before social science and social constructivism. “I contend that,” Jonathan Leamon Jones writes,

“Kirk, as a figure more concerned with culture than politics, attempted to negotiate his conservatism as a denial of the “autonomous self” and as an acceptance of the social construction of life (guided by, in his case, religious and socially traditionalist norms developed over extended periods of time). What is shared with Lyotard is that his postmodernism rejects the “grand narratives” of liberalism (such as “autonomy” and “progress”) as well as collectivism (such as fascism, socialism, and communism). Even so, Kirk is grounded in what might be termed a metaphysical master narrative, one of divine interaction with humanity. And because human beings are sinful and severely lacking in knowledge, their statements about the world can only be provisional, subject to revision and circumstance.”

Burke was a professional politician of a partisan variety. Kirk was not, as he was more wary of formal politics, it ironically being in part because of his own interpretation of Burkean moral imagination that he avoided following Burke’s political example. It was Kirk’s moral imagination as a conservative that actually allowed him to vote for those who didn’t identify as conservative, since his moral imagination allowed him to put moral character and personal concerns above both narrow ideological dogmas and lockstep political partisanship.

Where Kirk resonates with Burke is maybe along the line of the Burke’s denial of natural law as a human-imposed abstraction that risked idealism and radicalism. This is an attitude that he shared with John Dickinson’s worldview of Quaker constitutionalism (a constitution not as a paper document, espoused dogma, or mission statement but as a living pact between God and a specific people). Natural law has been cited by conservatives in making claims of traditionalism, but it was used even more persuasively and powerfully by radicals and revolutionaries seeking divine authority above human law.

One might note that Burke came from a family that was originally Catholic whereas Kirk converted to Catholicism as an adult. And one might note that both Burke and Dickinson were educated by Quakers. The commonality between Catholicism and Quakerism is the heavy emphasis on the social, specifically the social imagination as expressed through social theology and social action, including social activism. The moral imagination ultimately is a social imagination, overlapping with what some simply call culture or what Daniel Everett describes as the dark matter of the mind (i.e., the sociocultural unconscious). The social component isn’t only about what defines imagination but also what constrains or focuses it. Enculturation as with conversion is all about moral imagination, as are social control measures from propaganda to perception management.

To continue with Jones’ analysis: “Kirk sought to guide the reader to that place where he made his “home” – the small, local networks of associations that echo Burke’s well-known “little platoons” of society. Set against the “modern” in ways at once superficial and philosophical, such guidance was placement in an uncertain yet transcendently-grounded “postmodern” time and place.”

This is where, I’d argue, Burke lost the thread of his own narrative. With the French Revolution, his fevered rantings and detached fantasies about distant royalty had nothing to do with human-sized “little platoons” at the local level of comunity, certainly nothing to do with the lived experience and real world concerns of the average person in France or England — as Thomas Paine put it: “He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

A major point Paine made was that modernity had destroyed those “little platoons” and that the remnants of that loss required moral re-imagining to compensate for what was stolen for that loss was intentionally caused by those who gained from it. Those in power had intentionally and actively targeted the destruction of those “little platoons” (the communities and commons of feudalism) and on the rubble they built the British Empire.

This created an insurmountable problem for the burgeoning conservative mind. Burke’s moral imagination had become untethered since, for whatever reason, he lacked Paine’s urgent sense of the living memory of the disappearing past. Maybe that is because Paine, in having come to the colonies as Burke never did, saw with his own eyes the Indian tribes living within their “little platoons” and so this concrete experience that no longer could be found in England ensured that Paine didn’t get mired in idealistic fantasies and ideological abstractions. In speaking of common sense, Paine was turning to the common past and gave voice to the most powerful vision of moral imagination of his generation.

Kirk’s moral imagination is the perception of others as moral beings as part of a moral community. That much I agree with and so would the likes of Thomas Paine. It is reminiscent of a distinction I often point to. Germanic freedom embraces this kind of moral imagination whereas Latin liberty does not, as freedom is etymologically related to friend and means being a free member of a free people whereas liberty originally meant just not being a slave in a slave-based society. This concern over a moral community is where Burke’s moral imagination met Paine’s common sense, not that either of them saw the connection.

