Episode 17 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 00:26    Welcome back everybody. Onward and upward. We’re in a bit of a sequence. Um, so the last two times we’ve been talking about what you actually, in the last discussion we recorded, called a kind of ‘syllabus’ for a democratic socialist way of thinking, and looking a bit at the Western religious tradition two episodes ago. And then this last episode, beginning to talk about the philosophical tradition in the West with a large focus on Plato. And then we moved a bit to Rome and the distinction between natural law and human law. Um, and I think the plan was to pick up on that trajectory or—

Mike 01:15    Yeah, we’re going to, I want to start at least start talking about, Thomas More and his book Utopia. Um, one of the important things to reflect on in putting together this history of what I want to think of as a kind of—social democratic, democratic socialist, uh, culture with its antecedents, with its historical antecedents, is to trace the, the antecedents. I think it’s very important. Um, the ideas of socialism, democratic socialism or social democracy. These ideas didn’t appear all of a sudden in the middle of the 19th century. They’re all there in the past. And the fact that they’re there in the past provides us with a way of looking at the history of democratic socialism in a new perspective because it is not just an answer to the problems we face today. One of the things that, for example, I think we lose sight of, especially today in the electoral cycle that we’re caught in, is that these ideas that being, that are being proposed, which for most part are not in any way socialist to begin with. But for the most part, these ideas are ancient ideas. They’re not ideas that come out of the minds of one or another, um, candidate or, or, or political staff. Uh, in response to immediate issues. These are responses with a historical depth to historical problems that I’ve, and I think that’s very important for us to keep in mind. Until now we’ve been talking about the elements of different traditions—as you said, the religious tradition and the philosophical tradition. Um, one of the things that becomes very apparent when you start looking at the context in which Thomas More wrote his Utopia is that the world had changed, and it was that change in the world, which—from which there never was going to be any going back—that, uh, that brought about a radical new way of thinking of which his book is the first and one of the most important examples. Now what do I mean by a radical, radically different world? 

Mike 04:08    There are several components to this. Number one, Thomas More lives from 1478 to 1535. The 15th century, the 1400s, uh, witnessed two really profound shifts in the way the world was put together from the perspective of Europeans, particularly European intellectuals, uh, ruling classes and so forth. One was that it was the beginning of the age of exploration. Now, you know, we kind of think of that in a rather popular way, right? We think of it as you know, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovers the Americas and so forth. What we don’t pay enough attention to outside of university classes, what we don’t pay enough attention to is the impact on the world of that the, the growth of exploration had on the intellectual life of Europe itself. One of the things that it certainly did was bringing Europeans into contact with radically different kinds of societies and cultures that they had never encountered before. 

Mike 05:24    Right? Uh, so you know, Vasco da Gama the Portuguese Explorer who reaches India in the 1470s. I mean, the first Russian to get to India was in the 1480s. Um, Columbus comes to America in the 1490s. Very rapid when you think about it. It had been earlier travelers, but these earlier travelers—with the possible exception of Marco Polo about whom some people doubt even his existence—with the possible exception of Marco Polo, most of the early travelers were really very isolated individuals who may have come back with stories, but they didn’t write books. They didn’t have the impact on European culture that the, that the age of exploration did. The people who went in the age of exploration either went with whole ships of people, right, who were merchants and so, and so you had more than one person, but more than that, they would write books when they got back. 

Mike 06:25    There’s a very voluminous literature of travelers from the 15th century, uh, all over the world. And as the world expanded in its, in the European knowledge, these travelers traveled further and further. So that was very important. It told Europeans that there was a different kind of society than just European society and that there were different societies than Christian societies, it’s very, very important. And of course the other very vital element, the one we do pay more attention to, is the decline of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism. And capitalism is of course, um, beginning with its, in its merchant form in Florence, in the, in the, um, very, very end of the 13th or the 14th, 15th century. Uh, capitalism was a new kind of society. So not only is Europe learning about others’ societies, but within the body politic of Europe itself, a new kind of society is emerging and as Marx will point out in the 19th century, intellectually, culturally, perhaps, the most important thing about capitalism was that it was now possible to see the way the system worked. 

