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 All right. Welcome back everybody to A Shareable World, the history, theory, and practice of democratic socialism, with big Mike. And this is a special podcast because I think it’s an actual part two to a previous podcast. So we’re figuring this out. And our topic is history, right? And to get us going and surprise you with the question. What should people remember about the last podcast that we are leaping off of?
Mike 01:04 How much should people remember about the last part?
Greg 01:05 I mean, is it, so the broad theme is the importance of history.
Mike 01:09 Well, the broad theme is the importance of history. That’s what we’re trying to open up some discussion about. Uh, as we’ve said, uh, the study of history has declined so badly and I think that’s a real problem. I think that’s creating problems for us. And so I was thinking the last few days, uh, more about why it is important to study history. And in a way this’ll review a little bit of what we said last time, but also I want to say something else about that. So one important reason is that history is a repository of all kinds of stuff, really all kinds of stuff. So for example, history is a repository of the mistakes we’ve made. I mean, you look back at history—people often say, but they don’t really carry out in practice, the idea that we study too much the victors in history, we studied the successes in history. We rarely study the failures. Someone will carry out a revolution that gets squelched in an hour, a coup d’état somewhere that gets squelched in an hour or all the inventions that fail, things like that. We know to study failures, but the history of failure may be as important, if not more important than the history of success. Because we learn by what we failed at doing in the past. Maybe just think of how you raise kids, right? You, you tell a child, so you failed this time, try it again. Figure out what you didn’t do right and try to, well, that’s the way it is with history and we need to start asking those kinds of questions and see history as a wealth of examples, of failures that we need to learn from. So that’s one thing, the importance of mistakes. Also by the way, uh, when we begin to understand the mistakes and failures that we make historically, uh, that may teach us a certain kind of humility, which seems to be increasingly lacking in, uh, in our contemporary world.
Mike 03:18 Um, humility towards each other, humility towards values. Uh, we’ve kind of substituted personal ego for humility. And, um, I often hear parents saying to kids, you don’t have to apologize. You shouldn’t feel humble. But you know, certain religions teach us humility. And, and maybe that’s on purpose. Maybe we need to have a certain kind of mutual humility as a foundation or as one of the foundation stones for, um, solidarity for the sense that we’re all in the same boat together and need to work together, which is the exact opposite of what egotism promotes, right? Then I think there is the, um, what I also referred to last time, is the fact that history is a repository of experiments and their results. Something was tried, didn’t work. Let’s try to achieve that objective in a slightly different way this time. Let’s study as—as democratic socialists, we should study the failures of socialism, figure out what went wrong.
Mike 04:27 The original dream is the right dream for many of us, for example, I find very few people—let me take a step backwards. There was a time, a period of time in which people kept arguing that the communist dream was the Christian dream. That really if you read the sermon on the Mount—and people have a little bit of trouble with the fact that Karl Marx was anti-religious. I’m not sure he was anti-religion, period. He certainly was anti-establishment religion. There’s a very famous photograph of the great Karl with his wife and a gleaming red cross on her chest, on her breast. It’s quite wonderful photograph and it hits you. I mean, the fact that he’s there standing beside her it’s that classical mid-19th century photographs season each year and he’s down here and this cross just hits you in the face. But this idea that the original inspiration for communism was the same set of values that are represented in the sermon on the Mount has of course gone by the board.
Mike 05:36 But if we think about that and then say, well, what actually happened that went wrong with that idea? How did the Soviet Union stray so far that, instead of being a realization of the sermon on the Mount, it ends up becoming the work of the devil if I just use the same kind of lingo, right? Uh, so we can learn from the mistakes of the past—
Greg 05:58 And at some point we will look at that very question. Right?
Mike 06:03 So we’re going to, yeah, I mean, there are a lot of examples that we’re going to be talking about the next 20 years. Um, and, and as a, as an addition to that point, uh, the past is also a repository of ideas that we should be using and thinking about. Now we do that in the history of thought. You know, when we teach philosophy or we teach the history of ideas, we go over and over again the ideas of an Aristotle or Plato or Machiavelli or Freud or what have you.