Kirk’s ultimate failure as with Burke’s was a too limited imagining of moral imagination in that over time conservatism despite all its protestations to the contrary had shackled itself to ideological dogmatism and so denied the radical challenge (radical, etymologically-speaking, as going to the ‘root’) of moral imagination as it operates in the human mind and human society, an unwillingness to follow negative capability into the dark unseen realms of the collective psyche. In relation to the likes of Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, I might argue that Burke and Kirk were comparably superficial thinkers which is not entirely their fault since, in being products of a specific place and time, they both lacked education in such fields as linguistic relativism, anthropology, social constructivism, consciousness studies, etc; although Kirk seems to have had a broader a liberal education.

These two had an intuitively astute sense of the moral imagination while lacking the cognitive frame to fully and consciously articulate it, such is the sense I get from reading their writings and reading about their lives. In the end, there is something lacking and dissatisfying about the conservative constraints placed not just on the enactment of moral imagination but on its very definition and explication. Before beginning to explore it, moral imagination in these earlier texts had already been made into something small and manageable. In constructing a moral imagination into something usable for the modern conservative mind, maybe a few important parts get left and forgotten on the shop floor.

In looking for what has been lost, let’s return to the issue of modernity. For all that post-Enlightenment modernity gets blamed, the seeds of modernity including autonomous individuality and vast meta-narratives were planted during the Axial Age. The entire civilizational project following the Bronze Age has been a suppression and retooling of the moral imagination. According to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, earlier humanity was fully immersed in the moral imagination such that it was their entire lived reality, even to the point that the imagination was taken for (superimposed upon) reality and this imagination spoke to them in clear voices. The archaic moral imagination is no longer part of our paltry consciousness with ego boundary-walls that keep it all safely contained and controlled, such that the gods no longer are even a small inner voice to be heard at all.

For all its florid and flaunted fantasizing, Burke’s moral imagination is a pathetic, weak creature that is chained, beaten and starved if not yet fully subdued and domesticated. Burke wonders how moral imagination might serve us, but for archaic humanity they served at the behest of moral imagination. Burke’s censures of radicals was the replaying of Plato’s banishment of the ancient poets whose wild and unruly more-than-human imaginings threatened that aspiring civilizational order. Revolution wasn’t caused by a lack but by an excess of moral imagination, as it had become unleashed from millennia of oppression. Burke felt the necessity to philosophize about this fearsome moral imagination in order to safely put it back in its cage and then to lock the door to that Burkean wardrobe.

What Burke’s moral imagination and Kirk’s conservatism touched upon but never quite grasped is that Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions didn’t merely replace but were used as weapons to destroy and dismantle the traditions that came before, erasing the living memory of them from the the public mind. Conservatism, as a modern phenomenon, is a non-traditional tradition (within the liberal tradition itself that is the paradigmatic framework dominating and defining all of modernity). As such, conservatism inherently is a reactionary persuasion and there is no way to escape this for all the attempts at philosophical diversion and special pleading. There is no going back for the revolution, once begun, can’t be stopped. Moral imagination is a living fire that consumes the world and remakes it. And conservatives have played a key role in radically creating something entirely new.

Paine’s radical liberalism acknowledges the dire situation of tragic loss, not getting deluded in the process by nostalgic fantasies. And so Paine’s moral imagination seeks to engage the world rather than evade the situation. Kirk, in his friendship with the sociologist Richard Nisbett, maybe comes closer to seeing what Paine was pointing toward, the loss of community. But what Kirk didn’t understand is what community once meant, not just in the near past but centuries earlier. Consider the Jeffersonian freedom proclaiming each generation’s right to self-governance which seems like a radical and revolutionary ideal of the Enlightenment but in actuality was built on the Anglo-Saxon (and Scandinavian) tribal tradition in Britain, as written laws and constitutions were as abstractly modern as was ethno-nationalism and colonial imperialism. Jefferson was invoking the traditional moral imagination of a once free people and, such as his referencing the fight against Norman invasion, was quite explicit about it.

Burke ran up against this issue. He struggled to admit the problems of colonial and corporatist imperialism and to admit the impotence of his moral imagination in dealing with those problems, stating in a 1783 speech about the British East India Company that, “it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” This caused Burke to switch back and forth between progressive reformer and reactionary counterrevolutionary, at one moment criticizing empire and at the next reverencing its authority, at one moment defending the rights of corporations and next demanding a corporation be put under government control. Moral imagination, however it was dressed up, offered little guidance for making sense of the radical character of imperialism that was forcefully remaking the world. Rather than inducing moral clarity in Burke’s mind, the only thing moral imagination made easy was moral rationalization.

