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 Okay, then we’re off and running. I think this is number three [ed. note: this is actually number four] in a little miniseries on the topic of utopia. And last time we looked at the religious tradition in the West and some figures in the Bible called prophets and what they—how to think of them under this general topic of utopia, as calls for a different kind of society, and as critics of the society around them. Any, any other, anything else you would emphasize about last time?
Mike 01:06 No, no, no, no.
Greg 01:09 Okay. So then we, we’re about to turn to a philosophical tradition—
Mike 01:14 Well to the Western philosophical tradition.
Greg 01:17 Western. Yes. Right. And so, uh, that’s where we are today.
Mike 01:23 Okay. So again, just to remind you, Greg, that we are, what we’re really doing is putting together the syllabus of an introduction to an alternative education, an alternative humanities education. I mean, I would argue for example, that, um, we talked about a kind of religious component of it last time, and now we’re going to talk about a Western philosophical component. If this were television instead of radio or whatever it is, what is a podcast? Is it radio, is it internet, podcast, whatever.
Greg 02:00 It’s a podcast. It’s internet, yeah.
Mike 02:02 Whatever. Um, I would argue there’s an art component to it. So, and then I would go on and say there’s a sociological component which we will be able to talk about. But my point is that we—what I’m trying to do is suggest that we can rearrange, um, selectively choose, the monuments that we ordinarily compose our educational curriculum out of and create thereby the, the history of—because it does really exist—the history of an alternative approach to society. Right? And so that’s what we’re, yeah. Just want to remind ourselves of, of what the, uh, what the purpose is. Because we tend to read these in classes and without making that distinction so much, we lump all literature together without realizing that, um, it doesn’t hold up together as literature, there’s establishment literature and then there’s literature that is anti-establishment for example. All right, so with that as a, as a point of departure: the first Western document, obviously, that one needs to look at, and look at it in a great deal of, in some detail, is Plato’s Republic.
Mike 03:32 Which, as I think I may have suggested before, but want to reemphasize, we tend to read as, almost as a moral document. I think there is a tremendous emphasis in the way we talk about Plato, particularly in our schools, as if what he’s trying to do is create a moral society and the society detailed in the Republic is supposed to materialize as it were, institutionalize, that moral system that he was drawing. But actually, one may argue that it was something quite the opposite. That really what Plato was trying to do is say, look, if we’re going to live moral lives, we have to recreate society in this fashion. And then he proceeds to describe what he calls a republic, which as we’ll see, Thomas would have called utopia and the, and I think that’s a slightly different take on it than we’re accustomed to.
Greg 04:43 I don’t see the distinction yet.
Mike 04:44 Well, the difference is reading it as a moral document, as a discussion of ethics, and saying, you know this is an ethical system, a moral system, and um, and the, and the Republic then becomes a representation of that moral system in institutional terms. And I’m thinking that it may have the opposite; it may be the opposite. In order to live a moral life, you have to have these institutions. So what I’m saying, he wants to rearrange the institutions of his society. He’s very disturbed by the, by the society in which he lives. You remember that one of the accusations that’s brought against Socrates, originally—Plato after all, Socrates is his mouthpiece—that, one of the, uh, supposedly one of the accusations brought against him is that he is destroying the youth.
Mike 05:41 He’s going around challenging the youth. Well, what does that mean? That means he’s challenging the moral system that the, that the quote “establishment” unquote of that age was insisting was the way people had to live and Plato in the Republic is offering an alternative institutional arrangement. Um, I suspect that much like a later debate which we’ve already talked about, and we’ll come back to in time, that the issue of whether you create the institutions to allow the moral person to live, or the moral person is defined first and then creates the institutions is there is a problem I’m trying to raise with regard to Plato. I’m very much impressed by the fact for a variety of reasons that Plato goes around looking for a Prince who will create his Republic. He fails in doing that—
Greg 06:32 In fact, in historical fact, yeah.
