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This is part 4 of a multi-part series on Spirituality, Science and Socialism. See the other parts here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 

CN: trauma, war, sexual assault, slavery, homophobic violence, sexism, colonialism, Nazism, cancer, cutting, drowning


What is the meaning of life?
What is good and evil?
How do I live virtuously?
What is the source of happiness?
How do I deal with rejection?
Is there more to life than this?

Of all the questions that humans have asked themselves, these are among some of the most enduring. They are themes that underpin vast swathes of our culture, from the tragedies of the ancient Greeks, to Rumi’s mystic love poetry, to the latest Oscar winners.

And yet these questions are largely ignored by the contemporary left. Though once a part of the socialist imagination, they have come to be seen as irrelevant to the task of fighting capitalism and oppression. We spend our days talking about the ‘common ownership of the means of production’ with barely a mention of the love that must hold together such utopian communities. We talk of the road to revolution, but not the road to happiness; of struggles at work but not struggles of the heart. And we wonder why no one listens.

Abandoning these questions doesn’t encourage people towards a more ‘rational’ point of view. Nor does it help to shift people’s concerns away from the self and towards more social issues. It just means people look elsewhere for answers. There in wait lie our enemies – capitalists, fascists, demagogues who indulge in all flavours of bigotry. And they are always more than happy to provide ethical guidance. As long as we fail to do likewise, we will always be on the back foot.

How do we begin to re-engage with this sort of question? Let’s take the big one: what is the meaning of life? It’s understandable that atheists might struggle with this question – it’s often taken to imply a pre-programmed external purpose, such as a god might have chosen for us. But it doesn’t have to. It could lead us to more theologically neutral questions: is there a path to the development of the universe? Can I affect that path? And if so, how does this compel me to act?

Order and chaos

jokechaos

In the previous post I set out an atheist-friendly framework for integrating spiritual, scientific and socialist concerns, centered around three overlapping concepts: Life, Body and Mind. Each has a slightly different meaning to what you’d expect.

Life is the organisation of everything. Everything is flow and inter-relation. Contrary to how we usually speak, Life is not a substance found in some parts of the universe and absent in others. The difference between an elephant and a rock is not between life and non-life, but merely differing levels of complexity in life’s organisation. You might say they show different intensity of life.

Bodies are those points where flows settle into enduring wholes. An atom is a body, as is the human body, the body of a city, the body of the earth. Each has a past, a present and a future, expressed in their structures, flows, and powers.

Mind is the potential of bodies to self-reproduce and autonomously adapt to their environments. This is where Bodies begin to ‘sense’. To the extent that social bodies such as cities self-reproduce and adapt, we can also think of them as sensing minds. But as we’ll touch on later, this doesn’t mean they’re conscious!

Now in order for us to apply this to topics like overcoming pain, struggle, evil and so on, we must next acknowledge that the tendencies of Life, Body and Mind each implies an opposite:

  • The tendency of Life to form bodies of increasing complexity – whilst always being in flux – implies the possibility of their collapse

    (Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    )

  • For the flows into and within Bodies to crystallise into learned structures, there must be a cutting off of other potential futures, and a permanent mark upon the body 

(I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.)

 

  • The ability of Minds to sense implies the potential for senselessness. To learn and adapt, there must be lack of knowledge and the possibility of failure

    (Nobody heard him, the dead man,
    But still he lay moaning:
    I was much further out than you thought
    And not waving but drowning.)

In other words, whenever there is stability, choice, empowerment, awareness, learning and survival, there is the potential for decay, loss, trauma, confusion, ignorance and death. Order is met with chaos.

An isolated body left to its own devices can only become more disordered over time. If I isolate myself in my home and do not communicate in any way with the outside world, my friendships will eventually fade. My clothes will tear, but will not mend themselves. Without food, I will die. Bodies fall apart.

But bodies are not normally isolated – they are highly interrelated. And those relations allow us to combat this tendency towards chaos. I message my friend, and we feel again that rush of love. They help me repair my clothes, so I can brave the cold outside. Together we walk to the supermarket to buy me food, which keeps me alive. To stop bodies from falling apart requires work. Physical, emotionalconscious and non-conscious.

The interplay of order and chaos within a body produces a precarious balance. Where order becomes too prominent, the body is rigid, and is unable to adapt to a changing environment without collapse. Where chaos rules, bodies struggle to form at all, no powers can emerge, no growth can occur.

For example, if in response to my isolation I am given a rigid routine, a fixed understanding of the world, one that never changes and which I am punished for deviating from, I remain utterly dependent, and will not be able to react to emergencies. On the other hand, if I am simply thrown out into the world, if all routines are upended, if I have no secure housing, if I am given no advice as to how to understand or predict my situation, I become incapable of doing anything.

