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 Okay. Shall we start? Uh, it’s my job to get us going. Welcome everybody to what is, uh, the third episode, perhaps, of a show which has a working title, perhaps, of ‘a shareable world.’ Um, and to date we’ve talked about the problems that, that face the world, um, environmental, educational, political, the future of work, future of healthcare. The list goes on and on. And we’ve, uh, talked most recently about, um, the systemic nature of these problems and how important is to conceive of them as interrelated rather than as ‘issues’ and even more than interrelated—uh, we talked last time about it having to do with fundamental assumptions about what society is and what it is to be human and what we’re up to and therefore the future likely requires that we rethink fundamentally, uh, rethink fundamental propositions about, about these things, which is both a daunting and difficult task.
Greg 01:47 And as you said last time in some ways a frightening one. So that’s a bit of background. And then for me, after listening to the last podcast, I felt like there were kind of three projects we have at hand. One is: how do we understand where we are now and how we got here. So this is kind of a historical understanding of what we’ve been calling a culture of materialism or a materialist culture, how that came to be historically. So we got lots we could do on that front. And then the two other things for me are kind of about change. One aspect is historical. So we could spend time thinking about, um, how this culture of materialism was resisted and challenged in the past. So there’s lots that we can potentially learn from history about how to counter, where, where we are, or think in new ways. Um, but then there’s also just how do we start living differently and how do we start, um, thinking differently about the future that, that lies ahead of us. So that’s my little recap. Did all that sound…
Mike 03:03 Hmm. It does.
Greg 03:05 …in the ballpark?
Mike 03:06 And then some.
Greg 03:07 And then I, you sent me notes for today and I, um, am thinking that where we’re headed today—so tell me if this is wrong—is kind of thinking about how change comes about in the first place and maybe in a more theoretical sense, does it start with new ideas? Does it start with institutional change? But just thinking, um, what, what is given to us, what is changeable. How does it change… with maybe a bit of a historical perspective. Or how would you—
Mike 03:41 I think the, um, what we should start talking about—that’s the general direction—but what we ought to start talking about now is what is, or what are the primary conditions necessary for serious change to take place. So, for example, if I start out by thinking of our present political, social, economic and so forth situation, not just here in America, but everywhere in the world particularly—but everywhere in the world—particularly because of the environmental crisis, which to me transcends every other possible political issue. And the environmental, the environment, the environmental crisis is global. It’s it, you know, we’re not going to have an environmental crisis in the US and it won’t affect Canada, uh, or they’ll have an environmental crisis in Nepal that won’t affect us.
Mike 04:51 The environmental crisis is everywhere that surrounds the globe. So it’s the truly universal issue of our age. And locally as well, beyond every other issue, the environmental crisis takes precedence. You know, I, I keep saying to myself, I say to my students and my friends, here we are in America on the eve of a new election cycle and we’re, we’re talking a lot of time and spending a lot of words discussing a whole set of issues. Things like equal pay because of the soccer win by the, by the American women’s team or race relations or what have you. Whatever we’re discussing about when it comes down to human beings or to the American people as such or whatever we’re talking about in these terms that involves human beings, one ends up realizing that after all, if we can’t breathe, if the human race is not going to be around, why are we spending our time talking about all these other issues?
Mike 06:03 So our political objective and therefore the objective of our social change, economic change, all has to be, in my opinion, in the direction of that one overwhelming question is how to make life sustainable on the earth. It’s fun to think about technological fixes, whether they be some extraordinarily wealthy California businessman planning to send a rocket full of wise people and good elephants up to Mars, or someone’s going to come up with an app that we can play with on our iPhones and all of a sudden transform ourselves into, into carbon dioxide breathing creatures. The simple fact of the matter is that that doesn’t work and that what we really need to do is talk about change. So then I ask myself, what is the primary prerequisite for change? One of the things we know is that legislation—in America, we talk about legislation.