Mike 06:35 So my point is if he’s really, if he’s really just trying to describe a new morality, then why does he make that trip to Syracuse? It’s a long trip from, from Athens to Syracuse using those days. Right? Right. But he actually wants to do it. He wants to—this is not a metaphor for him. This is a plan. Yes. And falls therefore into, into an experimental mode. Much as we will see in the 19th century. Similar people were… does that—?
Greg 07:13 I mean, and to me it, it, the plan in his most basic sense was, “my teacher, Socrates was killed by his own community.”
Mike 07:20 That’s exactly right.
Greg 07:28 “And how can I Plato come to terms with the fact that somebody who is questioning his own community could be put to death and what, what community, what would community look like—”
Mike 07:37 If it were otherwise.
Greg 07:39 If it were otherwise, exactly.
Mike 07:42 So Plato lives from 427 to 347 BC. And I said, as I said, this thing that I think is most important—that he actually went around searching for a Prince who would institutionalize this alternative model society that he had, and he concluded that the state that he wanted to see brought into existence was one which embodied it, and he says, “in his laws and institutions, the fundamental unity of the moral individual with a socialized state.” Now that’s a comment on it, but a later commentator may and my that’s—that’s very, but that’s a very important point to make that there… the, the, the idea that democratic socialisms, that’s why I’m always looking at these texts from that point of view. The idea that if socialism is to make any difference…
Mike 08:38 It must guide the way I live my daily life. That’s what Plato is trying to say. It must guide the way one must be. One must live out one’s values. This turns philosophy or it takes philosophy back to the beginning. Which I think is also something very important—an awful lot of the, I know I’m, I’m, I’m, uh, treading on very thin ice here, but, but an awful lot of the philosophy we teach these days, or we talk about these days are hear talked about these days… Does it really impact the way I get up in the morning or the way I talk to my friends? And, um, which is not to say it’s not important, but it is, it’s not, it’s not about daily life. And what Plato was really trying to argue is that you must live in a society which impacts your daily life and transforms you into the kind of person who merits living in that society. Which is why I think that the—I like to think of Plato, perhaps more of an experimental sociologist than as a philosopher. So some of the important, um, elements that I think are crucial in the Republic are first of all, a quest for, for justice. And I would emphasize that, that this justice that he’s searching for is very much a social justice. Um, it’s not the, it’s not just the kind of justice that I would get when I go to court to try to gain back a piece of lost property. Um, he really argues that neither poverty nor riches can produce a just society. Uh, it’s very significant to note that, for example, the, uh, the philosopher-kings, well, let me… I would make this general statement more broadly.
Mike 10:56 Nobody in Plato’s society is rich. They differ from each other. So you have four different groups, right? You have the philosopher-kings who are the guides, and you have the guardians who provide the administrative and military infrastructure, if you will, um, and so forth. But none of them are richer than the others. They are distinguished from each other by their function in society contributing to the whole, they’re not distinguished from each other by wealth. And the, and the, and the distinction between them is very much if we’re to understand what he said, very much according to their characteristics, that is like, I have in myself certain characteristics which make me X instead of Y and I should therefore fulfill my function in society as X instead of as Y. Right? And, and that’s a, a, a vision of equality and of social justice based on a concept of equality.
Mike 12:04 It certainly flew in the face of, of society at the time he’s writing, which is a, as I say, why I think I read him as a social theorist, if you will…
Greg 12:13 Flies in the face of current thinking…
Mike 12:17 Well also of current society.
Greg 12:20 Drives students crazy.
Mike 12:21 But we, we, we, we tend to create in our minds a very happy picture of Ancient Greece. Right? You know, warriors fighting out, going out to fight the Persians and, and uh, ladies playing the lyre, dressed in white gossamer dresses. But none of that’s true, right? I mean, it was a society, which was incredibly unequal, a society in which slaves provided the, a tremendous amount of work. Women were not included as citizens of that society, etc. I’m always, I’m always amused that we think of, of Ancient Greece as, as the, as the cradle of democracy—the, um, the percentage of the population that participated in the political system was tiny, right? I often, I often try to anger people by saying that probably the most democratic society in the 20th century was apartheid South Africa. Because if you were white, you were in The fact that 80, 90% of the population wasn’t white—well, tough, but from the point of view of South African society, it was democratic. So I think we, we, we badly misrepresent Greece or we could ask the question, why do we need Greece to serve metaphorically as the cradle of our, uh, of democracy when it was far from that.