Mike 06:35 Right? Uh, and we, we ask, well, what would Machiavelli say about today? Well, we ought to do that with social experiments then with economic organization and so forth. And finally, one other point, and I was thinking about this this morning because of both recent past and recent coming events, the history, really—the study of history really is a source of hope. And I think this because this strays into a kind of language, which is a little bit difficult to deal with, but I think it’s a very important issue. We’re very aware that one aspect of contemporary society is apathy. Apathy develops sometimes as a consequence of age. People who are enthusiastic and energetic and energetic in their youth tend to become more apathetic about things with. And then they retire to Arizona, the capital of apathy for example. One could argue that, but it’s also the case that there are periods of time, periods of, of political and economic and social history.
Mike 07:48 When, when a population is generally apathetic, we can measure that apathy by participation in elections. So if you have an election in which say 50% thereabout of the electorate is actually voting, then we, we often say the pundits on the TV or radio will often say, well, that shows how apathetic the people are. Uh, so we need to talk about how to move into the future by cultivating hope. And I think the study of history is a way of finding hope, in a metaphysical way. You know, you look at the great striving that, um, workers engaged in, in order to conquer higher wages or women engaged in, in order to get the vote. Um, those are examples of hope. They, they invested their time and their energy in the present because they expected something good to come out of it in the future. They were fighting for a cause. And if you have a cause you have—apathy is the absence of a cause. So I think we should be thinking about history and studying history with a view to, to encouraging ourselves and our students, our peers, uh, to find, um, uh, find reason for hope in the face of an awful lot of adversity. And believe me, in my opinion, there’s a lot of adversity coming down the road, right? So I think those are, um, extremely important things to think about.
Mike 09:27 Um, so then, um, we should talk about history as a discipline and we didn’t do that enough last time. And I think that’s again, something that, uh, is a very interesting topic. Um, we today—this, I think we’ve talked about this before, but I want to talk about it again. It’s an incredible, incredibly important topic. Um, we, when we are going to school, even in high school, often even in, in junior high school. So let me trace this. In elementary school, you sit in one class, most places, and the teacher teaches various things to you depending upon the hour of the day, but you’re sitting in one class. So you’re learning and what you’re learning is a, is kind of, um, general and the movement from one topic to another topic. So I do a little bit of science from—at nine o’clock and then we’re going to do an English lesson.
Mike 10:39 Uh, but the differences between those subjects is probably less pronounced in elementary school. Maybe because you, you don’t know enough yet. But also because the relationship of time taught to the way in which the student learns, you’re in one room with the same teacher for most of the day therefore… So your high school that begins to change a little bit and by the eighth grade you’re moving from one class to another. So you begin to be aware that math is not the same thing as science and English is not the same thing as history. This then becomes more pronounced in high school. When you get to college, that becomes incredibly pronounced. You’re given a list of topics that you have to fulfill in order to graduate. You have to have this—distribution requirements. And in some disciplines they begin to make, pay attention to the methodology of the discipline.
Mike 11:35 So I’m, so what makes physics and chemistry different is not only what they study, but the method they use to study that. The interesting thing about history in my opinion is that in a real way, history isn’t much of a discipline in the same sense that um, chemistry or physics or for that matter, sociology, yeah… Uh, history used to be thought of as a, as sort of the queen of the sciences in the days when science meant knowledge. Precisely because history has a method only insofar as you’re concerned to find a way of proving that what you claim about history may be true. So I talk about a document, I have all kinds of things I can do to prove that that document is genuine. So a document that is written and, then I say to you, oh look, I found this document written in 1334 and uh, I have ways of proving to you that it wasn’t written in 2004 as a forgery. I can do that. Uh, and I can—but I don’t have much more, uh, by way of disciplinary procedures that are peculiar to the study of history itself. And that’s what makes history so exciting. Cause you can really bring anything into it. You want as long as you adhere to certain standards of provability, but not of defining what is or isn’t history. Anything can be history. Right? That’s a very important thing to think about.