Mike 07:14 Uh, everybody is coming up with plans. The Democrats are coming up with plans, the Republicans are coming up with complaints about the Democrats not willing to pass legislation. It’s as if planning and legislation took place in an otherwise stable environment in which you have a flaw and you can pass a law through Congress to fix that flaw. Or the president can issue a presidential decree that will be the finger in the dike to prevent the flood from overwhelming us. But unfortunately that doesn’t work. And we know that doesn’t work. And eventually in the course of these conversations we should, uh, look at history and ask what are the lessons we can learn from history? And one lesson we can learn from history is what doesn’t work. And, and uh, I think we could identify that pretty quickly, especially when we look at our contemporary condition.
Mike 08:09 So for me, change has to begin with, or rather a primary precondition, a change has to be what I call a cultural change. It’s not simply a change in practice. It is very obvious that putting bottles in one camp and paper in another is not going to save the environment. We need to change the way we think the environment, the way we think ourselves, the way we think society, the way we think the economy. And I lump all of those things together under the term culture. So I want to explain why… because this is a slightly different use of the term culture than we’re accustomed to.
Mike 08:57 By and large, we think of culture in a variety of different ways in our normal lives these days. For example, we can talk about high culture by which we mean literature and the arts. Probably more than we want to believe, but not as much as true, culture is very class-based in our society. Uh, the wealthy can afford it. You and I can’t, we can—we buy reprints. They buy originals. Okay. Um, and our, as time goes on and reading becomes less and less, um—in my youth I used to read reader’s digest summaries of great books. My parents read great books. I read reader digest summaries and my grandchildren read comic books that retail the story in pictures if they haven’t already thrown those away. And succumb completely. So, so the, the, the physicality of high culture that is books, art, music, uh, you go to a concert hall and look at the audience.
Mike 10:11 Yeah. In America, which talks about multiculturalism, a wonderful example of the even racial, um, basis of high culture is when you’re looking in audience in a concert, a classical music concert. Yeah. Uh, it’s almost all white. Yeah. Probably middle-class. Um, you and I, many years ago you may have forgotten this and here’s another example of what I call high culture. You and I once went to hear the Dalai Lama, uh, teach at an amphitheater right near here. And I remember it was a Saturday morning, if I recall. I remember remarking to you looking around the amphitheater that almost everybody in the amphitheater was white. There were a few Chinese, but everybody else was white. That’s high culture. So th—there’s a class element, very strong class element in the culture. Another way of looking at culture, uh, today and is very common, is looking at the customs at the so-called ways of life that, um, we find and we divide the world up.
Mike 11:26 We can call it ethnically or whatever word you want to use. But, uh, we have a professional, uh, group of people called anthropologists who study culture in this sense, and they go off to islands in the Pacific or mountain tribes and the Himalayas or some small town in America today, even big cities like New York. And they study the ways of life. They study the habits and the customs, the kinship relationships, um… in, uh, in some places, uh—led very much by French anthropology—they study myths. Storytelling and so forth. Uh, in which case culture is defined immaterially, non-materially, but also it’s, it’s sometimes defined materially. Anthropologists made this study, they study the material artifacts of their culture.
Mike 12:28 One of the things that—by the way, I must add— I’ve got to add here is that what’s happened with anthropology is that it has lost its way, in my opinion. It looks more and more at itself trying to figure out what it ought to be doing. So it’s quite obvious when you look at the history of anthropological thought that today, that particular profession deals with the culture, uh, it feels as if they’ve kind of lost their way and they’re trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing. And that suggests that their grasp of a concept of culture that is relevant to our current condition, uh, may be very weak nowadays. The concept itself may be very weak. I think that a lot of this problem of defining the word culture—and you talk to specialists, they’re going to tell you how complex it is to define it—is rooted very much in the materialism, that is the overwhelmingly dominant philosophical position of our age. Regardless of whether we recognize that fact or not. The most glaring example of how materialism dominates everything is this idea of the market. The marketplace. The economist is the preeminent social scientist. Now many economists are trying to make their so-called science more exact. They apply computers, they make models, they have labs, they do experiments, but the fact is it’s a social science examining social relations and as Karl Marx predicted, they have reduced everything to the marketplace and everything to money. As Karl Marx said, all human relationships under capitalism will end up defined in monetary terms.