Greg 13:47 Or, well, right. And, or one thing you’re saying is maybe Plato shouldn’t be taught without giving a lot of context for the society he was in and that Socrates was rubbing up against. I mean, there’s this great little moment in the Republic. Don’t know if you remember this, very early, they’re shifting to talking about the city or what justice would look like in a community in Socrates says, well, it’s pretty simple. We would, we would eat acorns ‘cause you can find them. They’re easy, they’re easy food. And then we’d sit around and talk and then one of his interlocutors says, um, but yeah, it’d be nice if we had couches to lie down on. And he says, ah, okay. So the luxurious city is when we need to talk about. If you want luxury, that changes the whole, the whole, thing.
Mike 14:39 Exactly. So, um, so I think that’s a great point. Another point to make is the, the tremendous emphasis he placed on education. I mean the, what is it that was the primary characteristic, of the philosopher-kings and the guardians. It was not income and it was not power. It was education that was the source of their legitimacy. And, um, and that’s—that rings with—that rings as a very modern kind of, of concept and certainly a very strong concept in the way, uh, of how should we think about reorganizing even our contemporary society. Uh, it starts me thinking along the lines that there goes something like this: that we have education today and we say this very nakedly, uh, to prepare our students to compete in society, to make their way to make a living. All of those kinds of things.
Mike 15:48 The idea—which even when I was young, which is, you know, a couple hundred years ago and—I still remember faintly the idea that education was about creating citizens. We don’t talk about that anymore. And even some of our greatest universities, that idea seems to have disappeared from our thinking. But really that’s an important element in the way Plato is trying to describe what he thinks a just society is. That education is the, is the, is a, is the crucial element. And education for Plato is the, uh, the source of power. I mean, if I am capable of being well education [sic], then I become, if philosopher-king, I’m the one then who sits there and dispenses wisdom and so forth and so on. Yeah.
Greg 16:38 So the core content of that education is the wisdom. Is the ability to choose.
Mike 16:47 Then he also argues that that the um, if you will, the purpose of society is the happiness of all. That, that um, he’s not really concerned but one group be happy as opposed to another. Uh, and in fact the guardians are not particularly happy nor the philosopher-kings are not really happy, but happiness should be a characteristic of the city itself other than the public itself. That’s um, he’s pre-Christian, which is perhaps the saving grace, if you will, because the idea of suffering as a value is not in his, in his Republic. Um, you know, “blessed are the poor for they are always with you.” That’s not in his Republic. So he really has a vision of, of equality. And part of what you share is happiness and whatever that might mean. So how do you get that? Well, you have to reform, um, even the family structure. This is not just abstract.
Mike 17:46 He really is concerned with that. So while his ideas about what a family might be like or what intimate social relations might be like is perhaps different from our own today, it’s nonetheless a useful template through which to think about difference. So he argues, for example, that women should be held in common as well. In other words, women who are a source of happiness and satisfaction, but they’re also necessary for the existence of, of the society. They are a kind of wealth because it is they who produce the future of this society. Um, and if you’re against private property, then you must be against private property of women as well. So he says that no one should have a wife of his own. Likewise, the children shall be in common and the parents shall not know his child or the child, the parent. Uh, and that again is an incredibly radical educational ideal.
Mike 18:42 It’s not, it’s not an idea that any of us today would willingly accept, I suspect. But it is consistent with the idea that, um, you don’t possess your children and that children are the wealth of the, of the future of society and are themselves, um, to be raised equally. Right? They’re raised in a group. They’re not raised as, uh, to perpetuate their parents’ egos or their parents… in fact, they won’t have parents except biologically, because they, uh, uh, they are social. So I think that what he, it’s possible to extrapolate from this, the idea that our primary being is social and that’s why the children will not see themselves as parents. You, when you break down the traditional family structure, which is what he’s suggesting here, then you end up understanding that, that, that I am human by virtue of being social. If I am human, by virtue of being a citizen of the Republic or a citizen of the city, um, as opposed to being a barbarian who doesn’t live in a city.
