False consciousness – or just plain contented?

ONE of the abiding rifts in left/right political philosophy is the approach towards the poorest members of society. The failure of socialism to overthrow capitalism perplexes those on the left of the political spectrum. For those on the right it’s simple: capitalism works, it delivers well-being for most people, so there is no reason to change it.

From their perspective, however, left-leaning, often middle-class intellectuals either come to despise the working class for their weakness or blame it on false consciousness created by the dominant ideology. By this reasoning the working classes have been duped by the ruling clique into supporting Conservatism rather than Socialism – in short they are like turkeys voting for Christmas.

As Nick Cohen wrote in What’s Left: “Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan won repeatedly because large numbers of voters from the skilled working class supported them. They were never forgiven for that because from their different points of view Fabians, liberals and Marxists had hoped the working class would take power under their leadership. When it didn’t, they despised the working class for its weakness and treachery and condemned its members for their greed and obsession with celebrity.” That is quoted in a book by Christopher Snowden called The Spirit Level Delusion which looks to debunk the ideas of Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level, which purports to show that unequal societies have more social problems than more equal ones. This blog, however, is more concerned by the question of false consciousness and whether it has any explanatory power or is just wishful thinking by the left.

There is no doubt which side Snowden is on of course: “Working class indifference to inequality, so long as their own circumstances are improving, is seen as another example of false consciousness by those on the left politically.” But according to him it has nothing to do with false consciousness. He writes: “Decades of affluence, rising wages and home ownership, made the working class less reliant on paternal socialism and the labour movement.” However, in recent years that does not explain why with stagnant and reducing wages in real terms, particularly in the public sector, underpinned by austerity and the hollowing out of the public sphere, there is still no sign of ordinary people taking up the socialist cause. Worse than that, interest in politics continues to decline apace. At the same time, while the language of class war has largely disappeared from public discourse, it is still very much alive among the super rich. And as investment billionaire Warren Buffon told us: “There’s class warfare, all right…but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” And while the government rails against railway workers striking over pay and conditions, according to academics at York University more than £100 billion a year of public money is handed to corporations in various forms in what has been dubbed ‘corporate welfare’. So, what is going on? The simple rhetoric of the right, while seductive, just doesn’t seem to cut it.

A major problem is that our representative government is expressly designed to keep us as witless spectators and to keep us far from the democratic decision-making process. Citizens’ Assemblies might help to counter that problem, but there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for them, perhaps because most people are convinced that what we have is democracy without remainder. But add to that the infantilizing tendency of the advertising industry, which encourages us to abandon critical thinking and delayed gratification; the push to a cashless society with the same effect; and a social media that taps into our psychological vulnerabilities, and you have a much more complicated picture.

There doesn’t appear to be much appetite for Citizens’ Assemblies.

Many would argue that this is exacerbated by our atomized individualism, but, as Herbert Marcuse argues in one-dimensional man, there may be a case for making a distinction between atomization and individualism and to ask – individualism for whom? As Marcuse writes there is a ‘repressive ideology of freedom, according to which human liberty can blossom forth in a life of toil, poverty, and stupidity’. And he continues: “Indeed society must first create the material prerequisites of freedom for all its members before it can be a free society; it must first create the wealth before being able to distribute it according to the freely developing needs of the individual; it must first enable its slaves to learn and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.”

And lest we dismiss Marcuse as just another lefty, Douglas Kellner in his introduction points out that while he does indeed raise the ‘spectre of closing off, or “atrophying”, of the very possibilities of radical social change and human emancipation’ within capitalist society he also ‘depicts trends in contemporary communist societies that he believes are similar to those in capitalist ones’ (one-dimensional man was written in 1964).

If anything this atrophying of the possibility of social change has intensified, as indicated earlier in this blog. Inequality has also increased since then and we know that around 60 per cent of people in poverty have at least one person in their family working. Of course, there are no knock-down arguments but there is at least some plausibility in the view that there is rather more to it than the simplistic right wing approach. However, what we do about it is another matter. It sometimes feels the cause is lost and that if you can’t beat them then just join the ranks of the apathetic.

Russia after the revolution

“THE prohibition of oppositional parties brought after it the prohibition of factions. The prohibition of factions ended in a prohibition to think otherwise than the infallible leader. The police-manufactured monolithism of the party resulted in a bureaucratic impunity which has become the source of all kinds of wantonness and corruption.” You might forgiven for thinking that this quote comes from a Western historian. In fact it is from Leon Trotsky in his The Revolution Betrayed.


Writing in exile in 1936, Trotsky is sniping from the side lines. He writes: “Why now, after the cessation of intervention, after the shattering of the exploiting class, after the indubitable success of industrialization, after the collectivization of the overwhelming majority of peasants, is it impossible to permit the slightest word of criticism of the leader?” Of course, from Trotsky’s point of view, it wasn’t because of an inherent flaw in the Soviet system. For him, the rot set in with the advent of of the Civil War. “The opposition parties were forbidden one after the other. This measure, obviously in conflict with the spirit of Soviet democracy, the leaders of Bolshevism regarded not as a principle, but as an episodic act of self-defence.”