Mike 14:29 The fact that the market, we even talk about the market in the university, we talk about the marketplace of ideas! As if the idea that had the best PR was what won out rather than the idea that was really the most thoughtful, the best idea. And so forth. I can sell you an idea. We do that all the time by the way. You know an awful lot of research and is funded by agencies to whom you have to apply. Well, how do you apply? You make out a request, you fill out an application for funds. We now have people who professionally know how to fill out applications for funds. In other words, these other PR people have the mind and what they write has very little relevance and a really honest scientist or researcher will admit that has very, really very little relevance to what we do in our actual research, right?
Mike 15:24 We, we are get the money and then we go and do what we want to do—but, but we’re selling our ideas and we’ve got a buyer was some foundation or some US government agency, right? So this market even invades our, our mental lives. The market is about material goods and we say services, but services have to do with our material lives. Not 100%, but 97%. I will agree that psychiatric social work may not be material in the intermediate—but ultimately, almost all of the things that we talk about when we talk about goods and services, either are material or exist because of material considerations. They’re not intellectual. They’re not spiritual, they’re not—we don’t usually, for example, include, um, religious counseling as an economic activity, that kind of—you can and when you’re calculating the salary. But a, you and I suppose we could agree that that a, a pastor giving personal counseling to somebody in this sphere because they’ve lost their belief in God is a little bit different than an advisor saying, buy this car instead of that car because, right? So the former we don’t include and the latter we do include. So I think that the, that, that, that the, um, our concept of a, of culture, our whole way of life depends very much on the apparent victory—and I say apparent only because I believe change is coming—the apparent victory of the material over the non-material. Probably in the history of modern thought, the person who has the thinker who made that distinction between the material and the nonmaterial as clear as possible from the point of view of a social analysis was Karl Marx.
Mike 17:26 Now, um, Karl Marx defines the world, the lived world. Marx is not particularly interested in the spiritual. Um, if you’re living in 19th century Britain and he was after all a scientist of the middle of the 19th century of capitalism and Britain, which was the period at which capitalism was at its highest and which in a peculiar kind of way, from very conservative economists’ perspective, still serves as a kind of touchstone for defining, um, what the economy should be. The laissez-faire market carried to is extreme. So Marx was interested in the material world. That’s where they were at in those days. And he was studying capitalism, which was about the production of material objects in those days, right? They didn’t think very much of goods and services. It was goods they were trying to produce. And everything was defined in terms of the production of goods. So—but Marx looks at the lived world and he says it’s divided into two parts.
Mike 18:34 He borrowed some of this from Hegel—it’s divided into two parts. There is the material infrastructure that the material infrastructure is the material world as we perceive it and from Marx’s point of view it is also the relationships of the material world. What does that mean? That’s a kind of highfalutin idea, but what it means is something like this, we have a factory and the factory is material. People who work in the factory are material. The bosses of the factory are material, but also part of the material world is the relationship between the bosses and the people who work for the bosses—bosses. So all of that is the material world. But then Marx comes along and says, but there was also the superstructure, which is the world of ideas. Now what does that mean? Well, my favorite example is to say, think of the Supreme court, the Supreme court as a building, Greco-Roman building in Washington DC.
Mike 19:41 It has steps. When you go into it, it’s got this chamber and there’s a bench behind which sit nine judges and they give forth the law and they’re human beings. That’s a material object. But the law with a capital L, the law which they dispense is not a material object. It may have materiality when they reduce their words to paper for publishing, but they’re thinking about the law. The law itself as a concept is not material. It’s an immaterial—it belongs to the superstructure. And the same way as religion. You can look at a church and the church is a material object, but belief is not a material object—belief, it belongs to the superstructure and so forth. And so on. The error that the Marxists had made—and here’s what I think we have to start talking about the, the first step in, um, in, uh, rethinking the future—the error that the Marxists has make, which is the error that we in the modern world make.
