PHILOSOPHY

June 1, 2010

“Unfelt” Misery of the American Workers

“None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.” –Goethe

§1. Philosophical Examination of the “Unfelt” Misery of the American Workers/Employees

Allow me to commence this article by asking two peculiarly vague questions: Are your beliefs, in terms of work ethics,  in your own interest or in the interest of those who want you to believe it? And, what is it that you pretend not to know about yourself when you are at the workplace?

Here in the United States of America, we oddly have given unprecedented primacy and priority to the business sector over and above all other social institutions, such as the institutions of marriage, family, health, the humanities, and so on. We have unilaterally and considerably unconsciously invested the business sector, and hence the economic entities, with significant – and one might add, with “invisible” – powers to almost unconditionally reign over our livelihood and lives. In fact, such economic entities are practically treated as sovereign, untouchable, and even sacred. Not often employees dare to fearlessly and candidly criticize, does not matter how legitimately, their employers or bosses. Is it because, perhaps, while you hold the key to your employer’s profitability, she or he seemingly holds the key to your life and demise? Is this fair enough? Besides the business principles of efficiency, effectiveness, and profitability – the principle of fear is also paramount in operations of businesses, for fear makes employees calculable, predictable, conformable, and – “valuable”.

In some European nations, such as France, if a citizen loses her or his job, the government will provide certain necessities such as: money for food, housing, and transportation, plus free healthcare and subsidized telephone line and Internet connection. As a result, under the governmental protection, the French employees have certain leverage against their employers, who do not hold the key to their lives and demise as done here in the United States. Such balance of powers between employers and employees is resisted against by certain governmental elements in America. Furthermore, in a peculiar sense, the business entities, by proxy, are extensions of our government, as they are heavily regulated under various federal agencies, such as the United States Department of Labor, Department of Commerce, the Internal Revenue Service, and so on. Generally speaking, such departments are more protective toward the business entities than toward those who work for them. We all witnessed how our Federal Government bailed out various giant corporations while the common citizens helplessly lost their jobs, cars, and homes.

Have you ever wondered why workplaces impose upon their employees “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies, such as not to reveal to other employees your salary or hourly wage, or to refrain from communicating with terminated employees? Do such policies implicate elements of dishonesty, irresponsibility, corruption, and immorality within workplaces? In the land of “the free” and “the brave”, why is there so much unfreedom and fears in respect to the business entities? In the land where we take pride in our freedom of speech, why do we lose so much of it when we are at our workplaces? My point is that there is undeniably something spellbinding and hypnotic about the business entities and how we treat them in America.

A crucial question to ask is: Are the American workers complacent about their extant labor conditions because they are conveniently pacified with the rampant materialism and consumerism (i.e., pacified with possession of pacifiers such as iPods, laptops, the Internet, gigantic television sets, television programs, movies, entertainment industry, fashion, automobiles, houses or condominiums, weight loss, facelift, self-image, the American dream, and etc.) – or are they fearful, pretending not to know what they ought to know about themselves? How conscious or unconscious are we of our own states of mind in relation to the labor conditions in the United States of America?

In his book The Prince, the Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) acknowledges that most people are moved by passion (such as fear) rather than by reason. Therefore, he advises that if a ruler desires to effectively exploit his people, the ruler must first learn their passions (and fears) – and then manipulate them to his own advantage. In our time, since greater number of people are principally concerned with the immediate gratification of their senses, and that they do not cultivate and entertain (maintain) their own characters, it is left to extraneous factors to mold, control, and farm the people – by manipulating their passions, for example, for Christ, material possessions, family values, lower pleasures, patriotism, the American dream, and etc. Otherwise, what will the people do with themselves? The human farmers (i.e., socio-economico-political engineers) exploit the herd mentality by making it a priority to create jobs for the herd and to indoctrinate them to the virtues of the American “work ethics” (which is an extension of the “bourgeois morality”). The jobs will supply the herd with livelihood and the desired pacifiers, while the work ethics turns their lives into a self-perpetuating pursuit of material goods and services. This relentless cycle of capital, labor, and consumption of goods and services, under the principle of “supply and [create] demand”, has defined our personal and national characters and identities. In this article, I will critically explore, and hopefully demystify to a degree, the “unfelt” misery of the American workers (used synonymously with “laborers” or “employees”).

