The Zizek-Peterson quasi-debate on Capitalism and Marxism

In the world of the Internet, there are rising so-called popular “public intellectuals” as contrasted with a well-established and respected intellectual such as Noam Chomsky. Among these are Slavoj Zizek of Slovenia, and Jordan Peterson of Canada. Because of their great popularity and apparent polarity, a confrontation between the two was a much hyped event, and apparently it was a very successful show. It was billed under the title: Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism. Peterson is a defender of Capitalism; while Zizek calls himself a type of Marxist. Here is how the awaited clash between Capitalism and Marxism played out during their confrontation on April 19, 2019 in Toronto, Canada:

Because of the widespread interest this confrontation aroused, it is also an event that resulted in a host of post-mortem analyses, which I found in some cases to be more insightful then the confrontation itself, and I recommend that you listen to some of them. [see below]

My own criticism of the confrontation is that neither of them knows what they are talking about. They are allegedly talking about Capitalism, but in fact they are talking about some peripheral issues arising from Capitalism — like inequality and unhappiness.

Do they ever define “capitalism”? No. Both Karl Marx and Max Weber understood capitalism as a politico-economic system in which the majority of people are barred from owning and using land for free. Such people are called proletarians. And because they are politically barred from the free use of land, they are forced to sell themselves to others for wages.

The result is economic inequality.

Peterson focuses on abstract inequality as if this was the intrinsic evil, and defends the existence of inequality as a natural by-product of unequal talents, competition, and luck. Granted. But that is not the inequality under consideration by Marx or Weber.

The original inequality of having or not having access to land is the result of aggression. If one wishes to look at this from the vantage point of warrior talent or the ability to organize a warrior band or army, then yes, that is the origin of the inequality. [I recommend the small book by Franz Oppenheimer, The State, as an expanded analysis and substantiation of this thesis.]

Neither Peterson nor Zizek focus on this phenomenon of the creation of classes through conquest. The result is that they talk about inequality abstracted from its origin in aggression and conquest.

There is, however, one segment of their interchange in which Zizek criticizes from the right perspective, and in which Peterson has a very weak defense. This has to do with the phrase “post-modern neo-Marxism.” Here is the segment:

Peterson produces the phrase “post-modern neo-Marxism” from two errors. The first error is to abstract from the Marxist idea of an aggressive division of people as land owners and the landless, resulting in inequality, and then calling any kind of inequality an extension of Marxism as neo-Marxism.

The other erroneous reason he gives — which is in his imagination and also at best true only by association — is the claim that French Marxists, as a result of the discreditation of Marxism by the deeds of Stalin, shifted their focus from economic class inequality to all sorts of other cultural inequalities. So, for Peterson a Marxist who broadens his concern to include all sorts of inequalities is a neo-Marxist. And since these neo-Marxists also happen to be post-modernists; hence the amalgam “post-modern neo-Marxists.”


Some Post-Mortems of the Zizek-Peterson Quasi-Debate

Eli Rotenberg

David Doel

Peter Joseph

Timothy Snyder’s Red Herrings in “The Road to Unfreedom”

I have not read his book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” but I have watched a few of his lectures on this book. I think I have picked up some of his leading ideas.

My overall judgement is that Timothy Snyder is involved in colossal Red Herrings. To call an argument a “red herring” is to say that it is focused on the wrong thing relative to some problem. By this I mean that he is diverting our attention from where the more important problems lie: it introduces peripheral, marginal matters. This is not to say that the diversion is wrong in what it claims, it is rather to say that what it focuses on is irrelevant or relatively so.

Since the title of his book is “The Road to Unfreedom,” it suggests, at least by associated titles, such works as Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and Bertrand Russell’s “Proposed Roads to Freedom.” I mention these, but that is all.

Snyder begins with two implicit mythical views on the trajectories of history: an optimistic one, which he calls the “politics of inevitability,” and a pessimistic one, which he calls the “politics of eternity.” I don’t know why he chose these neologistic phrases, and I don’t know why the word “politics” is used. What these phrases describe is what Popper called “historicist” views — attempts to discern (mythical) patterns in history. And Snyder does recognize them as mythical.

The overtly optimistic one, which is akin to Fukuyama’s claim that we have reached the end of history, is the idea that capitalism and representative democracy have now — so to say — conquered the world. We are now on a unalterable progressive path into the future.

The pessimistic view is that we are — as always — surrounded by ever emergent enemies. History is a cyclical pattern of fighting with enemies. It is always “us” against “them.” It is a nationalistic view, and, according to Snyder, ultimately fascist.

Snyder, himself, views these two implicit beliefs as myths because, as he believes, the future is not determined and cannot be predicted, but it can be shaped through effort. He calls this political effort, the “politics of responsibility.” What he means by this, I think he expressed in his previous book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century.” On the Bill Maher show, on which he appeared just after publishing his book, he was asked to name the top three lessons. Here is what he said. The first is: “Don’t obey in advance” by which he means figure it out for yourself — be critical. The second: “Defend institutions.” I think he meant something like “defend the US Constitution.” The third: “Believe in truth.” I suppose this is a prescription against post-modernism.

Furthermore, he sees the “politics of inevitability” shaping the policies of the United States and Europe, and the “politics of eternity” shaping the policies of Russia.

Why are these Red Herrings?

Let me explain why all this is a red herring for me — a diversion. We have one general political problem in the world: we are ruled by single individuals. We used to have hereditary monarchies; now we have forced dictatorships or elected dictatorships with restricted powers.

Forced dictatorships, we understand; democratic dictatorships are the result of a widespread myths about inherent worth of both capitalism and democracy.