Mike 20:51 And don’t forget that I, somebody once said, we’re all Marxists. Ultimately, we’re all engaged in the conversation with Marx. Uh, the era that Marxists make is by claiming that the material infrastructure takes primacy over this, the non-material superstructure. Ultimately everything is determined by the material. That’s what we mean by materialism. So that we now have, and here’s a perfect example of this. We now have in neurological scientists, um, sciences, scientists in the field of, of the neurosciences who are trying to establish where in the brain the idea of God lies. And then they can tickle that point in the brain and all of a sudden you think of God or maybe you are God, I don’t know. Uh, but they want to reduce our ideas to particular connections in our nervous system, right? That’s the ultimate in the material, in the philosophy of materialism applied to the practice of, of, of life.
Mike 22:01 Right? So I think that’s where the error is. A huge error which we have wandered into, which allows us, to go back to where we were starting today, which allows us to think that if I separate the, the, the, the paper from the bottles, from the cans, right? Material objects, which I’m going to put into other material objects, that’s gonna deal with the climate crisis, which is itself a material crisis. Marx never really argues that. And I think that’s why we have to rethink how Marx applies. That’s an important thing to think about. Marx doesn’t really prioritize the material, the, the—the material and the immaterial exist in a kind of tension with each other. And I’m not going to go into all of the philosophical details about this, but, but the point is that they impact each other. So that given a certain perception, which is material, a given perception I have of an object, it will look to me and I will behave towards it and I will use it, et cetera, in a way different from somebody else who has a different perception of it.
Mike 23:15 Um, there is an old French concept called decalage based on the word bricoleur. Bricoleur is a handyman, what we used to call a handyman. Now we have specialists who do everything, but in the old days you had one person who did everything and that person would, uh, pick up a piece of wood—this is not an original example with me, it’s an example from great social sciences—pick up a piece of wood and he might use that piece of wood to start building a wall in a house. Or he might use that piece of wood as a hammer or he might use that piece of wood as a bridge to cross a stream. It’s the same piece of wood, but the way he uses it, the way he thinks about it, the way it fits into his tasks and to his imagining what it is he wants to accomplish differs on the, on the particular situation that he’s in.
Mike 24:11 Well, similarly that I can imagine that that same piece of wood would look different would be a different object from the point of view of a house builder or a bridge builder or a carpenter. So material objects themselves change in their use in their, in their understanding for individuals depending upon how, uh, the individual has a certain perspective as opposed to another. I want to redefine culture for our purposes, and I’m sure this is not original with me, but we need to push the point. I want to redefine culture as that complex of thoughts, attitudes, uh, emotions, the whole realm of the immaterial world, that helps me to define the material world. So that it’s not getting primacy to the immaterial world, but it’s saying we need to pay attention to the idea that the physical world that we are trying to live in and work with has its definition, its forms, its shapes from the immaterial world.
Mike 25:30 And that if we want to bring about serious change in the material world, we have to bring about change in the way we think about the material world. And that involves culture. So in order to, that’s what culture should be, that’s what we need to think about when thinking about culture. Let me again give you a very specific example. It’s very common. And I learned this from reading and from my colleagues. It’s very common in today’s world for the environmentalist, the ecologist to use terms like human capital, natural capital. I find that absolutely fascinating and revelatory. What’s happening, what does it mean when they use these terms? And we have specialists, great specialists—friends of mine, uh, who do that and who are achieving in the short terms, good things with that. But what does it mean from our point of view today? It means that I am taking human beings and although I’m thinking not about the market, but I’m thinking rather in the immediate instance about the environment in order to understand them in the context of environmental studies, I reduce them to the same category as capital, i.e. money buildings, human beings, or I say natural capital. So there’s this beautiful forest. But if I think about it as capital, as investment, so I’m told by my environmentalist friends, I can then figure out the contribution that nature makes to the production of goods and services on the market.
Mike 27:21 In other words, in that way of thinking, we are applying to more and more of the lived world—in this case, the beauty of nature or in this case, in the other case, human beings—we are applying to them the same categories of thought as we applied to the production of goods and services. Now I’m going to make an outrageous statement, but I want to do it in order to make a point. In the old days, slaves were capital you bought and sold slaves as if they were objects without our realizing it and—and most people working in this field would be far, far, far on the left away from this kind of thinking—but in fact the language they use is reducing humanity to the same category of objects as slaves used to be. That’s the use of the word capital. That’s what it means to use those words, capital.
