Episode 13 Transcript

Greg 00:00    [Intro] As Toni Morrison has put it, “the destiny of the 21st century will be shaped by the possibility or collapse of a shareable world.” Welcome to our podcast where we explore the history, theory and practice of democratic socialism with our guide big Mike. What can we learn from the past to help us create a better, more shareable world in the future?

Greg 00:32    Well, shall we begin big Mike?

Mike 00:34    Let’s begin.

Greg 00:35    For yet another A Shareable World podcast. And the topic we’ve chosen ahead of time, uh, is utopia or utopian thinking, um, which… I’m just going to turn it over to you for where to start. 

Mike 00:55    Well, I think the, we start with a problem which we always do. The word utopia, which comes from the Greek—and it has two possible meanings. Curiously enough. Uh, it’s the way utopia has fallen into a kind of disrepute in modern times. We, we use the word utopian in expressions like, ‘well, that’s just the utopian idea, you know, come back down to earth.’ That’s just utopian. Um, and I think there are two reasons why it’s fallen into disrepute. Number, number one is capitalism. And I come back to my fundamental dichotomy between capitalism and, and the other, the other, any other, any other possible kind of social thinking? Right. Uh, capitalism really has a psycho-cultural to, to kind of where—a kind of psycho-cultural, um, intent to focus our minds on the here and now. Capitalism is about production and distribution of real things, especially up until this particular moment. 

Mike 02:08    Now we are entering a stage of history where we seem to be producing and distributing not real things, like information, and often false information or as one of our greatest thinkers in world history would call it, fake information, but the, um, but until now capitalism has wanted to focus us, focus us on the here and now. And in that context, of course, utopian thinking, utopia as a concept, would be banished or at least disadvantaged because I don’t think the capitalist psycho-culture—to again use that idea—the capitalist psycho-culture wants us to concentrate on any alternatives to the reality of our present. We must produce, we must distribute. We must pay attention to the market, which is ever-present now. Uh, the other reason for the disadvantaging of the idea of utopia comes from Marx and, Marx and Engels, and in the middle of the 19th century, which saw the culmination of a lot of dissatisfaction with the growth of capitalism, Marx and Engels approached the analysis of capitalism with what they called a scientific, which in my mind really means a very analytical perspective. 

Mike 03:30    In other words, they’re looking at capitalism, trying to understand it as a system. Contrary to that were all the, a lot of earlier systems of thinking, which posited an alternative to where we are today, but which had no analytical foundations to them, had no, no, uh, quote “scientific” unquote foundation. So Marx and Engels on the left disparage the idea of utopianism from the point of view of its being non-analytical. And I think both sides to this made a huge mistake from which we still suffer. And I want to argue that utopian thinking is an extremely important, positive and always present form of intellectual activity for us. So, let me start with this idea that the word utopia has two meanings. When, when the, uh, when Thomas More wrote his book in the 16th century called Utopia, uh, he himself remarks that the word coming from the Greek could have two possible meanings. 

Mike 04:37    One was utopia in which topia—topia comes from the Greek topos, which means place. Um, the, ‘u’ of the utopia, had two meanings depending on how it was spelled in Greek. Uh, one meant no, no place, right? So utopia was some other place that didn’t exist, but: we could imagine it. We could think about it. The other meaning of the ‘u’ of utopia—pronounced slightly different in Greek—was good. So you can understand utopia as a good place. So from that point of view, the word utopia has two fundamental meanings in my opinion, both of which are important to us today. And we should be playing with these ideas. The first one, the idea of it being no place. 

Mike 05:37    It’s, it’s really quite remarkable that somebody at the peak of political power in England in the 16th century writes a book Utopia, imagining a society that’s radically different from the society in which he lives. So one may wonder what were his motivations in writing such a book? He was at the pinnacle of power. Uh, why would he want to be elsewhere? Right. I think that the, um, the—here by the way, comes in the, the question of its being a good place. That what, what, what Thomas More was about, was trying to find a way to analyze the society in which he was living—I think of him as a social scientist trying to analyze the society in which he was living before social science existed, before anybody had thought of, or created the analytical tools with which we examine society today. And it doesn’t take much of an imagination to imagine him thinking, well, one way to do it is to create an alternative.