Mike 07:57    You became aware of the system. Why do I say that? Because along with capitalism came the Enlightenment and before that the Renaissance and before the Renaissance you had an all encompassing, dominant ideological perspective on the world in Europe, which was the church’s perspective. The church explained everything. Um, it controlled the mind of Europe in the late middle ages that now—with the emergence, with the development of, of today early scientific discoveries, with the development of nature, with the, the re-acquaintanceship with nature that begins in 1300 about, you know, when this Italian goes out and climbs a mountain. Look at all these beautiful mountains and everything, right?

Greg 08:57    Then Aristotle coming back into—

Mike 09:00    Aristotle back in there. So the analytical approach of all of this is, is, is a huge change and I think we don’t adequately appreciate how we are in fact the grandchildren of that change. But from the point of view that I’m trying to suggest, what really is significant is that these came together to make it possible to begin to see the social system, the economic system for what it really was. And Thomas More’s book Utopia is one of the, uh, examples in fact, the first really important example where these things seem to come together. Now, given the fact that this was a period of, of exploration, uh, the book takes that form. So he has this, he has this guy, Raphael Hythlodaeus traveling elsewhere, right? And this elsewhere More calls Utopia, which means no-place, um, but actually is a place. And what More does is develop in utopia, in this other place, a critique of English society. Now he’s sitting there in England and he’s watching these changes take place. He’s watching the fact that the commons are being taken over by, by the lords and being converted to commercial use instead of the communal use of the, of the villages. 

Mike 10:27    Uh, he’s finding that people are being forced off the land by this into the cities. Uh, he’s becoming very aware without the mask of ideology that says these people who are poor are poor because they deserve to be poor or because they’re being punished. Uh, he now begins to understand that they’re poor because the system has set them up. And, finally he understood. He’s able to understand that Christianity cannot tolerate this from his point of view, because he’d be—Christianity itself becomes an object to be studied, not from inside, but he can see it from the outside. Uh, this is one of the advantages of this concept of the traveler as social critic, right? So, so Hythlodae goes out and visits this and he writes the book purports to be a critique of English society by virtue of its describing an alternative. 

Mike 11:28    One of the most important themes that comes out in Utopia is that private property—and here we get, this is incredibly important because this issue is going to come back in even our own age and become more and more important—private property is evil. There is something pernicious about the idea of private property. Um, and this is, this is a theme which will be developed by these writers from then on. Of course, um, capitalism develops its own ideological justification for private poverty and indeed projects the idea of private property as if it were a natural human phenomenon. But for, for, for, for Thomas More, it was not natural. There was something quite wrong with it. Um, you said “where possessions be private, it is hard and almost impossible that there the Commonwealth will be justly governed and prosperously flourish.” And that’s a very interesting sentence because he’s saying that it isn’t just private property that’s wrong. 

Mike 12:47    He’s saying private property is wrong because number one, it is counter to the idea of the Commonwealth or what is the Commonwealth, you know, we use the word in modern America, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Commonwealth of Virginia. But in the days of the, uh, of Thomas More, the word Commonwealth really did have a sense of a society in which everybody participated. Um, common wealth. That’s really the important—

Greg 13:13    Wealth in common.

Mike 13:16    Wealth in common. Yeah, that’s really very important. But he links it up already. At that point he leaks up the idea of private property with government, with power. So it isn’t as if private property exists as a natural… um… 

Mike 13:34    So in that sentence it’s linked to—

Greg 13:37    In that sentence, yes. Now let me be, let me give it to you again. He says, “where possession be private, it is hard and almost impossible that there the Commonwealth will be justly governed and prosperously flourish.” So what he’s saying is that there is number one, a conflict between justice and private property, which indeed if we live in a Commonwealth that becomes really obvious, but moreover, justly governed, that private property inhibits the possibility of good government.   

Mike 14:12    Now this idea of, if you think about it, this idea is remarkably contrary to our contemporary American idea. Where private property is the bedrock of democracy, right? Where we, our purchase on the Commonwealth is that piece of the, of the Commonwealth that we possess privately, right? And, and More is saying just the opposite. And that theme of private property as inhibiting good governance will be steadily developed down until the very present day.

