Let’s see some optimism around here, eh?

Published online 28 July 2013.

This diary is of course a response to a previous diary, which was on the Rec List at Kos when I woke up Thursday morning.  “What happened to the energy of hope here at DailyKos?” AntonBursch said Thursday morning.  Of course, there was the follow-up diary on Saturday — but that one didn’t seem to add much to the first one.  Yeah, OK, some of us are motivated by hope, others by despair.  Focus on what we are saying in defense of our attitudes.

There is one obvious question begged by such diaries.  What, precisely, should we place our hope in?  Should we hope that Obama brings about paradise on Earth, when the electorate properly learns to hate Republicans and vote them out of office (presumably next year)?  Is Obama finally going to experience some pushback from the “Democratic Left” to the extent where he would actually improve his policy mix?  What, precisely, is going to happen to give us hope?  Should we hope that aliens descend from outer space as they did in Arthur C. Clarke’s classic (1953) novel Childhood’s End, and bring peace and utopia to humankind?

I can be persuaded otherwise, of course, but I don’t think that hope of the progressive, electoral variety will come to DailyKos.com until Markos adjusts his FAQ a bit.  “More and better Democrats” and “no promotion of third party candidates” have shown to be a good way of promoting the concept of “my party right or wrong” rather than of progressive hope.  (That may not have been the intention Markos had in setting out such rules, but it appears to be the result, and if there are still plenty of interesting things to be seen here at DailyKos.com, I’m not sure progressive hope is one of them.)  I’m not going to say more about this, because I don’t want it to distract from the main topic of this diary, which is to say, hope.

I have, in previous diaries here, contested the idea of progressivism itself.  The diary titled “Why I don’t claim to be progressive” contains my main argument.  Progressivism was a good thing in the Progressive Era, but in my view is not radical enough for this era, in which society is in fact regressing for lack of an alternative to a capitalist system which has claimed the world and is experiencing exhaustion at all levels.  Thus there remains the possibility that progressive hope may itself be an illusion for us and that what we need is a more radical hope, or at least a different sort of hope than that encompassed by progressivism.

In light of this possibility, then, I would like to suggest other species of hope — and below the fold I will attempt a preliminary investigation of what that hope would consist of.  Many of my observations are going to appear as side-notes upon first inspection — but what ties them together is a piece by a neural biologist, titled “Epigenesis, Brain Plasticity, and Behavioral Versatility: Alternatives to Standard Evolutionary Psychology Models” (Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture: eds. Susan McKinnon and Sydel Silverman).  My opinion boils down to this: I think that human beings, with their vast reserves of brainpower and versatility, are capable of figuring out how to manage their affairs without entirely screwing up life on the planet.

For those who haven’t read my diaries before, I’ll summarize briefly what it is I think we have to overcome with our hope. We need to deal with our threat to the ecosystems of planet Earth, which significantly means that we’ve got to mitigate global warming but also we need t deal with our species’ predatory behavior toward itself and toward its other living things.  In order to do this, we’ve got to overcome the division of humanity into social classes, and design something better than capitalism for our mutual sustenance.  There are of course all of the other divisions of the human race, but I think that there’s an important distinction to make between a simple recognition that people are different from each other (which itself shouldn’t prevent the application of humanistic standards in social relations) and the erection of barriers and problems of “foreign relations” between us and those “other” people.

At any rate, in the following analysis I will try to show that human beings are creatures of enormous potential, but that such potential has yet to be reconciled with the historical realities of human existence.  There is, however, hope for some sort of revolutionary unleashing of human hope and versatility, such as has been at points in time been put on display in recent uprisings (e.g. the Arab Spring, the uprisings in Latin America and Europe, the Occupy movement).