Mike 06:47    And then I can examine English society as I live it today against the model that I’ve created of some alternative. That’s one way of thinking about it. Another way of thinking about it is that, as we know, he was a profoundly religious man. Uh, and someone for whom values were extraordinarily important. Anyone of that nature, anyone who was concerned with values and with the importance of the answers to the questions of how should we live with a good life, um, is going to want to critique the present in terms of something else. Well, in that case you want to try to imagine what a good society would be like. Not another society, but a good society. The subtlety—there’s a subtle difference I think between these two things. But imagine a good society, a moral society as a, as a way of correcting the present, not as a way of analyzing, but as a way of correcting the present. 

Mike 07:52    I think those are closely related but different functions of the concept of utopia. So that utopia becomes an extremely important concept. And if you stop for a moment and think about, uh, anybody who let’s say, says, uh, you know, this is what we’re doing, but really we would like to achieve A, B or C or X, Y, Z. Well, ABC or XYZ already is utopian. That is to say it doesn’t exist. And always our problem in problem solving is how to reach that other place or that good place, uh, where we aren’t at the present. So utopia becomes very central to, to our way of thinking and to, in fact all social thought in my opinion.

Greg 08:36    So since we sometimes talk about the historical development as part of what we’re trying to figure out, was Thomas More responding to change that was happening?

Mike 08:48    I think he was, I think he was, I mean, after all, the 16th century was already a period of, of change. He couldn’t—economic development was taking place. People were being forced off the commons. It was the close—the period of closing of the commons. There was population growth. Cities were growing. I think he was aware of the fact that change was taking place. Um, I say that without really knowing what he was aware of, we don’t know what he actually observed himself, unless we consider Utopia to be an example of his recognition change. Right. So I think yes, a change… But you know, that’s a good question ‘cause it occurs to me under what conditions do we not, are we not aware of change? Um, we’re always aware of change. I think that’s, there, there may have been periods in history when we could imagine society as once in forever. I think it recently in American history, we were in that kind of frame of mind when we thought America, um, Francis Fukuyama writes his book The End of Politics as if the, as if America had reached the pinnacle and from now on we were what we were. And it was merely a matter of adjusting for little pebbles in the road. Uh, of course that was within an extremely short period of time upended because the world was changing under his feet. While his book was being published. But I think that the, um, I’m not sure that, that, that we’re ever unaware of change. 

Greg 10:30    So I didn’t review Utopia in preparation for this conversation. But, and, and I don’t know if you plan to talk about specific stuff in it, but there’s one in particular that might help illustrate what he’s up to. Should I bring that up? Well, one, one feature I remember from having read at long ago is the, I assume him trying to address greed. One feature of this, uh, alternative society that he’s imagining is kids would play with precious stones. So there’d be this, um, you would develop a, um, making the special ordinary presumably to address greed.

Mike 11:12    Right I think that one of the, there’s no question that one of the main themes of almost all utopias, with probably the one exception of the capitalist utopia, which we can get back to and talk about, but with the exception of that all utopias want to, um, want to discuss and find a way around greed. Greed is a sin. Uh, almost, almost all systems of thought around the world understand that greed is a sin. In pre-modern societies, those societies which in which creative production, that is the increase in the total amount of available goods is not a given. One of the, one of the distinctive hallmarks of capitalism and incidentally also of traditional socialist law is that an increase in the quantity of goods is to be devotedly achieved. Uh, this is one reason by the way, and at some point in the future we’re going to face this. 

Mike 12:27    Uh, why green thought today environmental thought is upending a lot of our traditional concepts both on the left and on the right because it’s beginning to assume that we cannot increase the total product, right? Uh, but economic growth, which is the way we would talk about it in the 20th and 21st centuries, um, is based upon ultimately the idea that it will come about if we maximize the pursuit of our own self interests. I always want more. Uh, I, I may be satisfied with the meal I’ve eaten for Thanksgiving, but Friday I’m going to be hungry again. And similarly, I may have enough money in my bank account, but I’m always a little bit worried that something will happen. So I want to make more money. I mean greed, uh, you know—sex. Sex is great when I have it, but tomorrow morning I’m going to want it again, that kind of thing. 