Greg 14:47    I suppose that the defense of the modern formulation would be that the private property enhances the Commonwealth by way of the private pursuit, positive control of the…

Mike 15:07    It’s, it’s obvious that More didn’t yet understand. And this is this, this is important, that more didn’t yet understand the free market economy. Right? So, um, but I think in our contemporary period, we don’t have perfect private property. We never have had perfect private property. And the claim that we do is, is nonsense. The state has the right to take private property whenever it’s necessary… even in the United States. But nonetheless, there’s a sense in which if you go back to the founding fathers, property, the possession of private property, is what made you social, in the political sense of the term. Remember that property ownership was one of the measures of, uh, one of the tests for people who could vote yes. Yep. That’s very significant. Uh, and, and More is already a couple of hundred years earlier calling this kind of thing. Another thing that that is very important about, uh, uh, about utopia from this point of view is that more is very suspicious of industrialism, industrialization. It’s just barely getting started. But he already sees that agriculture is somehow in his mind in decline and endangered by industrialization. And he understands industrialization to mean urbanization, not just the development of machineries that’s going to come a couple of hundred years later. But for him, agriculture is a natural way of life. So this then becomes the, a crucial point. In this period, in this 16th century, 15, 16th century period, there comes that break between man and nature, which will reach its height in the 19th century when human beings are seen to be at war with nature, which they must overcome in order to progress. But, but More is already saying that agriculture with its natural rhythms, et cetera. And so in Utopia, agriculture is the dominant economy and the industrialization, urbanized industrialization, which is becoming characteristic of the cities in England, he is saying is unnatural and somehow quite wrong. He also recognizes, and this becomes important, this is, it is quite remarkable. 

Mike 17:37    He argues that in Utopia they have the eight day, eight-hour day and they only work six days a week. Um, well, you know, compared with America at the end of the 19th century were where people were working 12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and America in 2019 and 2020 where people are working, you know, 48 hours a day and 14 days a week. Um, it was quite revolutionary, quite a revolutionary idea. So what he’s saying is that the labor that is useful is the useful labor. Obviously that raises the question as useful for what useful for what, for providing, the basic necessities of life. Everything else is excess. Everything else is too much. It becomes unnatural. And that’s a very interesting idea because it’s, we hear it all all the time nowadays. People are complaining about they have to work too much, they were, they have three jobs and so forth. 

Mike 18:41    And so it’s very important but that he saw this at the very beginning of the dawn of capitalism because very interesting. And another issue that he raises is the issue of distribution, which again is one that we’re, we’re very much aware of today. And he argues that um, distribution needs to be arranged not on the basis of the market, but on the basis of need and custom. So in Utopia exchange between the cities in the countryside, that is between the agricultural and the industrial part of society, takes place at specific festivals that are organized regularly. That’s a very interesting idea. Quite different from, from what we have, where commerce is, you know, again, 48 hours a day. Right? Um, and furthermore, that distribution has to be communistic so that you, you’re, um, since you’re, since you have already decided, since utopians understand that you need to produce enough to survive, enough to live a decent life. 

Mike 19:56    And he has it all set up. He describes the countryside and describes the towns and they’re all about leading a comfortable life, not an excess of life, but a comfortable life. And since on the basis of eight hours a day, six days a week, you can produce enough for that purpose, there then is no need to have anything more than a barter system from which people to which people contribute according to how much they produced and take out how much they need. So this is the beginning of the idea, or one of the earliest expressions of the idea that given abundance, you don’t need money, you don’t need exchange for profit-making, in fact. You don’t exchange for profit making. Why should people make a profit on the food that other people need to eat? That’s, that’s the idea. To be sure you, you have to have capital to produce certain things, but you don’t need to make a profit on it. 

Mike 20:57    And again, in utopia, given the fact that distribution is based upon this communist idea, not communist in the Marxist sense of the term, this communist idea. Uh, poverty then simply doesn’t exist because people naturally work and naturally take what they need. Right? So there, there is no poverty, there is no poverty. Um, money is not needed. The hoarding of gold and silver is not needed. Uh, none of these things in which we play so much importance are part of the, uh, are part of the, uh, of this, uh, of this existence in utopia. He understands still the importance of family. So people in utopia, how they own private homes, but they’re all very much similar and are meant to be serviceable. They’re meant to be utilitarian and not display. I don’t buy—if I’m a utopian, I don’t buy a bigger house a to show how wealthy I am because nobody’s wealthy, nor is anybody poor. 