Snyder’s book is a red herring because it does not address the roots of our problems which is, from a Marxist perspective, capitalism, and from an anarchist perspective, “liberal” democracy. He bypasses these, that is why his discussion is for me a red herring.

I take it that an imperialistic country like the United States, with its “politics of inevitability,” fights its wars openly and aggressively. While Russia — a weaker power — resorts to a new form of clandestine, hybrid warfare and propaganda. Hybrid warfare, on the one hand, was introduced by Russia in Crimea by sending in Russian soldiers in green uniforms bearing no insignias. And both Putin and these soldiers denied being Russian soldiers, with a general denial of any Russian involvement. Hybrid propaganda, on the other hand, is the injection into cyberspace of a spectrum of fake “facts” resulting in a public confusion and anxiety. In this way, the enemy is defeated not from without, but from within.

All this is true. But what does it have to do with the fact that we have capitalism, and “democratic” governments which support capitalism?

On the Bill Maher show, Bill pointed out that President Donald Trump has done things which are reminiscent of such dictators as Hitler. This led to a reminder of two points. The first one was stressed by Maher that Hitler was democratically elected. But, instead of focusing on what is the nature of democracy to allow someone like Hitler to emerge and take power, Snyder immediately went to point out that Hitler used the Reichstag fire to blame a set of enemies and curtailed rights of citizens. Snyder’s point was that democracy can turn to dictatorship on the pretext of some national emergency. Yes, but under what kind of democracy is this possible? Is it possible, for example, under Swiss democracy? Again, instead of perhaps suggesting the need for a different type of democracy, Snyder, instead, advises us to mobilize and protest for our rights.

The situation in the world is this. Capitalism is almost completely universal. And in almost every country there is a leader — either elected democratically or not. If elected, he is either a president or a prime minister (some have both). If he is not elected, he is either a monarch or a dictator. And in every country there is a privileged class of government officials and oligarchs.

Snyder does not define “fascism.” But I would call any country that (1) has a leader and (2) restricts freedom of speech — fascist (though the term applies historically only to Mussolini’s Italy). I suppose I would use the term “totalitarian” where there is suppression of the freedom of speech (Popper’s “closed society”) regardless of the form of government.

Snyder disregards any criticism of the forms of government he is considering, which are all forms of one person rule. And when talking about democracy, he means “liberal democracy,” which is representative mass or macro democracy in which thousand and millions elect a leader. He does not consider other forms of democracy. Snyder ignores Switzerland which has a seven-member Federal Council, and he is oblivious to anarchism, which would be a bottom-up type of democratic government composed of nested councils. I suppose he disregards these alternatives as apparently unrealistic — but they are possible alternatives, nonetheless. In other words, he is not interested in a criticism of either capitalism or democracy — save for recommending his “politics of responsibility.”

Snyder introduces more red herrings with the following. He says that the political problems for any regime are two-fold: the problem of succession and the problem of inequality. (Although inequality brings discontent, I would say that the real problem is poverty — not having enough for subsistence.) And the root cause of this is preventing people from having a free access to subsistence land (which happens to be the necessary condition for capitalism) — but Snyder is totally oblivious to this.

As to political succession, the West deals with this problem democratically, while Russia, under Putin, has become fascist — with no clear principle of succession. On the other hand, the West deals with the problem of inequality by allowing a “theoretical” social mobility. While in Russia, there is the Platonic idea that justice requires knowing your place in society — hence, Snyder’s idea of “eternity” in contrast to mobility.

As he pursues these red herrings, he claims that in order to understand Russia, we must understand Putin, and to understand Putin, we must understand the philosophy of Ivan Ilyin. And from this perspective, Snyder views Ivan Ilyin as the most important (i.e., influential) philosopher of out time. Ilyin advocated a form of Christian fascism. His ideas: Democracy should be a ritual exercise (rigged). There should be no social advancement. Freedom is knowing what your place is. Factuality or truth does not matter if it serves a higher purpose. The end justifies the means. The world is defective; everyone lies. Nationalism is to prevail.

I am dubious about looking to sacred books to explain the deeds of dictators. I find it implausible to explain Stalin’s barbarity by way of Marx. As I find it implausible to explain Putin’s hybrid tactics by way of Ilyin. The better way to explain Stalin, Hitler, Putin, or any leader, is better served by reading Machiavelli. There is, however, more reason in explaining theocratic practices such as the Inquisition by the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Bible, and Sharia law by an appeal to the Koran. But when it comes to secular individuals, they have their own reasons and their own interpretations.

A necessary condition for Capitalism and a sufficient condition for Socialism

In the following presentation, Cohen presents an analogy between Al Capp’s creature, the Shmoo, and subsistence land. The Shmoo provides everything a person needs to survive, as does subsistence land.

Using Cohen’s analogy, socialism is the system which provides free access to the Shmoo, or, literally, free access to subsistence land. And capitalism is the system which does not. I understand that capitalism is a market economy — but that cannot be a sufficient condition for capitalism because barter or a free exchange of goods has always existed — under slavery and under feudalism. What unites slavery, feudalism, and capitalism is the denial of free access to subsistence land.

A necessary — though not a sufficient — condition for Capitalism is the prohibition of free access to subsistence land.

By contrast, I propose that the sufficient — though not a necessary –condition for Socialism is the right to a free access to subsistence land, or its equivalent (such as a universal basic income).

Correcting Bad Writing

The following letter was sent to my friend, Vitalij Keis, who was teaching a composition course in English at Rutgers (Newark), and had asked students to write a composition in response to some of my pieces on abortion to the editor of Scranton Times (c. 1980ies). He sent me one of these student essays, and asked for my response. Here is the response which I sent him. [I have no date — but it must have been in the 80ies.]

This essay, written in the form of a response to a student composition, is intended for a general audience — it is not intended to be a private correspondence.