Mike 13:24    So I think this idea of, of greed, which is a kind of moral—some might say immoral, I would—a moral extension of, of the ego, right? The satisfaction of the ego, uh, expresses itself in, in in moral terms as greed. Capitalism sanctifies greed. But almost all other systems denigrate it and think it’s not, it’s not good. And in traditional societies, we find examples of this all over the world. And I’ll give you one very interesting one in modern times. In traditional societies all over the world, there were, there are often customs whereby accumulation of capital to use that expression, let’s use that now for our discussion to mean goods. Uh, the accumulation of capital is disparaged, or discouraged, rather. North—Northwest Indians with their potlatch ceremonies where you know, someone who went out and made a huge kill on the hunt was required by custom to hold a great feast in order to redistribute that, the hunt among everybody. So this is a, this is a fundamental idea in the very late 19th and very, very beginning of the 20th century on the border between Manchuria and Siberia, uh, which in those days was a gold-producing area along the Amur River. There developed two small republics, um, together numbering probably no more than a hundred thousand people in them. 

Mike 15:06    These were republics of miners that were, that developed—miners mining gold and other things—that developed very, very far from the centers of power of both the Russian empire and the Chinese empire. Uh, the writ of the state in both those cases didn’t quite reach that far towards the border. So there was a kind of space, both the physical and administrative that made possible this development. So as things happen, these two little groups of people, as I said, republics numbering about a hundred thousand people all together developed a system of government for themselves, which became the darling of the anarchists all over the world. People used to go there to look at them. Kropotkin went to see them for example. And the uh, they had a couple of very basic principles. One of them was that, um, one of the more amusing ones was that there was no marriage so that women were not trophies. 

Mike 16:14    I mean, marriage is about, in many societies is about trophy winning, right? But if you have no marriage, if you have free love, uh, that really does liberate women. Uh, and certainly makes them into something other than trophies. That’s a very important thing to think about by the way. And uh, the other thing more immediately interesting is that they used to issue money to everybody. Everybody got an equal amount of money at the beginning of the year. The money was good for one year and then it completely lost its value on the last day of the year. And the next day they would issue new money that prevented anybody from amassing permanent fortunes. You couldn’t become rich. Equality was built-in, you might be temporarily a little bit richer than somebody else, but equality was built into this. That was their way of controlling greed, right? So there was a legal inhibition to greed in the economic system. 

Mike 17:11    In the end, both the Russians and the Chinese realize that this, the example of these two little republics was a great danger and a joint Russian-Chinese military expedition squash them completely around 1908, 1909, somewhere in there. But for the time that they existed, they became a, a very interesting contra, counterpoint to this theme of greed and of hierarchical society, et cetera. So I think greed is, is something that is, um, a problem with which the human race has wrestled over time. Greed really is a psycho-social, psycho-morally. I don’t know what word one wants to use there, but it really is at the heart of class society or of empires, you name it. It is the original sin. 

Greg 18:07    So in terms of the basic, this basic notion of utopian thinking, More writes about a place where treasure, let’s say, is treated as, treated a certain way, both to say—treat it and specific, specifically is not valued the way it is in his own society. 

Mike 18:27    You would eat, you know—everybody had gold plates and everybody, and children played with diamonds and rubies and they had no value, therefore there was nothing to accumulate. 

Greg 18:36    And so, so by describing that kind of place, he is both saying this is no place. There is no place that is like this, but this is also maybe a good place.

Mike 18:47    Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Greg 18:49    To get us to think about that.

Mike 18:50    Let me give you another example that—we don’t think of it as utopia in this regard, but if, but one that it has occurred to me, uh, as being more important than we realized in this, in social thought. And that is the monasteries in the Catholic church. Certainly there is hierarchy in monastic orders and in monasteries in the middle ages certainly. But it isn’t, it isn’t the kind of material greed that leads to your advancement along the, um, along the path to, to a higher position in a monastic order. Uh, now you get into a very interesting problem here. For example, can one be greedy for morality? Can I, can I, um, can I be excessively moral or excessively pious? And that is indeed one of the problems that people in monasteries confront and people criticize other people for being, oh you’re too pious or you know, that kind of thing. 

Mike 19:50    So that, that’s an indication of how fundamental the question of greed is to our social thinking. As I said, under capitalism, we’ve turned it into a, uh, into a virtue—self-interest, right? Everyone, everyone seeks to maximize his or her self-interest in the market. That’s what makes the merry go round right now. There are other ways of thinking about utopia then simply trying to deal with greed or rather self-interest may be—there are other issues that utopias deal with. So I’m thinking for example, there are especially, um, after the middle of the 19th century there began to develop a lot of utopias, perhaps one of the most famous one is [American author Edward] Bellamy’s, Looking Backward, and American utopia—and work that had a tremendous amount of influence at the time, which are kind of technological utopias. At a certain point, when the industrial revolution becomes a very day-to-day activity where people are beginning to experience the advantages of industrial invention, uh, you get a whole series of utopias Bellamy—which I urge people to read. 