Mike 19:58 If I am a human, by virtue of being a citizen, that means I’m a human by virtue of being social. My nature is, is social. He doesn’t talk about human nature then in the same way we do today, he’s talking about it much more I think in a, um… but then he has some very startling ideas, um, along with this, along with the fact that the children should be, should be, um, raised as it were without parents. He also believes that parents who have the characteristics to produce certain children should be encouraged to have those children and those that don’t should be discouraged from having some. Today we call that eugenics.
Mike 20:52 Which by the way, needs also to be mentioned as part of the utopian vision. These days, especially since the, uh, Hitlerian experience, the word eugenics has an incredibly bad odor about it. And people forget that in fact we practice eugenics every day and we want eugenics to develop as long as it’s called by something else. We are actively engaged in the, on the edges of medical science, biological science in gene therapy. And in various ways of creating, of correcting defects, even in fetuses. That’s eugenics. What we are trying to do is produce a human race, which is physically more utopian than ordinary nature. Bit queasy to us. That starts with Plato. It got a bad name, but we’re practicing it today. So—
Greg 21:58 Also matchmaking—
Mike 22:00 Matchmaking! His idea that people should be encouraged—I’m reminded many, many years ago in Singapore, a former student of mine whom I was visiting says, “Oh, by the way, uh, I’d like you to meet my wife.” “I didn’t know you were married.” He says, “Oh yes.” And I said, “um, how did that happen?” He says, well, uncle George or uncle Jack, I can’t remember about uncle, but uncle James introduced us, I think, “I didn’t know you had an uncle James.” He says, “Oh, well that’s what we call the office, which introduces people of similar kinds so they can marry and have shelter.” So the idea that Singapore was following at the time, I don’t know if it’s still doing this, this was that if you had a college degree, they would introduce you to other people with a college degree so that people with college degrees could produce children who would earn college degrees. Yeah. It makes, by the way, it’s not democratic in our contemporary sense, but it certainly makes a kind of social sense. And if everybody had college degrees, you wouldn’t need to think in those terms. So it’s not a, it’s not just an ancient idea.
Mike 23:16 Even though women were to be held in common, he does say that there is no difference between the natures of the man and the woman, but only various degrees of weakness and of strength. And that, again, ironically or paradoxically, opens up the possibility of the idea of equality. That what distinguishes me from a woman is my strength, but that also could be argued is what distinguishes me from someone older or younger than me or from another man or whatever. So that you, uh, this idea again is permeated with, uh, equality. So once you go on with this… but I think that the, the fundamental point I do want to make is this one of, um, that the, the Republic is a, is a, a plan, it’s an outline of an alternative society. And as I said, I would teach Plato as a social theorist rather than as a moralist. Yep.
Greg 24:26 Yeah. So I, I don’t want to, I wouldn’t want to undermine your emphasis on the social aspect of being human, which I think is clearly there in Plato. But something that helps me a lot in understanding his project—and I use when I teach the Republic is he’s also, you know, in the conversation he’s also talking about the self or the soul. Right? And so when we say via Plato that no particular part of society is happy, there’s an analog—I mean ‘cause that can sound bad on the face of it, but there’s an analog at the soul level or the self-level that if we accept that we have parts of the self—and for, for Plato that was the reasoning part, the spirited part, the appetitive part—that as with the self where no, no part will be particularly happy because to have a self they must act in concert. Then likewise a society needs to—
Mike 25:27 Yeah, no, no, no. I think that’s absolutely right. But, but one of the interesting things here in my mind is that his idea of the self is not a unitary self. It’s, it’s got these components to it. And the same way society does, this is a radically different idea from the idea that say Christianity has of the soul. That’s not the same thing as that unique individual element that I possess and you possess and we’re so different from each other because of that. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s trying to simply—he uses this concept of what is, what is it that makes us human? Well, here are the elements and those are the elements of what he knows
Greg 26:08 Which we know by experience. We know we have different impulses…
Mike 26:13 And I, it’s not that no particular element of society should be unhappy, but rather that there has to be a balance in all of this.
