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Dialectical materialism

May 26th, 2013
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Philosophy is unavoidable. Without it, you can’t interpret the world. Like a computer with no operating system, you can’t process input. If you say you don’t have a philosophy, what you mean is, you don’t think about your philosophy. Or you try to act randomly. But you have to see the world some way.

 

The philosophy of Marxism is dialectical materialism. The basic principle of dialectical materialism is: everything that physically exists is in a process of uninterrupted change.

 

As far back as 500 BC the Greek Heraclitus said “you could not step in the same river twice, for new water would be upon you.” But it wasn’t until the 19th century that science showed how general this principle is. Before then, people thought that animal and plant species were eternal; but the theory of evolution proved that they come, go, and change. Before then, people thought that the elements, like carbon, hydrogen, and so on, were separate and static; but scientists proved that the elements can be transformed into each other by the addition or subtraction of subatomic particles.

 

You don’t need a scientist to tell you, that everything that exists is changing. Everybody uses this understanding in their daily lives. If you have an orange today, you don’t count on having it in a month. Our own bodies change uninterruptedly.

 

Try to think of something that has a physical existence, but does not change. We all know that musical records become scratched and degraded over time, and likewise compact discs. But what about an mp3 stored electronically? That too exists in the real world. It is a collection of magnetic charges on a hard disk, subject to the effects of time.

 

Similarly, ideas physically exist in our brains, as neural connections and electro-chemical impulses. This material basis means that our ideas are always also changing, as neurons fail or are re-purposed, brain chemistry changes with age, new experiences cause us to consciously or unconsciously alter old thoughts, and so on. Anybody can recognize this because everybody knows what it is to forget something.

 

What does the basic principle, that everything that physically exists is in a process of uninterrupted change, tell us? Why is it useful?

 

The most fundamental law of classical logic is the law of identity, that A = A, an object equals itself. But if the object physically exists, then it is changing, and in fact it does not equal itself. The only way it could exactly equal itself, would be if it were considered in an instant, a zero of time, but all things that exist in the world exist in time.

 

You see immediately that dialectical logic has a different attitude than classical logic. While classical logic is designed for things without physical existence, metaphysical things that can be taken out of time, dialectical logic is oriented toward the materially existing universe.

 

Of course, A = A is not without value in the material world. We use it all the time. Without the ability to identify and categorize things, we’d be hopeless. But the question is, what do we mean when we say A = A. For instance, when we buy a pound of sugar, we recognize that the bag we are buying is not exactly one pound. It is not grain for grain identical to every other bag on the shelf. But it is more or less as good as any other pound bag. We think of them the same. A = A, not because they are actually equal, but because they are close enough.

 

A only equals A within certain limits. In other words, if too much sugar has leaked from the bag, we no longer forgive its variation from other bags. While classical logic operates with fixed abstractions: free market, a pound of sugar, etc., presuming that a free market is equal to a free market, a pound of sugar is equal to a pound of sugar, etc., dialectical materialism analyses all things in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions the critical limit beyond which A ceases to be A.

 

Taking as its starting point, the principle that everything that physically exists is in a process of uninterrupted change, dialectical materialism tries to develop ways of understanding this process of change, in general.

 

The reason dialectical materialism is called dialectical, is because the main pattern in change is called the dialectic. Its three components, called the Hegelian triad, are thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis. These refer to a thing, an opposing thing, and a resolution. Basically, the dialectic recognizes that, while a metaphysical logical system does not permit contradictions, life is filled with oppositions that can be called “contradictions,” and that a natural course for change is in the resolution of these contradictions. Through interacting with opposites, things are changed, and eventually may not even remain opposites – that is what synthesis describes.

 

For example, say Jenny’s husband Rick has cheated on her, and she found out and is upset. At this point, from the viewpoint of classical logic, one might simply say, “Jenny has an unhappy marriage. Her husband is a cheater.” But dialectical materialism would see it differently. There is a contradiction between Jenny’s marriage to Rick and her expectation of what marriage means. This contradiction will resolve into a synthesis. Jenny will either divorce Rick, or she will forgive him, or she will learn to live with him without forgiving him. The synthesis will be a new relationship between the two. It is insufficient to simply say that Jenny has an unhappy marriage with Rick, because what Jenny and Rick have is a relationship that, like everything else, changes uninterruptedly.

 

Another pattern of change is the change of quantity into quality. This describes how quantitative changes sometimes cause qualitative changes. For instance, the temperature of water is a quantitative variable. Between 0 degrees and 100 degrees Celsius water remains water. But at 100 degrees Celsius, a qualitative change takes place – water boils and transforms into steam.

 

Evolution is another example of the change of quantity into quality. Through time, mutations may accumulate in a genome. At some point, these mutations become sufficient that the creature constitutes a new species. A quantitative variable, mutations, at a certain point causes a qualitative change, of species.

