Greg 00:02 [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 I should tell the audience in case they notice the sound difference that we’ve seized the modes of production. It might sound different than the last.
Mike 00:41 You haven’t put the other ones up yet?
Greg 00:43 No, no. And we’re only, we’re only building off the last one. Um, which I feel like we should summarize quickly. Is that all right?
Mike 00:54 I don’t even remember what we did.
Greg 00:57 Well, I will, I will, um, take a shot at it and you’ll correct it.
Mike 01:00 Okay.
Greg 01:01 The future looks bleak was one main point [chuckles] and a big motivator. And you talked about four things that are making radical change necessary. So there was the challenge of health and aging and even though we’re living longer, our health is worse. The question of work with the advances of science, um, AI, declining jobs and so forth, increasing population and the environmental crisis, um, where even the optimists say we have a generation or two to figure this out. Um, and then, uh, the point I think, which a lot of people, because a lot of people are aware of these crises, but they’re—they don’t necessarily appreciate the systemic nature of them. That solving them requires radically new thinking about how we do things.
Mike 01:59 So that might be the good point to emphasize and take off on that point.
Greg 02:03 Yeah. Well, uh, let’s, let’s start there.
Mike 02:07 Okay. We’re entering actually a period now with this 2020 election coming—and what I’m finding absolutely fascinating is the evident inability of all the people contesting for the presidency and all the groups who want one or another candidate who are want to push their own, uh, their own particular issues, to recognize that we don’t live in a world in which issues can be individually separated, one from the other. That we actually live in a world which is very systemic in which everything is really connected to every everything else and everybody is connected to everybody else. And that’s not a, a kind of romantic, um, all men are brothers or today, I guess, all people are brothers kind of thing or all people are brothers and sisters. No. Best yet. All people are siblings. No, that’s not, that’s not the point. The point is that in fact if you observe nature, and this is a lesson that we learn from biology and from geology, and if I’m all the natural sciences, everything in nature is connected to everything else. That’s the whole point about—if a leaf falls in Beijing, we have a storm in Louisiana, right?
Mike 03:32 Not because there’s any direct connection, but it’s an incredibly complicated set of interactions. And that’s true of society as well. So that, for example—just to use one example—a storm in Louisiana—there to be a lot of storms in Louisiana these days—a storm in Louisiana will affect the need for food in Louisiana and that will affect our import/exports, which will then affect our trade with China or with Thailand; or a storm in Southeast Asia will destroy a source of raw materials that people in Cincinnati need to produce something. So everything is connected to everything else. And in, unless we tackle our problems beginning at the systemic level, then we’re never going to solve any problem. I may be able to—you know, this is the story of Hans Brinker, whoever it was, who put his finger in the dike. So a hole began—starts in the dike, you know, the Netherlands is lower than the North Sea, so they’d build these dikes to keep the ocean out.
Mike 04:39 But then a hole came into the dike, somebody put his finger in the hole. So he stood there for a couple of years with his finger in the hole, but then a mile later, a mile down the way, another hole appears and he couldn’t reach it. Right? So we can fix one problem, but then another one appears. Unless we recognize as the starting point, the systemic problems that we face and work out from there, I think that’s an incredibly important thing for us to keep in mind. And especially in an election time, everybody pushes their own, uh, their own, uh, excitement, their own enthusiasm, not realizing that, uh, what they’re interested in is going to affect everything else. And we need to, we need to think in those terms and we don’t, we’re not trained to think systemically.
Greg 05:27 So what would that look like from a candidate? Just acknowledging the systemic nature of things and well—
Mike 05:37 For example, from the point of view of, of the elections, what it means is that we need to have—and this is not, this is not electioneering propaganda. This is, I’m proposing this as a very serious political and intellectual challenge. When we say we need a vision, we don’t mean— vision of make America great again or America democratic again. Those are slogans. Those aren’t divisions. What we need to have is an analysis of our society. More than that. We need to have an analysis of our—of our political economy. We need to understand how our political economy works, how intricate it is. We should begin building up reserves of social scientists who understand that if I push on this issue, then that issue over there is going to pop up and I have to be able to think systemically, laterally, not just horizontally. Right? So I think this is very serious and I think that’s what we mean by vision. We need social scientists. We have instead anthropologists, we have political scientists, we have historians, we have sociologists, psychologists.