Mike 22:03    So it is a kind of, um, um, egalitarian society without equal being defined in any absolute terms. The aim of all of this—oh, one other point has to be mentioned that More was extremely, placed extreme importance on the idea of education. That the way in which utopia, um, it could exist. What was absolutely necessary for utopian things was education. Now assuming that all utopians have the same sets of values, which is a cultural phenomenon, then education could become very practical. And indeed in Utopia, all the children learned agriculture. They learned basic sciences like geometry, mathematics, things of that sort. Um, children who were more capable than others in certain areas were encouraged to pursue those areas as their contribution to society. But the, the difference between utopia and us today from this perspective, our understanding of education, it seems to me is that the utopians assume in More’s book the existence of a common culture and therefore can have a practical education. 

Mike 23:26    The error that we’re making today, in my opinion, is that we’re assuming a practical education more and more. We want to educate our kids to compete. We don’t pay much attention to the creation of the common culture. And I think that’s a very, very important. Um, and finally the, the, um, objective of all of this, the purpose of life for the, for the utopians was, was what? And he says it very openly—it was happiness. And by happiness he doesn’t mean ecstatic joy forever, but contentment. That the people of utopia live contented lives. Um, so taken as a whole, this book provides a kind of antisocial critique of the culture that Thomas More himself lives in. 

Greg 24:25    Do you think it’s, um, partly just about the dynamics of utopian thinking, um, because it seems like you could look at this two ways. He’s showing us, uh, two extreme ways, showing us what’s possible. We could live as these people do or you could see it as it’s holding up a kind of mirror to show us who we in fact are —

Mike 24:46    I think it’s, it’s one and a half. The second point: it’s showing up, it’s holding up a mirror to show us what we are. And as you’ll see as we go along today and tomorrow, many of these writers, they change the content of their writing changes because the content of their cultures has changed. They are very responsive to the criticism. They’re very, they’re, they’re critically responsive to their own cultures. Uh, so that’s number one. And number two, I don’t think that that any of them are foolish enough. And I don’t read much of this literature as being foolish, although it does give rise eventually in our own ages to some foolish literature. But by and large, it’s an expression of hope and yearning rather than a plan for reality. Uh, there’s a, I think there’s a very, very important point because… I don’t think the utopians or later the Marxists, who I think are more utopian in a strange way. We’ll get there. We’ll get there. I think that later the, the utopians are expressive or they counter cultural or of another cultural terrain than the one inhabited by what we see, uh, as we study history. They are not, they are not content—discontent is an extremely important human emotion. Let me, let me think about that out loud for a moment. We have a very complex view of discontent today. So we have whole sciences, psychology, clinical psychology. Um, we have whole philosophies, pop philosophies, institutions, hospitals of a certain kind, uh, movements. I’m thinking back to SLN and, and all these moments which are aimed to diminish our discontent. 

Mike 27:16    As if discontent is a, something wrong with us to have discontent. It’s a blemish, right? You have to treat it. I think in the world of socialism, utopians as well as later, discontent was a signifier of something being wrong. Not a blemish to be removed, but a signifier of something to be wrong. Therefore, you had to analyze the society we’re living in to figure out where, what the source of that discontent was, number one. And number two, discontent was a force, an energy to be used to change society in a certain direction. Now, you may not be aware of that direction. So I don’t think that Thomas More really believes that utopia is the goal that he wants to achieve. But it’s part of the instrumentality for change. Right? 

Greg 28:10    Yep. No, it reminds me of even just that, the phrase we’ve used in the past of ameliorative capitalism, that addressing our discontents in the modern way you just described are ameliorations of symptoms being created by, by capitalism versus a prod to solve—what’s causing those sufferings. Exactly. 

Mike 28:36    So even, even if we think of of the individual in our contemporary society, um, if I take the emotion of discontent or resentment, um, I can use those emotions very positively for change. They can get me out on the street corner demonstrating against political evil, for example. So, you know, I think this is an extremely important thing for us to think about that, that indeed we should be experiencing discontent and resentment if we want to change society. 