Kirk had an idiosyncratic take on conservatism, and such idiosyncrasy is common among conservatives because of the underlying reactionary impulse. Kirk’s conservatism wasn’t easily defined. It was a mindset, temperament, attitude, tendency, or even just a mood. He sometimes spoke in Catholic terms of a canon which simply means an argument made, one argument among many and so not conclusive. This conservatism was a supposed “negation of ideology,” a claim that is never convincing for anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The real issue, as I describe with symbolic conflation, is that the power of conservative ideology is precisely dependent on it being hidden. This is the purpose of obfuscation to which Burke applied moral imagination and Kirk found it likewise useful. Burkean moral imagination uses the mental wardrobe to veil the tender naked skin of truth, to keep it from the prurient eyes of the conscious mind and the harsh glare of Enlightenment thought. This is political ideology transformed into a vague and shifting theology of mysticification.

Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes at least back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration). Moral imagination when cut off from ideological worldview (in Louis Althusser’s sense) becomes an ideological realism that closes down the mind, as the eyes are drawn to the shadows cast on the cave wall.

Related to this, Kirk wrote that “a conservative impulse, if denied intelligent leadership and moral imagination, may be diverted banefully into ideological fanaticism.” Not quite right. Moral imagination is never denied for it is always present, if typically below the threshold of consciousness. Between Burke and Paine, the disagreement wasn’t over being for or against moral imagination but about what kind of moral imagination and to what end. Paine’s complaint was that Burke’s horror fantasies were abstractions of suffering disconnected from the real world experience of living humans. Kirk was less guilty of this, so it seems to me. Being a professional politician muddied Burke’s thinking, a problem Kirk tried to avoid in maintaining a more philosophical position.

Some have talked about moral imagination and more generally about the mind in terms of closed vs open, constrained vs unconstrained, thick boundary vs thin boundary, and similar categorizations that loosely correlate to conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Both serve purposes for the survival of the species and the functioning of society, but to be trapped in either one is problematic. Flexibility is the key, although this is a biased position for flexibility is a trait of the latter and not the former.

I’ve made the argument that the liberal mind can only operate during times of peace and tolerance. And this relates to how the liberal mind can allow space for the conservative mind in a way that is not possible the other way around, which is why liberalism can only operate under optimal conditions. And maybe liberal-mindedness is more common among tribal people with their low stress lifestyles, indicated by relaxed attitudes about sexuality among most hunter-gatherers. Consider my favorite example the Piraha who are extremely laid back and anti-authoritarian, disregarding hierarchical authority altogether.

This has to do with the circle of concern and the capacity to empathize. We can only empathize with those we perceive as moral beings, as humans like us. This is determined by our moral imagination. It is unsurprising that Edmund Burke, a professional politician operating in fear during a revolutionary era when his beloved British Empire was under threat, had a severely constrained attitude that did not only disallowed him to experience more openness toward others but made it hard for him to even imagine that such openness could be a part of human nature. His conservative-minded imagination excluded liberal-mindedness from his conception of moral imagination. We never know moral imagination in general for we can never step outside of our own moral imagination which typically is shared by those immediately around us.

What has changed over time is the expansion of moral imagination. Even those who identify as conservatives today are more liberal-minded than those who identified as liberals in the early 1800s, a time when liberals were divided over issues such as slavery. Much of what Burke complained about as dangerously radical has since become mainstream thought, even among conservatives today. Thomas Paine’s moral imagination won the struggle over hearts and minds, even as the struggle over Paine’s politics lags behind.

That is how it always happens, the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of society and politics, sometimes the one preceding the other by centuries. Heck, it took the Axial Age revolution of mind a couple of millennia to more fully take hold. And I might add that moral imagination in how we understand it as part of an intentional civilizational project (as opposed to an implicit experience of social reality) began with the Axial Age, as it was in the late Axial Age that religion and politics began to be thought about in explicit terms and as distinct categories, coinciding with the invention of rhetoric proper. Burke’s openly philosophizing about  and questioning the modern moral imagination demonstrated how far that millennia old revolution of mind had gone.