Mike 06:44 We don’t have any social scientists. We don’t have any, any people trained, uh, to look at the interactions of everything and to begin trying to develop policy in terms of the, of the, uh, um, holistic way in which we really live our lives. Look, I live my day to day. I don’t get up in the morning and say from, from nine until 10 in the morning, I’m going to be an historian, from 10 to 11, I’m going to be a psychologist. I get up and I live my life and whatever I need to use at any given moment I use. And that means that I may use something in the morning and it’s going to impact me in the afternoon in a different way. So I live my life holistically and I have to be able to think holistically about that, right?
Mike 07:29 We don’t train thinkers like this. In fact, I think it could be argued that the last holistic thinker, and he wasn’t called this—I, I’m going to make a point of this, but the last social scientist, if you will, who thought holistically or thought he thought holistically was Karl Marx in the middle of the 19th century. After Marx the social sciences split up. And if you look at American universities today, you have all these different departments. Now we recognize that these different departments are, are different, uh, ways of looking at the world. So since we understand that there, that none of them has adequate to, to the purpose, we then begin to develop hybrid programs. So you’re going to have, you know, political anthropology and economic, economic, uh, anthropology. But that doesn’t quite do the, do the, do the deal because right. The students ended up studying, you know, three classes in anthropology and three classes in economics and kind of we kind of leave it up to them to to see that it’s really one social science.
Greg 08:35 Yep. Well, so our topic for today is using the idea of culture to think about the whole—[but] I have a question for you before we talk about that because, I mean one of the things I think about is the—I think there are people who understand the systemic nature of our problems, but then come to, you could say, the rational conclusion that they are, they need to position themselves to protect theirs, based on the problems that are coming in. So in other words, they don’t—you have to also, you recognize the systemic nature of problems, but you also have to care that everybody is affected by these decisions. Whereas you could alternatively conclude, yes, these are big systemic problems. Let me protect my position vis-a-vis everybody.
Mike 09:27 So let, let me, let me give you an example not to counter that, but to kind of express what I think you’re saying and and bring it into line with what I’m trying to get out. The other day I was talking to this guy from a very small country in a very distant part of the world.
And this is the country that is very committed to preserving the environment. In fact, I would say that preserving the environment is one of the key—keystones of this country’s existence. Now I happen to think that preserving the environment is extraordinarily important, but for me, the environment is not just a physical object out there. For me, the environment also includes human society, so that I have to ask myself if I want to preserve the environment, how should I live my daily life in such a way as to preserve the environment? I happen to think that preserving the environment is more than any other issue, the single issue we need to constantly—I mean after all, if the, if we, if the environment collapses, we’re all dead anyway. So then all these issues of free universities for everybody and the more social security or, or don’t, won’t be anyone around to collect, you know, a, a common, uh, common wage. We really need to make sure the human race survives.
Mike 10:58 So thinking about that and talking with him about that, it occurs to me that the, that what—what that little country needs is a vision of something like what would a just society, and I am arbitrarily choosing this word ‘just’—what a just society [is], a society in which justice was the point of departure. So we could talk about justice for the environment and justice for human beings and we would get a discussion going on in the, in the society about trying to reach a consensus on what we mean by a just society it where everybody gets enough to survive but not too much. Now this kind of thing has tremendous implications. For example, are we as a society going to allow cars? I can say, well, sure, how am I going to get around without—without our cars, especially in America, that’s an issue, right?
Mike 11:54 So we need cars, but cars are inimical to the environment. So perhaps I have to say if I’m going to invest right now—we’re talking in America a lot about investing in superstructure. What would be the most important thing to invest in when it comes to superstructure? If cars are inimical to the environment and if the environment is a primary concern, then maybe our investment has to be geared toward public transportation and towards development of those kinds of fuels for public transportation that aren’t ruining the air. That’s not a competition. That’s not a market competition between fossil fuels and sunlight and sun power. That’s a conscious decision for investment in such a way as to pursue a vision which we have all agreed upon will guide us in our decision making. And that decision making has to do not only with with—with investment in an infrastructure, but in education.