Mike 28:19 To me, there’s a scandal there. It’s kind of this kind of, this scandal has kind of crept in under the table and we have taken a term that is very technical, but we forgot that it had social implications. 150 years ago in America and still does in other parts of the world and maybe even in America in some places. And we have now applied it in environmentalism, which is a very forward looking science. But categorically, I mean culturally, we have unconsciously reduced them to the same species, the same category. That to me is very shocking and very scandalous.
Greg 29:04 I have a question. It takes us back a little bit. So not on this environmental point … I have two other examples I want to talk about. Cause I know you have thoughts about at least one of these. The first one though is more, we’ve all known—so we both have experienced with undergraduate students and one of the things, uh, students can do in their undergraduate years is think about living differently. So, uh, uh, the place, uh, here we have, for example, co-ops. So students live in this big building, they experiment with how they make decisions. They cook for each other. They—so I see that as a kind of experimental space for them to rethink their relations and et cetera, et cetera. And some of them love this.
Greg 30:00 And then they, um, of course, uh, awaken to the hard truth after they graduate, that not only is it not going to be so easy to live that way, um, but in fact there are great obstacles set up against you living that way. So this is a, so once this is more on the, just the point of having an idea of living differently versus the material reality of what the world requires. So, so to carry this example out—if a group of students graduate having lived cooperatively for four years and wants to continue that, they, they run into the tax code and the way houses are built and the way a mortgage is, um, obtained. And, uh, and all of those systems, those material systems come into conflict with this different way of living they have in mind. Um, and it’s a fight. They’re not gonna win or it’s very tough.
Mike 31:00 Well, they’re not going to win. They most, most often don’t win it. And I think that that’s a marvelous example. So let’s explore it for a second. Um, I want to, as you were talking, my mind immediately went to the idea of private property because you had talked about mortgages and clauses and buildings. So private property is kind of enshrined, uh, really right next if not on top of the images of Jesus Christ and mother Mary in our churches. It’s a, it’s imprinted in the paper on which the constitution was originally written, in wherever the constitution is kept in Washington DC. Uh, it is almost holy in our minds, the concept of private property. The fact that there is no such thing as real private property, really private private property, we forget very quickly. There was this very interesting case, maybe it’s still going on in the California courts, of this guy who bought a beach was people used to use, and closed it off and, and the, and he says his private property, but because of the, the, the path that led to the beach was his private property and the people took him to court.
Mike 32:20 And in fact they won. And they said, you can’t have, you cannot have private property to the extent that it closes off in the same way the state has the right of eminent domain. So we don’t really have ultimate private property, but we think we do and we talk about it and an awful lot of our thinking economically and socially and in every other way, an awful lot of our law—law is about the preservation of private property, right? One of the values of anthropology is that it provides us with knowledge about societies which think differently than we do. One of the values of science fiction is that it allows us to imagine science worlds that are different. So one of my favorite examples of this is a great old TV series—Star Trek. And if you look at Star Trek, I love Star Trek. We used to have friends who had around the country call each other after a Star Trek episode and discuss what the social implications of that was.
Mike 33:33 There was no private property in Star Trek. The enterprise was owned by the state or whatever the, right? But nobody owned anything. You had your apartment and your room on the enterprise, um, the outliers, the—there’s one episode of Star Trek, which I love to cite, in which there are these Buccaneers the enterprise encounters. These are people who buy and sell goods like pirates. But the point is they’re pirates, they’re not mainstream people. So in the world of Star Trek, there is no private property and the world is held together by different values than ours. One could go back and do a fascinating study of Star Trek. It might be a lot of fun to do that and watch all those episodes, which showed what a different way that world was put together. But we all watched it. And because it was on television, most people didn’t think about, wow, there’s no private property, but you and I should be talking about that.