My good friend Vitalij sent me your composition essay requesting that I respond. Your own essay is, I assume, a response to a series of "letters to the editor" which I had written several years ago [about abortions]. My views are no longer exactly the same when I wrote those pieces — but they are close enough to warrant a defense. [See my “Concepts of Persons and Morality” (1992).]


I

Let me start with an observation about attitudes toward polemical writing.

(1) As I see it, in engaging in polemical writing one may have victory as a goal — by whatever means. And the easiest way to achieve such "victory" is by misrepresenting the opponent’s thesis or arguments. This can be done in different ways.

(a) A common way is the straw man tactic — simply attribute to your opponent a thesis or arguments which he does not in fact hold, and then destroy the thesis or arguments.

(b) Another one is the red herring tactic. Pick on some irrelevant side issue, draw out its bad consequences, and then claim that you have discredited the main thesis.

(2) A different attitude, the one I prefer, is to try to understand your opponent’s position — even improve it — and then try to find faults with it or agree with it. This attitude expresses an interest in a dialectical search for truth — rather than some kind of "victory" over the opponent.

Writing with the first attitude is a bad policy for two reasons. The first is that it expresses a narrowness or meanness of character. The second is that it is ineffective, except to those who are prejudiced to the conclusion in the first place. The better policy is to work under the assumption that readers are sophisticated enough to see wool pulled over their eyes. And it is for these sophisticated readers that one should write.

II

Let me try to follow my own advice and try to be critically fair to your essay.

In writing polemically, I assume that whoever is reading my piece is not familiar with my (opponet’s piece; so, my very first task is to quickly tell the reader what was claimed by my opponent and what I think of the claim.

Your thesis, despite what you have written under the heading "thesis," is that most (all?) abortions should be illegal; and the argument that is implicit in your essay can be reconstructed in some such way as follows:

  1. The legal policy on abortions should be guided by morality.
  2. Whatever is immoral should be illegal.
  3. Morality is a matter of following "conscience."
  4. The "conscience" of the Supreme Court has ruled that many abortions are legal.
  5. Some decisions ("conscience") of the Supreme Court have in the past been immoral.
  6. The Supreme Court is, therefore, fallible.
  7. Never follow the dictates of a fallible source.
  8. My conscience is infallible.
  9. My conscience tells me that most (all?) abortions are immoral.
  10. Therefore, most (all?) abortions should be illegal.

I don’t know if you would agree with this reconstruction of a possible argument for your position, but it does contain the kinds of premises which have to be considered if the argument is going to be valid. As it stands, the argument, unfortunately, is not sound because it contains several false premises. I will point out some of these false premises in section IV. (A sound argument is a valid argument containing only true premises.)

III

Your thesis — the point you are arguing for — is not really the claim labeled ‘thesis’, which you formulate as:

Essentially, I don’t believe that America should restrict itself to following the terms of personhood set forth by a potentially fallible court.

This sentence neither clearly expresses your (polished) thought nor does it express your thesis (which is that most (all?) abortions should be illegal). Let me point out some difficulties with your formulation. The word ‘potentially’ is redundant. And the word ‘restrict’ seems to be doing no work in this context. A neater formulation would be:

Essentially, I don’t believe that America should follow the terms of personhood set forth by a fallible court.

The trouble with this formulation is that I am not clear about the word ‘terms’ in the phrase ‘terms of personhood’. What you meant, I take it, is something like ‘judgment about personhood’. Anyway, that is a better formulation. So, an improved version of your thesis is:

Essentially, I don’t believe that America should follow the judgment about personhood set forth by a fallible court.

Now comes a problem with ambiguity. The Supreme Court can make

(i) judgments about what is true or false,
and it can make
(ii) judgments about which rules (laws) to enact.

And these two types of judgments should be distinguished. Conflating them can cause nothing but confusion — as it did in your essay.

The court is, as everyone is, fallible about judgments of fact. However, as concerns the enactment of rules, it is improper to speak of "fallibility" in the same sense. Perhaps some other valuative term could be used for this purpose — like "bad", "imprudent," "unwise," "infelicitous." For illustration, think of the Supreme Court (or the legislature) enacting a rule to the effect that cars will drive on the right side of the road on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday; and on the left side on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Would you say that the rule is "mistaken", and that the court made a mistake in fact? No, the better comment is to say that the court enacted a bad — even a dangerous — rule. The court made a prudential mistake, an unwise decision — not a mistake as to fact. Let us mark this distinction in kinds of mistakes by talking about ‘fallibility-f and ‘fallibility-r’, respectively for ‘factual fallibility’ and ‘rule fallibility’.

Given this ambiguity in making a "judgment" about personhood, did the court make a judgment of fact or did it enact a rule? This can also be put the following way: In providing a definition are we involved in a judgment of fact or in enacting a rule?

To get a better grip on this question, we need to distinguish a lexical definition from a stipulative definition. A lexical definition is a factual report about linguistic usage, and it is the business of (fallible) dictionary writers to discover them. A stipulative definition is one that is made by decree, as in "I decree that the word ‘glaut’ will mean ‘a person who has political clout in a college’."

My approach and the Supreme Court’s is to provide a stipulative definition of personhood. Citing the Riverside Dictionary’s "lexical" definition of ‘person’ as a ‘human being’ is relevant only to a degree. The lesson of the dictionary is this: if the stipulative definition of ‘person’ is to overlap with usage, some human beings must be considered persons. In one of my letters I pointed out that some people describe God as a person, and that it may also be a good policy to describe rational extra-terrestrials as persons. (Did you forget this? Or was this omission a polemical ploy?) On the ground, then, that some people think of God as a person and would consider rational extra-terrestrials to be persons there is reason to depart from the lexical definition of a person and provide a stipulative one instead.

