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“Who Are You to Say?”

“Who Are You to Say?”

By Dennis Loo (9/22/14)

Part 2 added late 9/22/14 and 9/23/14

This question - “who are you to say?” - gets posed, either explicitly or implicitly, fairly frequently by at least some, if not many, people in retort to those who seek to lead others in political change. “I have my own views. Who are you to say what’s right or wrong? I will do my thing and you do your thing. It’s all good.”

In the US where individualism and “personal choice” are highly valued by the dominant (mass) culture, the idea that anyone would challenge the notion that everyone’s opinions are all equally valid – or at least, depending upon what company you keep, the views that are most common among your chosen political persuasion - strikes many people as at best rude and at worst the views of someone you should avoid.

Who are you to say that evolution is true? Who are you to say that intelligent design is hogwash? Who are you to say that climate change is a dire emergency and not a hoax or an exaggerated response to “adverse” weather? Who are you to say that voting is worse than a waste of time? Who are you to say that your views are scientific/right/true and that (some) others’ views are not?

I have been thinking about this question especially as we enter a period in which the question of revolution or attempts at reform are front and center worldwide. It’s a measure of the accelerating and radical nature of events that the question of reform or revolution is on the table. That is how the question, at least, is posed among progressive minded and radical/revolutionary minded people.

Among those of the political Right, the questions are very different: how widely do we extend the net of those we consider terrorists? What, if any, of the Bill of Rights do we keep beyond the Second Amendment? How openly can I use racist/sexist language and when do we get to stop apologizing for it?

Just to pick one example regarding the reform or revolution question, here are the concluding lines from an OpEd News headlined article (“Moving From Protest to Action” by Dave Ewoldt) today:

The democratic sovereignty of the people will not be regained until one of two things happen--violent revolution or replacing the politicians who adhere to Industrial ideology with those who realize the gains that can be made by adopting a paradigm grounded in the cooperative networks of life itself. Otherwise we're going to end up exactly where we're headed, and the collapse of life on Earth as the 6th Major Extinction winds down will make all the rest of this moot.

Now, there are a number of things in his thoughtful piece that I agree with, but I must raise the question here when he says that the “democratic sovereignty of the people [must] be regained,” when was it the case that the people had democratic sovereignty in the US? You cannot regain something you never had in the first place. You cannot successfully lead people to overcome the disastrous trajectory of events if you are clinging to deeply erroneous understandings of what you and they face and what needs to be done about it.

The very breadth of the participants in the huge Climate March yesterday in NYC and many other cities around the world indicates the diversity of views that are being brought to bear on the question of what exactly will be necessary to stem the spreading climate catastrophe. “What will it take?” people are asking, or at least the more inquisitive and serious minded people are asking this. If you’re not addressing yourself to that question and think that the usual “solutions” – for example, voting for people who sound more like what you want – then you have not yet recognized the catastrophe’s magnitude and you’re not responding commensurate to the grave danger the planet faces.

Here is how a NYT article yesterday (September 21, 2014) ends:

The nations of the world have agreed to try to limit the warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which would require that emissions slow down and then largely stop in the next 30 years or so. If they continue on their present course through the century, scientists say, the earth could warm by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit above the preindustrial level, which would likely be incompatible with human civilization in its current form. (Emphasis added).

“[I]ncompatible with human civilization in its current form.”

Did I just read that in The New York Times?

Here are the pointed words of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA on this question of “who are you to say?”:

Who are you to say how society can be organized, what right do you communists have to dictate what change is possible and how it should come about? These questions are essentially misplaced and represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of historical development—and the possible pathways of change—in human society as well as in the material world more generally. This is akin to asking why birds cannot give birth to crocodiles—or why human beings cannot produce offspring that are capable of flying around the earth, on their own, in an instant, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and having x-ray vision that can see through solid objects—and demanding to know: Who are you to dictate what can come about through reproduction, who are you to say that human offspring will have particular characteristics and not others? It is not a matter of “who are you” but of what the material reality is and what possibilities for change actually lie within the—contradictory—character of that material reality. The point here is twofold:

For the first time in the history of humanity, the material conditions have come into being that make possible the final abolition of relations of domination, oppression, and exploitation; and the theoretical understanding to guide the struggle toward that goal has been brought into being on the basis of drawing from the material reality, and its historical development, that has brought this possibility into being.

At the same time, this world-historic transformation of human social relations can only come about on the basis of proceeding from the actual material conditions and the contradictions that characterize them, which open up this possibility but which also embody obstacles to the achievement of this radical social transformation; and it requires a scientific understanding of and approach to these contradictory dynamics—and the leadership of an organized group of people that is grounded in this scientific method and approach—in order to carry through the complex and arduous struggle to achieve this transformation through the advance to communism throughout the world.

Continuing on this course of plunder and destruction of the environment will make life on this planet either impossible (for many species) or unrecognizable. This is not hype but the reality. These are not problems down the road somewhere but something happening in real time right now.

There is a solution to these problems.