Greg 26:22 And what is the proper balance? What is the progression?
Mike 26:26 That is a social question. And that’s one that we should be thinking about right now. We are out of balance in our present society, not only with regard to wealth but also with regard to the environment.
Greg 26:38 Right. Alright. And then just to circle back at the emphasis on the role education can play and how we try to tackle that.
Mike 26:47 Exactly, exactly. And that education—but, but, yeah, I want to make this very clear to the, at least in my opinion education, not in the sense of, or not only in a sense of I can teach a student in my class these things, but education beginning… and that is why this idea of the children being raised separately, not being the children of their parents, right? But education being, uh, children who are born into and whose culture naturally educates them into this way of thinking. That’s the important point. Yes. We start formal education at the age of six and then we say, well then you got preschool, pre-preschool, we’re going to have pre-pre-preschool on top of that and then we’ll have in-uterus school perhaps, you know, whatever. All the fetuses could go to school together; that’s a very nice idea [laughs]. But um, but my, but what I’m trying to get at is that once we have a culture which we consider a livable culture, the children born into that culture will begin to imbibe from the culture the values that we’re speaking of. The same way as our children begin to in capitalism, begin to imbibe and it becomes part of their nature, competition. Yeah. Right, right. That’s, that’s I think very, very important, uh, uh, things to think about.
Greg 28:21 Well then just something to add then, that short of, short of Plato’s proposal where you actually break families up, taking seriously the idea of a public education in common gets at something that Plato would want—
Mike 28:37 Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I think one cannot imagine Plato’s Republic with public high schools and then St. Paul’s or Groton, or one of these, or these private schools. I mean that it is probably the case, as much as I hate to admit it, that you get a better education in some of these New England prep schools, right. And you get a better education there because the parents are paying a lot more for the education, etc. But that’s an utterly unequal form of education and in my opinion is, is part of the bedrock of the inequality from which we’re suffering today. Historically, those, those schools produced the elite who were the founding fathers of the Republic and all that. But, um, but today, one has to really ask the question of how long a truly social democratic or democratic socialist society would be able to tolerate, um, elite education. I think that’s, that’s a very important thing to ask about. I wanted to say one more thing about, about, uh, this particular, um, genre—and that is if one thinks of, um, of the death of Socrates. The issue—this is something we’ve talked about in classes for so long.
Greg 30:06 Well, let me just say for anybody listening who’s not as familiar with these texts. So just in brief, Socrates was an Athenian of a certain class went around troubling his peers about what they thought was the right thing to do, what they thought justice was, their morality, et cetera. And as you mentioned, they eventually bring him to court on charges of corrupting the youth and on impiety, some kind of charge about religious beliefs and behavior, back then. He gets put on trial and with a jury of about 500 people, they ultimately find him guilty and sentenced him to death. So that’s the death, you’re talking about.
Mike 30:55 The jury being basically the, the, the quote “citizens” unquote of Athens’ people who were now the… but, but this raises this dilemma for us today. It seems to me it’s also, I mean, it raises a moral dilemma of great importance, but from the point of view of, of, uh, thinking democratic socialistically, if you want to use that expression. How do we achieve change? So Crito comes in and says, ‘Socrates, come on, we can escape,’ right? You don’t have to drink the hemlock and, and, and, uh, and we can run away and fight another day.
Mike 31:32 And Socrates response that, no, I was brought up by the laws I have to live in. I have to die by the laws. Even if they’re unjust, I must maintain that, is I think a way, an interesting way to think about the dilemma today between peaceful and revolutionary paths to achieving socialism. That, that either you do find out how to achieve it—I mean, I think that’s really part of what lies… I mean, you can, you can use that text to raise this question today. Do we want to achieve socialism in as peaceful and, and, uh, organized a fashion as possible, maintaining those values that we consider to be human? Can you achieve socialism by being inhuman to your fellow human beings? And that’s really the way I want to use that, that text to think about our dilemmas today.