Stipulative definitions — which are a matter of decision — come in degrees of goodness or badness relative to some goal. And you yourself cite some examples of bad decisions which were made by the Supreme Court in the past. However, relative to the question of abortion, the Supreme Court’s decision to define a ‘person’ as ‘a born human being’ was, from my perspective, a favorable one.

(I am puzzled why you wrote "Would Mr. Chrucky have also agreed with that legalistic definition of personhood [in the Dred Scott decision]?" First, the Dred Scott decision was not a decision about how to define a person or a slave, it was a decision about the conditions under which a slave was to remain a slave, and in which state or territory slavery was permitted. Second, surely you don’t want to saddle me with the belief that all Supreme Court rulings are wise! The Supreme Court decisions must be judged case by case. Some decisions are good; some are bad — even terrible. The Dred Scott decision probably had a bearing on precipitating the Civil War — and in this regard alone it may have been a very bad decision.)

Anyway, in light of these considerations, your thesis is better formulated as:

Essentially, I don’t believe that America should follow the stipulative definition of ‘person’ set forth by a Supreme Court which has made unwise decisions in the past.

But this is not your final thesis. In the course of your composition you obviously are adding implicitly something like:

America should follow the dictates of my conscience which says that most (all?) abortions should be illegal.

IV

With this we are back to the argument as I originally formulated it with modifications added about fallibility.

  1. The legal policy on abortions should be guided by morality.
  2. Whatever is immoral should be illegal.
  3. Morality is a matter of following "conscience."
  4. The "conscience" of the Supreme Court has ruled that many abortions are legal.
  5. Some decisions ("conscience") of the Supreme Court have in the past been immoral.
  6. (a) The Supreme Court is, therefore, fallible-r.
  7. (a) Never follow the dictates of a fallible-r source.
  8. (a) My conscience is infallible-r. .
  9. My conscience tells me that most (all?) abortions are immoral.
  10. Therefore, most (all?) abortions should be illegal.

Let me comment on this argument as it stands. I agree with (1), but disagree with (2). For example, some consider masturbation to be an immoral practice. I don’t think it is. But even if it is, I don’t believe it should be an illegal practice. Similarly, although I think that lying to your husband about infidelity is possibly immoral, I don’t think at any case of lying to a spouse about infidelity should be illegal. (2) obviously needs refining:

(2a) Some things which are immoral should also be illegal.

(2b) Some things which are immoral should be legal.

And you seem to favor (2a) when you write: "Morals and laws should combined to protect the human rights of fetuses." Some line should be drawn between what kinds of things should be considered immoral and illegal and what should be considered immoral and legal.

Now I really do not want to saddle you with (8a); but without (8a) your argument becomes very weak. Instead of (8a) — in modesty and humility — you need:

(8b) My conscience is fallible-r.

And combining this with (7a), yields:

(8c) My conscience should not be followed.

But now you are committed to the conclusion that neither your conscience not the Supreme Court’s should be followed. Have you missed some other infallible conscience like the dictates of the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, Billy Graham, the CatholicChurch?

What is a conscience anyway? Is it some external voice like Jiminny Cricket for Pinocchio? Or is it an internal voice? Maybe (3) is just false. What is the alternative then? Maybe (7a) should be discarded as well? But now the whole argument seems very insecure. And I’ll leave it at that. (It would be an interesting exercise to patch it up.)

V

Let me finish with some semi-random comments on some claims and sub-arguments of your main argument.

Granted that the Supreme Court is fallible-f and fallible-r. Does it follow from this alone that it made a mistake in the Roe vs Wade decision? No. If there is a mistake it has to be pointed out in this specific case.

You object to the Supreme Court’s stipulated definition of ‘person’. You apparently hold that the specific decree of the Supreme Court that a person be defined as a born human being is a bad decree. Why? Your only objection is in the form of a question: "would it mean that babies removed by Cesarean section are [not] people because they weren’t actually born?" This is a good point. It shows the need for a further stipulated (decreed) definition of "birth." "Birth" could be stipulatively defined as a natural or artificial removal of a viable fetus from the mother. By this stipulated definition a baby removed through Cesarean section would be a born human being.

You add rhetorically: "May mothers exterminate these non-people because they are property under the law?" Answering this is complicated. You are evidently assuming the following:

Non-people have no rights.

This is false. Non-people, such as dogs, are, at least in principle, protected by law from cruel treatment — in this sense they have a right not to be treated cruelly.

You are also wrong about the legal status of fetuses. The Supreme Court decreed that States may have an interest in protecting the life of a fetus after the first trimester. This is to say that States may legislate (decree) rights to the fetus — even though it is a non-person. Here are the words of Roe vs Wade:

With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the "compelling" point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulations protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justification. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

Furthermore, I do not think that the law regards fetuses as "property."

You go on to dismiss the problem of definitions, and flatly assert your counter thesis: "Regardless of word meanings, it was wrong then to treat humans as disposable property and it is wrong now."

If you dismiss word meanings from discussion, then you are presupposing them (i.e. assuming them without argument). By this tactic, I take it, you are assuming that:

A. An unborn fetus is a human being,

A2. Some human beings were treated as disposable property.

A3. | Some human beings are treated as disposable property.

A4 lt is wrong to treat any human being as disposable property.

I agree with (A) and (A4). However, (A2) and (A3) are ambiguous through ellipsis:

Some human beings are (were) treated by ______ as disposable property.