Mike 21:12    Uh, [in] Looking Backward, you get a utopia where the advance in technology makes possible the kind of society where greed and other negative considerations are diminished or are no longer in play, right? So if technology can provide us with all of the goods we need to survive, it becomes possible to imagine in real terms, a good society from a utopian point of view. In fact, this is really in my mind at the, at the heart of, at the metaphysical heart, although I don’t think that’s too apt a term, but I’m going to use it at the metaphysical heart of Marx’s thinking. I mean Marx really is in, in a certain dimension, a response to the industrial revolution, not from the point of view only of the negative values of the industrial revolution, the debasement of daily life, the poverty, the starvation that was characteristic of urban life in those days. 

Mike 22:18    But he was also responding positively to the potential that the industrial revolution brought to human life, to making it really materially better. If only we could solve the greed problem. So it is possible to live a better life by producing new machines that will make more goods for all of us, provided they’re socially owned instead of privately owned. So this problem of greed also could be understood as, as, as I say at the metaphysical heart of Marx’s own thinking.

Greg 22:50    So, I’m not sure you want to go in this direction quite yet, but, um, you’d mentioned earlier—

Mike 22:57    Let me just add one more point. Again, utopia is about human aspirations. So there are utopias in which peace is the primary objective, right? If only we could stop killing each other, then that leads to the question of why do we kill each other? Well, because—it’s not, some people argue, there are some academics who argue that war is endemic to human nature. I don’t buy that, but, but there are certainly, um, people who would argue that if we had enough material possessions, we wouldn’t need to go to war, for example. So again, that comes back. But the, the idea that that peace is utopia, right? Or women’s liberation is a utopia. We’re engaging in utopian thought every day of our lives. ‘Oh, I wish it were better.’ That’s a utopian statement. 

Greg 23:55    Yup. Well. So the idea that you’d mentioned earlier as capitalism itself as utopian thinking, it seems that there’s, there are, there are plenty of people who, who think that if you let capitalism do its thing properly, you actually get the best society that, that it’s interfering with it.

Mike 24:17    That in fact is, that’s almost the doctrine that is taught in many academic institutions, particularly in North America. The trouble with that statement, as is the problem with all utopian experiments, because we should understand that there have been many experiments in utopia. People have actually tried to live utopian, in utopian communities even today. So the trouble is that we have in historical record of utopian experiments, we know that they don’t always work. So let me give you a couple; or they change for other reasons, so I’ll give you a couple of examples. Uh, an example that I would consider to be on the left, but most people probably wouldn’t, of a, of a great utopian experiment is the Mormon church. The Mormon church when it starts out, particularly when it starts to, to when it lands in Utah and begins to organize itself seriously—is a utopian experiment in cooperation. 

Mike 25:25    And if you look back into Mormon history, it is absolutely amazing the extent to which the institutions of Mormonism were considered to be cooperative. They understood the need to make the soil grow things and they had to have banking. All of these things were communally owned, cooperatively owned institutions. Eventually I suspect, and I’m, I can’t—I’m not a Mormon historian, but I suspect that when, when the growth of the American union and eventually of Utah’s entry into this overwhelmingly capitalist society, that America was in the latter part of the 19th century, that kind of drowned out perhaps the utopian element, but Mormonism starts out with a remarkably utopian component to it. One that deserves a lot more study and thinking. Capitalism of course is thought to be utopian, but we have here a lot of historical experience to show that the capitalism that is taught in a doctrinaire fashion in our institutions or that some of our presidential advisors like to broadcast has not worked very well. 

Mike 26:38    We have constant crises and when we have these crises, capitalism betrays itself by running to the state to bail it out. So that the model of a laissez-faire market that works well and, uh, does not run into, uh, into blank walls on an almost regular basis is a fiction. Right? It is utopian. In the old sense of the word you told me, not the way I was using it, it is a fiction. Uh, which is why I think socialism comes up alongside capitalism. It doesn’t, and socialism also is a utopian thought, of course, but we teach it in our, but we teach capitalism as a, we teach a utopian capitalism, uh, in our schools. And that’s very important to think about. 