But when balanced, the interplay of order and chaos can produce a state of harmony and novelty. Harmony, because ordered relations allow bodies to endure, to predict the world, to work together for mutual empowerment. Novelty, because an element of disorder or breakdown frees up flows to be re-organised differently, and so to adapt, learn, evolve.

To find balance, we have to work towards creating harmony not only within our own bodies, but also in how we couple with the bodies around us, and in how we design the larger scale bodies which we are part of.

Consciousness – the birthplace of ethics and apocalypse

eric

If order and disorder are natural tendencies, how can we say that either is better or worse? If it’s just the universe doing its thing, why should we intervene? How even could we? This is where it becomes important to clarify the distinction between mind and consciousness.

Mind, as we have noted above, is the body’s capacity for sensing and adapting. Consciousness only emerges in those most intense of minds that become able to sense their own sensing. This opens up a number of important capacities.

  1. Self-awareness: Rather than our bodies simply taking in flows and reacting to them without us being aware, we can now actually experience the negative or positive quality of an input – that is, we feel and are aware of feeling pain, pleasure and so on. The order and chaos that all bodies undergo becomes, for conscious bodies, the subjective feeling of oppression or liberation.
  2. Signification: As we can now associate particular bodily sensations (e.g. pain) as arising from certain stimuli (e.g. a sharp knife), we can learn to anticipate them. We create a chain of links between various experiences: the image of the knife, the touch of the knife on the skin, and the pain. We no longer need to be physically cut to be aware of pain – the image of the knife is enough to set off a train of associations. The most sophisticated version of this is the symbolic communication of written and spoken language, but in its broader sense it is shared by all conscious beings. We are able to understand one thing as standing for another. For a dog, the sound of a bell can come to signify food, just as for us the word ‘dog’ signifies a real dog.
  3. Empathy: Just as your body can simulate future pain, so too can it simulate the pain of others, which opens up the potential for empathy. We are viscerally horrified by images of war, the court details of sexual assaults, by police brutality – which move us to protests, boycotts, arguments and fist fights on behalf of others. This can happen because we are capable of feeling another body’s pain or joy within our own. Ethics is emotional and embodied, not merely rational.
  4. Will: Being able to predict how I would like to feel (and how I would like others to feel) gives me a basis for making decisions. I can compare the body state I would feel in 1 minute with or without an icecream, in a month with or without going on a date, in a year with or without a change of career, in a decade with or without global climate apocalypse …

The combination of these features – self-awareness, signification, empathy and will – leads to a massive amplification of the scale of impact on the world that conscious beings can have. A single person can create effects that travel across the world and even through the ages. The pen writing the sentence and the eye which reads it can be separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles – and yet this relation can transform opinions, refresh perspectives, even compel people to action. A memory from childhood can re-emerge without any external stimulus, triggering trauma in the present and paralysing the whole body. A politician’s tongue can sentence thousands to death – or free them from slavery. A self-immolation in North Africa can spark protests in the Middle East. Our shared mind becomes spread wider and wider, creating culture, language, belief, expectation, and allowing the triggering of emotion across huge distances of time and space. This has given human beings in particular an extraordinary power over the the planet, and over each other. For good or for ill, the emergence of consciousness is the very basis of ethics itself.

On its own however, emotion is not enough. Relying on personal disgust, or even communal moral codes, risks denying the massive interconnection of bodies at the centre of this framework. There are plenty of examples that would clash with modern socialist ideals. The sexist devaluation of one type of body next to another. The capitalist veneration of an individual despite their exploitation of the wider community. Or the queerphobic violence against an individual in the name of the community’s rigid parochial morals.

To avoid this kind of dangerous cultural relativism, we need to specify that our goal is the end of all experience of disharmony, in all conscious bodies. This is to be achieved through concerted action to harmonise conscious and unconscious Minds on multiple scales. I therefore define Good acts and Evil acts as those which respectively contribute towards this global harmony, or work against it.

That is to say that neither your individual harmony, nor that of your community’s, nor even a general harmony across a whole nation state, can exempt you from culpability if there is pain around you that you ignore, or that your ‘harmony’ even feeds on (in which case I think it’s better called just ‘stability’). Stability can never be a justification for political repression, nor war, nor colonial domination, nor systematic marginalisation or any form of oppression. Over much of the 20th century, the ordering forces of the state certainly balanced with the chaotic forces of capitalism to produce a certain nation-level stability in many parts of the world. And yet that has still created massive disharmony in many of its people, and in nations outside it.

Conversely, just as stability is not an inherent good, instability is not an inherent evil. If someone is seeking to create wide scale disharmony – like genocide – then reacting with smaller scale disharmony to prevent this can be justified. So punch all the Nazis you like. This form of ethics requires us to judge actions in their whole context, as to whether they’re a contribution towards a greater ultimate harmony. This is unlike typical liberal ethics, which tends to involve the arbitrary application of some eternal moral code regardless of circumstance, such as ‘don’t punch people’.