Greg 32:34 ‘Cause I, I, ‘cause I think Socrates slash Plato’s answer was pretty clear that you cannot be inhuman in order to accomplish human ends.
Mike 32:42 So that raises a very, very profound strategic action. Strategic question, question of strategy for those of us today who do want to achieve a form of democratic socialism.
Greg 32:52 So you just want the question to float for now.
Mike 32:55 We’d be doing a… look, we have to come back and it’s be a huge issue, right? Uh, I mean this is one of the great issues that divided the left in the 20th century and it’s one of the great issues that today, bedevils the left because there were those people who, who really just wants to destroy institutions and others who will understand that we need to work through institutions to achieve the change. And that’s something we’re going to have to discuss when we get there. But it root, is so deeply rooted in the traditional that we’re talking about. That’s what I’m trying to say. Now of course there are other, I mean, we could talk about Aristotle, but I don’t want to talk about Aristotle,
Greg 33:42 Skipping Aristotle.
Mike 33:44 Skipping Aristotle. He’s with us far more than we realize—we are all Aristotelians. Even Karl Marx was Aristotelian. But I don’t think Aristotle lends itself conceptually to what I’m talking about though. He would, he’s very important from the point of view of developing analytical skills and trying to understand society. But I would not make him as radical in his thinking is, I think Plato is, I’m—
Greg 34:10 There is one key thing he echoes, though that I’m sure you would highlight is this phrase, “man as a political animal,” that comes from Arizona, with the emphasis on the social, political dimension.
Mike 34:23 No, of course. That’s, that is, that we, we have no existence other than, than, uh, as members of the society. I think that’s why the polis… no, that absolutely is the case. So, along with this tradition and these, these, these, these, these, these kinds of, this kind of thinking also went on in Rome and there’s a lot of Roman—we don’t pay much attention to Rome because Rome figures in our minds very largely as a source of law. We always talk about Roman law and, and, and law, um, figures, it fills our imagination when it comes to Rome. As do other things, but certainly not socialist thought that has very few socialists think back to Rome and find in Rome much in the way of thought to, um, discuss. But I think there was one thing in Roman thought, uh, which was extremely important was, becomes extremely important in the development of the left in more modern times. Uh, there are two, one thing in thought and one thing in, in history. The thing in thought is that the, uh, distinction between what was called nat—what today we would call, um…
Mike 36:45 What was called then ius naturale and ius gentium. Natural law, the idea of natural law [ius naturale], which is very much a, a Roman concept. Um, at least as I understand it, uh—the idea that in nature there is knowledge, if you will. I mean, I think the, the ultimate root of it is that there, that there is in nature knowledge and then there’s this other knowledge which is human knowledge. And those two are not the same thing.
Mike 36:26 Freedom for example, is part of nature, at least from that way of thinking. It’s from a pre-scientific point of view. Animals seem to be free, um, from the point of view of the law of man—which is the other form of law [ius gentium]—which develops out of commercial relationships out of, uh, out of warfare, uh, out of the all of us society and, and, and therefore you pose society over and against nature. And that theme understood in legal terms in Rome, um, is an important theme that runs all the way through Western thought and is a part of the radical tradition. Because part of the radical tradition is to—how do we, how do we find a way of healing the gap between natural law and human law? Uh, the Christians of course have their own particular way of doing, uh, of dealing with that.
Mike 37:29 But today in our, in our, uh, environmentally, more environmentally conscious age, uh, there is developing very quickly, and this is why I wanted to refer to this—developing very quickly, a school called eco-socialism. That is to say you find people in the ecological movement who understand, in my opinion absolutely correctly, that capitalism has no possibility of resolving the environmental issues we face. And that somewhere we have to be able to find a way of healing, if you will, the rift, of bridging the rift between natural law and human law. How do we make human law more consonant with the realities of nature, for example. And that’s, it’s a hard concept to deal with, but it’s something we’re going to have to—I do not mean by this and please no one think that I do, you know, the worship of Gaia. This is not a romantic idea at all.