Greg 29:13    Yup. I also have to say, I mean you’ve been saying this all along, but it’s just clear in this little picture you’ve drawn of the Thomas More’s Utopia project of how absolutely crucial education is. Because we, we can’t that I think we can, it’s easy to fall into this idea that there are systems for living and one’s going to fit us better than another. And we argue about which, but we have to become the people who fit that system, that the acculturation into living a certain way is crucial. And uh, you can’t just slap a system on human beings without those human beings…

Mike 29:56    That’s absolutely right. If you believe in—so if you believe in change, so here’s a, here’s a, an additional dimension. If you believe that change is necessary, you may believe the change is necessary but not necessarily know what direction that change will go. But change is inevitable. We change all the time. Nature is changing and we have, you know, change is part of the response mechanisms is over with and so on. We need perhaps to think about educating our children for change rather than for stability. One of the reasons why, um, so many people when they get up to a certain age become depressed is because they think they’ve been educated to think that life is stable, that life is the way—until they’re always going to be 40 or 29, whatever age. Right? But eventually you get to be 80. I was listening to television, one of my favorite television shows last night and this woman’s complaining, she says, “Oh, I can’t deal with my life anymore.”

Mike 31:07    And uh, and her boyfriend says to her, “you know, the trouble with you, is that life changes and you get to be a certain age where your children move out and where you don’t look as you did when you were 20, and your breasts begin to sag and you just have to learn that life is always changing and to be into the process of change.” And it was so true, right? As a simple—

Greg 31:29    What show is this?

Mike 31:33    It’s called Dicte. It’s a Danish mystery program, but it was, it’s full of, of good, good insights. Very, very positive insights. And I think that’s why the problem, if you think about advertisement in our society today, we have, it presents us very powerfully with a constant image of youth. You don’t find many advertisements for old men and old women and their clothes, right? It’s always the clothes of young people, right? So, so our society, our culture is aimed at trying to eliminate change. And I want to argue, and I will argue through this, is that a socialist culture is about change and learning how to change, even if you don’t know exactly what direction you’re changing in.

Greg 32:27    You do see old people in pharmaceutical commercials.

Mike 32:31    That’s true. But that’s exactly my point [chuckles], there’s something wrong. You’re going to get sick in their world. Right, that’s the point.

Greg 32:40    Well, I, you know, I, I’ve talked to you enough about these things. I think I know your answer. Well, I know that you, you always want to encourage the transformation in the deepest widest sense. But what do you think of efforts people make to transform very local communities when, when a little community tries to go on a barter system or you take over education by just doing it yourself and redesigning it for a smaller community? 

Mike 33:11    Well, you know, that poses a very, that really is an important question because in our contemporary world there is a strong tendency to go local. That’s become a kind of motto. And in my opinion, and this is going to upset some people. That’s a, um, that’s, that’s hiding our heads in the sand. And, or what’s the expression, pulling the wool over your eyes? Something like that. Um, I think the idea of going local and of local change, as being primary, worked probably, uh, very well. And, and either the next time we talk or the time after that, depending on where we go, we’ll talk about experimental communities. And it did work in the 19th century. It did work. That is to say people did try to try to create small local experimental communities. But the simple fact of the matter is that the world has changed. We don’t exist—we don’t, we may live our lives locally, but we don’t define our lives locally. So I may live here in my hometown, the way somebody on the other side of the country, lives in their hometown about the same income, about the same standard of living and so forth and so on. Uh, but the, but our lives are controlled way beyond our community. 

Mike 34:49    You know, if you have an electric power outage, your, your house, your town is on a grid that is controlled by some vague entity somewhere else, right? And it’s not locally controlled and your, unless you have a rare town in which they own their own generators, et cetera. So our lives are lived not locally. In fact, that’s why I think it’s, it’s a fake to say let’s change locally leaves the political battlefield to those. Oops. Understand the difference. That’s one of the problems with our education system. Look here in America, we have 1,001, I don’t remember the number of, think it’s something like 3000. I may have made that up out of my head my, uh, school districts, each one, which is a little bit different from the other, with a little different requirements, different textbooks and so forth and so on. Uh, how do you wield, how do you compose—how do you create a common American culture when there isn’t a common curriculum all over the country for the students to follow? 

Mike 36:04    It’s interesting that when we think of a common curriculum, when the federal government intervenes, it has to do with math and science. But what about—

Greg 36:09    Skills.