Of course, this utopian level of harmony is not fully achievable. We cannot cease to be flowing, interacting bodies, and any interaction creates the possibility of new disharmony. But we can alter the world so that no disharmonies are consistently reproduced. Human relations will always produce disagreements and tensions, but systemic oppression of an entire group based upon some physical or social characteristic is not a necessary feature of social organisation. An image of global harmony can serve as a compass point to collectively orient us towards this better world.

The World to Come

victorian-postcard-automated-barber

What does this utopian world look like? Specifying the exact details of the future as a blueprint is neither possible nor useful, an argument made in the Communist Manifesto itself against the utopian socialists of the 19th century. But the total abandonment of utopian imagery is a mistake: we need powerful images in order to create collective emotional investment in a communist project. This is something which the left has been missing and which is now being increasingly called for.

We can see its outline in a variety of historical sources, in art, literature, philosophy, politics and religion. I’m going to contrast two categories: a broad sweep of religious utopias (encompassing afterlifes, Messianic ages, higher states of shared consciousness etc.), with the political-philosophical concept of Full Communism. The aim isn’t to argue that these are all the same, but that they share enough elements that allow them to be articulated together. In particular, I suggest that they all share an underlying impulse: an end goal of harmony on multiple scales.

I take Full Communism to mean that future utopian vision of a stateless, classless society of abundance envisaged by Marx and Engels (also known as the ‘higher stage of communism’) – that which has never yet been achieved. Full communism is “the real solution of the antagonism between man and nature, between man and man”. It is the end of social relations that are “based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few”. Yet it is not a rigid harmony, but heralds a new age of freedom and expression, where work is not performed for capitalist profit. It is rather “the creative manifestation of life arising from the free development of all abilities of the whole person”. It is a vision of harmony and novelty within the human body, and between conscious and unconscious bodies at many scales.

The link between economic and religious utopias is not a new one. Gerrard Winstanley, one of the founders of the 17th century Christian socialist group the True Levellers (a.k.a. the Diggers), quotes the utopian vision of Isiah 2:4, whilst blaming money and ownership as a barrier to its realisation:

And the nations of the world will never learn to beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and leave off warring, until this cheating device of buying and selling be cast out among the rubbish of kingly power.

The observation is of course a much older one, itself found in the Bible at 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” Contrast this with the description of the Hindu golden age, the Krita or Satya Yuga:

Men neither bought nor sold; there were no poor and no rich; there was no need to labour, because all that men required was obtained by the power of will; the chief virtue was the abandonment of all worldly desires. The Krita Yuga was without disease; there was no lessening with the years; there was no hatred, or vanity, or evil thought whatsoever; no sorrow, no fear. All mankind could attain to supreme blessedness.

The lack of need to labour clearly resonates with the end of relations of class domination. But this goes beyond mere economic distribution: ‘supreme blessedness’ indicates a sense of personal enlightenment and liberation. Despite the common mischaracterisation of communism as destroying the individual at the expense of the collective, this was not actually part of the vision. (Even if it was arguably part of the practice of some 20th century communist states). Marx and Engels at numerous points describe how full communism will emerge not only from the development of productive forces in society, but also the “the all-round development of the individual”. They describe the “development of human power” as “its own end, the true realm of freedom”. Elsewhere full communism is characterised by “free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their joint mastery over their communal, social productive powers and wealth.” And in case the social character of that individuality was not clear, the German Ideology states that “Only in community [has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.”

This is neither an abstract social harmony nor a pure individualism that is aimed for, but the harmony of all bodies at all scales, in all their interrelation. There is a necessity therefore for a liberation of the individual, the community, as well as the social whole, including the natural world of which it is part. Buddhist socialists like Seno’o Giro have likewise emphasised this link between the liberation of the self and liberation from capitalism. The Bodhisattva vow is one source to draw from, which states that enlightenment will be sought not just for the individual but “for the sake of all beings”.

Just as with the individual, Marx and Engel’s vision of communism is far more ecological than usually given credit for, emphasising as above, “the real solution of the antagonism between man and nature”. Fixing the metabolic rift between human society and the nature would represent both success in the battle against climate change, and also in ending the constant human battle with material scarcity. And natural abundance is of course a theme that runs through many religious utopias, such as Islam’s paradise of Jannah. It is a garden with ‘abundant fruits’, ‘lofty dwellings built … one above the other, graced with flowing streams’, where you ‘will be comfortably seated on couches’ and will ‘eat and drink with healthy enjoyment’.