Mike 12:55 What are we going to educate? How do I want to educate my children to live in the kind of world that we’re talking about? Capitalism—and I think this is a really interesting moment to raise this because all of a sudden we are aware that capitalism is only one among other systems, right? Most of us were taught, anybody my age was taught in school that capitalism is all there is. There’s always been capitalism; it’s natural. All of a sudden today people are saying, well, maybe capitalism doesn’t work as well as it says; that implies there are other systems that might work a little bit better or that capitalism could be reformed, right? So once we raised that issue, all kinds of conversations open up. So it may be that, that the market model on which capitalism rests is not the model to decide the kinds of issues we’re talking about, right?
Mike 13:47 So for example, um, the idea of a free marketplace in which we each maximize our own interests by going into it, right, this was a standard explanation of what free market capitalism is—[this idea] may be quite contrary to the survival of the human race. Maybe it isn’t that we should each maximize our own interest, but we have to agreed not to maximize our interests. Maybe we need to think about living our lives—a kind of Holy poverty. Maybe we have to agree as a culture that we’re not going to exploit nature as much as we possibly can, but rather we’re going to refrain from certain things. In America, we have the idea: if you can do it, do it. That may be one of the most dangerous ideas in the history of the human race. Maybe we have to say if you can do it, think twice, right?
Greg 14:44 Yeah. Okay, good. Well, so you—let’s transition to this idea of culture as a way of thinking holistically—
Mike 14:52 I think very crucial to all of this kind of thinking is this concept of culture. And it is a, it’s an interesting word because we, we use it constantly and it has very little specific content. I think, for example, one of the ways in which we use it refers to ethnicity. Today we talk a great deal about it. And this being America, this is particularly a problem, right? So we kind of assume that culture and ethnicity mean the same thing. Of course as we know often that means going no further than food. I mean a basic expression of—of culture is food and that isn’t quite what I mean by, by culture. So ethnicity may or may not be part of culture. I’m going to try to define culture a little bit differently as you’ll see.
Mike 15:48 Or we may talk about high culture. High culture means sort of the products of the mind, the great symphonies, the great novels, the great poets and painters. Um, if you think about that definition of culture, that’s a very class-based concept of culture. One of the interesting things is to, is to go to a, go to a concert, uh, of Beethoven or Renaissance music or whatever and observe the open quote “ethnicity” close quote of the population in that concert. You will find by and large that the concerts that we call representative of high culture are white, upper middle class American audiences. So in that case, the word culture begins to have a certain class connotation. It has an anthropological connotation. In fact, it really wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that people, uh, particularly in Europe became aware of the fact that there were all these people living in Africa and in the Americas and in Asia who were different from them and who dressed differently and spoke different languages and ate different food.
Mike 17:05 And so there, the word culture becomes a kind of catch-all for, for the differences in daily life experience from one to the other. I think it’s something else. So let me try to explain what I, how I think we ought to begin thinking about culture in the 21st century. To begin with, by and large, um, there, there seems to be a turn back in our contemporary environment from a, a, a deep concern with material objects and with the material aspect of our lives; and a return to what people seem to call spiritual. Something’s going on. Um, I find amongst students for example, that—that is really remarkable—that as we run up against seemingly intractable problems, like finding our way through the thicket of environmental preservation, right? That students are turning more and more to a certain kind of maybe mysticism, a certain kind of search for values that transcend the material.
Mike 18:21 I think that’s, yeah, very significant. I think there’s a reason for this. The social sciences—economics, primarily—but also all the other social sciences get started in the middle of the 19th century; they, they, they begin to take form in the second part of the 19th century. We can begin to find their institutional as well as intellectual expression by the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. By the way, today, the social sciences are wandering in the desert. You know, anthropologists will come along and say, ‘well, what is anthropology? What should we be studying?’ And they begin to debate among themselves and often the debate about what they should be doing takes precedence over studying what it is they should be studying, right? They’re more—they suffer an identity crisis along with all the rest of us.