One of the main reasons we might experience an exhaustion of hope in today’s political climate is that progressive consciousness is itself constraining.  Its focus upon incremental reform and political realism tends to trap it in the hegemonic confinement with which “ordinary people” have to contend.  An example of how this works in actual practice might be the political concern with “jobs” so often heard in progressive quarters.  Sure, it’s important that the unemployed are granted “jobs,” and it’s bad not to have a steady income.  In a world in which immediate survival counts above all else, jobs are important.  Since the Reagan presidency, however, the Right has reframed the discussion such that the task of “job creators,” and thus the progressive concern with “jobs,” has been hijacked by the Right’s bias in favor of capital, and thus also of capitalism.  In this regard, some political writers (Harry Shutt for example) have suggested that the well-being of the working class, and not “jobs,” should be the real issue.  Shutt, however, is an anti-capitalist, and not a (mere) progressive, and thus not constrained by progressive consciousness.  This theme of expanded consciousness will continue to be reiterated below.

As regards political realism, it’s nice to consider, as Saul Alinsky does in “Rules for Radicals,” that “the basic requirement for the understanding of the politics of change is to recognize the world as it is” (p. 12), and to accept, as Alinsky did, that “political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, where morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self interest” (pp. 12-13).  There is a solid reality behind such pronouncements.

But if this “arena of power politics” is itself the “bad scene” that needs to be changed, then (if we are to follow Alinsky’s own method) we need to make an issue of political realism, and indeed of the political habits of the society that makes it into hegemonic truth.  Doing just this was the genius first of the Zapatista movement, and then of Occupy, and this genius appears to have made it (in some form or another) into the future of mass social action.  See, e.g. the transformative spirit of the movement for change going on now in Istanbul.

Total social transformation, then, stands outside of incrementalism, reform, “more and better Democrats,” and political realism as a possible realization of hope.  Per Alinsky, we start from where we are, but then we change our understanding of ourselves through a different view of the bigger picture.  In following the rapidity of communication and transportation in this era, this different view, this renascence of hope, is more likely today to come upon people rapidly, as opposed to slowly.

The problem with pessimism extends beyond progressive despair — the current vogue in intellectual fashion is also likely to produce more pessimism as regards the future.  Consider, for instance, the co-optation of the various “Left” belief systems by the “Third Way” — so, today, we have “Left” thinkers who do not call for economic justice.  Solutions proposed for “global warming” do not properly mitigate it.  Rather, numerous “global warming” publicists are telling us that if individual, petit-bourgeois consumers can be persuaded to reduce their “carbon footprints” by some small amount through a “cap-and-trade system” or a “carbon tax,” the owners of the fossil fuel reserves will magically pump less for everyone to burn.  Numerous forces wish to improve society and “save the Earth” without necessarily disturbing the economic and political status quo in the least.  The ultimate challenge for the mass movements which periodically interrupt business as usual, then, is to disturb not just society, but rather the hegemonic thinking which proclaims that all will be accomplished within, and only within, the status quo.  This is the environment in which “action for social change” is now advertised by organizations which belong to what Jane Hamsher calls the “Veal Pen.”  Raise your voice!  Be heard!  But don’t mess with the actual power structure, based as it is on social class, money, and property.  This, then, is the intellectual barrier to hope that needs surmounting.

One strand of an intellectual vogue which today calls itself “evolutionary psychology” (reminiscent of a previous trend calling itself “sociobiology”) promotes a line of thought which attempts to “pin down” human nature without regards to really-existing revolutionary elements within human nature itself.  Contrary to such efforts, neurobiologist Kathleen R. Gibson starts from these premises:

Creativity, versatility, and advanced learning capacities are primary hallmarks of the human mind. Our species inhabits six continents that encompass environments as diverse as the Arctic, the tropical rain forest, and the Australian outback. Individual humans routinely move between different climatic zones and cultures, and they readily adapt to the dramatic technological and social changes that now occur within individual life spans. Moreover, in less than ten thousand years, a mere blink of the eye in evolutionary terms, much of the human world has moved from a hunter-gatherer to a postindustrial lifestyle, all the while exhibiting such extraordinary reproductive success that our very numbers now threaten the planet.These accomplishments reflect the ability of humans, working individually or in groups, to devise novel solutions to new environmental challenges and to transmit these solutions to others through social learning processes. This human behavioral versatility stands in contrast to prominent evolutionary psychology models that posit that the human brain is neither a generalized learning device nor a generalized problem-solving device.