Greg 27:27    It seems like—I have always wondered about but there, there, there must be plenty of people of the capitalist sort who know it’s a fiction and what they think is the case is that people are greedy, people are competitive and let’s deal with that reality and you try to get yours and I’ll try to get mine. 

Mike 27:49    Well, I think Ayn Rand and, and the, uh, and, and people of her ilk, uh, some of whom reached, uh, extraordinarily powerful positions in American politics and thought influencing economic policy, were precisely those people. There is a, in my opinion, and I want to stress, I’m not alone in this opinion, but this is not a popular opinion today. If we consider America as a Christian society, Christianity as a social idea, ideal, Christianity as a social ideal is extraordinarily utopian. Uh, one need only go back and think about the primitive church to realize that, uh, Paul is going around creating utopian communities throughout the Mediterranean. That’s, that’s part of what it was about. One of the—there is a conflict, a profound conflict in my opinion, between Christianity and capitalism. That’s not an uncommon thought. Many, many honest sincere Christians have recognized that that’s a conflict.

Mike 29:01    You’ll find that in theology, you’ll find some of the great theologians of modern Christianity in the 1920s, 1930s, recognizing the conflict between Christianity and capitalism and openly espousing socialism. In America we had the social gospel movement in the twenties and thirties, which was, which I think was really about the problem you just raised. Capitalism naturalizes greed becomes quote, human nature. So the idea of greed has to be accompanied by a foundation. You can’t just assert that greed is, you have to be able to somehow rationalize, uh, the importance of greed. So you create this idea of human nature. There is something that makes us as human beings, is part of our everyday existence, to be greedy. Uh, we have two arms, two legs and greed. So it becomes a natural phenomenon for us. Capitalism very much rests in my opinion upon that assumption. 

Mike 30:14    We tried—Christianity comes along and says, wait a minute, it’s a sin. Greed is a sin, gluttony, a form of greed is a sin. One only needs to look at the Divine Comedy to see all the forms of greed, whatever name they may have, that Christianity condemns or that Dante condemns. So we naturalize it with the idea of human nature and greed then becomes an unquestionable part. We see it as a natural phenomenon. Right? Well, that’s part of our problem. That’s what I would call an ideological assertion on the part of capitalism, which has very little to do with anything else other than that ideology. We need to question whether or not there’s something called human nature. And if there is something called human nature, what might it be? But it certainly doesn’t, is it what say capitalism asserts it to be. So yes, greed is extremely important. And, and as I said before, there are many ways around dealing with greed.   

Greg 31:18    There’s this great, this great anecdote by the way, you’re reminding me of, from, um, I’m trying to think of this author’s name [ed. note: Max Weber] The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that book. He’s talking about the rise of capitalism and he, he finds this anecdote in the historical record of, as that shift was taking place, of some peasants, someone trying to get more product out of the peasants by offering them more per unit, let’s just say. And, and the effect on them was actually to make less because they only needed so much money. So the person assumed that greed would drive them to produce more if they were getting paid more.

Mike 32:03    Yeah, exactly. So many of us are indeed aware of the fact that we don’t need all, we only need what we need and life is too exciting to spend all of it in satisfying the pecuniary requirements of life. I mean, I want to, I want time to go to the museums where I want time to just lie in the grass and look at the stars and, or make love or whatever it is I want—not everything can be… Marx warns us of this. Marx says under capitalism, everything is turned into monetary value—all human relations are turned into monetary value. Some of us don’t, by nature, we don’t accept that idea, but we have a whole industry that supports the points you’re making. Namely the advertising industry. The point about advertising is to generate greed, right? And, and you know, and we have a large, it’s a very wealthy industry. 

Mike 33:05    It produces a lot of services. Uh, without it probably modern capitalism could not exist. Um, so I think that, you know, we have to buy, I’m amused that uh, Thanksgiving is coming up and I guess it’s whatever Friday it’s called to go shopping—

Greg 33:24    Oh, Black Friday.

Mike 33:26    Black Friday, I don’t remember it, but one of my, one of my grandchildren was pointing out to me how many new days there are. So there’s, there’s a day now right around this period of time when they want you to go and buy technology. And so they name it, they name the days right? Technological Tuesday or something. I don’t remember. [ed. note: Cyber Monday] But, but my point is that we have a vast array of instruments whereby we seek to create greed in people in order to keep the system going. So you have, again, this moral dilemma. And I think, it’s time that we start talking in America about moral, the moral dilemmas of capitalism. 