Mike 38:32 What it, what the idea of it is is that democratic socialists need to confront the issue that we must behave in concert with the rhythms and forces of nature over which we really do not have control. Why is this an important issue? Because Karl Marx, for example, and they, and even the capitalist theorists of the 19th century and philosophers had exactly the opposite point of view. Um, they accepted this ancient idea of a division between the, between nature and man and the law of nature and the law of man. But they believed very deeply that man would control nature. Right? And the whole point about capitalism, the reason why, why Karl Marx finds capitalism, uh, a progressive force in history, and he does! Marx is the philosopher of capitalism, not of socialism. So the small mistake that the Marxists make, is that he understood that capitalism unleashed the ability of man to turn nature to man’s use. Well, now we see the consequences—
Greg 39:49 And for Marx, unproblematically, right?
Mike 39:51 Unproblematically he, this was a great victory. He understood this. He, he, he really, uh, he, by the way, he supported imperialism for the same reason, because he understood capitalism was a progressive element in history and it enabled people. And if you go out into the colonies, that enabled the people in the colonies to be victorious over nature just as it did people in England, right. Now, mind you that was unjust and we have to change society, but the victory of man over nature is guaranteed by capitalism. But what concerns me here, and the reason I wanted to point this out is the distinction between nature and man, which is not necessarily a given, it’s an intellectual distinction. We are still suffering—and I want to argue, say it is suffering. We’re still suffering from that distinction, right? Part of our problem is how to overcome it, not in a romantic way, but to redesign our societies in such a way that they work in concert with nature rather than try to overcome nature.
Greg 40:57 Yeah. I, I just, I’m just immediately thinking about the practical obstacles to that.
Mike 41:05 Of course they’re huge, we know that, but by the way, historically it’s very interesting to see where the Marxist position went. So in the Soviet Union, which is not, in my opinion, a Marxist society, but it called itself a Marxist society. And certainly a lot of the uh, assumptions Marx made were operative within the Soviet Union. The idea of man over nature, that man could turn nature to his own purposes, right, resulted in terrible devastation. Uh, there were experiments with reversing rivers in order to irrigate the desert. Um, with irrigation you could plant the desert with cotton. Of course, it immediately depleted the desert and the cotton died and in great poverty. It began to use up water resources at an incredible speed because that’s not the way the water was meant to flow.
Mike 42:09 Uh, even some inanities is like the idea that if you, and Stalin had this idea that if you injected sheep with a blue dye of a certain kind, they’d have blue lambs and that would be economically efficient cause then you wouldn’t have to dye the wool blue, right? Utterly ugly and inane. But this idea that man could conquer nature is deep in, begins with this split between natural law and human law, and then is exaggerated into the disaster we have 2000 years later now.
Greg 42:42 And it occurs to me now that also is, in its deep-seatedness is also an obstacle because we think that our control over nature can solve it as well.
Mike 42:55 That’s right. Rather than, and we can’t, I mean, I think that we have to engineer, we do now have to do some engineering of nature. There’s no question about that. But, um—
Greg 43:06 We can’t count on that.
Mike 43:08 We can’t count on that, and we have to engineer society in order to live in concert, as I say, with nature. And that’s not a romantic idea. Uh, that’s, that has to raise questions of standard of living, and questions of equality, etc.
Greg 43:25 Why do you think so many people are unwilling to accept the fact of our environmental disaster—
Mike 43:30 That’s the question many of us—as a friend of mine has pointed out over and over, we were able to get people to stop smoking. We can’t seem to get them to stop emitting carbon. Um, I think because the time, I remember last time we talked about different kinds of time. I think at the time of lung cancer, uh, is, uh, is shorter than my own biography. But the time of the pollution of the world is longer than my own biography. And I think that’s, that’s one reason—we have not yet succeeded in incorporating the changes in nature into our own personal biographies.
Greg 44:09 Which I guess to come back to your point about this distinction in Roman law is that if you can build into your worldview that relational dynamic, that it doesn’t have to be just to solve a problem. It becomes the way you look at things.