If this blank is filled with ‘some other human beings’, then these are no doubt true statements. But if they are filled by ‘treated by the Supreme Court’, then, I believe, you are mistaken. You may be misrepresenting the status of negroes under the law as "disposable property." You are correct that negroes were decreed to be property, and if you mean by "disposable" the fact that they could be sold — you are again correct. But if you think that negroes were legally allowed to be treated cruelly or killed arbitrarily by their masters in the United States c. 1850 (though they were in fact), then you are incorrect.

You quickly dismiss abortions following rape, and focus on voluntary or accidental pregnancies. And you seem to ascribe to me the position that, in the case of voluntary pregnancies, I view the fetus as an "intruding embryo". I do not. I talked about an "intruding embryo" only with the case of rape. In fact all my discussions concerned rape and incest cases, and no others. I was silent about voluntary pregnancies and consequent abortions.

You write: "Morals and laws should be combined to protect the human rights of fetuses." This can be reformulated as an argument: since (i) fetuses are human beings; and (ii) all human beings have rights; therefore,

(iii) fetuses have rights.

This argument is too abstract to serve any useful purpose. The specific rights of specific human beings have to be mentioned. Not all human beings have the same rights. This depends on age, sex, residency, health, position, and such. You are seeking some universal rights such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." All these rights are contextually defined. There is after all also talk about the "forfeiture of rights" which again is contextually defined.

In the case of abortion, we have to decide which rights of which parties take or should take precedence. We have to have procedures for deciding cases of conflict of rights. When does a mother’s right to life take precedence over the fetus’s? That there are such rights of these parties was evidently expressed by Roe vs Wade:

… the State does have an important and legitimate interest in preserving and protecting the health of the pregnant woman . . . and that it has still another important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life. These interests are separate and distinct. Each grows in substantiality as the woman approaches term and, at a point during pregnancy, each becomes "compelling."

Does a young girl’s (13 years) right to freedom from motherhood take precedence over an accidental pregnancy? What about the rights of the father? Of grandparents? What about the right of the fetus not to be born a chronic sufferer of pain? Obviously we need to specify rights, whose rights, and in what circumstances they take precedence — but that is an issue I did not discuss in my letters except for the case of incest and rape.

I take note of your observations that most pregnancies occur through voluntary sexual activity, and therefore the parties involved are responsible. I agree. But this brings with it the question of degree of responsibility. And it is clear to me that some cases of abortion may very well be immoral. But should it ever be the case that an immoral abortion should also be an illegal abortion?

I will conclude with a passage from Roe vs Wade:

"organized groups that have taken a formal position on the abortion issue have generally regarded abortion as a matter for the conscience of the individual and her family."

Fashionable Bullshit and Bullshitters

There is this puzzling phenomenon of writings and people becoming popular and fashionable, but which from another perspective these writings seem to be unintelligible gibberish, and these people seem to be amusing frauds.

These writings and these people were exposed in the following book: Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, 1998.

Below is a review of this book by Richard Dawkins, published in Nature, July 9, 1998, vol. 394, pp. 141-3.

Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.
This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many fashionable French ‘intellectuals’ outed by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their splendid book Fashionable Nonsense, previously published in French and now released in a completely rewritten and revised English edition. Guattari goes on indefinitely in this vein and offers, in the opinion of Sokal and Bricmont, “the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered”. Guattari’s close collaborator, the late Gilles Deleuze, had a similar talent for writing:

In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable’, endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed . . . In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.
This calls to mind Peter Medawar’s earlier characterization of a certain type of French intellectual style (note, in passing, the contrast offered by Medawar’s own elegant and clear prose):

Style has become an object of first importance, and what a style it is! For me it has a prancing, high-stepping quality, full of self-importance; elevated indeed, but in the balletic manner, and stopping from time to time in studied attitudes, as if awaiting an outburst of applause. It has had a deplorable influence on the quality of modern thought . . .
Returning to attack the same targets from another angle, Medawar says:

I could quote evidence of the beginnings of a whispering campaign against the virtues of clarity. A writer on structuralism in the Times Literary Supplement has suggested that thoughts which are confused and tortuous by reason of their profundity are most appropriately expressed in prose that is deliberately unclear. What a preposterously silly idea! I am reminded of an air-raid warden in wartime Oxford who, when bright moonlight seemed to be defeating the spirit of the blackout, exhorted us to wear dark glasses. He, however, was being funny on purpose.
This is from Medawar’s 1968 lecture on “Science and Literature”, reprinted in Pluto’s Republic (Oxford University Press, 1982). Since Medawar’s time, the whispering campaign has raised its voice.

Deleuze and Guattari have written and collaborated on books described by the celebrated Michel Foucault as “among the greatest of the great . . . Some day, perhaps, the century will be Deleuzian.” Sokal and Bricmont, however, think otherwise: “These texts contain a handful of intelligible sentences — sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous — and we have commented on some of them in the footnotes. For the rest, we leave it to the reader to judge.”

But it’s tough on the reader. No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes? In particular, how shall we know whether the modish French ‘philosophy’, whose disciples and exponents have all but taken over large sections of American academic life, is genuinely profound or the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans?

Sokal and Bricmont are professors of physics at, respectively, New York University and the University of Louvain in Belgium. They have limited their critique to those books that have ventured to invoke concepts from physics and mathematics. Here they know what they are talking about, and their verdict is unequivocal. On Jacques Lacan, for example, whose name is revered by many in humanities departments throughout US and British universities, no doubt partly because he simulates a profound understanding of mathematics:

. . . although Lacan uses quite a few key words from the mathematical theory of compactness, he mixes them up arbitrarily and without the slightest regard for their meaning. His ‘definition’ of compactness is not just false: it is gibberish.
They go on to quote the following remarkable piece of reasoning by Lacan:

Thus, by calculating that signification according to the algebraic method used here, namely:

 

S (signifier)/s (signified) = s (the statement), with S = (-1), produces s = square root of -1

You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that this is ridiculous. It recalls the Aldous Huxley character who proved the existence of God by dividing zero into a number, thereby deriving the infinite. In a further piece of reasoning that is entirely typical of the genre, Lacan goes on to conclude that the erectile organ

. . . is equivalent to the square root of -1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).
We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.