Mike 36:10    Pardon me?

Greg 36:12    And skills.

Greg 36:13    And skills, but not about literature or culture or music or the things that are called value, common values. We don’t do that. And, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re in some of the difficulties we have today. It may be that we don’t want to, it may well be that one of the questions in political theory today, all the talk about—is that the size of some of these countries is just too big, right? Maybe America, China, Russia, India ought to be broken up into—I’m all for California independence. [laughs] You understand what I’m trying to say though.

Greg 36:48    So you have more, you have one more, right?

Mike 36:53    I’m gonna use another, uh, example today to show this, the way in which, uh, the society you live in changes very strongly, uh, the kind of imagining you have about these things. So the next one I would like to mention is, Bacon’s book New Atlantis, which was written a generation after, um, Thomas More.

Greg 37:17    I don’t know it at all.

Mike 37:20    Well, that’s why I mentioned it. Um, so in the, in the say half century between the publication of—not quite half century—between the publication of Utopia and Bacon’s, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, you had a tremendous development in England of math and science and so forth. All of a sudden people began to get very interested in these, uh, new ways of measuring things and thinking about the world. Um, and moreover with the rise of Protestantism—which remember Thomas More is in the period of Henry VIII—all of a sudden you get Protestantism. 

Mike 38:10    Henry VIII leaves the church and policy becomes, becomes quite, uh, quite more important. Um, what had been a kind of general idea about the Commonwealth that I mentioned with Thomas More, the communist idea with Thomas More, which has roots deep in Christian thought. And if you think back to—Christ was a poor man and blessed are the meek for they shall—but that, that the power of the church as the unifying institution supporting that particular moral position begins to disintegrate in the generation right after Thomas More and Henry VIII and, and, and Bacon is in the next generation. And communism has lost the, the sanction of the church, if you will, communism understood in the sense of the Commonwealth that I’ve been talking about.

Mike 39:13    The people who feel discontent and resentment are no longer able to find within the church a justification for their position. So they begin to move into what we later will call the nonconformist churches, radical fringes. This is where the idea of radicalism as we understand it  begins to develop. So that the—and furthermore, the idea of the individual begins to develop very strongly. I think I, I think that if we could write a history a modern history with all the modern tools of analysis we have, of the emergence of the idea of the individual as such, that it would be in this period that the individual would emerge most, uh, most sharply. And this is all reflected in Bacon’s New Atlantis. So for example, Bacon is no longer arguing for communism in property. What Bacon now understands, you know, a generation later is that it’s knowledge, not property that’s important. So he argues in New Atlantis for a kind of communism in knowledge. 

Mike 40:35    So he has set up in New Atlantis—again another place still in the travel mode. He has it set up where, where knowledge is produced publicly. You have these houses. I think there were 8 or 12 knowledge centers, if you will, of what we might call knowledge centers in his, in his, uh, new Atlanta’s where knowledge was being produced publicly and it was available publicly. The idea of making money out of knowledge was something wrong. Right? But knowledge not property was what was important—

Greg 41:08    But knowledge in like an encyclopedic sense—

Mike 41:11    Knowledge in how you do things, how do you make things, how do you do things? I might make an invention. And um, and that invention has a social significance and it should be for society as a whole. What right do I have to then…? We would argue, well, it’s your creativity, your imagination and your—

Greg 41:28    Get a patent.

Mike 41:30    Bacon is trying to argue no, that knowledge is itself socially created and a socially creative function. And that’s, and that knowledge, and that came very much from the growth of science. The idea that science was shared, that science was not a private property, which is, as I said, this comes in between I think comes in between More and Bacon and, and I think that’s a very important idea.

Greg 41:59    So that’s the, that’s the, that’s the heart of the communal, the commonwealth part of Atlantis is, is knowledge.

Mike 42:09    We today—this is an interesting idea because today we talk about ‘knowledge society,’ but how do we talk, what does that mean? A ‘knowledge society’ by and large in our age, knowledge society means a society where the knowledge is the primary means of production. So algorithms and all that kind of stuff. But what Bacon is trying to say is that knowledge is the primary means of life. 