Mike 13:12 By and large, the disciplines began to break up from a generalized—I’m talking now about social science disciplines—began to break up, uh, really in the middle of the 19th century, a little bit earlier perhaps, but not much earlier than that. Uh, Karl Marx, for example, was not an economist and nobody including Karl Marx would claim that he was an economist. Uh, he was a political economist and what a political economist was was a, a kind of, uh, a kind of person that we don’t really have many of today. He was a, he was a learned statesman. I don’t know how else to, uh, to call that. A political economist was somebody who understood history, and this is the crucial point, understood history in very broad terms and could bring to bear on historical questions whatever disciplinary procedures he decided were appropriate to that question. So it could be using a combination of economic—what today we would call economics and politics and sociology and anthropology. You bring them all together and you work out of this… porridge of different disciplines, a way of looking and explaining certain phenomena for the purpose of developing policy. So what Karl Marx is doing is he’s using all the possible tools of the trade he can find to study capitalism in order to find a way out of the dilemmas that capitalism has created.
Mike 15:07 That’s what any great statesman will do. In a way, that’s the difference between a statesman and a politician, for example. That’s what will make a, if I may be so bold as to say this, that’s what makes a Henry Kissinger remarkable as Secretary of State, is because he was a statesman. He understood history in a very broad way. Whereas most of our Secretaries of State through history had been, have been diplomats that as they—they engage in immediate diplomacy or they’d been politicians who became diplomats. But here you’ve got a scholar with are very deep and broad intellectual formation. Who’s bringing all of that to bear on an issue in order to make policy. So that’s I think, a very important thing. Another, another example from American history might be Woodrow Wilson who brought to bear, um, a very profound knowledge of history and of the world.
Mike 16:05 And was not the most successful president in our history, nor the most successful international statesman. But out of that deep knowledge, he had a vision of how the world might be. And at the end of World War I at the Versailles conference and through the League of Nations, he tried to create that vision out. He also created a lot of issues. But, uh, to, to be a president with a vision, or a Secretary of State with a vision or to be a social commentator with a great vision, looking to solve profound issues… that’s what the social science, what political economy would have been about.
Greg 16:46 Right. And so just to clarify the cause anybody can have a vision, even a politician, but you’re saying that it’s—the statesman has it grounded in some analytical tools that accurately see into the nature of the problem that’s trying to solve.
Mike 17:05 And his or her purpose is not to satisfy his or her curiosity, but to actually bring
that vision or to try to bring that vision into existence. I know what a statesman does is try to create a state of affairs in the world that will improve our human condition. Which is another point I would go back to when I said why study history, the study of history as a, as, as a source of hope. That really one of the things we need to think more about is, is improving the human condition. Now, let me, let me tie that into what I was just saying. So it’s true that raising taxes or lowering taxes is good for us. Whatever position you take, I mean, you know, I think that certain people should have taxes raised. I should have my taxes lowered! Would be much better off if I had my taxes lower. I know that, um, we all know that healthcare is important.
Mike 18:13 The particular way in which healthcare is organized is a political question, an administrative question, a policy question. But if one thinks in, in statesman-like, statesman-like terms, you want to make a statement to the effect that all human beings have a right to health and it is society’s responsibility to find a way to make that vision real. What does that mean? That doesn’t mean just setting up an administrative structure. It doesn’t mean just passing a law. It means, for example, understanding health as a profound issue. And one that relates to my personal growth, my personal well-being, but also to society’s well-being. I’ll tell you a story by… wjat I mean, we all believe in public health. It’s a good policy. Uh, we all like our kids to go to school and come back without having caught terrible diseases or even a cold.
Mike 19:22 So it is a common thing in, everywhere in the world for people to try to pay attention to public health. Public health is a real political issue. Many, many, many years ago, um, I was talking to a group of people who were going to Africa to work on the uh, um, you know, to, to, to provide aid in Africa and they were going to a just-emerging African independent country. And I started out by—they were all going to work on public health. So I started out my little conversation with them by saying, I really want to congratulate all of you for going to Africa to promote communism.