Trotsky was writing at a time of savage Stalinist pogroms. A year after he wrote this the Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam died in a transit camp. He was one of many. It is, however, worth pointing out, as Alan Woods does in the introduction, how things had deteriorated since the revolution in 1917. In The State and Revolution Lenin had stipulated that there must be ‘free and democratic elections and the right of recall for all officials’ and ‘gradually, all the tasks of running the state to be carried out in turn by the workers: when everyone is a “bureaucrat” in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat’ – thus introducing an element of direct, as well as elective, democracy. Remember that this a year before some women won the right to vote in the UK and 11 years before all women could vote.

Leon Trotsky

As Woods writes: “Contrary to the calumnies of the critics of socialism, Soviet Russia in the time of Lenin and Trotsky was the most democratic regime in history.” Woods is obviously a socialist sympathiser but the non-Marxist historian E. H. Carr at this point agrees with Woods. In his epic The Bolshevik Revolution he approvingly quotes Lenin in the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in 1917 as saying: “As a democratic government we cannot evade the decisions of the popular masses, even if we are not in agreement with them.” However, this appears to be a temporary position, according to Carr, who suggests that there was a ‘dilemma of a socialist revolution struggling retrospectively to fill the empty place of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois capitalism in the Marxist scheme’.


Interestingly, however, Carr makes a startling comparison between Marxism and Adam Smith – the darling of many right-wing thinkers. The latter, writes Carr ‘has not escaped in recent years the charge of utopianism commonly levelled at Marx and Engels and Lenin’. And he continues: “Both doctrines assume that the state will be superfluous in so far as, given the appropriate economic organisation of society, human beings will find it natural to work together for the common good.” And further ‘both doctrines are consistent with belief in an economic order determining the superstructure of political ideology and behaviour’. And let’s not forget that, like Marx, Smith also believed in a labour theory of value.

Returning to Trotsky, we find that he, in 1936, is still claiming that: “Under a nationalized economy, quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative – conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.” Further: “No new value can be created where a free conflict of ideas is impossible.” This could be a criticism levelled by the 19th century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill and his concept of the market of ideas.

At this point, however, we need a reality check. Despite Trotsky’s often apposite criticisms of Stalin, it is not at all clear whether things would have been any better under his rule. As Ian Thatcher writes in his biography Trotsky there were several ‘profound weaknesses in Trotsky’s writings. Above all, his alternative programme contained no guarantees that the USSR would be any richer or more democratic under Trotsky’s guidance’. And: “Given his strong conviction of the correctness of his political viewpoints, it is questionable how free and open debate would have been under Trotsky’s leadership. In any case, it is doubtful whether he would have submitted to a majority vote against him.”

Finally, however, Thatcher reminds us: “Even should capitalism flourish, there should be good reason to consider Marxism’s, and Trotsky’s, criticisms of its injustices and flaws. If there is no such thing as perfect planning, it is also highly unlikely that there is perfect competition.” And: “The best of today’s Marxists seek to learn from the mistakes of the past, and place far more emphasis on democracy and the importance of the independent initiative of the working class rather than on the tutelage of individuals.”

An indifferent world

WHAT if the universe is completely indifferent to us and to all life on earth? There is no God or gods and no guiding rationale. It’s an idea that runs counter to the age-old search for meaning – the succour that is supposedly offered by a supreme being. But what if a truly meaningless universe is actually liberating? That’s the position taken by Albert Camus.

And in his fascinating book The Meaning of Life and Death, Michael Hauskeller it is, fittingly, Camus’s position that he examines at the end. He points out that it was after the devastation of the two world wars that people began to wonder whether there was something wrong with a world that permitted such horrors, let alone an all good, omniscient God. In his novel The Plague Camus reflects this when he writes: “Cold fathomless depths of sky glimmered overhead, and near the hilltop stars show hard as flints.” It’s a cold, heartless world that Camus paints – no pity, no compassion. But this the ground whence Camus starts.

For him the absurdity of of our existence emerges when our yearning for meaning bumps up against the utter meaninglessness of the universe. According to the second law of thermodynamics the universe is inexorably moving from a state of relative order to ever more disorder, possibly infinitely. And all we can do is hold up this process for a few years before merging into the disorder.

Even if there is some meaning, it will be for ever beyond the limits of our knowledge. In the Myth of Sisyphus Camus writes: “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me to know it.” For Camus, then, meaning does not lie in some transcendent realm beyond our understanding, but as a function of our understanding, which, therefore, is accessible to us.

In this situation, according to Camus, the most important philosophical problem is suicide – as Hamlet put it ‘to be, or not to be’. Is a world in which there is no meaning is there any point in existing? Well, Camus believes there is because this very meaninglessness is liberating and the very foundation of human freedom.

His first move is to claim that the universe is not malign in its indifference but, rather, in its indifference it is actually benign.

And in this benign world we are set free from the shackles of meaning external to existence to live the lives we want to live and to determine how we ought to live. Camus writes: “If the absurd cancels all my chances of external freedom, it restores and magnifies, on the other hand, my freedom of action. That privation of hope and future means an increase in man’s availability.” It might be argued that describing the indifferent universe as ‘benign’ is ascribing it human qualities that are not justified. The universe simply is and it’s up to us to make the best of it. Certainly this doesn’t detract from Camus’s argument, however – indeed, in a way, it might be enhanced by such a view.