The feminist ‘philosopher’ Luce Irigaray is another who gets whole-chapter treatment from Sokal and Bricmont. In a passage reminiscent of a notorious feminist description of Newton’s Principia (a “rape manual”), Irigaray argues that E=mc2 is a “sexed equation”. Why? Because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us” (my emphasis of what I am rapidly coming to learn is an ‘in’ word). Just as typical of this school of thought is Irigaray’s thesis on fluid mechanics. Fluids, you see, have been unfairly neglected. “Masculine physics” privileges rigid, solid things. Her American expositor Katherine Hayles made the mistake of re-expressing Irigaray’s thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he has no clothes:

The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids . . . From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.
You do not have to be a physicist to smell out the daffy absurdity of this kind of argument (the tone of it has become all too familiar), but it helps to have Sokal and Bricmont on hand to tell us the real reason why turbulent flow is a hard problem: the Navier-Stokes equations are difficult to solve.

In similar manner, Sokal and Bricmont expose Bruno Latour’s confusion of relativity with relativism, Jean-François Lyotard’s ‘post-modern science’, and the widespread and predictable misuses of Gödel’s Theorem, quantum theory and chaos theory. The renowned Jean Baudrillard is only one of many to find chaos theory a useful tool for bamboozling readers. Once again, Sokal and Bricmont help us by analysing the tricks being played. The following sentence, “though constructed from scientific terminology, is meaningless from a scientific point of view”:

Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.
I won’t quote any more, for, as Sokal and Bricmont say, Baudrillard’s text “continues in a gradual crescendo of nonsense”. They again call attention to “the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology — inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning”. Their summing up of Baudrillard could stand for any of the authors criticized here and lionized throughout America:

In summary, one finds in Baudrillard’s works a profusion of scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant. Whether or not one interprets them as metaphors, it is hard to see what role they could play, except to give an appearance of profundity to trite observations about sociology or history. Moreover, the scientific terminology is mixed up with a non-scientific vocabulary that is employed with equal sloppiness. When all is said and done, one wonders what would be left of Baudrillard’s thought if the verbal veneer covering it were stripped away.
But don’t the postmodernists claim only to be ‘playing games’? Isn’t the whole point of their philosophy that anything goes, there is no absolute truth, anything written has the same status as anything else, and no point of view is privileged? Given their own standards of relative truth, isn’t it rather unfair to take them to task for fooling around with word games, and playing little jokes on readers? Perhaps, but one is then left wondering why their writings are so stupefyingly boring. Shouldn’t games at least be entertaining, not po-faced, solemn and pretentious? More tellingly, if they are only joking, why do they react with such shrieks of dismay when somebody plays a joke at their expense? The genesis of Fashionable Nonsense was a brilliant hoax perpetrated by Sokal, and the stunning success of his coup was not greeted with the chuckles of delight that one might have hoped for after such a feat of deconstructive game playing. Apparently, when you’ve become the establishment, it ceases to be funny when someone punctures the established bag of wind.

As is now rather well known, in 1996 Sokal submitted to the US journal Social Text a paper called “Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.” This page is part of another website. From start to finish the paper was nonsense. It was a carefully crafted parody of postmodern metatwaddle. Sokal was inspired to do this by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), an important book that deserves to become as well known in Britain as it is in the United States. Hardly able to believe what he read in this book, Sokal followed up the references to postmodern literature, and found that Gross and Levitt did not exaggerate. He resolved to do something about it. In the words of the journalist Gary Kamiya:

Anyone who has spent much time wading through the pious, obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for ‘advanced’ thought in the humanities knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: some clever academic, armed with the not-so-secret passwords (‘hermeneutics,’ ‘transgressive,’ ‘Lacanian,’ ‘hegemony’, to name but a few) would write a completely bogus paper, submit it to an au courant journal, and have it accepted . . . Sokal’s piece uses all the right terms. It cites all the best people. It whacks sinners (white men, the ‘real world’), applauds the virtuous (women, general metaphysical lunacy) . . . And it is complete, unadulterated bullshit — a fact that somehow escaped the attention of the high-powered editors of Social Text, who must now be experiencing that queasy sensation that afflicted the Trojans the morning after they pulled that nice big gift horse into their city.
Sokal’s paper must have seemed a gift to the editors because this was a physicist saying all the right-on things they wanted to hear, attacking the ‘post-Enlightenment hegemony’ and such uncool notions as the existence of the real world. They didn’t know that Sokal had also crammed his paper with egregious scientific howlers, of a kind that any referee with an undergraduate degree in physics would instantly have detected. It was sent to no such referee. The editors, Andrew Ross and others, were satisfied that its ideology conformed to their own, and were perhaps flattered by references to their own works. This ignominious piece of editing rightly earned them the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for literature.

Notwithstanding the egg all over their faces, and despite their feminist pretensions, these editors are dominant males in the academic establishment. Ross has the boorish, tenured confidence to say things like, “I am glad to be rid of English departments. I hate literature, for one thing, and English departments tend to be full of people who love literature”; and the yahooish complacency to begin a book on ‘science studies’ with these words: “This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.”