Gibson’s reasoning, then, is the foundation for what I myself would call “hope.”  Given what human beings fundamentally are, I think we can solve our social, economic, and political problems, daunting as they may seem.A hard look at what Gibson is proposing, in her short piece on neurobiology, is worth our time in this regard.  Gibson suggests three properties that human brains use to contribute to human versatility:

1) Neural plasticity: the human brain is not entirely a fixed entity, with specialized functions confined only to fixed spaces in the gray matter.  Rather, who we are is the result, even at the brain level, of our negotiation with our environments.

2) Epigenesis: a combination of environmental as well as genetic influences (rather than the genetic determination of instinct) determine brain function.

3) Mental construction: human brains differ from nonhuman brains in their ability to develop higher levels of reasoning — we are thus able to handle significantly advanced levels of thinking.

So if we have gotten this far, through our versatile brains and bodies, what would prevent us from going further, and using our versatility to “save the world”?  We might start by inquiring into other factors which contribute to human versatility:

1) nutrition: if 1/8 of the world’s human population suffers from “chronic undernourishment,” what (outside of the capitalist notion that all who want to eat must pay) stops world society from ending hunger?  Since human beings are importantly what they are through environmental stimuli, adequate nutrition will go a long way to ending the mental poverty of the human race.

In this regard, food charities, food stamps, and community gardens all have their function — though all of these can come together in an impromptu social custom called Food Not Bombs.

2) upbringing: perhaps the best starting place for reflections upon the connection between upbringing and versatility would be Annette Lareau’s “Unequal Childhoods,” which suggests that the main divide in differences in upbringing is between lower-class and middle-class children, and that the middle-class children are granted an advantage in life by virtue of an upbringing focusing upon “concerted cultivation.”  Lareau:

Organized activities, established and controlled by mothers and fathers, dominate the lives of middle-class children… By making certain their children have these and other experiences, middle-class parents engage in a process of concerted cultivation.  From this, a robust sense of entitlement takes root in the children.  This sense of entitlement plays an especially important role in institutional settings where middle class children learn to question adults and address them as relative equals.  (1-2)

As Lareau suggests at length in the second edition of Unequal Childhoods, “concerted cultivation” is a mechanism by which class privilege is handed down from parents to children.  “In schools especially, today’s institutional rules of the game require parents to be actively involved in order to maximize opportunities for their children.” (311)From the perspective advocated in this diary, two things stand out from Lareau’s analysis: a) the middle-class children have the advantage of a greater education in versatility, and b) the “institutional rules of the game” are in charge, and all classes follow them.

Thus you can see two advantages in the understanding of capitalist reality, one possessed by each class.  The lower classes are uniquely poised to see through capitalist fatalism, as it dooms them to futures of ongoing disadvantage; the middle classes can see the advantages of an education in versatility.  With everyone working to maximize human versatility we should be able, together, to get to a future containing some degree of hope.

Unfortunately, the standards and testing movement has reduced the concept of “education” to that of a transmission of facts and skills — but that’s just prep-work for privatization, for the drab, supposedly inevitable continuation of Homo Capitalisticus in the period of natural history that Jason W. Moore calls the “capitalocene.”  Standardized tests are not daunting for those with the resources to prepare for them, but that’s really beside the point.  Real education is about preparing people (especially children, but really anyone with any degree of neural plasticity) to take control of the collective future, keeping in mind Paulo Freire‘s aphorism: “The future does not make us.  We make ourselves in the struggle to make it.”  The sort of education I am recommending, then, falls within the purview of critical pedagogy.

