Just finished reading "Unequal Freedoms" by John McMurtry, for which I had the highest expectations, as I (wrongly, it turns out) believed it would come from a similiar philosophical background (Francfortian interest in understanding how the dominant reason shapes our perceptions of reality, biasing them so we are more accomodating of the system's multiple drawbacks and have our critical capabilities more blunted -indeed, the leitmotiv of the whole Francfortian effort is probably to determine how it is possible to still think critically in a world of different totalitarianisms, be they forcibly imposed or voluntarily accepted by the masses, but I digress) and reach similar conclusions to the ones I'm approaching, some of which I've been sharing in recent posts.
To say I was disillusioned would be a gross understatement. The arguments were crude (the criticism of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, specially, seemed mostly based on a cartoonish misreading of fractions of their works, selected more by its polemical content than by its coherence or alignment with their whole worldview, and its influence on their contemporaries; the constant recourse to quotes of Milton Friedman was also characteristic: we get it, the guy was a monster, a champion for selfishness and a wicked anthropology -man as maximizer, although I would use more the work of Gary Becker to pounce on that..., there is no need to come back again and again to his pretty shallow and in the end uninteresting ideas to advance an argument, although it probably has its uses to rally the troops and arouse the animus of the like-minded), the philosophy almost nonexistent (the book is a litany of depressing facts, which would have benefited from some editing and proof reading, as it contains some blatant errors likestating that 60% of American seniors live below the thrshold of poverty -they are actually wealthier than the average of the whole population, or that the world population is approaching 56 billion -it actually reached 9 billion this year) and the alternatives pretty schematic and not much flesehd out (out of generic calls to "organize from the ground up" ¿around what principles, to fight for what causes, according to what organization: political parties, civic groups, friends & family?, "resist the money-code" ¿doing what, voting for different education, starting a commune, taking pro bono work? or "stand up against big corporations and their government lackeys" ¿not paying taxes, not buying their products, what when they are utility or communications monopolies?).
Its dubious use of the term metaphysics to denounce what he perceives as the deification of the market also made me cringe a number of times... I've grown used to progressives having no clue whatsoever of what believers think or understand of their faith (actually, even aknowledging there may be different takes on what there really is "out there" that seriously consider alternatives to the dominant materialism seems to be already too much of a stretch for most so-called philosophers nowadays), so it was no surprise to find here the same misconceptions (about the fundamentalism of the market, which any religious fundamentalist would find quite puzzling to see compared to his attitudes toward God, knowledge and fallibility), what disheartened me was to see it coming from somebody supposedly steeped in philosophical discourse (just shows the pityful state of fragmentation of academic philosophy that a professor on the subject can so utterly misconstrue what metaphysics is all about).
At least, reviewing my furious scribblings on the margins around that paragraphs that I disagreed more strongly with, I came out with a better understanding of my dislike of most of the "radical" criticism of the system coming from the left: it is the (seemingly) unavoidable tendency to personalize, or rather, homunculize, what is a complex set of institutions, practices and modes of thinking and reasoning (that, admittedly, are faulty and frankly improvable, although not from a naive and misinformed ideology with too many debts with supposed alternatives from the past that shared most of its problems). I very soon grew tired of reading how "the market" was cruel, evil, selfish, etc. Sorry, but an institution (and even less so one that encompasses almost all of Today's smaller institutions inside it) cannot be any of those things. A thinking person, what used to be called "an agent" can be any of them, as they presuppose freedom, intent, a perceptual apparatus that can give feedback on the results of her actions and the ability to set goals, understand symbolic signals (and usually also be able to create them) and use them to adjust those goals accordingly. If someone has a "bad character" (like that homunculized market definitely seems to have in the eyes of its leftist critics) that in turn leads him to perform bad actions, you can discuss how to improve it through education, providing the right stimulus (or, in market parlance that may give the author under analysis an apoplexy, the right incentives), reasoning, or even deterrence through the threat of punishment.
But you can not use any of those responses on an institution (what I'm saying about "the market", or "the market mindset" would apply equally well to "the big corporations" -I'm really fed up with people stating naively how evil, destructive, misbehaving, corrupting, perverted, etc. they are... sorry but no, maybe their top executives, or even all their employees, share in some of those character traits, but not for sure the juridical fiction that only metaphorically they "work for"-, the "money code", or, from the other side of the political spectrum, "terrorism", "feminism", "environmental absolutism"...). This is why their proposals to end what they perceive (rightly, I happen to think) as a sad and intolerable state of affairs are normally so lame, and end up being no more than empty wishes that humans would change and end up "seeing the light" and rejecting wrong ideas about selfishness, greed, excessive individualism and utility maximization. Sorry again, but even if proclaiming it may be (marginally) better than doing nothing, it is not going to take us very far, specially in light of the (typically unaknowledged) fact that even through the current recession/ depression the last two to three decades have been pretty good for the majority of the world population. It can be discussed how big is that majority, and to what extent the increase in all the measured variables of well being (from caloric intake to monetary income to average height to life expectatino) has been equitably distributed (it has obviously not), but the "brute truth" is taht the awful, irresponsible, hateful, distasteful, deceiving, lying, scurrilous, detestable, anti-humane, life-denying world system we live within has been actually pretty decent for at least the 2 billion people who have stopped being poor in the last decades, plus for the 3 billion people that were already out of poverty back then, the vast majority of whom stayed out...
I do know that "progress" has come at a price, in terms of environmental degradation, continuing pockets of violence (which, however, has declined substantially from historical standards) and cultural impoverishment, but negating its very reality is as blind and idiotic as focusing one sidedly on its advantages.
So from now on I forsake any leftist tendency I may still had. The system is indeed "improvable", but not through naive calls for its demise, not by naive calls to revolutionary tactics that stopped being viable a century ago, not by naive denunciations of its exagerated evils (I think the true ones aer justification enough for wanting to replace it with something better)... Not by naive calls that in the end change nothing, but through detailed changes in the legislation and in the organization of society that can be actually achieved, be it through the existing political process or by other alternatives that would in turn need to be clearly laid out. That is from now on my litmus test for any book I read on political philosophy (or sociology, or politics, or anything at all now I come to think about it). I'll consider them good insofar they map out a realistic path towards achievable improvement, and I'll discard as useless those that confort themselves and their readers with vague appellations to improve human nature or educate the public better (the public condones all the evil and undersirable features of the current system not because they are misinformed and require an enlightened pundit to clarify how things really are for them, but because they still derive more benefits than discomforts from the system, in their own terms, according to aht they really value... until that calculus is materially changed by actually modifying those benefits and discomforts no change will ever be forthcoming).