Mike 44:23 It’s a way of life. Absolutely. But again, I warn it has to be in a non-romantic fashion. Yeah.
Greg 44:35 What worries you about the romantic?
Mike 44:37 What worries me about the romantic? Well, I think romanticism becomes an end in itself. Um, you know, uh, if you, if you get high on something, you don’t stay on that high. Uh, we are social creatures. If we are humans, we are social. That’s the point that we were making. Um, getting high on something makes me romantically—when I say romantically, I mean in a, in an ethereal kind of way, uh, I feel like one with the world. Right? But the fact is, I’m not, that oneness with the world is completely contained within me. And when I come out of my high, I’m no longer one with the world. Right? So that’s my fear of romanticism as a way of life.
Greg 45:26 Though, though, our last discussion when we were talking about God, there was some sense that we need, sometimes we need a mythos.
Mike 45:35 Oh, we may, we may need that mythos, but it has to be a, a mythos which actually answers to our needs. Not one which removes us from our needs. I mean, you know, I can, I can, I can smoke a pipe of opium into oblivion. The world is still going to be there, right? And uh,
so I, I think that the, that the, an awful lot of evil in the world, an awful lot of exploitation and inequality was created by, and legitimated by ideas of God, the church, religion and so forth. That doesn’t mean that they have to be unequal, oppressive. But they are. Right. So the only way religion will become, the only way the idea of God or religion or the church will become something other than oppressive is to radically change. I think Pope Francis has that in mind. And, and so the myth that that it rests upon is valid as long as it brings about the change we’re talking about. But not if it stands in the way. And I don’t think a pipe dream is the way to go.
Greg 47:02 Well, so I know you have a longer list. I know that because I have some readings we haven’t gotten to, but we’re at our usual time. Do you want to push—okay, so this could be a natural break, but let me, I do want to come back to one thing as a way to end that we’ve mentioned many times in these discussions the role of education. Most pressingly on—with respect to its power to create a new future. But I just also want to say that, um, in your review of this material last time, the religious material in the Western tradition, this philosophical material, that that material in itself helps invite us to think about current problems in a new way.
Mike 47:50 Yeah, no, no, I, I, I certainly agree to that. I agree with you, but it’s the vestibule of the, of the mansion. Right? Right. So one of the questions is we can we review this work, we go through this work. We, we read it, we teach it, we discuss it as a way… Can I start that sentence again? I don’t believe education is ever objective. There is no such thing as objective education. We hold that idea up. We, we claim you, you should present all sides. But in fact we don’t. In fact, I as a teacher, which I sometimes am, I as a teacher have my point of view and I present that point of view sometimes directly and sometimes quite unconsciously by my behavior, for example. So it’s very important that I tell you, if you’re my student, that this is what I think. And there are other points of view, but I can’t really tell you what the other points of view are. Honestly, I can, I can describe them to you, but I don’t believe in them. I believe in my point of view. So the, to me, the idea that I can teach even-handedly in these fields that we’re talking about doesn’t, doesn’t make very much sense. What I have to do, to be honest, is to tell you what my position is to begin with. That’s what, as I say, that’s what the kind of education that takes place in the vestibule.
Mike 49:22 But when you move into the mansion of, of socialism itself, I like that. Um, the question of creating an educational system, a curriculum, which will produce a human being who for example, can live in harmony with nature instead of always sitting around and discussing the fact that we need to produce a human being. That’s the kind of difference I’m trying to make. And if you look at the history of education, you see that in various ages of history, the, uh, the methods of education, and the curriculum taught, et cetera, have changed depending very much upon the social system or the ideology of the dominant class or what have you. Right. We need, we, we talk about curriculum these days and about education these days as if it existed somehow apart from the social, the society in which we live. And I’m arguing that when we talk about education today, we’re talking about education for capitalism. And we need to start talking about education for democratic socialism. That’s why we should look at these texts and see how to use them in education for democratic socialism.
Greg 50:36 All right, a good end. Thanks big Mike. Bye everybody. [Outro] Thanks for listening to another episode of A Shareable World. To find out more about this podcast, visit us at ashareableworld.com.