But there remains the problem of what we do with our freedom. We may be free if, ultimately, nothing matters. But as Hauskeller points out ‘if the universe does not make any distinction between good and bad, permissible and impermissible, then it is difficult to see why we should not kill people if it suits us’. For Camus, however, this kind of nihilism misses the point of the absurd. “The mark of nihilism is indifference to life, but the absurd is born out of the clash between the indifference that we encounter in the structure of the world and our own desperate desire to live, and to live well.”, writes Hauskeller. “The point is that we are not indifferent to life, certainly not to our own.” If all our ethical life comes from God or the gods or from some rational structure in the universe, then we are entirely dependent on some thing outside of us. But if if there is no guiding principle and no promise of a life after death, only then do we realise how precious life is in the here and now.

Furthermore, humans have the capacity to fight back against the indifference of the universe, to shake its fist at it and demand justice for us and for others by negating its nothingness. As Camus writes in The Rebel: “The moment we recognise the the impossibility of absolute negation…the very first thing that cannot be denied is the right of others to live.”

And, furthermore, while there is no meaning in the universe it is us humans who have the courage to fight back. Camus writes: “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist in having one.” And, we might add, this also applies to women!

Camus’s idea that humanity finds its own meaning through rebellion against the abyss and the siren call of nihilism while maintaining solidarity with all other humans who are in the same boat is attractive. As Camus says, real rebellion ‘lures the individual from his solitude. Rebellion is the common ground on which every every man bases his first values. I rebel – therefore we exist’. Rebel and live!

The weirdness of rationality!

FOR most of human history the world has been understood by humans through the prism of mythology, superstition, magic and gods. Some would argue that it still is. But the Enlightenment was supposed to change all that, or at least some thought that tempering it with it with a bit of reason wouldn’t be such a bad idea. As D’Alambert wrote in response to Rousseau’s attack on science and rationality ‘even assuming that we might be ready to yield a point to the disadvantage of human knowledge, which is far from our intention here, we are even further from believing that anything would be gained by destroying it’. And, further, that ‘vice would remain with us, and we have ignorance in addition’.

An example of Slavic mythology.

But this idea of at least trying to deploy a little more rationality, even if humans are not always very good at it, has proved to be surprisingly controversial. Typically, opponents of the Enlightenment set up a strawman fallacy by characterizing it as placing the God of Reason above all else and then proceeding to knock it down. But true rationalists are acutely aware of how fragile and precarious it is; how easy it is to succumb to our cognitive bias and sink into our social political comfort zones and echo chambers – and mythology.

Intriguingly, Steven Pinker in his book Rationality acknowledges that no matter how desirable rationality may be, it is not the natural human way. He writes: “We children of the Enlightenment embrace the radical creed of universal realism: we hold that all our beliefs should fall within the reality mindset.”

However, Pinker argues, those who give credence to this creed are the ‘weird ones’. And he adds: “Submitting all of one’s beliefs to the trials of reason and evidence is an unnatural skill, like literacy and numeracy, and must be instilled and cultivated. And for all the conquests of the reality mindset, the mythology mindset still occupies swathes of territory in the landscape of mainstream belief.” As one example, he writes that more than ‘two billion people believe that if one doesn’t accept Jesus as one’s saviour one will be damned to eternal torment in hell’.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

And when the so-called New Atheists – Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Higgins and Richard Dawkins – dared to argue robustly that belief in ‘God fell outside the sphere of testable reality’ they became targets of some quite vicious attacks, not only from religious people but from mainstream intellectuals as well. Pinker also has an interesting take on the Trump administration: “The brazen lies and inconsistencies of Trumpian post-truth can be seen as an attempt to claim political discourse for the law of mythology rather than the land of reality.”

As you may have gathered by now Pinker is here to praise reason, not to bury it. Interestingly, he does not believe in progress – at least not as teleological force. He writes: “Progress is shorthand for a set of pushbacks and victories wrung out of an unforgiving universe, and is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.” And the explanation, according to Pinker, is rationality. “When humans set themselves the goal of improving the welfare of their fellows (as opposed to other dubious pursuits like glory or redemption), and apply their ingenuity to institutions that pool it with others, they occasionally succeed.” And when the successes take note of the failures, the benefits can accumulate, and we call the big picture progress.”

Rodin’s The Thinker

Rationality also has a role to play in moral progress, according to Pinker. “My greatest surprise in making sense of moral progress is how many times in history the first domino was a reasoned argument.” Eventually, after going viral, the conclusion would embed itself in society ‘erasing the tracks of the arguments that brought it there’. For example, a logical argument was required, and provided by the French theologian Sebastian Castellio, against the religious intolerance of John Calvin and the practice of burning heretics at the stake. Today, it just seems obvious, just as it seems obvious, to most people at least, that slavery is wrong. But it was Frederick Douglass, himself born into slavery, who used the rules of logic to demolish the case for slavery.

In essence, then, while rationality isn’t a universal panacea, it does have a universal appeal that transcends our individual concerns. As Pinker writes: “Our ability to eke increments of well-being out of a pitiless cosmos and to be good to others despite our flawed nature depends on grasping the impartial principles that transcend our parochial experience.”

And interestingly, from the perspective of Salisbury Democracy Alliance, he argues that while elections ‘can bring out the worst in reasoning’, representative government ‘could be supplemented with deliberative democracy, such as panels of citizens tasked with recommending a policy’.

So, let’s hear it for that fragile capability humans have for reason. It may not be our natural habitat but it is for this very reason that it needs to be nurtured like the most exotic and rarest of plants.

Do humans need to be commanded?