Mike 34:02    In a very, very, uh, perhaps I don’t like the word religion, but in a metaphysical way, right. That we have a system which is based upon creating sinful desires in people, desires that our moral sense tells us are sinful. That’s a very interesting problem too, to think about.

Greg 34:27    That’d be quite a shift. Um—

Mike 34:32    Moral economy. Maybe we should require a course in every economics department on ethics and morality, not how to do business ethically, but on the ethics of the system.

Greg 34:42    Right. Yep. Um, so—

Mike 34:46    I think, I think I just, I’m sorry, I just think this is the great significance of Pope Francis and, and his thinking today, is that he is by various means trying to raise this kind of question. And he’s not doing it from the point of view of the left or the right. The right wing will condemn him for being left because they need some way to put him down. And the radicals who don’t like religion will, will call him conservative over this or that issue. And he is the center of a lot of warfare. But if you think about what he’s trying to accomplish, read his various writings, you become aware of the fact that he’s trying to raise the issue we’re talking about.

Greg 35:28    And specifically you mean the morality—

Mike 35:32    The morality of the system and the need to shift away from the sinful to the moral position in our daily lives. 

Greg 35:40    Yeah. So let’s see, would it be right to say in some basic sense that moral—well, I think you said this earlier, moral values are in some sense utopian from the start…

Mike 35:51    Absolutely. Absolutely.

Greg 35:52    There’s something we’re aiming at.

Mike 35:54    And we must keep aiming at them. So, so the, the, the dilemma for us is that we have been, and this is largely I think, well I won’t, I won’t say what I was gonna say. I think that that by and large, we have thought about morals in the West in individual terms. My morality as opposed to your morality, the ethics I live as opposed to the others. You only live by, uh,,, what in my opinion, democratic socialism is about in this particular dimension is trying to raise the, the issues of ethics and morality at the social level so that it’s not the salvation of my soul or if you’re a soul that we’re concerned about, but it is the salvation of society, of life itself. So here we are, it’s the beginning of the, in the first decades of the 21st century facing damnation, right? We’re facing hell, we’re calling it environmental crisis, but that’s our semi-scientific way of talking about what is also a theological question. And that means that we have to deal with this question. The environmental question is not, it has to be solved scientifically. It has to be solved politically. But it is a moral question. And this is, but we don’t talk enough about it in those terms, right? But in my opinion, that’s where we’re, where we have to direct social democratic, democratic socialist thought to think about it morally. 

Greg 37:24    So let me try this out on another, uh, contemporary issue, this kind of utopian dynamic. So I think I was in the car the other day and I caught the end of—public radio has these, I can’t remember what they’re called, but they basically, it’s in a debate format and the audience votes on what side they think they’re on. And then they debate and then they vote again. And it was about single payer healthcare versus the private healthcare industry. And I only caught the very end, but the way it got framed, you know, the case against… So, so we have a current system, then we have a proposal about a different system. And the framing of the debate at the end was—the people against the other possible system were basically arguing about its impracticality. And so it occurred to me, so to come back to utopian thinking, does a community think, for example, that no person in this community should have their life ruined by catastrophic health events or chronic health events? If that is our value, then it’s just the practical problem of how do we protect those people. But the actual debate doesn’t seem to bring up the value enough. It’s just about, healthcare would be worse if we shifted to this other system.

Mike 38:47    That’s right, I agree. So I think that we, if you look at the, at the current debate going on, since we’re in this election cycle and the current debate going on among the Democratic candidates over healthcare, that’s, that’s an extremely important question. What are they debating? They are debating the, um, the economic practicality of one system as opposed to another system. That’s the fundamental question. Then the next highest question, the next higher level is occasionally they will talk about the, um, about human choice. Now that’s, that’s a slightly more esoteric question. Uh, do I have an innate right to make a choice about what system of insurance I want and so forth and so on. And uh, then you go to a next, another higher level that somehow sanctifies the idea of diversity. I’m, I’ve never been clear why… the concept of, of diversity is very much a liberal idea. 