Mike 34:34 That’s the kind of question we have to raise. So the kids come out of university where they’ve lived in co-op, some of them, and all of a sudden they find the legal system, an architectural world, a world in which buildings are built not with the idea of community, but with the idea of individual families living in apartments or what was the American ideal? Every family would have its own home, private property. Right? Or in which you had co-op markets, which had to compete on a market with privately owned enterprises to which they often lost out. Right. So the idea of private property enshrined, in law, enshrined in custom enshrined in religion because God knows, you know—that’s another interesting thing we can talk about at some point. God didn’t own any property, right? But we talk about God as if God blessed private property as opposed to other kinds of property.
Mike 35:40 I have to admit that I myself at one point in my life had difficulty with this. I remember I was on the first group of American students to study in the Soviet Union after World War II. It’s a long story, but it was the middle of the cold war and we didn’t have very many Russia specialists and America was trying to develop it and the Russians wanted American specialists. So they, the exchange kind of developed. And one day I’m walking along the street and I was, I used to smoke very heavily and I was smoking one of these awful Russian cigarettes and I put it out on the street. You know, I finished the cigarette and I put it out, on the, on the sidewalk and stamped on it with my foot. And this little old lady hobbles up to me with a kerchief on her head.
Mike 36:26 And, and, and she’s bent over, she has a broom in her, in her hand, and she says, comrade, comrade, we don’t put out our cigarettes on socialist property. And imagine walking around, you know, any US street and you throw your butt into the street and somebody comes up says, wow, you don’t do that on public property. A really radically different view of what property is. And that was in a very tiny little moment, but it made me think a lot. That’s been a, that was an enlightening moment for me. So the world is, we structure it through our mental concepts. This—private property starts out as a mental concept through which we define the relationship of objects to each other. And to me, that house is mine. You can’t go in it without special permission. So that house, that house there is defined as private property because I have the concept of private property.
Mike 37:26 Suppose I had the concept of communal property. Let’s think of how we would build buildings for people to live in in a communal world rather than a world of private property, it would be radically different. So yes, you come out of an experimental situation. This may be one reason why so many experiments in new social relationships fail, is that the material and ideational world, and the material and cultural world, the infrastructural and superstructural world, which influence each other out there is such that that living your own private life along, radically different principles and, and persisting at that either leads you to be defined as a fool or a Saint. Saint Francis. That’s what Saint Francis was. St. Francis was also the village idiot, right? So you’re either an idiot or a fool or even go and smoke your brains out and in some rural, semi-rural place. So, but that’s a very good example of the way in which culture influences precisely what I was trying to talk about.
Greg 38:40 Yeah. And so, but it makes the points about the conflict between new ideas and deep material structures but also sounds—it also can lead one quickly to despair because then you know how, how if we just are hitting our heads against the material wall, how does change, how would change happen over—
Mike 39:07 No, I think you, I think you’re putting forward an incredibly important question. So what does this mean? Well, I have to make certain decisions. I can decide that I’m going to live as the village idiot or I’m going to live as a Saint. Again, the distinction between the two may be far less than we than we think. That is to say I don’t really care what the rest of the world says. I am going to live my life the way according to the values that I believe we need to incarnate, to use a slightly religious term. The values that we need to incarnate if we’re gonna change the world. So I can say in the course of history, uh, you plant a seed here and plant a seed there. Those, those individual seeds struggle very hard to survive climate and human intervention. But eventually they sprout into fields of flowers or corn or whatever you want. So you may have to, you, you, you may indeed need a heroic—and I’m not ashamed to use these terms.
Mike 40:25 A heroic minority, a heroic individual here and there who by living his or her life and bringing his or her family up according to those same values will eventually be exemplary to others. That’s about the only way I can talk about it. Um, many movements, political, religious, and those that talk about an avant-garde, you need those people who will step out in front of the, of the crowd, in front of society and model what it is. That itself. And I think that’s perhaps a way of thinking about it. If I decide to live my life according to certain values, no matter what other people say, then that’s a revolutionary act. That’s an act for fundamental change. So let me expand on this for a few minutes because I think this is really very important. Think of it as, all right, let me start here. It isn’t just private property. One of the issues that is very much talked about today, particularly in America, is this issue of privacy, as the great newfangled corporations like Facebook and Google and so forth and so on, begin to trade in our privacy. They make money on our private information. The issue of privacy has come to the fore. But that leads in my way of thinking to think about privacy, not as a given in nature, not even in human nature. Maybe someday we should talk about that. But given as a cultural artifact you can… Yeah. Yeah. Um, so what, what has to be private?