In explaining this phenomenon, Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that the arguments for something being right, true, or necessary become common knowledge long before public opinion and political will emerges to cause change to happen (such that most of the arguments against slavery used during the Civil War were widespread and well known prior to the American Revolution). It can take a long time for a society to assimilate new ideas and implement new ways of thinking, but eventually a change is triggered and the once unimaginable quickly becomes the new reality. Then as memory fades, the altered status quo dominates the collective moral imagination, as if it had always been that way.

We project our moral imagination onto reality without giving it much if any thought. No matter how philosophical we get about it, moral imagination can’t be disentangled from our experience of being in the world and being in relation with others. It is the substructure of our entire sense of reality. Our ideas about moral imagination are as likely to delude us as to enlighten us about how our moral imagination actually operates. That is because moral imagination is the territory of rhetoric and rationalization. It’s the stories we tell so often that we no longer realize they are stories, making us ripe for indoctrination and propaganda. But there is nothing inherently sinister about it, as this is simply the process of enculturation that is the basis of every society that has ever existed.

An early philosopher on moral imagination was Blaise Pascal. I don’t know that he ever specifically spoke of ‘moral imagination’, but he wrote extensively about morality and imagination. He appears to have been ahead of his time in many ways, having been born more than a century before Burke (some conservatives claim the both of them as ideological ancestors). Maybe his writings influenced Burke for it is highly probable that Pascal’s writings would have been familiar to many well educated English-speaking individuals in the 18th century. Pascal was one of the earliest thinkers to take seriously the impact of modernity, Jack Sherefkin claiming that he was “the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits.”

Sherefkin goes on to say that, “Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe.” The ancient experience of reality was unraveling and so moral imagination was let loose. Pascal lived during the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution because of the radical ideas (e.g., socialism) that emerged at the time. I’ve often thought that what Burke most feared wasn’t the foreign threat of the French Revolution but the homegrown tradition of British radicalism. It was the English, not the French, who first had the idea of beheading a king in order to establish a revolutionary ideal of social and political order. What Burke couldn’t admit was that, long before his birth, revolution and regicide had become established as part of the British moral imagination.

There is an interesting anecdote about the power of moral imagination. “During his final illness,” Mark Malvasi writes, “Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.” It’s similar to Burke’s view of the British Empire and monarchy for, though he could imagine reforming it, he couldn’t imagine a world without it. To Burke, imperialism and monarchism was the natural state of the British; despite the fact that both were foreign systems imported by the French Normans.

There is what has been called the banality of evil. It’s what blinds us to evil in normalizing it, often by way of the slow boiling frog effect. Describing his own experience and observations as a German during the Nazi rise to power, Milton Mayer shows how moral imagination operates:

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

What is so shocking about the Nazi regime is how normal life continued to be for the average German, right up to the point when war began. Nazism slowly became apart of the German moral imagination. This was only possible because there had been a long history that had already embedded authoritarian tendencies, anti-semitism, and such within the German psyche. The veneer of a free, democratic society kept obscure this dark underbelly. There was never a right moment for a German like Milton Mayer to revolt against German Nazism, as there never was a right moment for a British subject like Edmund Burke to revolt against the British Empire.

The same goes for Americans today with the American Empire. It has become inseparably a part of American identity, largely because American culture emerged from the British Empire with its moral imagination of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. It doesn’t matter that most Americans find it impossible to imagine their society as an empire. The relationship between collective imagination and objective reality tends to be tenuous at best, specifically in such a vast society that requires a vast meta-narrative.

Moral imagination is as much or more about what it denies than what it affirms. This includes how the moral imagination denies the claims of any competing moral imagination. As such, American conservatives deny the moral imagination of Native Americans and Hispanics whose traditional relationship to the land is far older than the ideological abstractions drawn and written on paper that American conservatives are mesmerized by. Most Mexicans are a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. With a long history of traveling ranch workers and migrant farm workers, the moral imagination of Latinos in North America is rooted in a profound living memory that can’t be erased by legal and ideological abstractions. Well into the 20th century, Mexicans continued to freely cross the ‘border’ as their ancestors had been doing for centuries or millennia before there was any border. This demonstrates the absolute polarized conflict and contradiction between conservatism and traditionalism. The conservative mind is enthralled by imagined abstractions such as lines drawn on maps, no matter what is asserted by traditional authority of local organic communities.