Mike 20:13 I can’t even begin to describe to you [chuckles] the, the reaction of the group. People started calling me names. One person got up and said, ‘you’re not a Christian!’ Which I’m not, but that’s okay. Uh, and so forth and so on. Luckily one or two of them said, what are you saying? What do you mean? And I said, well, you’re going to improve public health. That’s going to bring down the mortality rate. That’s all good. More people will live better, older, but what are you going to do for the economy so that they continue to have enough or more food to eat? Are you going to find jobs for the increased population? The standard of living will go down as their health improves because there are going to be too many people for the resources that they need to sustain a better life and they’re going to turn into rebels, right?
Mike 21:02 So public health, yes is a good in itself, but the statesman comes along and this is what I now really—I didn’t think about this at the time. I was, well I was only a child at 50, at that time. So you know, the statesman understands that improving public health is very important economically and politically and socially. I have to—I can’t just wipe out disease. I also have to provide work for those who aren’t going to die, right? And, and that requires a certain vision of society. And it’s very striking that we seem to be running around in circles in the last 30, 40 years. If I think back to American history, I, I remember in my own lifetime after all, uh, the, the idea of the New Deal. So FDR comes along, he has to solve some very big problems, but what he does is, is he, he says for the country, we’re going to have a new deal.
Mike 22:01 We’re going to have a new arrangement of things. We’re going to change things so that everybody will participate in society in a slightly different way. And he brings about great changes for good or ill depending on your opinion, but he does. Lyndon Johnson, aside from his little mistake in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson comes along and he says, we’re going to build a Great Society. And that Great Society includes employment and it includes civil rights and it includes all of those things. It was a vision. It was a, he didn’t come along and say, I’m going to lower taxes on the middle-class. That’s, that’s the difference in my opinion, between statesmanship and politics. And I’ve got to keep reminding myself of that in my day-to-day existence that it is possible to have these visions. So I do believe that in order to sustain that, I think one of the reasons why we, we have a certain difficulty in sustaining vision these days is because the way we look at the world is so divided, so fragmented, and is fragmented by these disciplines that we operate in academically.
Mike 23:14 Those academic disciplines have much more importance than just the way in which we teach people. It also has to do, for example, with the definition of jobs, some people get jobs as quote “economists” unquote or as “anthropologists” or something like that, right? So, so these disciplines to a greater and greater extent also define the way the workforce is divided up and the way we think about problems. That’s not a—that’s a social problem. Not an economic problem, right? People very often… So we need to, we need to really think—here’s a, you know, a very difficult word—we need to think epistemologically we need to reconsider the way in which we look at the world. If we’re going to—to think about changing it, changing it is different from improving it. You may have improvement without change, but it’s probably pretty difficult. You probably have to have certain changes and the question is how to bring those changes about.
Mike 24:22 That requires imagination and vision, not just policy formation, formulation. So let me just go back to economics cause that’s what we were, we were talking about. And one of the questions is why has to ask is why did this traditional idea of political economy break down, why did we get economics and sociology and so forth as, as separate disciplines? And I want to argue that one of the, that the historical circumstances of capitalism, particularly in the 19th century, changed in such a way that it served the interests of the power structure of the society, to reconfigure knowledge. Knowledge serves power. I believe that that’s very much the case. Knowledge serves power. Let me, let me give a little bit of a slightly, very much simplified, but nonetheless, my view on this. Um, if you look at the development of capitalism, one of the primary ways institutions in which capitalism, particularly in Western Europe and in the United Kingdom developed was through chartered companies.
Mike 25:47 Companies that were chartered by the crown. I’m thinking—overwhelmingly important was the British East India Company. Uh, the French had an East India Company too. There was also a West India Company, the Dutch East India Company. These were companies that were chartered by their respective crowns at about the same time, or in the process through which, the state itself was coming into existence in our contemporary sense of the term. So take the British East India companies an example. Here it is the first almost modern kind of corporation. You bought shares in it and so forth and so on. And they were given the right, the monopoly right, to trade in the case of the, the East India company to trade in India and in places in between.