Mike 39:54    A rather modern idea. Um, and we should talk about it at some point because it almost inhibits further discussion about any of these topics we’re interested in. So, at the highest level, they don’t reach the highest level, which is the moral problem of suffering right now. We think about it in terms of, you know, if you, theologians will say some of them—I think it’s a question that doesn’t interest me because I don’t have, I don’t assume the existence of any deity, but the idea that there is a problem because how is the God allows suffering. To me that’s not a problem. If there’s no God, God can allow suffering. I’m not worried about that. But I do worry about the idea of how I experience the suffering of somebody else or how somebody else suffers and so forth. 

Mike 40:45    So that’s a moral question. It’s a question of social solidarity in the face of, of health, for example, illness is a moral question. To what degree do we care about each other? We need to discuss the healthcare system on that level, right? It’s not enough, you know, and we can afford these things. Our priorities morally will dictate how we do, how we use the monies available to us to do these things. Right now, if you come back to the individual level, a large percentage of our population will, given the problem, probably agree to give a kidney to their child or grandchild if necessary. It’s possible that those same people will oppose a single payer system or healthcare for everybody, right?

Mike 41:36    There’s a dilemma that is a contradiction there. Uh, why should I, what, what is it in our culture that says that my child or grandchild is more important than your child or grandchild? So if we can get the discussion going at that level and challenge ourselves morally, maybe we’ll make some progress. But it is a moral question. And I’m always disappointed that the, the candidates are not raising the question at that level.

Greg 42:04    Yeah. It’s reminded me in the last election cycle, there was, uh, some event where the, you know, the scenario of somebody who doesn’t have health insurance, you know, or somebody, you know, riding a motorcycle without a helmet gets hurt, doesn’t have health insurance, what should happen to that person when they show up at the ER and somebody in the audience shouted, “let him die.” Do you remember that? Um, which says to me that there are people who, who have a worldview that, that they think is, that it is a competitive environment, that not everybody can get these things. And why do you think that value discussion doesn’t happen more directly, even political candidates aside, even just socially, like—

Mike 42:52    Well, I think, no, look, I think that the answer to that question is, is actually relatively simple. Um, and that is that in capitalism, and I want to come back to this as I since I think she says, I don’t think that human nature the way we talk about it these days really exists. I mean that’s something we need to talk about at some point in the future. But, but I think capitalism encourages implicitly—very few, some say it explicitly, but it’s mostly implicit—the idea that some will win and some will lose. You know we have it in a common [expression]. ‘Oh, there’s some who’ll win, some who’ll the lose. That’s the way life is.’ But damn it all, it isn’t that way. That’s not the way life is. We make it, we are capable of making our own lives. Unless you believe that we have a quote selfish gene in ourselves, which is really the only possible explanation and I don’t, I don’t buy that.  

Mike 43:49    And if we do have it, then I would suggest that the neuroscientists get busy in there now to breed it out of us or—

Greg 43:59    Well, and society is more than our genes anyway.

Mike 44:00    Exactly. Precisely. Precisely. So but capitalism depends upon winners and losers. So what does the idea of winners and losers come from? Of course, it comes from a very pre-capitalist, very traditional idea in the world that says that there is only so much good to go around. There are only a hundred units of good in the whole universe. And if I have one, then you can’t have it. There’s no way of making more. The genius of capitalism, and Marx understood this and this is why Marxist socialism is so closely related to capitalism, but a moral denial of it—is that capitalism makes possible the production of 101 units or 102 units of good and so forth and so on. 

Mike 44:45    Um, so it breaks that idea that there’s only so much good to go around. Well, if there is only so much good to go around, redistribution is an essential question, but if there is the possibility of producing more good, then we need to rearrange its distribution. But that rearrangement is not limited by the quantity of good itself. We’re coming up against this kind of problem with the environmental crisis. This idea of a no-growth economy. That’s a very, very serious question that we talk about, but no one really has confronted, in my opinion very profoundly. 

Greg 45:24    Well, so maybe that’d be a good place to go next. It sounds like we really need to talk about the assumptions about human nature and society that we inherit from, from this capitalist, um, society that’s been created. We can always change our mind, but does that sound like, um…

Mike 45:45    Yeah.

Greg 45:46    Alright, thanks, Big Mike. By the way, it was Max Weber I was, I was trying to think of.

All right, thanks for joining us everybody. Come back again sometime. [Outro] Thanks for listening to another episode of A Shareable World. To find out more about this podcast, visit us at ashareableworld.com.