Mike 19:16 From this perspective, one has to ask, why does this sudden turn toward a kind of spirituality? And I don’t like the word spirituality because it has all kinds of implications like gods and angels and salvation. And I find it a little bit uncomfortable, but then I’m older. Uh, but it seems to me that the, that the, um—a very sharp distinction as it exists throughout Western history, but particularly sharp in the middle of the 19th century, between the material world and what we could call the spiritual world, and that it’s very natural that in the run up to when the, the, um, the actual participation in the industrial revolution… The industrial revolution represented, intellectually, a turn away from the spirit—to use that term, which I’m uncomfortable with—a turn away from the spirit to the material world. And one finds this in many, many ways. For example, if you look at medieval art—and medieval art was a public art. One has to remember that medieval art was a public art. This is a very nice example. When I say a public art, I mean to say that the, that medieval art was painted to hang up in churches where people gathered; it was, it was instructive. It was meant for, for the worship of, of, of everybody. It was really a kind of public art and if you look at medial medieval art, you’ll find that painting was what I call very architectonic. It was very highly organized and organized—not according to the subject—but organized according to a vision of the world.
Mike 21:11 Obviously in the medieval world, this is derived from God’s vision of the world, right? A vision of—a vision of the world and is organized the way buildings are organized, the organization of space, there’s very little nature. And where there was nature, the wild nature, the idea of nature as a romantic object, there was very little nature where there was nature, it was highly stylized. All rose bushes looked exactly alike. You know when the, if the Virgin has roses around there, they all look exactly alike. When you begin to get to the 15th century, 16th century, when—when the means of production begin to change, when, when mechanical production begins to be introduced. People are finding material solutions to production problems. You all of a sudden find that art also is reflecting that change. So if you look at Renaissance paintings, you find several interesting developments. Number one, you find the growth of portraits. Individuals begin to appear as individuals. You can identify them from their portraits. You find a tremendous growth of attention to material objects. So you’ll have a picture of a merchant who will have furs, they’ll be wearing furs. You can reach out and almost feel the fur. It’s so realistic, or the objects of his trade will be painted in and then you begin to get nature itself. I call it creeping naturalism. Very often in the earlier paintings in the, in the early Renaissance, you get a kind of grasp, beginning to grow with the bottom of the painting and gradually this continues to grow until the painting itself—17th century, 18th century—is a painting of nature! Often, often the painting of an animal, or the painting of a flower, or something along that line, right?
Mike 23:03 Another change that’s important in art is—whereas in medieval times, art was primarily a public object in my opinion. By the time of the, uh, of the reformation and, uh, and, and later, it becomes a private object. People invest in art. It becomes a capitalist object. People invest in, in, in art. They buy it to hang in their—in their living rooms or in their bedrooms or wherever. Uh, one example that I was once given was that a Western rancher who bought pictures had pictures painted of his bulls and he hung those pictures of his bulls in his living room when they’re right outside his living room, right. Pawing the ground. But he has them there to be able to show people that he owns those bulls, right? Right. So art becomes a, a means of privatizing nature.
Mike 23:53 It’s in that environment, in that, and I would use the word culture here in a kind of limited way, it’s in that environment that what we now call materialism, as a way of life, really begins to reach a kind of sophisticated formulation. We first of all started out with the idea that nature is there for the human being to exploit. That’s, that’s a radically different perspective from what we have today that we’re out there to exploit nature. Nature is there to serve us. We have to conquer nature. And so we get interesting images. Think about Moby Dick. And here you get, Kathy may have going after the great white whale in a very real way, that whale is nature. It’s the force of nature. And here’s poor captain Ahab going after the, after the, uh, after the whale. He’s trying to conquer it. It’s posing man over against nature and it’s a struggle. He’s, he, he lost the first battle, right? So now he’s going to win. So this, this, this idea that man, human beings (to be politically correct today) human beings are in conflict with nature.