As I said before, the intention here isn’t to collapse the important differences between all these sources. What I’m trying to do is to plant some seeds, in two ways. Firstly, to contribute to a discussion about how we might express in lyrical, poetic, artistic form some positive, accessible visions of a communist future. Secondly, I think it’s also vital for the atheist left to improve its religious literacy. This will help us both in showing solidarity to people facing oppression, and also in identifying those points where our ultimate goals align, where we can work together on positive projects towards the future.

If all this isn’t enough to make you appreciate the link between theological and communist utopias, allow me to quote Ernst Bloch:

A remark by the young Engels in 1842 (MEGA I, 2, p. 225f.) contains an echo from Joachim, only a few years before the Communist Manifesto: ‘The self-confidence of humanity, the new Grail around whose throne the nations jubilantly gather … This is our vocation: to become the Templars of this Grail, to gird our swords about our loins for its sake and cheerfully risk our lives in the last holy war, which will be followed by the millenium of freedom.’ Utopian unconditionality comes from the Bible and the idea of the kingdom, and the latter remained the apse of every New Moral World.

Conclusion – Embodied Accelerationism

accelerate

So what then is the meaning of life?

Full Communism is tantalisingly close. Finally coming within our grasp technologically and culturally, it could yet be derailed by human intransigence and short-sightedness. Its realisation will require work on every scale – the reshaping of our bodies, our organisations and communities, our physical and social spaces, cultural artefacts and discourses, and our systems of distribution and governance. This then is our goal, our meaning of life: to accelerate our path towards a global harmony-novelty of the future. To challenge those forces – those acts of Evil – which would seek to impede this. To end systems that sustain the harmony of a privileged Body at the expense of others. To dedicate our lives to the realisation of Full Communism.

This is a battle that we will not win without a fight. It is a battle which at its apex threatens to be one of the most catastrophic of all human history. But we can take solace and hope from knowing this: Good has always won, since the beginning of human history. It might not feel like it right now. Maybe it hasn’t felt like it your whole lifetime. But we are the ones with history on our side – on the side of the trajectory towards harmony.

Look around. You are surrounded by Bodies, many complex enough to activate their own powers of Mind, many of those complex enough to bring about consciousness, and others still complex enough to create culture and language. Although it is not a smooth path, the Life of Earth nonetheless tends towards harmony. Had it not, had at any point the power of competition obliterated cooperation, had chaos flung off all structure, or order frozen all motion, we would be less than dust hanging in the emptiness of space. We would never have emerged from the primordial soup. We would have annihilated ourselves aeons ago. Societies would have broken apart before they had had a chance to form. But no: we have won, time and time again. You, here, now are the beautiful pinnacle of a billion years of harmony, of novelty. For every evil blow of disharmony struck upon the world, good and harmony has struck back tenfold. The world we want to see is prefigured in the harmonic relations of the world before us today. Our existence on the Earth is proof enough as to the enduring strength of that harmony, and of the collective will. God or no god, our world has a path.

We will not win by sitting back. Human power has grown too great, its capacity for destruction too real. To win, we have to fight. We have to heal. We have to build.

But we can win. We must win. And we will win.

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References and Further Reading

Order and chaos
Birch and Cobb – Liberation of Life: from the cell to the community
Bryant – Entropy and Me
Deacon – Incomplete Nature: how mind emerged from matter
Fairchild-Pomeroy – Marx and Whitehead
van der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score: brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma
Walker and Salt – Resilience Thinking and Resilience Practice

Consciousness – birthplace of ethics and destruction
Churchich – Marxism and Morality: a critical examination of Marxist ethics
Damasio – Looking for Spinoza
Gallagher and Zahavi – The Phenomenological Mind
Kain – Marx and Ethics
Lorraine – Deleuze and Guattari’s Immanent Ethics
Varela – Ethical Know-How: action, wisdom and cognition
Whitehead – Process and Reality

The World to Come
Bellamy-Foster – Marx’s Ecology: materialism and nature
Bloch – Principle of Hope (read the intro here)
Boer – Criticism of Heaven
Fromm – Marx’s Concept of Man
Marx / Marx and Engels – Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844Critique of the Gotha Programthe Communist Manifestothe German Ideology; Grundrisse; Capital volume III
Prothero – God is not One
Shariati – Marxism and Other Western Fallacies – an Islamic critique
Shields – Liberation as Revolutionary Praxis – rethinking Buddhist materialism
Winstanley – The Law of Freedom

Spiritual Accelerationism
Fedorov – What Was Man Created For? The philosophy of the Common Task
Frase – Four Futures
Singleton – Maximum Jailbreak (in ‘#Accelerate: the Accelerationist Reader’)
Vansintjan – Accelerationism… and Degrowth? The left’s strange bedfellows

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