Mike 26:48 What that meant was not simply that they went out and found merchants with whom to trade British goods for Indian goods or British goods for Chinese goods. They went out and started colonies. They, they, they, they originally, these, uh, they would go out and establish a factory. Now this is very interesting. The word factory that we use today usually implies a, you know, if you use your imagination, it’s a very large building with big machines and boilers and this and that and lots of people going around and lots of sounds. But the word factory actually originally came from the word to factor, mainly to count. So what they did, they, they, they established a place, a counting house where their accountants would count the goods that are coming in and count the goods that were, were going out and eventually they began to actually grow goods to buy.
Mike 27:45 So for example, uh, the East India Company, um—in those days, by the way, the dominant economic idea was that the more gold you got, the richer you were. You didn’t want to trade, you wanted to accumulate gold. So you had to find some kind of product they could sell in return for gold or some way, some way of doing trade like that. So, uh, eventually they decide they’re looking around for what they can sell. Now here you are, I’m just gonna use this one example. Here’s India. It’s a very hot and humid country and England is cold and foggy and dismal. As we all know. Maybe once a year the sun shines. So the British like to dress in woolens, but quite obviously woolens aren’t going to solve very well in India. There’s not much in fact that the British had at that time to sell in India.
Mike 28:46 But there was stuff they wanted to buy, um, and uh, like tea. So they buy tea and then eventually of course tea becomes a habit and it’s very interesting to notice. Tea gets starts to be drunk in England. Today we think it’s an ordinary old, ancient English practice. It isn’t. It starts with the East India Company, really, and they bring tea for me and then they have to begin cultivating tea. So they begin to hire people to cultivate lands and they begin to take over these lands. And eventually the company begins to establish a government over the lands and the people that are making tea leaves or growing tea leaves… and it goes on and on. And this monopoly becomes an alternative state. And this is what happened in India with the East India Company. So we talk in history for example, about the, about the Opium Wars with China. First Opium War, Second Opium War, Third Opium War. Those were Wars between the East India Company and China. Between—it’s as if General Motors went to war with China, right? But of course, that’s unthinkable today. And that’s my point, is that it was these huge companies that were rivals of the state.
Mike 30:03 So eventually by the middle of the century, the state progressively in Europe begins to dissolve these countries, revokes their charges, their charters, and begins to establish their sole power over the economy in order to buttress that, in order to buttress the, the, um, the idea that this economic activity is not the same kind of activity as governing, to separate out, as it were. I’m oversimplifying very much, but I think there’s a truth here. In order to separate out the political and military from the economic activity, you begin to develop an idea of a discipline of economics, which has no claim to state power.
Mike 30:51 So economics tells you how to run the economy. It has nothing to do with the state. And as, and as time goes on, the discipline of economics emerges as a distinctive discipline from quote “political economy.” Political economy is a perfect way of thinking about the development of the state power.
Greg 31:10 Wait, so, so what is helpful about separating them out?
Mike 31:13 Because it changes the way you divide the power of the world up. So, for example, I don’t, I want to, I want to develop a way of thinking about the world in which trade is no longer the basis for state power. East India Company combines political power, economic power and state power in one kind of activity and one institution, right? But when the state, the British state, a French state begin to emerge and separate out the political from the economic, there’s a great need to reconfigure the world in terms of knowledge so that I can say, wait a minute, you’re economic, you shouldn’t be straying over into the political.
Greg 31:59 So it’s to retain, it’s for the actual states to retain some kind of power—
Mike 32:04 Or to oversee or buttress its, its, its acquisition of more power, right? To concentrate its power. Right. So let me, let me explore this a little bit further. Um,
if the experience at East India Company, which I think is extremely important here, if the experience of the East India company is holistic, that is to say, it incorporates politics and military, colonial, it went even further. They developed schools, education was part of it and so forth. And so on. They had their own school system to train people to be servants of the company. That’s a very different thing than being servants, right? So you have the East Indian Company developing its own civil service while at the same time the state is trying to emerge and it has its own need for civil servants and so forth. Um, I have to have a way of, of suggesting that the proper activity of that company is economic activity. What does that mean? That means that I can monopolize the concept of political or military in the quote “national state.”