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” So Christ is reported to have said to his disciples in John 13:34. As it happens it is also the commandment that the Venerable Alan Jeans, Archdeacon of Sarum, chose to form the basis of his sermon at the Civic Service in St Thomas’s Church to celebrate the election of the 761st Mayor of the City of Salisbury – Cllr Tom Corbin.

It is an interesting quote that raises the obvious question: does humanity require commanding in order to ‘love one another’? Or is the ability, if not always the practice, to love one another inherent in humanity?

In his sermon the Archdeacon argued that there are many kinds of love. We might say, for example, that we love our car or a painting or a piece of music.

Not the sort of love Christ had in mind

But Christ explicitly says that this commandment to love one another is a ‘new commandment’. Really? What is he saying? That prior to his commandment people didn’t know how to love one another, or if they did know they didn’t practice it enough, so they needed a commandment to enforce it? It’s a bit like the the question that Socrates posed to Euthyphron 2,500 years ago: “Do the gods love holiness because it is holy, or is it holy because they love it?” Does Christ command that we love one another because it is the right thing to do, or is it the right thing to do because Christ commands it? If it it is the latter then do we simply have to take Christ’s word for it? This position appears to be endorsed in John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” On the other hand in John 15:6: “If anyone does not abide in me he is cast out as branch and is withered, and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” So, we don’t need to know whether the word of Christ is right, we simply have to follow his word, or suffer the consequences.

But does humanity need a commandment to love one another and the threat of being burned if we do not abide in Christ? It is hard not to sense a whiff of the Original Sin in this need for commandment.

The doctrine that humans inherit a tainted nature through being born, of course, stems from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. As Paul says in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned- “Here we get into the deltoid schisms of Protestant thinking and ideas like ‘total depravity’ in which humans’ motivations, even though they might appear to do good, are always sinful or self-regarding – similar to modern day secular thinking found in egoistic morality. On the other hand some thinkers, like the clergyman Samuel Hoard (1599-1658) argued for ‘partial depravity’, which basically claims that humanity does have some choice in the matter and can choose salvation and God.

In more modern times these positions are starkly represented by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who took a largely dim view of human nature, and Jean Jacque-Rousseau, who was rather more optimistic.

Thomas Hobbes looking suitably grumpy

For Hobbes human life in the state of nature was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, and short’. His answer was to relinquish our freedom into the hands of a ‘solitary sovereign’ – the Leviathan, the name of his magnum opus. Hobbes, incidentally, came from Warminster and there is an early edition of his book in the town’s library.

Rousseau, on the other hand, takes the opposite view. For him, we are naturally good in the state of nature and it is civilization that warps that natural goodness, although it should be said that his state of nature was a thought experiment rather than an actual state.

Rosseau looking decidedly sunnier

Nevertheless, for Rutger Bregman in Humankind Rousseau is largely correct. He argues that for most of human history we ‘inhabited a world without kings or aristocrats, presidents or CEOs’, and problems began about 10,000 years ago. “From the moment we began settling down in one place and amassing private property, our group instinct was no longer innocuous. Combined with scarcity and hierarchy it became downright toxic.”

It is fair to say that this a pretty simplistic view of humanity and this blog will explore a more nuanced approach in a future blog. But for the moment it should be said that Bregman is not advocating a return to a pre-civilized society and he acknowledges that things have become a lot better for millions of people over the last 200 years or so. But, he argues that when you ditch Original Sin and Hobbes you find underneath it all that most people are pretty decent most of the time and don’t need a commandment from Christ – or anyone else for that matter – to love one another.

We could also make the point that many evolutionists now believe that altruism forms a part of our genetic make-up and, in its conceptualized form, helps us to love one another – although of course it will always be in competition with our more selfish instincts. Even Richard Dawkins in his celebrated book The Selfish Gene writes: “However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of the individual animal.” What Dawkins fails to say is that a gene cannot be either selfish or, indeed, pretend to be altruistic. You cannot simply conflate the individual gene and the genome. This sort of thinking comes up with logical absurdities like reciprocal altruism. If part of our make-up is indeed altruistic, then it has to be genuine altruism.

One cannot help feel that Christ’s commandment infantilizes humanity. Indeed, he refers to his disciples as ‘little children’. Is it not time that we grew out of this infantilism and took responsibility for our own lives and actions? Immanuel Kant argued that the Enlightenment represented the maturing of humanity. Perhaps it is time that we took this notion seriously.

Levels of consciousness

IT often feels that we are either conscious or unconscious. But are there, as this blog investigates, more levels of consciousness? The idea that there are varying degrees of consciousness has a long and distinguished history ranging from Plotinus to to Jung and Freud in the 20th century. Jung, for example, identified the mineral world, the plant world and the animal world as degrees of consciousness. Freud identified the oral, phallic and genital stages, while many present day psychologists probe multiple levels of consciousness. And it is in this tradition that Nathan Field lays out his fourfold hierarchy in Breakdown and Breakthrough.

Levels of consciousness

The first level is what he calls One Dimensionality, which is most apparent in very young children. Field writes: “The focus of infant awareness is located in certain physical areas: the skin, the mouth, and the inside of the body which may be comfortably full or painfully distended.” It can also be apparent in some autistic children.

