Friday, March 6, 2009

Empower the rich to fight the rich? Sounds like a perverted attempt at a joke

When you are a liberal or progressive activist, you keep having the same few conversations with your friends-- about some aspect of the movement, politics, society, and your own lives-- over and over again. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me when I was a young activist in college. One of those conversations that seemed to come up again and again was the participation of the affluent in the movement.

One matter on which Aristotle was right I think is that human societies really are in one or two respects like a bee-hive or an ant-colony. Insect communities like those of ants or bees contain several types of individuals possessing different behaviors, which coincide with different types of work necessary to the survival of the community. Similarly, it’s just plain wrong to think that any one or two individuals alone can stand as a sufficient biological example of the human race that can be expected to survive and thrive in the species’ habitat. Humans, like bees and ants, have survived because our diverse heritable instincts and diverse heritable psychological characteristics are necessary for survival. Among humans, it is easy to see that an individual who becomes effective at the occupation of a righteous, fair judge is simply not interchangeable with one who becomes effective in the occupation of, say, a vice cop in a violent neighborhood, or an elementary school teacher-- they are not interchangeable not only in terms of their training, but also in terms of their inclinations and attitudes. To give some more basic examples, throughout pre-history and history, it’s certainly sometimes been a shy person whose personality left him prone to make the right decision in a perilous situation, and other times the availability of a bold yet stupid person was what allowed a community to test an option that ultimately proved to be the avenue they needed for survival. Without a multitude of personality characteristics that are not all possessed by one single individual, communities would have been wiped out. There is no such thing, among humans, as a super-individual who by him- or herself alone posseses all the traits that can best promote that individual’s survival in diverse situations. This differentiation of behavior exists not just across the lines of profession, but also across class lines.

With this background it is easy to see how in terms of politics, certain stratas of our society can hurt the society as a whole, or just hurt the left-wing movement. For example, over the course of the history of the left-wing, it has probably been all too natural for people from upper-class backgrounds to assume or hold leadership positions. This mirrors the fact that in the society as a whole, rich people hold powerful positions, and do not “fall far from the tree”-- if a person’s parents are rich and privileged, an individual is likely to remain rich or privileged throughout the person’s lifetime. And this persistence in leadership and privilege may come about due to certain heritable personality characteristics which will not necessarily promote the movement to be large, strong, or even ideologically healthy or pure as time goes on. For examples, perhaps the genetic reason rich people accrue more benefits than others is that they just are more pushy than other people, feel more entitled than other people, or care less about other people. While it is easy to see that these characteristics may certainly help you build a big company, they do not at all by the same token make you more likely to be vigilant against, for examples, the left-wing movement becoming corrupt, activism being conducted in a stupid or inefficient way, ideology not being developed well or fully (so that policy will properly protect people, or so that the movement will attract a lot of supporters), thw wicked and the conservative being opposed boldly, vigorously, thoughtfully, and constantly enough, and so on. So investigating the question of whether an upperclass person is the best person to hold a leadership position in the left wing is more likely to show us, I think, that in a variety of situations and contexts, this kind of individual as a left-wing leader is more likely to turn out to be a mixed bag in a lot of contexts than they are a clear benefit. Obviously, being from a certain certain class, in and of itself, does not make any individual a better person than anyone else, nor does it of course make them some kind of ideal person. The specific problems an upper-class person may have as a leader of any kind of left-wing endeavor might be classism, a lack of a background in lower-class lifestyle, attitude, or expectations, an inability to effectively communicate with or judge individuals from a lower-class background, and so on. Of course, like anyone else, upper-class people tend to see themselves favorably as individuals and thus are not as likely to see that they have these kinds of deficiencies than other people might be. So, largely, it is not for upper-class people to tell us whether they are qualified to be leaders or not-- it is up to left-wing activists from more humble backgrounds to be on the alert to make sure these people do not gain too much control, and to work actively to exclude them from gatheirng too much leadership power.