Mike 33:23 And I can say your proper activity is to engage in economic affairs but not in government, not in military affairs. Now this is a very important thing to think about and I’ll tell you why in our day today, in this, in, in 2019, one of the characteristics that we find is a reversion of what I was talking about. There’s a tremendous privatization of public services going on. So what is happening in this new age of the corporation? And I think we need to at some future point talk about what are the characteristics of our contemporary age. Uh, what do we find happening? There was an—what we today call outsourcing—of um, prisons. So we are building private prisons all over the country. We’re turning over to private industry, what was for 150 years, the state power, namely to judge and incarcerate people. So we’re, we’re, we’re separating out the judgment of people, which is still a state function, from the incarceration of people.
Mike 34:31 Which is becoming a private industry, given the power of the private industry, there seems to be statistically, maybe, I’m not going to state this as a fact, it’s a vague impression. There seems to be the possibility that maybe more people are getting convicted, especially from certain classes, because having built prisons, there’s a certain pressure to fill the prison cells. We’ve got huge prisons. You know, the question is not that suddenly we have 3 or 4 percent of our population, suddenly become criminal; it’s that we have a need for criminals, right? For imprisoning them. So similarly, military affairs, one of the things that’s happened in the last decade or two has been an outsourcing of military activities. Think of how long and how difficult the struggle was for the state to acquire a monopoly over military power. Right. One of the things that marks the end of feudalism and the rise of capitalism and therefore the rise of the state is the fact that the feudal lords could no longer maintain their own private armies.
Mike 35:48 This was a very interesting point in what in—in Hegel, the great German philosopher—in his phenomenology of right, or phenomenology of law, depending on how you translate the title—is that the Prussian state is the first modern state because the Prussian King succeeded in bringing together under his rule the military authority. No longer was it dispersed among all the feudal princes. In 1947 on the, on the shores of Palestine, there was a conflict, an armed conflict between the semi-official army of the not-yet-born Jewish state and the semi-official army of one of the right-wing Zionist movements. And the whole point about that conflict on the beach in what was then Palestine was the argument by David Ben-Gurion who was going to be the first prime minister a few months later that the state had to have a monopoly of power. It could not allow another political movement to have military power. Here we are today now in, in, in, in the, in the, you know—well into the 21st century and we find more and more outsourcing. That is, the privatization of what was long fought for and namely the concentration in the state of military power or police power. So those are examples and they’re very important examples to tell us about where we’re going at this moment as a society.
Greg 37:21 All right.
Mike 37:24 Once you, so that’s the power story. We see that happening. So to go back to the question of knowledge, the idea that the economy is a separate realm of activity, it’s a separate domain. It’s different from politics, is that knowledge component of this general shift in society, in, in the governance of society that is taking place with capitalism. We have to, we have to say, yes, you can engage in trade. That’s economic, that’s in the economy. This is—it becomes very interesting. Does the, does the state control the economy or not? Now back in the middle ages, regardless of what reading back into time of our contemporary arrangements may be, but back in the middle ages, um, the economy and the, and, and, and political power were one in the same thing. You know, when thinks about, uh, about the fact that the, uh, one of the, um, important struggles in the development of the British monarchy was to accumulate enough wealth to fight the wars in France and so forth and so on.
Mike 38:42 That had very important implications for taking over the church. You can even see the influence of this kind of thing on the, on, on religious history, uh, institutionally that the state is trying to accumulate wealth and power, right? Wealth is not a separate thing from power in those days. Today or about, pardon me… Capitalism in the 19th century, uh, lies over that issue. Wealth is an economic development, and whether wealth should have power or not is the conflict between democracy and capitalism. The whole impulse of democracy was and should be—perhaps it’s something to talk about—that wealth should not be power that the people should have power regardless of whether or not [they’re rich]. One person, one vote means that whether I’m poor or rich, I’m the same politically. In the economy, it’s the exact opposite. The more money I have, the more powerful I am. So we have separate ways of thinking about this.
Mike 39:49 We have a discipline of beacon of economics, which is about wealth and a discipline of political science, which is about power and how to govern ourselves. And there’s a struggle between these two. As I say, if wealth and economics are about, about wealth, if economics is about wealth and politics is today more and more about political science about democracy and how to sustain democracy, how to grow democracy, then there’s a separation between the economic activity, the economy; and political activity, the political system. Now we’re in another age. This is, we’re in the age of outsourcing what the state had accumulated over a lot of time and now reverting it to private control. So similarly, we’re in an age where the economy appears to have accrued to itself more power over the political system then democracy thinks is proper. And we talk about that a lot in one way or another in the news.