Speaker 2 25:06 We have to conquer it. We can explain it are the improvement of human life depends upon deeper and deeper exploitation of nature… [this] is very much the context within which materialism develops as a way of life. That’s, that is the, the context within which, the idea that the marketplace, what’s exchanged in the marketplace—what’s exchanged in the marketplace is goods, services, material things. So I go into the marketplace and I exchange what I want with what you want, and somehow out of that exchange of material goods comes our economic lives and that’s the end of it. We don’t, until very recently even began to talk much about what kind of moral or ethical limits there ought to be on what we exchange in the marketplace. We carry that model even further. So at the universities these days, we talk about the marketplace of ideas, which I have always thought is utter nonsense. Who says that the best-selling idea is the best idea? It may not be at all, right? It may be that the, that I that a very good idea will be unpopular. You won’t get funding from some foundation, but it ends up being the right idea. It’s not determined by, by the market place. It has some other reference.
Mike 26:27 So the point has come now where we need to understand that the materialist culture, which is represented in our social sciences—most prominently by economics; represented institutionally by, by the edifice complex, go to any university in America and they’re, they’re sprouting buildings, the way you sprout them weeds and in a wild field, right. That’s no longer satisfying and moreover, given the fact that we are realizing that our emphasis on the material world is leading to the destruction of the human race, right, that this is what has created the environmental crisis—then one has to call into question the idea of culture as we understood it originally. Now young people—not only young people, all kinds of people turning towards what we call the spiritual is looking for that domain, that area of experience that is not encompassed by the material. I don’t have to call it God, I can call it beauty, or truth, just as I can call it whatever I want, but it is a domain of immaterial, immateriality.
Mike 27:50 Of values if you want to call it that and I think we need to begin considering that, that that’s what culture means. That culture is a, is about, it’s a word we use for the way of life that encompasses not just the material but the immaterial aspects of human beings as well. We don’t have to get hung up on religion, we don’t have to get hung up on any particular form of culture, but we have to accept that there is a—a value zone which may in fact, in our present material crisis (because the environmental crisis is a material crisis), it may in fact have to take prominence over the material if we’re to make any progress.
Greg 28:36 Well and it has to have a perspective on the material.
Mike 28:42 It has to have a perspective on the material. Yeah, so one of the most interesting things—one way to think about this is with my interest in, in, in democratic socialism for example, is to realize that that democratic socialism, along with all other social and economic theories, develops in the material age and is primarily concerned with how you organize the means of production.
Mike 29:05 Mainly the means of production, his material objects that we need. So the weakness of the left, in my opinion, is very much the consequence of their failure to recognize that, uh, it may be the immaterial that is overwhelmingly important. And in some respects there were thinkers who thought like that—Gramsci in the 1920s and ‘30s, the great Italian Marxist understood the importance of culture, but he became a kind of cult figure in his, in his own right. Um, so I think that’s, that’s one point. The other point is that that the decisions made about how we live in the material world may be made in the immaterial world. That is to say that if you and I can sit down and say, all right, we have to decide where we’re going to draw limits on consumption and we’re going to have to, we’re going to have to begin developing an educational system which trains our children that there’s something, I’ll, I’ll use this word—I don’t like it—
but I’ll use it, that there’s something evil about buying new cars, that buying new cars is an immoral act, which, indeed I think a good argument could be made for that. So if we, if we take the, the, the concept of, of, of sin, if you’re a Christian for example, you know, maybe it’s a sin to buy a new car. Or a sin to, uh, to spend money on, on a, on a bigger house when you don’t really need it. And, and, and that would be a radical revolution in our day and age. That’s the area that I think the left has to begin to think about and to develop. It’s being done. I’m not saying it hasn’t been done. I think that there are, particularly in certain religious areas of thought, I’m thinking of Paul Tillich, for instance, the example, people who were thinking of what we would call religion as culture.
Greg 31:03 Right. Yeah. It seems to me one of the, I, so I totally agree with the way you think about these things. For me, in fact, teaching this year, I was, I,—cause I teach about religion sometimes—I was using the concept of just… To be human as you need to have a, a map of where you are and you have to have an orientation. I think of that as immaterial. Like what is your, how does your imagination conceive [of] who you are, what you’re doing, where you are, who the other person is—
Mike 31:34 See, where I would, um, I think disagree with you is I don’t like the word humanist.