When I say that there is a solution I’m not talking about some panacea in the sense that something simple can be done that will quickly get rid of all contradictions and difficulties and challenges. I am not talking about something that will be easy at all or something that a few condescending saviors can do for everyone else and that does not involve larger and larger masses of people taking up the mantle of responsibility for changing the world. I am talking about understanding and acting on the understanding that systems govern our lives and that without systems we cannot live, and that systems have an inherent logic to them that results in a certain constellation of outcomes. The problem isn’t “human nature.” The problem is capitalism and imperialism. Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism and is a direct and inevitable product of the operating logic and nature of capitalism.

Capitalism-imperialism is the economic system that rules the world today. As such it organizes the economy, the political arena, and the larger society, according to a certain logic: profit over everything else, including the viability of the planet itself. Some people ask: "Don't those who are destroying the planet realize that their relentless pursuit of profit is destroying the earth? Don't they realize that this can't continue?" Well, no, they don't realize this anymore than a vulture can try to stop eating carrion because it's so nasty and start eating grass.

No other evidence of capitalism's essential nature need really be offered beyond the simple fact that it refuses to stop and is incapable of stopping the heedless use of fossil fuels that is literally destroying the planet. As a number of people pointed out in their signs yesterday in NYC: “There is no Planet B.” Yet those in political and corporate authority in the US, China, India, Russia, and elsewhere, refuse to act in recognition of this fact.

Those who do not act and/or who act based on an incorrect understanding of the fact that we are confronting a system and that the only way to save the planet and all of its denizens is to overthrow that system and replace it with a new system that is based on social and environmental needs rather than profit – i.e., genuine socialism and eventually real, not phony, communism (classless society) - are at the very least, not part of the solution but part of the problem. I say this not because the solution means that everyone has to see things the way I see them. The way forward involves lots and lots of discussion and debate. It will not do to dictate to people (say this is a robotic voice) "you must see things this way." The pursuit of truth must involve and always will involve a lot of discussion and debate. But the essence of this process is the pursuit of truth in a changing universe, not the debate per se. Debate is the means, not the end. The end is the goal of finding out increasingly what's true so that you can act increasingly in correspondence with it.

Anyone or any organization that says that "what we say you may not challenge and debate" is very wrong and you should stay away from them. If you're interested in the truth, then you fear no honest debate and discussion and you in fact welcome disagreement because it's an opportunity to better discover what's true, for yourself and others. If what someone who criticizes you says is valid, in whole or in part, then it's good to hear because then you can improve, if what you want is the truth.

Part 2:

The question of truth and of (inevitably) differing opinions about what is true (including whether truth exists in the first place, and so on) is a complex question and deserves a great deal of attention and discussion. While the existence of diverse views is a) a fact, b) to be expected, and c) a good, not a bad, thing, it would be one-sided and incorrect to treat opinions as the be all and end all and not on the other side of it, recognize that not all opinions are equally correct since an objective world actually exists to measure different opinions against. Without objective reality as the ultimate criterion to determine truth, science, for one, would not and could not exist. The relation between truth and debates about what truth is and whether truth exists manifests itself in other ways such as the contradiction between leadership and the led and the tension between freedom and necessity. This requires some exposition.

By way of introduction to its complexity, see these excerpts from Globalization and the Demolition of Society.

If you are interested in the best ideas and plans prevailing in any given situation, then you are a) committed to group action, and b) committed to the idea that there is such a thing as truth. Why is this so? To begin with, if you do not care whether the best ideas and plans prevail and only care about what you as an individual do, then you aren’t interested in what the group does. Secondly, if you want the best ideas and plans to win out, then you also believe that an objective reality exists by which one can measure whether something is right, or approximately right, or at least on the right path. If you do not believe in these things, then all opinions and plans are equal because there is no independent criterion by which to measure whether one idea or plan is better than another.

Coercion and freedom from coercion are coexisting opposites: no freedoms exist without some level of compulsion attached to them. [Neoliberalism's godfather Frederick] Hayek’s stance makes as much sense as this: “I would like to jump into the air so as to be free of gravity without the nuisance of having to deal with the restraint of the ground.” You cannot jump into the air, however, without having the resistance of the ground to push against. Jumping into the air has no meaning and isn’t possible without the constraint of gravity. Necessity and freedom, in other words, make up antipodes of the same inescapable process. It is a process that will never cease. Necessities impose themselves on us regardless of whether we want to recognize them and regardless of who alerts us to their existence. The depiction of necessity as something that people arbitrarily impose on others does not conform to actuality.

Necessity and freedom are inseparable from each other just as sound and silence are opposite and necessary elements of the same process. Sound without silence is impossible, and vice versa. Light only has meaning in relation to darkness, and vice versa. Try to imagine what sound would be like if there were no silences in between the sounds. You cannot, because such a condition would be impossible. The letters you are reading on this page only exist and only make sense because of the white spaces in between the letters. If there were no white spaces then the page would be entirely black and impossible to read. Up has no meaning unless there is correspondingly a down. In has no meaning unless there is a corresponding out. The individual and the group are inseparable from each other since they are different aspects and expressions of the same dynamic or dialectic.