Mike 40:48 Part of that is a consequence of the fact that the way we look at the world separates economic power out from political power. And there’s a conflict there. I might well argue, and I’m not going to argue it, but I might, I’ll just throw this out as an idea to chew over. Maybe in a democratic socialist world we want to have a, um, a discipline of power in which we’re going to talk about power as such, regardless of whether it’s economic or political, we understand power is the ability of one person to force one other person or many other people to do what the first one wants. Right? And we can at that sociologically and anthropologically, and we can look at it economically and politically, but it’s a discipline in and of itself, if you understand what I’m trying to get at. Yeah. So the disciplines play a key role in supporting the economic and political system of capitalism. In a non-capitalist society, the disciplines might need to be rethought.
Greg 41:56 Right. Yeah. So it seems like there’s two distinct things here. If we start out with just the importance of history, and you could, if you just think about it as a, as a particular discipline, that universities have history departments and maybe students—
Mike 42:12 Which today we have separated out, right?
Greg 42:16 Right. So there’s the importance of the past for our present situation and the crises we face. But then you’re also saying that the discipline of history as being divided out will not get us to a vision of the past. That’s useful. That this, that the holistic, more holistic vision, the political economy approach to the past is, is an important part of it.
Mike 42:39 History originally was also a part of political economy. There was one social science, right? But now, but we have to rethink it from that point of view. So the reason why history is a wonderful vantage point from which to think about these problems again is because it isn’t tied into one discipline. Right? History has the potential, the potential to be all of these disciplines into one I can bring to bear. Right? So Henry Kissinger wrote a great book on history. That’s, and it was through the study of history that he arrived at his concept of the balance of power, the balance of chair… I mean really it was the, it was in, no, I think that what gave Kissinger the ability to come up with a view of the world that allowed us in the midst of the Cold War to keep the peace through a balance of terror was that he had studied history and understood how these processes worked. Right?
Greg 43:38 Yeah. So, but, but, uh, um, that makes sense. And so still, I think there’s two separate helpful points. One is the, the usefulness of the past, of studying the past, but, but I think also you’re saying that even if one is looking at present problems, they’re obscured by the division of disciplines that were presented with the present problems. And we need to think holistically, even in the moment.
Mike 44:07 And we take care of that problem in two ways. That’s exactly right. In my opinion, we take care of that problem in two ways, but we see the, these two things as problems rather than as symptoms of, of, of, of, of a cause. Number one, we talk about unintended consequences. That’s a very common idea, right? Um, I do, uh, I do X and it has this unintended consequence. I couldn’t have thought of that consequence because nothing in my, in my toolbox led me to think about it. Of course, my toolbox is limited to economics, right? Which is the weakness of economics and why it’s failing. Uh, the other way we try to get at it is by hybrid disciplines. Um, many universities engage in that practice. Um, we’re going to bring biology together with earth sciences or together with plant sciences or something like that. So you can, uh, it’s really quite interesting. You can study human biology as, we do that in some schools by the way which is something new, that’s a new discipline! Human biology, which doesn’t mean the biology of the human body—that’s our kind of hybrid between traditional biology and what we call environmental studies. Of course, it ends up becoming for many people pre-med. Like it has practical implications. But the point is there is no discipline of human biology. There’s no discipline in which, let’s say, here we are. Yeah, let me, let’s use this. Here we are facing the only real crisis. Everything else being secondary. The only real crisis we face today is the environmental crisis. It’s fine to talk about all these other issues, but the question really will be within whether in 150 or 200 years we’ll be walking around with gas masks or able to walk around at all.
