Monday, January 21, 2013

Django Unchained? How About Us Unchained?

Imagine a white guy in the American South, say Alabama, in 1850. He's not rich, but he saves up enough money to buy a slave. Now if the guy is "smart" – if he has "merit" and potential for "success" – he will figure out how much having the slave costs in terms of housing, food, and "security," and then endeavor to use the slave in ways that make more money than those costs. That's the whole point of having a slave – to make more money than s/he costs. It's capitalism pure and simple! Slavery was capitalism pure and simple! Back then, with a frontier, a slave could theoretically run away and find some alternative way to survive, so the owners needed to use chains and mounted posses to keep people at work, to keep their people profitable. Nowadays, the frontier is gone; there's nowhere to escape the global plutocratic management of population for profit. The owners don't have to officially enslave people who have nowhere else to go (or who think they have nowhere else to go). It's a captive population. That's the reality of modern life – unless you have a big chunk of money to live off of, you have to work for money to survive. That's modern life and it's not in any meaningful way a "choice." We never get to vote on it. So: modern capitalist life was built on slavery and in real and significant ways it continues to depend on relations organized for profit that are practically identical to slavery. It's a dreary situation. But we can create benevolent paths away from where we are – one of the first steps is acknowledging the fundamental theoretical, practical, and moral problems that infect capitalist modernity as a way of organizing society and everyday life.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Finding Like-Minded People p.1


Morality – the question of what it means to be a good person – is a *social* issue – it's about how you treat other people, how you consider the effects of your actions on others. Proposed value: good citizens and decent people strive to live by the following principle: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (or whoever you care most about in the world). In other words, a person acts morally when she treats others with the same respect and consideration with which she would want her loved ones to be treated. This 'golden rule' demonstrates that morality ("the way a person should act") is about relations with other people; it's *social*. Morality is not a code laying down specific "don't dos" and "do dos" in order to be a good person. If someone personally or as part of a voluntary group wants to ALSO live by some code of ethics with strict rules of what you can and cannot do, that's their business and they are free to do so as long as it does not interfere with anyone else. As a community, we have the right to expect people to act morally, i.e., in accord with the golden rule, but good citizens and decent people do not try to impose their particular ethical code on anybody else who does not choose to live that way.

Proposed value: at birth, every human being is equally deserving of respect and equally deserving of a society where she or he can live a good life. This radical (at the roots) human equality plus the golden rule means a good society should not allow power to form in ways that would enable any one person or class of people to lord it over any other – from the perspective of society and power, all people are equal and should be treated equally. That doesn't mean that everyone is equally smart or talented or whatever, just that society should not provide ways to use those smarts or talents to gain power over others.

(Of course, some people do not value equality and they should not be forced to live in communities of people who do. We should use this value as a crucial distinction determining general groups of like-minded people. [People who don't agree that equality is an important value to build into our communities must want to use smarts and talents to gain power over others. The not-explicitly-elitist arguments against equality as a social value mostly seem to come down to economistic propaganda about "innovation" and "growth" that just puts a pretty face on the materialism and greed at the core of the totalizing capitalist consumer society we are currently laboring through. But in any event those who don't value equality should be free and encouraged to have their separate communities of people who don't value equality].)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Cultural anthropology's place on the map to democracy

Cultural anthropology in a nutshell: Human life occurs in group realities, lived systems of concepts and practices, meanings and activities, that lay out the structures and contents of worlds of experience. The worlds of experience built out of meanings and practices that we occupy and enact include forms of agency and personhood, general structures of intention and desire, general conceptions of self and others, and the social and physical terrain of everyday life. We are socialized into group realities, with their particular systems of concepts and practices, which we then produce and reproduce as we enact ourselves and live our everyday lives using the available symbolic and material resources. Sociocultural realities (group enactments of worlds of experience and practice) are potentially (and usually) constituted with various forms of inequality and domination built in. Building inequality into daily life generally benefits the privileged by making it hard to see from the inside, where the inequality may appear "natural." Thus, people can enact inequality, as either privileged or subordinated, as they enact everyday life, without being fully aware of what they are doing.

Anthropology thus raises (but tends to avoid addressing too clearly) the question of what we can do about the realities we live in. Does having a good higher-order theory of human reality, language, and power enable us to develop a better 'language-practice' that could facilitate the construction of better realities, based not on power concentration but on democracy, freedom, time, love, or whatever other values groups of like-minded people decide are best for them at any given moment? I don't see any good reason not to be optimistic, to believe (even as faith if necessary, as it probably is) that groups of humans acting in good will have the capacity – the freedom and the ability – to create much much better ways of living than we've got going now.