Consider an even more contentious issue. Abortion has become a defining feature of modern American conservatism. But abortion wasn’t a central concern, even for Christians, until quite recently. In fact, abortions used to be quite common. Not that long ago, any American woman could find a local doctor who would perform an abortion (my great great grandfather was a rural abortion doctor). Even when there were some laws about abortion, they were rarely enforced and everyone in communities knew doctors performed abortions. Abortion is a practice that has early origins in Anglo-American and English society. One can go back even further in reading about how common was not only abortion but infanticide and exposure in much of the ancient world. Sickly and unwanted babies were a potentially dangerous liability prior to modern medicine and the modern welfare state.

If conservative moral imagination is supposed to be about tradition, there is no ancient established social norm about abortion. So, what is the moral imagination about for an issue like abortion? Conservatives often say it is about the sanctity of life. But that is obviously bullshit. Countries that ban abortions have higher rates of abortions, albeit illegal, than do countries that don’t ban them. This is because liberal policies effectively decrease unwanted pregnancies and so eliminate much of the need for abortions. As often is the case, there is a severe disconnect between moral imagination and moral realities. In the end, moral imagination is about social control in enforcing a particular moral order. It’s not that babies shouldn’t die but that loose women who get pregnant should be punished as sinners for that is the divine decree within the moral imagination of contemporary conservatives — such a god-tyrant still haunting the imaginations for many on the political right even after their formal religious faith is lost or weakened.

This fundamentalist deity, as with all of fundamentalism, is a modern invention. As with conservatism in general, fundamentalism didn’t exist prior to modernity. The reactionary mind that provokes this re-imagining only comes into being once the traditional power and authority of the ancien regime was in decline, and that ancien regime experienced its fatal blow centuries before the modern American culture warriors decided to obsess over sexuality. Burke had more of an insight into this. He clearly demarcated moral imagination and natural law, not mistaking the one for the other, as he didn’t believe in natural law. What Burke admitted that many modern conservatives won’t is that moral imagination is built on human customs accruing over time, not on divine commandment decreed at the beginning of time. Burke was a devout Christian but at a time when fundamentalism hadn’t yet fully formed.

Moral imagination isn’t about the world itself, rather about our place in the world. As the world shifts, so does our moral imagination and the entire context for what we are able to imagine. It is a constant process of forgetting about what came before. Living memory is a flame in the darkness and imagination is the shadows on the cave wall. The most radical act of imagination may not be in imagining something entirely new but remembering something forgotten in order to see what was unseen, which happens when moral imagination turns back toward the source of light. It is only in emerging awareness that we can challenge the stories that possess our minds and then tell a different story that speaks more honestly about our shared origins. How we imagine the past determines how we imagine all else.

* * *

Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination
by Mark Collier

David Hume endorses three statements that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion toward their plight, (2) adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion toward those we perceive to be in distress because associative sympathy leads us to mirror their emotions, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of distant strangers involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect on how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives a good deal of support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination

Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace
by Robert Wright

It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum. […]

In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process. […]

Moral Imagination

The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside. […]

[T]he point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.

In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.

It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.

In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.

And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.

It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Brain Pickings

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth
Brain Pickings

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
by William Wood
pp. 137-139

The Imagination Bestows Value

The preceding analysis raises an important question. If the heart produces immediate moral sentiments, and if those sentiments are both true and compelling, then why does anyone ever act immorally? Why do we not always act in accordance with our sentiments? Pascal’s response to this question leads back to his famous critique of the imagination. Even though our moral sentiments have the felt sense of truth, according to Pascal, we are also strongly motivated to believe that our imaginative fantasies are true. If it is the heart that responds to the perceived value of moral goods, it is the imagination that bestows value on them in the first place. As a result, even though we do respond immediately to moral goods, we typically perceive those goods only after they have already been filtered through a haze of imaginative fantasy. Without repeating the discussion of the imagination in Chapter 2, recall that, according to Pascal, the imagination can “fix the price of things” and so invest moral goods with value. Moreover, “Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness which is the world’s supreme good” (L44/S78).