It is easy to see how all of this has played out in the history of the left wing. While it should have been obvious to left-wingers that people who come from a background that is raised or genetically desigend to despise other people and oppress them would not be the best to write the story of the movement and to give the speeches, over the course of history these people have pushed their way into leadership positions in the left-wing (basically just as another hobby of the idle rich, like fox-hunting, yachting, and golf; or perhaps as a form of adolescent rebellion against their parents). As could be expected and should have been expected, these people brought the same inherited personality characteristics to running the left-wing as they would have brought to running their parents’ corporations mercilessly and unethically, and what we have gotten as results from this are (for example) things like the USSR-- a horribly corrupt, criminal and oppressive state that actually openly ran both a gulag (Siberian political prisons), and a huge terror-organization (the KGB) that oppressed people within the USSR (and abroad) at least as horribly as, say, the Nazi Gestapo did in WWII-era Europe. As a further example, even though the record of the USSR as anything but a good example of the values and goals of the left-wing continued to mount over the course of decades to the point that it became at least as ridiculous to defend the USSR as it was to defend O.J. Simpson against the charges that he was involved in his wife’s murder, many First-World liberal activists with personality characteristics that should have completely disqualified them from holding important leadership and spokesperson positions in our movement continued to defend and champion terror-states like the USSR. Clearly this discredited our movement and contributed to stunting our proper ideological development/growth, since young people who were interested in left-wing politics often must have assumed that a large ostensibly left-wing effort like the USSR must have gotten policy and ideology figured out pretty well, and that all that was left was for the individual activist to do was to shut up, accept the authority of the super-power socialist state, or at least to mimic its ideology- and policy-preferences-- and especially when the USSR got the endorsement of older, more experienced liberals in the First World. Very ironically, this implicit opposition to critical thought on policy and ideology that the fascist, cruel upper-class created in our movement looks just like the senseless form of orthodoxy that any smart left-winger very naturally and rightly begins to feel opposed to in his or her own nation or community at (often) an early age.

Conclusion: The participation and especially leadership of upper-class individuals is a positive threat to the welfare of our movement, and activists have to be very vigilant about how these upper-class people participate in the movement. They have to do this despite any superficial admiration or feelings of friendship they may have developed for specific individuals, and they have to try to do it without absolutely excluding the rich or discouraging their labor or participation too much.


Any liberal who thinks that Soviet totalitarianism/communism was something to aspire to or even merely ok is a problem. This should be obvious from, say, reading about the horrible political prisons and repression/repression of public opinion in the GDR/East Germany, and reading about the Soviet/KGB cooperation (or should I say control) involved in all of that.

Many liberals who support states like the USSR are simply ridiculous. Treating the notion that the USSR was ok as aphoristic or unquestionable for a liberal certainly is a ridiculous idea, at least. Liberals who hold that idea are often not much different from kids who fill the detention halls in a high school, or drop out of high school-- just too lazy to educate themselves.

I know that for a lot of liberals, the unthinking answer to what I wrote above about states like the Soviet Union and Cuba is some version of "Well, if the only danger that threatens a liberal society from being able to exist is opposition, then oppression may be necessary."

In a movement that has become too often unwilling or unable to give the simple answer dumb concerns like these call for, I give the simple answer required:
For a society to be really free or really worthwhile, it has to be capable of withstanding freedom of speech. The only contexts when true repression of speech on political issues is necessary or adviseable are very specific, transitory wartime contexts (such as perhaps anti-war speech, made during a war that is necessary for the state’s safety, in a specific province that is likely to erupt in a rebellion that could cause terrible harm to the nation if the speech is allowed). For this reason, no liberal movement should subscribe or sign its support to policy or practices that invalidate political speech based on the speech’s having some specific political content, and support of freedom of speech should always be the default liberal policy. This does not mean, of course, that individuals should be allowed to dirupt our political meetings so that they cannot function, or anything like that-- instead it’s just a stance on a public policy issue.

Another worthless dodge is the idea that if only the USSR or other states like it had been successful enough to conquer more capitalist nations, they would have somehow inevitably grown adequately benign in their policies to be free, worthwhile states, and that this justifies their oppression of private civilians during those states’ times of weakness and vulnerability. The fallacy of this idea is shown by the example of China, which is a rich nation that still has a vast, miserable, oppressed population, as well as the typical illicit grossly rich population typical of modern communist nations and other totalitarian or facist states. What really accounts for how the civilians are treated are the characteristics of the leadership, and the characteristics of the leadership of China and the USSR have basically been that they are or were a bunch of opportunists or people who don’t care about the masses, who are posing under a socialist rationale in order to support their authority. These characteristics do not simply dissappear because the predator becomes more successful at victimizing people (e.g., conquers more relatively free states that they can enslave the populations of).