Greg 31:43 Yeah. Yeah. I mean I didn’t use that word. [chuckles]
Mike 31:45 I thought you just did use it.
Greg 31:47 No, I said being human. You have to have—[overlapping conversation] Yes. Yeah. But it’s my, my point is that there’s a—the orientation and the map are all immaterial they’re—it’s ideation to think about who you are and where you are. And I, you know, and I feel like I’ve learned this from you. It seems like one of the challenges, you know, and therefore I learned it from Marx is, uh, if you’re, if we are currently in a, this period of materialism and the, the world is organized, uh, in deep ways to support that materialism, how can it be combated? And, and you need to shift your map and your orientation to say, for example, that buying a new car is evil. That’s an ideational accomplishment. Um, and then you mentioned Tillich, that to resist what is going on materially and is so deeply embedded, it seems to require a, a unified, uh, perspective. I mean, this maybe is what you’re saying about democratic socialism. We need to start to articulate this other vision to resist. It can’t be piecemeal. It can’t come from—
Mike 32:54 It can’t be piecemealed. It has to be holistic. It has to be totalistic. So eventually we’ll get to this in, in, in, in much greater detail. But I would start out with an argument that may go something like this.
Greg 33:09 Okay.
Mike 33:11 There’s a lot—in political theory we talk a lot about the social contract. It’s kind of a bedrock, um, element in our, in the history of Western political thought. And basically the idea is that, you know, the myth that individuals lived short, nasty, and brutish lives in the forest, they’re—somewhat against [inaudible]. And if we all sat down and signed a contract that we’ll give up this in return for mutual support and mutual defense. Right? So maybe we need to rethink that. Maybe we need to rethink the idea of what should be the social contract. We need to go back to fundamentals and say, what is society now that again—this is a very real issue. Margaret Thatcher who uh, okay, may not have been the greatest political thinker in the world, but she did say one thing that was extraordinarily challenging. She says there’s no such thing as society. There are only men and women; individuals. And she represented of course the uh, extreme neoliberal position, uh, in politics in England in the 1980s, seventies and eighties. So that is the ultimate statement about what liberal democratic thought is. We are all individuals. Think of all the elements of our culture—and now I’m using the word culture in a broad sense—that are based on that idea. Human rights. When we talk about human rights, we tend to talk about individual human rights and we tend to talk about political rights. Nobody says there is a human right to water, to health, maybe health as a human right, right? Maybe a, maybe the access to a sufficient amount of water and food, fresh water and healthy food is a human right, but we define it as individual political rights, the right to vote, which is an individual activity.
Mike 35:07 So I, I think we need to go back and say, all right, maybe it is not man at the center. Maybe it is not man, that is the measure of all things. But in, in, in this world we’re facing now, which is a radically different kind of world with radically different problems, we have to say maybe the system is at the center, right? Maybe survival is at the center. Maybe man is not the measure of all things. Yeah. Now I don’t know how, I hope that as time goes on, we’ll formulate this more clearly—it’s something I think a lot about—but we obviously need a new formulation of, of fundamental ideas and that’s a scary proposition. That’s a very scary proposition because we’re so trained to think individualistically; we’re so trained to think in terms of the rights of the citizen, right? Imagine a world in which we didn’t talk about rights, but responsibility as the primary point of departure. What are your duties? That’s your primary point of departure. That has—for historical reasons which we’ll come to eventually—kind of negative overtones in certain respects. You have to deal with those things. Yeah.
Greg 36:19 Well then we also, I think in the, the big plan is to also go into more of the history and specifics of liberal democratic culture too, right?
Mike 36:27 Absolutely. We have to, if we don’t examine that, we won’t arrive at a reformulation or we won’t raise the issues. that have to be reformulated.
Greg 36:37 And then our other project is to also look at the history of, of attempts to counter that cultural position.
Mike 36:46 Cause that’s, I think out of that attempt to, I would not talk—I hesitate to use the word resist. I prefer a word reformulate, rethink, reformulate. That out of that attempt to examine what is, we can derive at least a vague map about how to reformulate our—our thinking.
Greg 37:10 Right. [Outro] Thanks for listening to another episode of a shareable world. To find out more about this podcast, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.