Pascal’s account of the socially constructed imagination reveals that he is not just an ethical intuitionist but a social intuitionist. A social intuitionist recognizes that people are “intensely social creatures whose moral judgments are strongly shaped by the judgments of those around them.” While moral intuitions may be innate to everyone, social intuitionists claim that people acquire most of their particular moral intuitions through custom and habituation — that is, through their participation in thick cultural webs of moral practice. Once again, although social intuitionism currently enjoys pride of place among empirically oriented moral psychologists, there has been no recognition that Pascal is an early advocate of its key claims. Social intuitionists often look for inspiration from David Hume, or even Aristotle, without ever recognizing that Pascal is an even closer cousin to their own work. Moreover, Pascal is able to wed a social-intuitionist ethics to a full-blooded account of moral and axiological realism, something that contemporary social intuitionists often find themselves unwilling or unable to do.

Both the imagination and the heart are cognitive and affective faculties. The heart intuitively grasps moral and spiritual goods, and perceives moral beauty (L308/S339). Yet it is also an affective faculty associated with loving and desiring. Like the heart, the imagination also unites various cognitive and affective functions into a single faculty. In its cognitive aspect, the imagination allows us to form mental representations. These representations include theeveryday images by which we inwardly grasp the things that we perceive with our external senses. In its affective dimension, the imagination bestows value on goods. Although Pascal does not directly speculate about how the heart and the imagination would work if human beings had not fallen, it seems clear that the heart should perceive moral goods accurately, leading us to love and desire them according to their true value. Similarly, the imagination should also correspond to the world as it is, and supply us with accurate mental representations. In both cases, there should be no conflict between what is true and what we find beautiful. A moral agent that is not fallen would accurately perceive the beauty of spiritual goods and would love them as a result.

Instead, after the Fall, the imagination has become a “proud power” that oversteps its bounds and creates moral value independently, setting “the same mark on true and false alike” (L44/S78), and the heart has become “hollow and foul” (L139/S171). The sinner rejects the sentiments of the heart — the seat of conscience — and instead acts on the basis of the false, self-serving fantasies of the imagination.

Although Pascal usually focuses on the way we excessively magnify the value of our own selves, any object may be imaginatively invested with more value than it can bear: one may build up a fantasy about a commodity (a new car, for example), a specific self-understanding (of oneself as being just the kind of dashing person who would drive such a car), or some other pursued goal (making enough money to buy the car). The possibilities are endless. In each case, however, the perceived value of the object sought is a function of how it is imaginatively construed.

Although Pascal recognizes that the imagination is central to the moral life, his thought challenges the sometimes facile claims of contemporary narrative ethicists and those who would look to the “narrative imagination” for moral renewal. Pascal reminds us that the imagination is not just the locus of individual creative genius and speculative possibility. It is also a socially constructed repository for the (often immoral) dispositions and values of the wider world. Far from being the initial launching pad for moral critique, the imagination is often itself the faculty most in need of such critique. Furthermore, Pascal would remind us that reorienting the moral imagination is no simple matter. Certainly it is not just a matter of reading the right novels or passages from scripture, imaginatively identifying with the right moral exemplars, or trying to dream up new possibilities for moral community. Because the imagination is socially constructed, reorienting the imagination requires something like a massive program of counter-habituation, comparable to becoming a native member of a wholly new society. In short, reorienting the imagination would require something that looks quite a lot like an ongoing program of religious conversion. Pascal therefore sounds an important note of caution about the moral possibilities of imagination.

* * *

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
Poised on a Knife Edge
The Haunted Moral Imagination
A Phantom of the Mind
The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Orderliness and Animals
On Rodents and Conservatives
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Lock Without a Key
On Truth and Bullshit
Sincere Bullshit
Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs
Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds
Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation
Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination
Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
Foundations and Frameworks
The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart
A Conflict of the Conservative Vision
Avatar: Imagination & Culture
Our Shared Imagination
The Way of Radical Imagination
Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With
Vision and Transformation
The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand
Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
The World that Inhabits Our Mind
Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Revolution and Apocalypse
To Imagine and Understand
Fantasyland, An American Tradition
Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia
Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
The Elephant That Wasn’t There
Stories: Personal & Collective
The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Know
A Compelling Story
A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning
A Story of Walking Away
Conscious Dreaming, Conscious Self
Dark Matter of the Mind