Two Dimensionality is more interesting because it moves out of the Self to the acknowledgement of the Other, but at the expense of an inner life. This two dimensionality is characteristic of schizoid personalities in which ’emotions appear to be skin deep’. Field writes: “There may be a great deal of surface drama, passionate declarations, threats, violent or hysterical gestures but the observer remains strangely untouched, even alienated.”

Two dimensionality

And while there may be surface drama, it is also characterized by opposites that can switch quickly from, for example, love to hate in an instant.

As Field points out ‘politics, news and entertainment are all deeply contaminated by two dimensionality’. In the political arena, reasoned opinions readily degenerate into convictions as political theory becomes fixed in ideology and, finally, crystalized in dogma. Doubt and complexity are difficult to sustain and harden into dead certainties. Here the ‘millions passionately devoted to fundamentalist religions and political beliefs are relieved from the torments of ambivalence and indecision’. There is, however, a positive element to two dimensionality which manifests itself in ‘unwavering loyalty, uncompromising rectitude, unquestioning obedience’, although it’s not difficult to see how these positives might morph into the dark side.

Three dimensionality, says Field, ‘represents all that civilization holds dear: rationality, balance, adulthood, fairness, flexibility, restraint, the ability to listen and to respect the integrity of another’. Field continue: “The intellectual faculty combines with our primary instincts to produce the capacity for imagination, metaphor and symbolisation, which are the basic requirements of all creative endeavour.” And while two dimensionality is characterized by polarity and conviction, three dimensionality is ‘searching, reflective, ambivalent’. As people move from two to three dimensionality they become more rounded and resilient.

A more balanced approach with three dimensionality

More controversial, perhaps, is Field’s conception of Four Dimensionality, which is characterized by awareness of the movement from Self to Other of the sort that can happen between a ‘mother and her baby, between twins, members of the same family, partners, lovers, friends and, not least, enemies’. Although it is often experienced between the Self and the Other, Field stresses that it can also manifest itself as an enriched sense of Self. And he adds: “Whether shared, or experienced in solitude, the four-dimensional state is one that many people have known and tried to convey in art, music, and, most especially, in the paradoxical utterances of mystical literature.”

Spontaneity is important in all of this but Field also points out that it can also be aided by prayer, meditation or therapy.

An important aspect of Field’s theory is that the dimension incorporates the third, the third the second and the second the first, but he insists that each dimension adds something of its own.

But the really controversial aspect of Field’s thought is his interest in shamanism and his belief that it emerges out of the fourth dimension – and that Jung was a shaman: “In so far as Jung was able to assimilate his dissociative and pathological tendencies it places him, like the shaman, in the category of the ‘wounded healer’ or, more precisely, one who heals by virtue of the partial healing of his own wound, since if it had healed completely he might too easily forget how it felt to be sick and the capacity to identify with the patient would be impaired.”

While Freud saw the unconscious as being something to be controlled, Jung embraced it in the form of the collective unconscious, a vast creative force, which also tapped into his research into the medieval tradition of alchemy.

Many people might baulk at the fourth dimension and stick with the third but Field sides with Jung, insisting that the fourth ‘does in fact exist’. He concludes: “It is not a delusion, but carries with it the subjective conviction of being our true state; or at least closer to our true state than everyday consciousness.”

Engage in resistance through dialogue!

IT is often argued, with some truth, that we live in an age of wilful ignorance in which thought is undervalued and we are encouraged to live in the now.

Wilful ignorance

Delayed gratification is discouraged and replaced with the present. Commercial institutions have fuelled this process by encouraging us to think of ourselves as free-standing, self-interested individuals who want to buy things NOW, even if it means going into debt. In the political field it means the rise of populism in the USA, Brazil, the UK, Russia, Hungary, Turkey and India where it has gained power. And in many other countries it lurks beneath the surface.

The rise of populism

But is there another cause for this phenomenon? Well, according to Brazilian philosopher Marcia Tiburi in The Psycho-cultural underpinning of Everyday Fascism – Dialogue as Resistance, yes there is. For her, central to the problem is an absence of shame among many leaders like Bolsonaro, Trump, Johnson, Erdogan, Modi and Putin. It’s this lack of shame which enables, indeed empowers them to lie with impunity. Tiburi writes: “The ridicule of several of the scenes involving these characters sounds to their followers like heroism. Therefore, this strange heroism of the tyrants of our time has become something ‘pop’ in a process of profound ‘political mutation’.”

The death of shame

In this world consumerism fills the vacuum, the emptiness of consumption. “We flee from analytical and cultural thinking through the consumerist emptiness of language and repetitive language. We flee from the discernment that analytical and critical thinking demand. We fall into the language of consumerism.” Now it should be said here that it would be wrong to suggest that there was a time when humans were perfectly rational but have somehow become vacuous idiots. It’s more that certain forces are becoming better at exploiting our inherent irrationality and undermining our counterbalancing ability to think – at least some of the time!

With that important caveat in mind then, Tiburi identifies the ‘great voids’ that have emerged in recent years. One is the ‘void of thought’ which Hannah Arendt identified as characteristic of Adolf Eichmann.

Hannah Arendt

This emptiness of thought in Eichmann entailed the ‘absence of reflection, of criticism, of questioning and even discernment’. Tibury adds: “We can say that, in our time, this is becoming more and more common. More and more people are giving up the ability to think.” And in place of this ability comes ready made ideas or cut-and-paste ideas, as she puts it, largely distributed through social media networks.