3) diverse experience of the universe — and here it is important to remember that Gibson argues that our mental advantage over less versatile animals (e.g. apes) consists in our ability to perform acts of “higher-order” reasoning: “the increased information-processing capacity of the human brain allows humans to combine and recombine greater numbers of actions, perceptions, and concepts together to create higher-order conceptual and behavioral constructs than do apes.” (34)  Ostensibly, there is an extremely high limit to the versatility of the human brain, though a diversification of experiences may result in what has typically been called “higher consciousness,” involving a greater apprehension of the universe.  The novelist Aldous Huxley expressed this attempt to “break on through” through experiences in his 1954 book “The Doors of Perception“:

Another novelist, Graham Hancock, brings his own “doors of perception” understanding of experience to an interface with the present-day human social and ecological realities:

A few summary words are appropriate here.  The reasons for pessimism are many, and appropriate to the human predicament in the current era.  It’s going to take all of human versatility if we are to overcome our current situation.  But if there is any real reason for hope in our world, it rests not upon “omigod let’s do something, anything, and if we all do it together we can institute incremental, progressive change,” the reasoning promoted by many of our most prominent activist organizations, but rather upon a revolutionary unleashing of human social versatility upon the world, as it builds upon a prior framework of increasing versatility for human brainpower in the current era.  Our task at hand, then, is to expand human versatility to the extent possible (and I don’t mean legally possible), in wait for the moment at which it will cause a revolution in human thinking, and in the case of its success the capitalocene will be brought to a screeching halt.

Works CitedAlinsky, Saul.  Rules for Radicals.  New York: Vintage-Random House, 1971.  Print.

Anton Bursch.  “What Happened to the Energy of Hope Here at DailyKos.com?”  DailyKos.com.  Kos Media, LLC.  25 July 2013.  Web. http://www.dailykos.com/…

Cassiodorus.  “Why I don’t claim to be a progressive.”  DailyKos.com.  Kos Media, LLC.  23 May 2013.  Web.  http://www.dailykos.com/…

Cassiodorus.  “Anthony Giddens’ Beyond Left and Right: An Autopsy.”  DailyKos.com.  Kos Media, LLC.  21 April 2013.  Web.  http://www.dailykos.com/…

Cassiodorus.  “Uprising of Hope: An Ethnography of Zapatismo.”  DailyKos.com.  Kos Media, LLC.  06 February 2008. Web.  http://www.dailykos.com/…

Clarke, Arthur C.  Childhood’s End.  New York: Ballantine, 1953.  Print.

“Critical Pedagogy.”  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  27 July 2013.  Web.  http://en.wikipedia.org/…

“The Doors of Perception.”  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  28 July 2013.  Web.  http://en.wikipedia.org/…

“The Food Not Bombs Movement.”  Food Not Bombs.  The Food Not Bombs Web Collective.  n/d.  Web.  http://www.foodnotbombs.net/

Gibson, Kathleen R.  “”Epigenesis, Brain Plasticity, and Behavioral Versatility: Alternatives to Standard Evolutionary Psychology Models.”  Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture: eds. Susan McKinnon and Sydel Silverman.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.  23-42.  Print.

Hamsher, Jane.  “Van Jones: A Moment of Truth for Institutions in the Veal Pen.”  Firedoglake.com.  6 September 2009. Web.  http://fdlaction.firedoglake.com/…

Lareau, Annette.  Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.  2nd ed.  Berkeley CA: U of California P, 2011.  Print.

“Paulo Freire.”  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  14 July 2013.  Web.  http://en.wikipedia.org/…

Shutt, Harry.  The Trouble With Capitalism.  1st ed.  London: Zed, 1998.

“2013 World Hunger Poverty Facts and Statistics.” Hunger Notes.  27 July 2013.  Web.  http://www.worldhunger.org/…


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