He and his fellow ‘cultural studies’ and ‘science studies’ barons are not harmless eccentrics at third-rate state colleges. Many of them have tenured professorships at some of the best universities in the United States. Men of this kind sit on appointment committees, wielding power over young academics who might secretly aspire to an honest academic career in literary studies or, say, anthropology. I know — because many of them have told me — that there are sincere scholars out there who would speak out if they dared, but who are intimidated into silence. To them, Sokal will appear as a hero, and nobody with a sense of humour or a sense of justice will disagree. It helps, by the way, although it is strictly irrelevant, that his own left-wing credentials are impeccable.

In a detailed post-mortem of his famous hoax, submitted to Social Text but predictably rejected by them and published elsewhere, Sokal notes that, in addition to numerous half-truths, falsehoods and non sequiturs, his original article contained some “syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever”. He regrets that there were not more of these: “I tried hard to produce them, but I found that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn’t have the knack.” If he were writing his parody today, he would surely be helped by a virtuoso piece of computer programming by Andrew Bulhak of Melbourne, Australia: the Postmodernism Generator. Every time you visit it, it will spontaneously generate for you, using faultless grammatical principles, a spanking new postmodern discourse, never before seen.

I have just been there, and it produced for me a 6,000-word article called “Capitalist theory and the subtextual paradigm of context” by “David I. L.Werther and Rudolf du Garbandier of the Department of English, Cambridge University” (poetic justice there, for it was Cambridge that saw fit to give Jacques Derrida an honorary degree). Here is a typical passage from this impressively erudite work:

If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject neotextual materialism or conclude that society has objective value. If dialectic desituationism holds, we have to choose between Habermasian discourse and the subtextual paradigm of context. It could be said that the subject is contextualised into a textual nationalism that includes truth as a reality. In a sense, the premise of the subtextual paradigm of context states that reality comes from the collective unconscious.
Visit the Postmodernism Generator. It is a literally infinite source of randomly generated, syntactically correct nonsense, distinguishable from the real thing only in being more fun to read. You could generate thousands of papers per day, each one unique and ready for publication, complete with numbered endnotes. Manuscripts should be submitted to the ‘Editorial Collective’ of Social Text, double-spaced and in triplicate.

As for the harder task of reclaiming US literary departments for genuine scholars, Sokal and Bricmont have joined Gross and Levitt in giving a friendly and sympathetic lead from the world of science. We must hope that it will be followed.

Anne Applebaum on Russia

As I listened to Anne Applebaum, it appears that her current interest is in understanding how propaganda works and how it is being actually used. [A topic covered by Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent] Although propaganda is universal, her interest is focused on Russia, her field of expertise. She is the author of:
Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe (1994);
Gulag: A History (2003);
Gulag Voices: An Anthology (2011);
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (2012)
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2018)

Disinformation & the Threat to Democracy (Jan. 4, 2019 at the Library of Congress)

In Jan. 2013, she gave a lecture. Putinism: the Ideology. I would add to this title: Fake democracy by Fake opposition, by Real control, and by Real assassination.

How not to argue

Tucker Carlson’s answer to Rutger Bregman’s claim that Carlson with his Fox interview show is doing the bidding of billionaires was this: “Why don’t you go fuck yourself, you tiny brain. And I hope this gets picked up because you’re a moron. I tried to give you a hearing, but you were too fucking annoying.”

Carlson’s retort is typical of people who are put in a corner with no reasonable response.

Where on Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement pyramid does Carlson’s reply belong?

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes, . . . the rest is bullshit

I want to focus on the young Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman, who created media attention at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum by focusing on the problem that the rich are allowed to avoid paying a fair share of taxes. His additional position is that there should be a universal Basic Income.

 

In the first video below is the discussion at Davos in which Bregman made his points.

In the second video, The Young Turks (TYT) comment on the exchange between Tucker Carlson and Rutger Bregman. Carlson invited Bregman to talk about the phenomenon of tax avoidance . . . but it never got there. Instead, Bregman focused on the problem of why such an issue as tax avoidance is not discussed by the major media, and his own answer was it is because billionaires pay millionaires — like Tucker Carlson — not to discuss it. At that point Carlson lost his composure with an emotive reaction of “go fuck yourself!”

The third video is the full exchange between Carlson and Bregman.

 

Video 1:

Video 2:

Video 3:

In the following clip, Noam Chomsky made the same charge against an interviewer as did Bregman against Carlson.

The Tyranny of Words

I have always been wary of political labels such as “fascism,” “nazism,” “communism,” “liberalism,” “socialism,” “Marxism,” — in fact, all “isms.” I never know what people mean by these words. I am suspicious that they themselves don’t know what they mean by them. I think they use them emotively to say something equivalent to Daffy Duck’s “you’re despicable.”

Take, for example, the label “fascism.” Stuart Chase, in his book, appropriately titled The Tyranny of Words, 1938, asked many people to tell him what “fascism” meant for them. Below is his take on “fascism,” and the result of his survey.


Pursuit of “fascism.” As a specific illustration, let us inquire into the term “fascism” from the semantic point of view. Ever since Mussolini popularized it soon after the World War, the word has been finding its way into conversations and printed matter, until now one can hardly go out to dinner, open a newspaper, turn on the radio, without encountering it. It is constantly employed as a weighty test for affairs in Spain, for affairs in Europe, for affairs all over the world. Sinclair Lewis tells us that it can happen here. His wife, Dorothy Thompson, never tires of drawing deadly parallels between European fascism and incipient fascism in America. If you call a professional communist a fascist, he turns pale with anger. If you call yourself a fascist, as does Lawrence Dennis, friends begin to avoid you as though you had the plague.

In ancient Rome, fasces were carried by lictors in imperial processions and ceremonies. They were bundles of birch rods, fastened together by a red strap, from which the head of an axe projected. The fasces were symbols of authority, first used by the Roman kings, then by the consuls, then by the emperors, A victorious general, saluted as “Imperator” by his soldiers, had his fasces crowned with laurel.