Another great void, according to Tiburi, is an emptiness of feeling. She writes: “We live in a world that is increasingly anesthetized, in which people become incapable of feeling and increasingly insensitive.” It’s not that we don’t have emotions but, she argues, we ‘can speak of an emptiness of emotion precisely in the context in which people seek any kind of emotion.’ Further: “The inability to feel makes the field of sensitivity in us a place of despair. From joy to sadness, we want religion, sex, films, drugs, radical sports, and even food to provoke more feeling.”

Despair in emptiness

Not all is lost, however, because for Tiburi at least part of the answer lies in the encouragement of dialogue, very much like the skill we practice in Salisbury Democracy Café. Tiburi argues that: “Dialogue is not just a form of philosophy, rather philosophy in its pure state. Dialogue is the attitude that can alter the spiritual and material condition in which fascism arises.” For Tiburi dialogue is a ‘type of psycho-social resistance, which holds the power of social transformation at its most structuring level – shaping dialogue matters when we want a democratic society’ and it is also the specific ‘form of philosophy as a practice, or as activism’. Furthermore: “We need an education for democracy that is education for art and poetry, for science and critical thinking.”

The anatomy of critical thinking

And she claims that dialogue at all ‘levels is undesirable in authoritarian systems’.

It’s hard not to equate Tiburi’s thoughts with those of deliberative democracy promoted by Salisbury Democracy Alliance (SDA) both in the democracy café and in its campaign for Citizens’ Juries. It’s the very point that SDA made in its highly successful stand in People in the Park last year – and will make again this year – when it argued that without the engagement of ordinary people in real dialogue in general, and Citizens’ Juries in particular, our representative form of government remains just that – representative and not fully democratic. And as, the Tory grandee Lord Hailsham once said, it is always in peril of slipping into an ‘elective dictatorship’.

The pitfalls of oratory

IS it better to suffer wrong than to do wrong? It’s an interesting question and one is rarely, if ever. asked these days. It goes beyond mere altruism, which simply demands that we act with the aim of benefiting others with expectation of reciprocal good. This has more to do with the Bible’s claim that one should turn the other cheek when wronged, rather than seek revenge. Yet is a question that goes back much further in history – to Plato, in fact, in his Gorgias dialogue.


In this famous dialogue Plato writes of Socrates in dialogue with two professional orators – Gorgias himself and Polus, both of whom begin by arguing that the orator need do nothing other than persuade others that they are right, but ultimately baulk at the emptiness of this idea. In Gorgias we have an old and experienced orator who finally concedes that the budding orator should first be tutored in ethical standards before he embarks on oratory. And the younger, less experienced, Polus who cannot bring himself to deny that doing wrong is worse than being wronged.

In our day it’s quite hard to see if this has any resonance. But perhaps it might parallel the politician who wants to speak the truth despite the adverse consequences this might entail, against the one who says what she thinks people want to know. Or the political party that wants to lead electorates, even though it might suffer in the polls, against the one that shifts and changes in order to get elected, regardless of the truth.

But Socrates goes even further: “As a general rule the man who does wrong is more miserable than the man who is wronged, and the man who escapes punishment more miserable than the man who receives it.” And still further: “Whatever the punishment which the crime deserves he must offer himself to it cheerfully, whether it be flogging or imprisonment or a fine or banishment or death.”

Amazingly, Gorgias and Polus seem to be quite happy to accept this conclusion, even though there appears to be a flaw in Socrates’s argument. And that happens when he tries to draw an analogy between money-making curing poverty, medicine curing disease and justice curing ‘excess and wickedness’.


Apart from anything else, Socrates has shifted away from punishment to justice as though the former is equivalent of the former, which it isn’t. Sometimes justice requires something other than punishment, like rehabilitation. And of course punishment is not necessarily a cure at all and it doesn’t always even act as a deterrent. These claims go unchallenged by Gorgias and Polus, who might at least have made a case for a less stringent conclusion like, well, altruism.

Instead Socrates emerges triumphant only then to face the rage of Callicles who asks the largely silent Chaerophon, loyal friend of Socrates. “Tell me Chaerophon, is Socrates in earnest about this or is he joking?”


To which Chaerophon replies in one of his very few utterances: “In my opinion, Callicles, he is utterly in earnest.” We then learn that Callicles is of the opinion that conventional morality – although it is not clear that Socrates’s position is at all conventional – is merely an invention of the weak to undermine the strong. The obvious parallel to Nietzsche’s herd mentality undermining the nobility of the powerful and dynamic Ubermensch is hard to avoid. As a classical philologist Nietzsche is bound to have read Gorgias and was almost certainly influenced by Callicles’s views.


In ant case, Callicles rounds on Socrates: “Nature…herself demonstrates that it is right that the better man should prevail over the weak and the stronger over the weaker.” As a matter of interest this position contravenes antecedently David Hume’s is/ought principle, which states that one cannot infer a value proposition from a factual statement. But Callicles ploughs on: “My belief is that a natural right consists in the better and wiser man ruling over his inferiors and having the lion’s share.”

David Hume; portrait by Allan Ramsay, 1754

Ultimately, however, Socrates succeeds in extracting an important concession from Callicles – namely, that there is a distinction to be made between good and bad pleasures, which allows Socrates to condemn politicians who cravenly pander to citizens’ baser pleasures rather than to their wellbeing and that correction of in dividuals, groups and even states is better than the unrestrained hedonism of the powerful originally advocated by Callicles. The latter then, and somewhat fortuitously for Socrates, then virtually absents himself from the argument as Socrates rams home his advantage at great length. And, finally, he concludes that a politician should only be allowed to enter the public realm after they have had sufficient instruction morality and with the aim of improving the character of the populace.