 

Dialectical materialism is the study of material things in their unceasing change. Its logic is the logic of change. Classical logic is useful for a snapshot, a static state, a zero of time. Dialectical materialism lets us see a motion picture.

 

Dialectical materialism is a philosophy and a form of logic, but these are only valuable in so far as they are a guide to action in the real world. Our brains subconsciously use dialectical materialism constantly. When we turn on the hot and cold taps in the shower at the same time, we understand that the opposites will synthesize to a desirable temperature. When we add items into a grocery bag, we know that at some point if we add more weight the bag will break. But what about conscious application of dialectical materialism to problems more complex than having a good shower?

 

The key idea of dialectical materialism is that life is a motion picture, not a photograph.

 

It is a common error, to look at an instant in time, and to consider that instant the true and eternal state of the universe. For instance, a white slaveholder in the US South in 1820 might have looked around, and decided that slavery would last forever. They would proceed to invent all kinds of rationalizations for why slavery must be – blacks are inferior and must be subjugated because they cannot run their own lives; it is impossible to produce cotton profitably without slave labor; blacks committed Biblical sin and God has decreed their servile status, and so on. These are falsehoods based on the false idea that what is, must be and always will be. Dialectical materialism would instead begin from the premise that the social relation of slavery is based on the material world, that its basis is in a state of uninterrupted change, and that it will change qualitatively at some point. The start would be to look at the social and economic contradictions – between slave and master, slave labor and free labor, the Imperial and colonized countries, the industrial north and the rural south, etc.

 

Another error is to take two things that, based on superficial characteristics and considered in an instant, appear similar, and say they are the same thing. In nature, numerous animals take advantage of this error, like octopi who make themselves appear as the ocean floor. The fish doesn’t realize the difference, gets too close, and is consumed. Too late it learns that things that look the same need not be the same.

 

A human example of this mistake: some political commentators in the 1930s thought that the USSR and Nazi Germany were the same thing – bureaucratic collectivism. They compiled lists of similar features, including secret police, state repression, state involvement in the economy, and non-elected leaders. The error is thinking that such a list is an actual argument. One can easily create these lists. For instance, one could say of France and the USSR in the 30s, that both were run by people calling themselves socialists, both were afraid of Hitler, and both had experienced revolutions overthrowing and executing their monarchs. But the question isn’t of lists of supposedly unchanging features, it is how to understand origin, significance, and direction. In other words, to understand what something is one has to understand it through time. Over time, the octopus is easy to distinguish from the ocean floor.

 

Dialectical questions to ask are: what is the historical origin? What is the material significance? What changes have occurred? What is the direction of the changes? Have the changes passed from the quantitative stage to the qualitative? How might they?

 

These questions can be asked of anything. In the case of the USSR and Nazi Germany, even the first one would start establishing the major differences between the countries – one born from a workers’ revolution, the other a power grab facilitated by the elite.

 

Dialectical materialism exposes errors that stem from an idealized and static world-view. It sees that everything is in flux, in process, multi-sided and dynamic. It does not provide a mystic master key to the universe – that is the realm of idealist metaphysics, not things existing in the real world. Rather, it provides a mental arsenal for interpretation and understanding, one that, like everything else, is not fixed, but changing, adapting to new circumstances and incorporating new information.

UCSF PR

May 26th, 2013
posted by

On May 20th, the following email came into my inbox:

UCSF email

It actually seems extremely innocuous– I see no judgment positive or negative about the strike, the workers, or the employer– and I would imagine most people deleted this email without any further thought; but my interest in the relationship between workers and employers caused me to hesitate with my mouse over “delete,” and then click on the “for more information” link. Which brought me to:

UCSF p1

UCSF p2

[Source]

What do you see in this posting? Note that the address of this site is ucsf.edu but also /news. The one suggests that it could be a site with the opinions and official messages of the UCSF organization; the other suggests that it might include some form of journalism and information. The article itself proves to be entirely in the camp of UCSF propaganda.

The first four paragraphs actually do offer some basic facts, which is either laudable or very tricky, setting a tone that may cause a reader not to notice when the piece switches to offering a bunch of UCSF public relations messaging of dubious honesty. Starting with the fifth paragraph, you can notice many phrases such as “UC officials say” and “the University said” and “UC believes” as well as an extensive quote from the Chancellor and the CEO. Further down we are treated to two more direct quotes from the CEO. Meanwhile the entire two pages have not a single quote, sentence, contention, or statement of the position or thoughts of any of the striking workers or their union. This in itself should be enough to make it clear that this article was created by someone in the UCSF public relations department, not a journalist.