Mike 46:15 Right? We are approaching the environmental question today from an economic point of view, a political point of view, taxes. We don’t have a discipline which allows us to understand how all of these are subsets of a single issue that we have to look at, right? So hardly anybody today is talking about what kind of institutional changes do we need to make in society in order to deal with the environmental crisis. My favorite example, you’ve heard me say this many, many times, many people say this, I cannot imagine the citizens of California voting to voluntarily give up their automobiles for any reason at all, right? So we hope that we can find the technology able to produce automobiles that don’t pollute, right? But that’s not a guarantee yet because electricity also ends up being costly in many ways. Uh, we don’t have the capital, even if we could know how to do it, technically, we don’t have the capital to build environmentally harmless public transportation. Moreover, the, the forms of human habitation that have been developing over the last 150, 200 years, huge sprawling cities are not such that allow us the kind of transportation environment which could be solved by public transportation. Right? Right. And so forth and so on. So I think that that, that part of the crisis is that we don’t have the disciplinary structures to ask the right questions.
Greg 48:15 Yeah. Well, so if you take that particular problem that you just laid out on the table, where, where would a change start to take place? Is it…
Mike 48:26 Well, that’s one reason I said before, number one, if I look at history, I find that there have been great cases in which people have taken nature and changed it. The fact that we can change nature, we are not—the recognition that we’re not victims. So this is very important. The distinction between man and nature today, to be politically correct, human beings and nature is written deep into the thought and the intellectual practice of say, Western culture. Uh, we have a very nice, uh, romantic view of say Chinese traditional thought or Native American traditional thought, where people saw themselves as part of nature. That’s very nice. We need that, that romanticism to survive. But nonetheless, um, all of capitalism was built on the initial recognition that man and nature were engaged in a titanic struggle with each other and that man could marshal mankind, could marshal humankind, could marshal its forces to overcome nature and turn nature to its use. Right? That’s what capitalism does. Capitalism no longer works with nature. Capitalism says we’re independent of nature and I can take from nature what I need and convert it into a car or whatever, right?
Mike 50:01 Yeah. So I can make new things out of old things, out of nature. Today we’re in the exact opposite position. We need to be in the exact opposite position, but we don’t have a way of thinking about that. We have all kinds of romantic writing about communing with nature, being one with nature, Gaia. I mean it’s amazing what romantic images we can cough up about that. The question is what is institutional, political, economic, et cetera, requirements for us to begin to work with instead of against nature, right? Quite obviously, for example, the idea of private property, which is a relatively late development and we can talk about that at some point, but upon which capitalism rests, right? Right. This is no longer the feudal world of the West where God controlled everything and the King had power from God and the feudal Lords and so forth and so on. This is a world in which I have my own private property and God had better not step on it or else I’ll, I’ll accuse him of being trespassing. So can we sustain the idea of private property in our present sense in the face of the environmental crisis, right.
Mike 51:21 That’s a fundamental issue. A very daunting, very daunting issue. I’m not saying don’t—please never even get the idea that I think I have any ideas about solutions. I want to raise these issues. We take private property for granted, maybe we have to start asking, private property… I could argue private property is stealing from God. Right? Proudhon, a great French socialist, a utopian socialist, said, well property is theft, but theft from whom? From God. From you. Right, right. You understand what I’m trying to say? Yeah. So there’s a kind of question, you know, let’s not talk about how to manage private property. Let’s start talking about do we have the right to private property? Can we in fact sustain the idea of private property in the face of a global crisis that we’re facing environmentally?
Greg 52:16 Which just to circle back around then I think illustrates pretty well the value of studying history. Because if you’re trying to imagine a new way—
Mike 52:24 Not only that, but I can prove to you historically that private property didn’t always exist! And the fact that it didn’t at a certain point exist means that it’s also possible for it not to exist now. That’s exactly the point. Yeah.
Greg 52:40 Well, good. Uh, we’re at what is becoming a norm for us of about 45 minutes, 50 minutes. Does it seem like a good place to pause? And do you know what we’ll head to next?
Mike 52:53 No.
Greg 52:54 Well, we’ll figure it out in the meantime. So, uh, thanks for joining us, everybody on, uh, A Shareable World with big Mike. See you next time. [Outro] Thanks for listening to another episode of A Shareable World. To find out more about this podcast, visit us at ashareableworld.com.