Mike 42:17 Well, we say, for example, in America I don’t want you to know how much money I make. I don’t know where my social security number. By the way, those things are relatively easily found. Um, why do we want to keep those things private? What, why do we need to keep those things private? There, or at the furthest extreme, my sex life. I’m going to conduct my sex life in private, not in the middle of the town square. Why? What is it about our genitals or our attitude towards our genitals, that says we should conduct our sex lives in private instead of in the town square, to me—[laughs]. I’m not about to go out and have sex at the corner of El Camino Real or University Avenue. But what I am saying is that it’s a cultural construct that says I shouldn’t have sex in the middle of the town square; it’s very interesting if you go back in history, um, you look at the history of customs in the British Royal family, uh, in the good old days, meaning the good very old days.
Mike 43:28 Uh, the queen of England used to give birth in public. She had her whole court there to give birth and this was a very practical necessity. They had to make sure that the kid who came out was legitimate and not substituted by some thieving or, or malicious baron from someplace else, right? So the concept of privacy is not a given once and for all, nor are the contours of what is private. And that goes back again to this question of private property, property. So all I’m trying to argue is that, that uh, this is a wonderful example of where attitude defines an awful lot. Suppose that we rethought the question of what, what is private? Maybe we should do away with the idea of privacy. Why shouldn’t I live my life publicly? Confucius used to say, so we’re told, that a gentleman was a gentleman, even when he was all alone. Confucius was not a, a gender-conscious philosopher. A gentleman is a gentleman even so—maybe I have to live my values, my private values as publicly as I can if only to be exemplary to others.
Greg 44:50 Right. Okay. So the other thing I wanted to ask you about that gets at, um, change in the, something you know, that people are familiar with as Bernie Sanders. So from my point of view, the one thing that we saw in the last election was, I thought, some encouraging spirit around the need for, for, um, meaningful structural change. That one of the things Bernie is saying is there is this system out there that’s a problem and it needs to be, uh, resisted at the root. Um, and, but I know you’re critical also of Bernie’s position. So in terms of how, what change is real and how change happens and what it’s driven by—
Mike 45:38 Well, I am, yeah, I mean I voted for him in the primaries. Here we are in California. So I couldn’t vote for him in the generals, but I voted for him in the primaries. Um, I wouldn’t today for other reasons, but I did then. I think what he responded to, what he is responding to, the way he is perceived is as somebody who wants change. My argument with him—and the people responded to him in such a way that we know now an awful lot of people, not just people who voted for him, but also people who eventually voted for Trump. Right. Want change. There’s no question about that. Precisely what the issue is that I’m trying to raise is at what level that change needs to take place. And that’s where my argument with Bernie starts. I think he believes that change takes place at the level primarily of law, of arrangements, of institutions.
Mike 46:47 So he’s always talking—here. Here’s an example I think about a lot because of my own professional work—free higher education, at least free public universities. I agree with that 100%, but you notice he doesn’t ever raise the issue of what it is we’re talking about when we talk about education. He wants, he has an economic answer for what to do about education, but he hasn’t yet made a single speech as far as I know, and I admit that I have not heard every speech he’s made, where he talks about the substance of education. To me, that’s the important difference. It isn’t just that we have free access to education. The really important question is what am I teaching? Not whether you’re paying the tuition to go to my school, but what am I teaching you in my school? Which means what are the attitudes? What are the ways of life?
Mike 47:40 What are the ways of thinking that I’m trying to pass on to you? And that’s where I’m, I think is very important. Medical care. Medical care is not just about providing free medical aid or making sure that everybody is insured. It has profound conceptual implications. Think about the distribution of income that is involved in the development of a universal healthcare system. I believe health is a human right. I personally believe the state should be responsible for, that we should have—I believe in socialized medicine. I say that absolutely unashamedly, we have a lot to learn from Great Britain. We have a lot to learn from Canada. All of this is not to say that every system does not have its problems. It is to say that when the healthcare system was introduced into Britain, it was understood that a social change was taking place, not just fixing a problem.