Milton Friedman (1912-2006) & C.G. Jung (1875-1961)

§2. Corporate Ethics vs. Morality

Economic thinker Milton Friedman (1912-2006) writes that a person has many responsibilities, such as moral responsibilities toward family, people, society, country, and etc. In contrast, a business entity such as a corporation – which the law treats as a “person” – has only one responsibility according to Friedman: “to engage in activities designed to increase its profits, so long as it stays within the rules of the game.” Friedman portrays a corporation as a person preoccupied with making as much money as possible, maximizing its profits. In doing so, this fictional person conducts itself in a sovereignly selfish, self-serving, and single-minded manner. It does not take much trouble, especially since the recent and ongoing global economic crisis, to realize that a corporation, as an unruly fictional person, seems to be afflicted with severe mental and emotional problems! If you, as an actual person, be blind to your moral responsibilities and behave narcissistically, you would be considered an anti-social or, perhaps, a psychopath. My point is that we legally allow this corporate person to act in deliberate disregard toward moral responsibilities which you and I cannot ignore without being socially sanctioned or punished. We treat corporations with mythical reverence, like the way Zeus, the king of gods, is revered in the ancient Greek myths – the god who would not hesitate to cheat other gods or to bed his own offspring.

Furthermore, employees of a corporation are required to ethically and morally behave themselves toward the corporation – while the corporation does not equally hold itself responsible in ethical and moral terms toward the employees. This is, of course, hypocrisy! In essence, this is tantamount to corporate tyranny, which we have come to accept uncritically and fearfully. Practically, a corporation can, and often does, freely and irrationally criticize and/or terminate its employees without any scruples. Conversely, employees of such a corporation are expected to rationally and responsibly conduct themselves at all times, always embracing the best interest of the business at heart – while slavishly losing their own freedom of speech and individualities by mutating themselves from humans to assets of the company. Here, we will do well to remind ourselves of the Socratic maxim. After the Athenian jury found Socrates guilty of trumped-up charges and sentenced him to death by drinking poison, Socrates courageously faced them and said to them: “It is not death that we should escape from but wretchedness, for it runs faster than death.” In his essay entitled “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”, the Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) eloquently states:

“Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity. Society, by automatically stressing all the collective qualities in its individual representatives, puts a premium on mediocrity, on everything that settles down to vegetate in an easy, irresponsible way. Individuality will inevitably be driven to the wall. This process begins in  . . . all departments in which the State has a hand. In a small social body, the individuality of its members is better safeguarded, and the greater is their relative freedom and the possibility of conscious responsibility. Without freedom there can be no morality.”

Corporatism is quite an important issue in the age wherein more and more Americans are hired by corporations, which keep mercilessly swallowing up sole proprietors. It is an evident fact that corporations abuse their legally invested powers, and their “invisible” powers, against less powerful people and entities. In practice, a corporation is designed to protect itself very much at all costs. On January 21, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the long-standing restrictions on political spending by corporations. In general, the Court’s ruling empowers corporations to freely give money, in any amount, to campaigns for presidential and congressional elections. An urgent question to ask is: Are corporations for profit or for political power? The ideal corporation Friedman describes is out to do nothing but make as much money as it can “within the rules of the game.” The Supreme Court’s ruling may be pregnant with the implication that now corporations have the power to make their own “rules of the game” – which their lobbyists do anyway. By analogy, this is akin to putting prisoners in charge of the prison!

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

§3. Martin Heidegger: Labor and Time

If you agree that money is a substitute for time and energy, then you would also probably agree that what you sell to your employer are your “time” and “effort”. Verily, if your boss had enough time and energy to effectively manage all the affairs of the business, she or he would not need you to work for her or him. Time is expressive of a sacred aspect of your existence, in the sense that time, according to philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), is a precondition of your possibilities in life – and your life and your possibilities do not last forever here in this world. In this regard, how much does your “time” – as a measure and significance of your “being” in the world – matter to you? Your time is your treasure, and the sacrilege (from Latin sacrilegium, “theft of what is sacred”) of your time is extinction of your possibilities, of your life, of your being in the world.