By such high standards many of our modern day politicians fail dismally. Perhaps today we would talk about improving the conditions of citizens, rather than improving their moral character. But it often seems that our politicians under our representative form of government are more interested in winning elections, with the welfare of their citizens coming almost as an afterthought. Now, this is not true of all politicians or all political parties. Indeed, most of the time it’s not a matter of bad or corrupt politicians but the extent to which a party has to bend its policies in order to be acceptable to a largely indifferent electorate. Indeed, representative government is expressly designed NOT to engage citizens in politics, more to turn them into spectators. Which is why it doesn’t really qualify as a democracy but rather as an elective dictatorship, and it will remain so until a degree of deliberative democracy, including citizens’ juries and assemblies, is introduced – some thing that Salisbury Democracy Alliance has been campaigning for for years. Of course, some politicians are moderate by nature and have no need to moderate their behaviour. But it’s a real problem for less moderate politicians who might want to effect fundamental change changes in society but are forced to moderate their views in order to be electable. But perhaps the solution is not necessarily to moderate one’s views but to continue to hold true to your position while being prepared to compromise in order to get as close as possible to one’s aims.

To humanity and beyond!

WHAT must it be like to reject all of our beliefs? Liberalism, humanism, neoliberalism, socialism, Christianity – indeed, all religion – in fact ALL the characteristics and ideas with which we define ourselves. All gone. Even the category of being human. What if we only care about ourselves and have no interest in others?

Well, that’s the startling position of the maverick philosopher Max Stirner (1806-1856) demands that we do.

Nothingness? Even here there is something

He is anti-moral, anti-political and anti-social philosophy – indeed, at first sight at least, he is anti everything. It does at least have some resonance with our atomistic society. And a common response to this is to build communities again, to build a political and social system that reconnects isolated individuals in order to create the sort of society that enables autonomous individuals to flourish across all demographics. Stirner, however, is utterly contemptuous of such efforts but, surprisingly, he is not a nihilist. According to Jacob Blumenfield in All Things are Nothing to Me Stirner argues that it is ‘only after we learn learn how to care for ourselves can we begin to care for each other as singular equals, and not as generic representatives of groups, classes, identities, and states’.

The maverick philosopher Max Stirner

This, claims Blumenfield, is ‘Stirner’s provocation’. From this hollowing out Stirner ‘defends insurrection, advocates crime, and incites individuals to find each other in free unions or communes that can expand ones power against the state’.

For Stirner ‘any theory which only considers the aggregate of conditions…from which something emerges will never be able to fully show how that emergent something becomes itself in all its singularity’. And he includes all theories including the ones mentioned above but also materialism, empiricism, idealism – even humanness itself. Because, as Blumenfield explains, what Stirner calls the ‘unman’ refers to the uniqueness of the individual ‘which is not explainable by humanness’.

Interestingly, it has been noted that Stirner’s ideas seem to chime with the ancient Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism, which asks how ‘I should live’ not how ‘I should live in a community’. But, writes Blumenfield, Stirner’s position has nothing to do with egoism. And that is because the ego is a concept, not a real thing. To recycle a phrase by Gilbert Ryle when he was attacking Descartes’s mysterious immaterial self, the ego is just a ‘ghost in the machine’. “In other words,” writes Blumenfield “the actuality of any unique ‘I’ is not identical with its expression in language or thought.” For Stirner, we must bring to the fore all our theories and preconceptions – and then dissolve them.

One of Stirner’s central claims is that freedom cannot be given by a government, state or political party – it can only be taken. Freedom is not a gift. It is, rather, appropriated by the individual. And while political liberalism is a positive development, it is not the answer because it ‘pierces through the veneer of freedom, but goes no further’. Meanwhile, socialism unmasks exploitation and inequality, but is problematic because labour is taken to be the new essence of humanity – and, like humanness, labour is only on of the individual’s properties, not its core essence.

Some thinkers use the communities of creatures like ants and bees to draw parallels with humanity and, in particular, the emergent properties of consciousness. Stirner disagrees.

The key shift is to regard individuals as owning themselves and, as owners, they ‘make themselves individuals’. Blumenfield writes: “To be an owner is to individuate oneself through the appropriation of one’s own conditions and the dissolution of everything alien to them.” But, and this is crucial, owning oneself does NOT mean self-interest or selfishness. So there is no succour here for Ayn Rand or the libertarianism of Robert Nozick. Blumenfield argues that the modern fashion for ‘finding oneself’ often means simply ‘adapting one’s soul to the needs of the market’. It is a critique of ubiquitous mindfulness in the West that it merely helps the individual to adapt to poor working conditions, rather than fighting to change them, thus normalizing the poor working conditions. Stirner exhorts us not to ‘know oneself’ but to ‘own oneself’.

There’s no room for egoism in Stirner’s world.