Now that we’ve understood that, let’s quickly look at the level of honesty of these folks.
“UC has proposed a total compensation package that includes competitive wages, excellent medical and retirement benefits, and good working conditions.” This sentence is given without any “someone says” to it– as if this were a statement of fact itself. I am certain that the workers involved would disagree, and I am equally certain that the workers would be correct. They would not be striking if this statement were true; and also there are almost no organizations in the U.S. that offer such a package to their workers.

Now let’s get to a very important verbiage, the claim about the sticking point of the negotiations: “[AFSCME’s] refusal to agree to urgently needed pension reform” in the face of “UC is enacting substantive pension reforms to help the University address a 24 billion pension fund liability.” Look at that language: “help” and “liability” are designed to create an ‘oh, poor University’ feeling. The University has this horrible problem visited upon it, and its workers are refusing to help in its hour of need. But liability is just a fancy word for the fact that a certain amount of money has already been promised– as part of the workers’ compensation for work they have already been doing for years!! Imagine someone buys a $10,000 car from you and says they will pay 2, 500 each quarter over the next year; after paying you $2,500, they then inform you that their “liability needs to be relieved” and suggests that you reduce payments to $1,000 for the ensuing three quarters. Would you feel bad for them, and see what you could do to help them? Or would you call them a thief, and demand they pay you what they promised? No wonder AFSCME “refuses to agree to any changes.” These “changes” are taking away money that they have already been promised for work they have already performed! And reading through this entire piece, the claim appears to be that the only dispute is over these pension reforms. So if you were thinking that the workers were greedy and lazy or that the Union was using its power to lord it over UC, be disillusioned: this labor dispute appears not to even have started with the workers asking for better wages, but with UC unilaterally demanding a lowering of their compensation.

In this light, a lot of the other statements in this piece come into question: “UC strives to treat all its employees fairly” and “UC believes AFSCME has not, in good faith, explored all options through bargaining.” UC wants to lower people’s agreed upon compensation, which should be a bizarre and unheard-of idea (though it’s unfortunately not), during a time of inflation, and for no good reason (none is given other than that they owe the workers money and don’t want to pay it); this hardly seems ‘fair.’ And what ‘options’ other than blank refusal would you want a union to explore in the face of an employer trying to renege on their agreement?

There are many other little quibbles you can discover in the language, uncovering truths, such as “the University of California has been working to negotiate a fair contract […] since June 2012.” This phrase suggests that only UC has been putting effort into it, while the other side has apparently not; or that UC strives for something fair while the other side does not. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance of negotiations and capitalism will suspect that UC’s goal was not a “fair contract” but rather the “cheapest contract.” But along with every little chance taken to valorize UC (always meant as a compliment to its top administrators and not to its employees), to laud its values, and to denigrate the Union, there is one major rhetorical concept: that AFSCME and the employees are threatening public health.

This is deliberately selected as a very grave charge against them; and of course for that charge to stick it has to be a contrast: the UC administration cares about patient outcomes as a top priority, while anyone considering a strike does not. This is one of the additional reasons why they keep hammering home “UCSF is a leading university,” “UCSF’s medical center ranks among the nation’s best hospitals,” etc.: to make the case that they care a great deal about the health care they provide. The accusation that stems from this is: “UC officials say a strike […] would pose an imminent threat to public health and safety;” and “UC considers it highly inappropriate for AFSCME to threaten patient care as a tactic in contract negotiations.” I wonder how many of the quoted top members of the administration would show up if their contracts were on hold (which they aren’t since they are in the comfortable position of setting these salaries for themselves)? I guess it would be fine though, as it would not represent a threat to public health and safety since they don’t actually contribute to health and safety in their jobs. Or imagine UC just completely stopped paying these workers: the same argument could be made that if they refused to show up because of that, they were endangering public safety, since we suddenly would not have operational health facilities. Basically, the argument is being advanced that because these particular workers are among those members of society who actually perform a critical function, they lose the most basic of rights to protect their time and labor from the bosses? The safety-blaming also misses the point that an agreement is always between two parties. The UC admins have effectively also been threatening public safety ever since they first started putting pressure on the pensions of health workers, since by threatening those workers’ livelihood they threaten the services they provide.