Mike 48:45 Bernie Sanders looks at these issues and he wants to fix problems. They’re the right problems to want to fix, but he never goes far enough. So for example, let me, let me, uh, explore this. He always holds up Denmark as an example of his ideal society. So when you look at Denmark a little bit more closely, you begin to realize that not only is it a very fair society, but there are other things conceptually that go on in Denmark. So that for—or Scandinavian societies in general—one is that there is a concept of what human responsibility, what responsibility you and I owe each other because we’re both human beings and we live in the same environment, which is radically different from our concept of privacy or of private property. There’s no room for that—the American concept of privacy and private property in the world of Denmark or Scandinavia, not in the same way we think about it. Or to go a step further, if you live in a just and fair society, perhaps the need for God is less than it is in a society where suffering, lack, um, frustration, disappointment is so much a part of daily life as it is in our society. In Denmark, 4% of the population goes to church. Compare that with 70% in the United States. Why don’t they go to church? Maybe they have no need for it. Maybe—
Mike 50:27 We need to think about that question also in regard to the kind of social arrangements in which we live our lives. I don’t hear Bernie going around saying you don’t need God, you need a health system that will take care of you. Right. That’s my problem.
Greg 50:47 I see. Yup. Okay, good. Well, I think we, I think we had as a thought for where we might go next—so let’s see if this is the transition moment—is, um, you know, something about the, the importance of, of narrative, of having a, having a way of talking about what we are up to as a collective, who we are as individual people, all of that as needing to be articulated in a kind of full way. So Bernie’s, the problem with Bernie is he wants to fix things kind of mechanically, you might say, um, without articulating what a new way of thinking about those things would—
Mike 51:28 I think that’s right. But it isn’t just Bernie. It’s everybody. Yeah. Um, our political system here in America, all political systems everywhere in the world. In fact, everything is based on what I would call narrative. Now we need to take time to explore what, what the idea of narrative is.
Mike 51:49 Um, narrative is—just to sort of look ahead. Narrative is the story I tell about myself. We tell about ourselves in order to legitimize what it is we do. I can always say to you, for example, well, this is the way my grandparents did it, so I’ve got to do it the same way. That’s narrative; that I’m telling a story about the past in my narrative world. The past has a certain value that outweighs alternative futures. Or it is the firmest point in the firmament of all possibilities. So I go, when I say the past is the way we did it, let’s try to keep that tradition going. Alternatively, I tell him, I tell a story in which I say, boy, the past was awful. Let’s start on something radically new. The interesting point about that is that the narrative still posits something about the past.
Mike 52:52 Usually in—here’s my problem with Bernie, the narrative doesn’t change. There’s only a slight change in emphasis. So for example, Bernie fixes problems. Those problems are defined by the narrative and our narrative. We have certain values which we emphasize over others. Um, we use of words, right? Like I said before, the use of the word capital. That’s part of the narrative. The narrative we tell ourselves about human, the way human beings use the world to survive, right? Right. So you listen to economists, economic historians, some of them will tell you a capitalism existed back already in ancient Greece. Others will tell you, Nonsense, capitalism is a modern creation and artifact of modernity. It isn’t ancient. Those are all stories we tell each other.
Mike 53:43 So the narrative that we tell and that you and I share, why are we belonging? Why do we belong to the same community? To the extent we do is because we tell the same narrative, right? We, we, we, we, and that narrative can be told, by the way, not only in words like a story, or with pictures, like in a movie. But it can also be told philosophically, it can be told ritually. What is the, the mass, which a good proportion of our people go to every Sunday? The mass is a narrative. Yeah. It’s a sequence given—the same sequence, right—and you change that narrative the way the Protestants come along in the Reformation and try to do, and you get warfare! That’s how vital the narrative is to our way of being in the world. So I think narrative, what I said before about, about culture—and narrative is another word in my opinion, for culture. And we need to explore that.
Greg 54:46 All right. Maybe we know our topic for the next one. [Outro] Thanks for listening to another episode of a shareable world. To find out more about this podcast, visit us at ashareableworld.com.