Mussolini picked up the word to symbolize the unity in a squad of his black-shirted followers. It was also helpful as propaganda to identify Italy in 1920 with the glories of imperial Rome. The programme of the early fascists was derived in part from the nationalist movement of 1910, and from syndicalism. The fascist squadrons fought the communist squadrons up and down Italy in a series of riots and disturbances, and vanquished them. Labour unions were broken up and crushed.

People outside of Italy who favoured labour unions, especially socialists, began to hate fascism. In due time Hitler appeared in Germany with his brand of National Socialism, but he too crushed labour unions, and so he was called a fascist. (Note the confusion caused by the appearance of Hitler’s “socialism” among the more orthodox brands.) By this time radicals had begun to label anyone they did not like as a fascist. I have been called a “social fascist” by the left press because I have ideas of my own. Meanwhile, if the test of fascism is breaking up labour unions, certain American communists should be presented with fasces crowned with laurel.

Well, what does “fascism” mean? Obviously the term by itself means nothing. In one context it has some meaning as a tag for Mussolini, his political party, and his activities in Italy. In another context it might be used as a tag for Hitler, his party, and his political activities in Germany. The two contexts are clearly not identical, and if they are to be used one ought to speak of the Italian and German varieties as facism1 and fascism2.

More important than trying to find meaning in a vague abstraction is an analysis of what people believe it means. Do they agree? Are they thinking about the same referent when they hear the term or use it? I collected nearly a hundred reactions from friends and chance acquaintances during the early summer cf 1937. I did not ask for a definition, but asked them to tell me what “fascism” meant to them, what kind of a picture came into their minds when they heard the term. Here are sample reactions:

Schoolteacher: A dictator suppressing all opposition.
Author: One-party government. “Outs” unrepresented.
Governess: Obtaining one’s desires by sacrifice of human lives.
Lawyer: A state where the individual has no rights, hope, or future.
College Student: Hitler and Mussolini.
United Stales senator: Deception, duplicity, and professing to do what one is not doing.
Schoolboy: War. Concentration camps. Bad treatment of workers. Something that’s got to be licked.
Lawyer: A coercive capitalistic state.
Teacher: A government where you can live comfortably if you never disagree with it.
Lawyer; I don’t know.
Musician: Empiricism, forced control, quackery.
Editor: Domination of big business hiding behind Hitler and Mussolini.
Short story writer: A form of government where socialism is used to perpetuate capitalism.
Housewife: Dictatorship by a man not always intelligent.
Taxi-driver: What Hitler’s trying to put over. I don’t like it.
Housewife: Same thing as communism.
College student: Exaggerated nationalism. The creation of artificial hatreds.
Housewife: A large Florida rattlesnake in summer.
Author: I can only answer in cuss words.
Housewife: The corporate state. Against women and workers.
Librarian: They overturn things.
Farmer: Lawlessness.
Italian hairdresser: A bunch, all together.
Elevator starter: I never heard of it.
Businessman: The equivalent of the ARA.
Stenographer: Terrorism, religious intolerance, bigotry.
Social worker: Government in the interest of the majority for the purpose of accomplishing things democracy cannot do.
Businessman: Egotism. One person thinks he can run everything.
Clerk: II Duce, Oneness. Ugh!
Clerk: Mussolini’s racket. All business not making money taken over by the state.
Secretary: Blackshirts. I don’t like it.
Author: A totalitarian state which does not pretend to aim at equalization of wealth.
Housewife: Oppression. No worse than communism.
Author: An all-powerful police force to hold up a decaying society.
Housewife: Dictatorship. President Roosevelt is a dictator, but he’s not a fascist.
Journalist: Undesired government of masses by a self-seeking, fanatical minority.
Clerk: Me, one and only, and a lot of blind sheep following.
Sculptor: Chauvinism made into a religious cult and the consequent suppression of other races and religions.
Artist: An attitude toward life which I hate as violently as anything I know. Why? Because it destroys everything in life I value.
Lawyer: A group which does not believe in government interference, and will overthrow the government if necessary.
Journalist: A left-wing group prepared to use force.
Advertising man: A governmental form which regards the individual as the property of the state.

Further comment is really unnecessary. It is safe to say that kindred abstractions, such as “democracy,” “communism,””totalitarianism,” would show a like reaction. The persons interviewed showed a dislike of “fascism,” but there was little agreement as to what it meant. A number skipped the description level and jumped to the inference level, thus indicating that they did not know what they were disliking. Some specific referents were provided when Hitler and Mussolini were mentioned. The Italian hairdresser went back to the bundle of birch rods in imperial Rome.

There are at least fifteen distinguishable concepts in the answers quoted. The ideas of “dictatorship” and “repression” are in evidence but by no means uniform. It is easy to lump these answers in one’s mind because of a dangerous illusion of agreement. If one is opposed to fascism, he feels that because these answers indicate people also opposed, then all agree. Observe that the agreement, such as it is, is on the inference level, with little or no agreement on the objective level. The abstract phrases given are loose and hazy enough to fit our loose and hazy conceptions interchangeably. Notice also how readily a collection like this can be classified by abstract concepts; how neatly the pigeonholes hold answers tying fascism up with capitalism, with communism, with oppressive laws, or with lawlessness. Multiply the sample by ten million and picture if you can the aggregate mental chaos. Yet this is the word which is soberly treated as a definite thing by newspapers, authors, orators, statesmen, talkers, the world over.


Using such words as “fascism” without knowing what they mean, is an example of the linguistic habit of “psittacism.” Take a look at Walter Laqueur’s chapter “Foreign Policy and the English Language” in his America, Europe, and the Soviet Union, 1983.