Mike 42:37    It’s, it’s, it’s what you really—what makes the Commonwealth, we all share knowledge, right? Knowledge cannot be private property. And I think that, so we could, I could use Bacon I like to think of Bacon, um, to highlight this idea that we live today in a world in which knowledge is property.

Greg 42:58    Is, uh, now it’s just, I’m very curious about Atlantis now. New Atlantis. So are there, are there social impacts of this?

Mike 43:05    Well, of course, with knowledge and with knowledge, and with statistics, which was what he was beginning to suggest. You have a different basis for organizing society. So it’s in this context that one could talk about—and this is an expression that I haven’t thought about until this minute—the morality of knowledge. 

Mike 43:29    Right? So what do I mean by that? Let me think. What do I mean? Um, I could organize society if I understand that it is a fundamental principle, we’re going to talk about this in the future, it is a fundamental principle that human beings should not exploit other human beings. And we have to be ruthless in our definition of exploitation. None of this capitalist nonsense about saying, ‘well, you know, I’m not exploiting you, that’s the return on capital,’ right? Right. We have to break through that. That’s the value of this kind of thinking. Um, power differential. What, what Thomas More points out, right? That private property means, a difference in power, right? It’s a form of exploitation, political exploitation. So if we start out and we say, well, how would I use this new knowledge? How would I use statistics to arrive at the description of a society in which equality more or less reigned? Yeah. Um, I’m in a very different position than I am if I only have moral principles and nothing else I can actually measure, I can actually say, you know, we can figure out how much labor it takes to do this or that or the other thing. And it opens up a much more realistic way of planning from our perspective then the equally powerful but less precise instruments that say Thomas More would have had at his disposal in Utopia.

Greg 45:00    And so is this just a… a kind of fantasy of the promise of knowledge for Bacon or was he using it to criticize…?

Mike 45:09    I think he is! I think he is in the center of the knowledge producing culture of his time and that’s why he writes differently than More produced. There was an explosion, the beginning of an explosion of knowledge and the question is how to use that to reform an unjust society. And we don’t think about it in those terms. We, when we think about statistics, when you think about today, when you think about the social use of statistics, what do you think about today? Well, we can figure out something about a distribution of this or that or we measure crime statistically. It’s very interesting, this idea of measuring crime. Statistically it can, it’s useful in that it tells us there’s more crime in that town than another town. Yeah, of course we don’t need the statistics to know that, the people themselves know it, but it provides a layer of cushioning. But the statistics don’t tell us what to do about it because we’re not cultivating that part of our, the moral component of the use of statistics we don’t pay attention to. 

Greg 46:19    Yeah. I think this came up in a discussion a while back, but it was, it’s reminding me of the, you know, there’s a Nobel Prize-winning physicist not too far from here who was very critical of how much knowledge of physics is being tied up in patents that, that he thinks, um, the battery problem for example, for our energy needs, if knowledge were freed up from company control, and available to everyone to put to use, we would be solving a lot of problems. 

Mike 46:52    Listen, that’s an old socialist idea. You know the story that I was brought up, one of the many stories, uh, somewhere somebody has a reusable match.

Greg 47:06    What?

Mike 47:09    All you do is strike it and blow it out again and again. We don’t need to be always—imagine a good socialist society. Everyone has one match! [laughs] You know, I mean that’s, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but the idea is—

Greg 47:25    Yeah. And then needless to say, the university change—the university culture change. 

Mike 47:32    Exactly. One of the big issues in universities is not just the production of knowledge, but who owns the knowledge being produced and that’s a constant source of struggle. 

Greg 47:42    The one I work at makes you sign a paper that says we own what you come up with. 

Mike 47:48    Um, no, I, I think these are, these are very important discussions to have and we’re not having them. Mind you we may debate whether what the conditions ought to be, but the morality of the privatization of knowledge is what we need to be talking about. That’s what Bacon is raising. 

Greg 48:06    All right. We’re at, we’re at our usual show length. How’d we do on your notes?

Mike 48:12    We just keep going.

Greg 48:14    You know what pick up and keep going means—

Mike 48:15    Yup.

Greg 48:16    And you’ll remember. Yes. Alright. Thanks big Mike and thanks for joining us everybody. [Outro] Thanks for listening to another episode of A Shareable World. To find out more about this podcast, visit us at ashareableworld.com.