In another similar piece which I invite you to analyze more fully yourself if interested [Source], senior vice president John Stobo is quoted: “We will do everything possible to ensure the safety of patients at UC hospitals, and that will cost up to $20 million […]. But the real cost is the human one.” If the priority in Stobo’s mind was really patient outcomes, as these several propaganda pieces trumpet, would that not be the first cost he mentions? It seems to me, though this is certainly not proof, that he accidentally betrays the great twist in the plot: that the administrators by and large care more about money than about patient outcomes; while their employees and their union care more about patient outcomes than money. Here are a few fun facts: the 3 quoted administration members in these two articles are chancellor Desmond-Hellman, CEO Laret, and senior vice president Stobo. When she was hired in 2009, Desmond-Hellman’s starting salary was $450,000, plus incentive pay, benefits, relocation, housing, automobile, life insurance (Source). Laret’s base salary was adjusted to $1,222,000 in 2011, rising 100k each year to 1,522,000 in 2014, along with similar benefits and incentive pay (which it is noted may be about 20% of base salary; Source). Stobo started in 2008 with a base salary of $580,000, along with similar benefits, incentive pay, and an incredible $180,000+ to help him relocate (Source). Nowhere in any of the articles I saw on UCSF.edu/news was there any mention of the compensation cuts that any of these three health-lovers had volunteered for in order to help out with UC’s “liabilities;” but I am sure that, before becoming righteously incensed at AFSCME’s patient care employees, who earn a mean salary of $55,000 (Source), for refusing to tackle the problem of these liabilities, they must have taken some pretty drastic cuts themselves.

Addenda

As it had also in 2008, the last time AFSCME wanted to strike, the California Public Employment Relations Board granted the anti-strike injunction sought by UC.
[Source]

The whole exercise of this essay is quite important for the reason that almost all “news” you will see widely distributed nowadays is written by and for corporate interests; therefore, being able to ‘read’ them is an important skill.

A People’s Media Takeover?

May 18th, 2013
posted by

Last night a friend showed me this activism attempt, thinking it might be something I’d be into. You can go watch the video if you like, for those who don’t here’s the idea: there is a large media company up for sale, and two current bidders for it– Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers. Whichever one controls it, this media company will continue to be an anti-human corporate trumpetpiece for a long time to come. To avoid this fate, we apply the idea of crowd-funding, raise 660 million dollars across millions and millions of humans, and put in a bid to buy the company, ensuring a pro-human media source. Certainly the concentrated corporate control of media is a major problem in America: ideas are power, and the larger the markets one company or individual is able to spread their ideas to, the greater the concentration of power. There’s plenty of evidence that this is already a serious problem in America; as one example compare the percentage of Americans who believe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and the percentage in other countries. While you shouldn’t trust polls too greatly the discrepancies are so great as to represent one indication of the power of misinformation. So yeah, two of the worst people in the world taking full control over a large media group is a very scary thing, and I fully sympathize with the instinct to want to take action against it.

But this is absolutely the wrong approach. You have to look to where you have some strategic strength if you want to win a battle. In general human populace v. Koch brothers, our advantage is certainly not the size of our collective wallet– in fact wealth is their only advantage. Though I did go and check and find that the bottom 60% of America does have more wealth than the Koch brothers (they only own about as much as the bottom 40%), it’s not feasible for us to deploy all our wealth towards this end: that would entail giving up our homes, furniture, food, clothes, etc. I don’t think it’s practical for us to get into a bidding war with the Kochs or any other super rich or corporations. Even if it were, it would be neglecting all of our strengths in order to fight on our weakest terrain– gutsy but stupid, if you actually care about winning. And as an example of how well auctions are going for us, consider the sale of hundreds of politicians over the last couple decades: how many of them did normal Americans manage to nab with tons of small contributions, and how many did the rich and corporations get?

The most obvious thing we have over the Kochs is human numbers, and human capital. There’s probably not very much they know how to do. We on the other hand have a mind-boggling array of skills. We know how to write, to edit, to research, to format, to operate printing presses, to bike local routes and deliver papers, to talk to people, to analyze, to make moral choices, and the list goes on. In fact, we have all the skills and manpower to operate a media company. Which ought to remind us…. that the media company already belongs to those who do the work. They just need to take control over their own lives. Whether the Kochs “own” the company or whether it’s Oaktree Capital, Angelo Gordon & Co, etc. as now or the other bidder Murdoch, the employees and customers of The Tribune can always reclaim the true ownership of the company very easily by this simple realization.

Stop giving any of your money to any of these bosses. Do your work as before, without the financial entanglements that have been imposed on you. Do it for the sake of journalism. The people will give money and support for the workers. If you find this unimaginable it’s actually very simple; just try to imagine it! For example, the workers could all quit their jobs, start a cooperative, and then continue doing the exact same work, with all their customers transferring their subscriptions. If the Koch brothers first spend 660 Million before the company evaporates in one day, all the funnier.

Now of course any such action would require a bunch of planning and organization. I don’t want to give the false impression that the emancipation of humanity will ever be easy or depend on a single action, but just to remind us to think strategically about how to win. Remember, to win: know your strengths and your weaknesses; they are the weaknesses and strengths of your opponents. And also, to win: think exactly those thoughts that you have been conditioned to find unthinkable; learn a new habit that every time you start censoring a suggestion out of hand, you stop, and review that idea. Winning!