One of the main criticism of political liberalism is that it often relies on a mythical pre-civilized state of nature in which humanity is either in a brutish and chaotic state (Hobbes) or in a noble one which is destroyed by civilization (Rousseau). But Stirner will have none of this, even though he is often accused of holding such a position. According to Blumenfield, Stirner argues that ‘society precedes individualism, binding us in all sorts of relations of dependency from birth onwards’. Indeed, although Marx was severely critical of Stirner, the latter’s position is actually closer to the former than to the individualism of Hobbes or Rousseau because, for him, society is the state of nature. And leaving society means not alienation but an ‘association of free individuals, building the commune’ sounding now more like the anarchist Kropotkin than Marx or the liberals. As Blumenfield writes: “Breaking social ties allows us to associate ourselves freely and create new forms of intercourse.” And in the process of breaking down the barriers between US and THEM we must, urges Stirner, unite with others to ‘abolish the conditions that constrain us’, again sounding like Marx but moving beyond his insistence that humanity if defined by work.

For Stirner, then, individualism, properly understood, just is communism and Blumenfield bewails that, sadly, ‘but unsurprisingly’ the secret of communism has not been taken up up since Stirner ‘neither by communists not individualists, Marxists nor anarchists’. Maybe that’s because Stirner’s vision is psychologically impossible. Is it really possible for humans to dissolve all their preconceptions without creating new conceptions; to reject humanism as being only a part of what it means to be an individual? Maybe not – and maybe Stirner serves as reminder that communism, properly understood, may be unachievable. But he may still also serve as a purge or corrective to our fondly held beliefs. And, perhaps, an assault on the selfish egoism of Homo Economicus, while reinforcing the need to ‘abolish the conditions that constrain us’.

How the West made Putin

AS Putin sends his troops and tanks in to Ukraine in an appalling piece of unprovoked aggression that beggars belief, it is, perhaps, useful to remember the role that the West had in creating the conditions that made it easier for someone like Putin to take control of Russia.

Ukrainian troop prepare to defend their country

So, let’s recalls what was happening in 1991. In July that year, as the days of the USSR were numbered, Mikhail Gorbachev was still in power. His policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were being used by him to lead the Soviet Union towards the kind of representative government enjoyed by Scandinavian countries. The press was free, elections had been held for the Russian Parliament, local councils, president and vice-president. Gorbachev wanted a free market economy but with a strong social security net along the lines of the Scandinavian model.

As Naomi Klein points out in The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism the West was at first very supportive of Gorbachev and ‘on a visit to Prague , Gorbachev made it clear that he couldn’t do it all alone’. He said: “Like mountain climbers on one rope, the world’s nations can either climb together to the summit or fall together into the abyss.” He was about to attend his first G7 meeting.

But, as Klein reports, ‘what happened at the G7 meeting was totally unexpected’. She writes: “The nearly unanimous message that Gorbachev received from his fellow heads of state was that, if he did not embrace radical economic shock therapy, they would sever the rope and let him fall.”

Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s

Gorbachev wrote of the event: “Their suggestions as to the tempo and methods of transition were astonishing.”

The shock doctrine was developed by the economist Milton Friedman, the proponent of unfettered capitalism, now often referred to as neoliberalism. He believed that major crises could bring about real change and he thought it was his job, and those of his followers, to strike early and wherever possible to ensure that the mass privatization that was at the heart of the Chicago School of Economics gained traction.

Milton Friedman

But let’s not forget that two years before that G7 meeting relations between the Soviet Union and the West were very different. In his address to the Supreme Soviet on 1 August 1989 Gorbachev said: “Western Europe is realizing more and more how essential it is to achieve mutual understanding and cooperation with the Soviet Union.” It was a different matter after the G7 meeting. According to Klein, Russia was presented with the choice of either carrying on with the reforms of its political set up with representative government or ‘in order to push through a Chicago School economic programme, that peaceful and hopeful process that Gorbachev began had to be violently interrupted, then radically reversed.”

A month after the G7 summit Boris Yeltsin became the hero of the new Russia when he stood on a tank during a failed coup.

Boris Yeltsin addresses the crowd from the famed tank

Not long after that he forced the resignation of of Gorbachev. However, Yeltsin was much more sympathetic towards the Chicago School way of thinking, which had its first run out with Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s. And a series of violent events unleashed by Yeltsin, culminating in a coup on 4 October 1993, brought him to power. Yeltsin imposed shock therapy on the fledgling representative government but could only defend it by…dissolving representative government, receiving enthusiastic support from the West.

There followed a fire sale of Russia’s public wealth, which led to the rising power of the fabulously wealthy oligarchs. But just as Yeltsin positioned himself as the saviour of representative government, so Putin positioned himself as the stabilizing, reassuring figure in 1999 and, as Klein puts it ‘several oligarchs engineered a quiet handover from Yeltsin to Putin, no election necessary’.

Putin and the oligarchs

Putin was originally seen as a backlash against the shock therapy even as ‘tens of millions of impoverished citizens were still excluded from the fast growing economy’. However, the warning signs were there with a ‘new breed of “state oligarchs” rising around the Kremlin’. Meanwhile a ‘growing number of journalists and other critics die mysteriously, and the secret police enjoy seemingly total impunity’. Nevertheless, as Klein puts it, ‘the memory of the chaos of the nineties has made many Russians grateful for the order Putin has restored’.

Of course, the events we are seeing today might have happened any way without the imposition of shock therapy in the 1990s, but perhaps we should at least acknowledge that without the intervention of the G7 as Russia was peacefully reforming itself under Gorbachev, the world might have been very different.