Coercion will never disappear in the sense that power over others will never entirely disappear as long as there are social groups. Social groups exist because there are a multitude of mutual expectations and obligations within the groups. Moreover, even if there were only one human being left on earth, there would still be compulsions that one person would have to abide by, even though there were no longer other people around to impose anything upon him or her.

Coercion in the sense of a government can and will someday disappear, but only after social classes are gone and there is no longer any division of labor and resources resulting in some being excluded from what others have in abundance. But even after government passes away, everyone will still be subject to the will of others. It is impossible, for one thing, to have unanimity, and where there is disagreement, some people’s opinions and preferences must perforce be subordinated to the opinion that holds the day, if people are to remain in groups at all. (Pp. 40-41)

Another way of thinking about this is that how society is organized is something that is not determined by individuals but by groups, in part by the inherited practices of those who precede your own individual existence and imparted to new generations by those that predate them. Human life is necessarily group life. To be human is not something that occurs simply due to having human DNA but something that must be taught. Human children become human beings through a process of learning and extended socialization, especially to group norms. Those unfortunate individuals who have not been raised as humans (e.g., wolves raised them or they were not treated as human but as no more than a dog) grow up to look like humans but lack certain requisites of humans such as full human speech. Thus, full human development requires by its very nature that coercion and freedom be treated not as antagonistic opposites but co-occurring opposites. If someone, for example, wanted to declare themselves "free" of the necessity of eating and sleeping, then they are free to do so, but such a freedom would result in their eventual demise.

Freedom is not the absence of necessity; it is based on the recognition of necessity. Paradoxically, the deeper one’s understanding of necessity, the more freedom one can express. Ignoring necessity, acting as if it does not exist, does not produce freedom; it produces disappointment at best and disaster at worst. If you are at the edge of a wide, deep river with a strong current, necessity dictates that to get across the river you need to understand either how to build a watercraft to ford the river or how to build a bridge. In either instance, necessity requires that you create a vessel or bridge that can stand up to the rigors it will confront. You are free to pretend that the river does not exist, and you can create a fanciful-looking but unstable bridge, but you will drown. Likewise, if you want to fly, you have to deal with the compulsions of gravity and learn the principles of aerodynamics, control and thrust. You cannot jump off a cliff and will yourself to fly. Building a bridge across a raging river and flying in the air are wonderful accomplishments that can only be achieved at the price of dealing with the strictures of necessity first. (p. 256)

Those who claim that all opinions are equal and that there is no way and no need to determine which opinions are closer to the truth than others do not actually operate this way in their daily lives. In order to function in the world you must treat material reality as such. You don't merely imagine or construct where you live, for instance, but treat where you live as a stable fact independent of your subjective consciousness.

If material reality exists, then distinctions must be made between different interpretations or understandings of what exists or else material reality (e.g., the greenhouse effect caused by burning fossil fuels) will slap you in the face, regardless of whether you want to recognize it or not. The question of material reality may be understood to include importantly within it the question of what is necessity relative to freedom. If you act as if there are no necessities and refuse to take necessities into account (e.g., global warming and ice caps melting due to it), then you are less free, not more free.

Related to the question of differing levels of understanding and abilities to operate in relation to material reality is the fact that some people's level of understanding about material reality (such as how systems operate, for example, how capitalism operates) is better than others. For example, if you are deathly ill you do not consult everyone at the hospital to get a majority opinion about what is wrong with you. You go to the best doctor that you can find to get his/her opinion. Here is where the question of leadership - in the more general sense - comes into play.

Groups cannot operate without group leaders. Without leaders groups are no more than aggregations of individuals. The strength of a group cannot be realized without organization, and organization means and requires leadership. For those who think that a division of labor with everyone adopting a specific task can eliminate the need for a hierarchy of leadership, I would point out that specialization involves some whose role in the division of labor involves leadership. Moreover, no group absent leadership can organize itself. Consensus policies, if taken to their logical ends, produce group paralysis because there will always be disagreements about what needs to be done. Someone eventually, given the inevitable dissensus, will have to make an executive decision. As anyone who has ever worked in a group knows, trying to please everyone results in pleasing no one. Leaders and the led operate in a dialectical relationship to each other, when handled properly. Leadership and the led exist as a unity of opposites; they co-occur, and one does not and cannot exist without the other. Contrary to those who argue against leadership and regard leadership as an imposition on the collectivity’s rights and powers, the collectivity cannot realize its greatest potential without leaders. To expect otherwise is naïve. The obverse of this is also true and self-evident: leaders do not lead in a vacuum. For the gap between leadership and the led to be overcome, the actual and material nature of this gap needs to be deeply understood and addressed rather than ignored.

The material roots of this gap grow out of the historic separation of mental from manual labor. Owing to their privileged access to information as well as networked connections to others in leading positions and experience in exercising leadership, mental laborers have advantages over manual laborers that cannot be undone overnight. These differences must be addressed systematically and in a protracted fashion to bridge and eventually overcome those differences. (Pp. 257-8)

Elaine Brower 2

Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12