Heidegger, in his book Being and Time, considers the question: Are you “authentic”? (The word “authentic” is derived from the Greek word authentēs, meaning “author”.) In other words, are you the author of your own “time” and “being”? If you, as an employee, are alienated from your own work products, work activities, and your own being at work, you will feel a sense of inauthenticity or not belonging to the workplace – because your time at work does not belong to you and does not serve your own being, but the employer’s – who makes profit (plus the surplus) while you make only an hourly wage (without the surplus). Is your precious time worth the hourly wage you receive? Some would argue that your salary or hourly wage is a measure of how much you respect yourself, let alone how much respect your employer holds for you. How much does your employer pay you per hour? Is your existence, your short time being in this world, worth that much? Or, does the finitude of your existence and possibilities make your time infinite in value, and above all, in significance? Think about it! This is not to imply to hold resentment toward your employer, but to be conscious of your own state of “being”, not letting it go “unfelt”.

If your workplace becomes an encagement (imprisonment) of your time, hence of your possibilities of being in the world, who is to blame? Heidegger would advise us not to be too quick to judge! And, he would insist that: a culture which confuses “being” with “having” and “time” with what is “now” – a culture which is obsessed with accumulation of entities (i.e., consumer goods) which conclusively define the culture’s spirit, orientation, values, and aspirations – is one that should alarm us. In other words, our culture, along with its fostered labor conditions, expresses the impoverishment of our ontological interest in our own existence and time. After all it is estimated that we, as a nation which presently constitutes about 5% of the world population, are currently consuming roughly about 47% of the world resources. The economic, political, and moral ramifications of this estimate are quite deplorable and atrocious! (By analogy, this is similar to 20 individuals getting stuck in middle of a barren desert with only 1 gallon of water, and one of the individuals appropriating about half of the water for himself while leaving the other half to be divided among the other 19 individuals. Hence, the one individual increases his survival at the cost of decreasing the survival of the 19.) Within this context, perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisis did not begin with the subprime mortgage market in the United States, but began with our insatiable greed, our “subprime” mentality, all the way from the governmental level to the level of the common citizens of this land. (For further exploration of Heidegger’s philosophy, see my previous article: https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/being-and-time-part-3/.)

G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)

§4. Hegel: Labor Conditions and Phenomenology of Self-consciousness

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) sets forth his history of the development of human self-consciousness, which is quite revelatory in the context of the existing labor conditions in America. The following passages will indicate that Hegel’s principles of development of human self-consciousness are subtly at work in our workplaces. The first stage of the developmental history of self-consciousness can be characterized as man’s mastery over objects. According to Hegel, at this early phase of human development, the self is conscious of objects surrounding it. The human self relates to these objects through desire for its own gratification, in order to satisfy its bodily appetites and needs. Further, the self finds pleasure in mastering the objects, for example, by handling them, shaping them, manipulating them, exploiting them, destroying them, canceling them out, or negating them. The self satisfies itself by making the objects serve him, for instance, by carving a piece of obsidian into a stabbing tool, by hunting animal objects, devouring their meat, appropriating their bones and hide. Hegel maintains that history reveals that the human self takes mastery of objects as its goal. And, there is one central principle at work in the self’s relation to objects: the principle of negation or death.

Hegel characterizes the next phase of the self’s development as the “life-and-death struggle”. In this movement, the death-dealing consciousness runs into conflict when the object to negate is a human object. The self, in annihilating the human object, realizes that the object has the same desire to master and negate the first self. Each self seeks to assert its own selfhood by overcoming the other. Therefore, the two selves engage in what Hegel refers to as the “trial by death”, whereby each self tries to negate the other. However, soon the self comes to the realization that there is a greater satisfaction to be had by keeping the other self alive. Hegel insists,

“Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it [self-consciousness] exists only in being acknowledged [by others].”

The self needs the other self to look at and recognize the first self as a self. In other words, Hegel argues, one cannot become conscious of one’s own selfhood, unless other selves serve as mirrors through which she or he can observe and be aware of her or his own self. Being conscious of our own existence requires the existence of other selves. Consequently, in the life-and-death struggle, if the self kills the other, the first self will lose on two counts: (1) it will not gain the contentment of having the other self recognize the first self’s mastery and victory, and (2) it will not have the other self acknowledge the first self as a self, and, hence, it will lose the chance of attaining selfhood. Rather than cancelling the other self out of existence, the first self takes great delight in keeping the other self alive and having it know and acknowledge who is the master, who is the self.

Hegel qualifies the next phase of the developmental history of self-consciousness as the “master-slave” (cf. employer and employee) relation, which is brought about by the immanent limitations of the life-and-death struggle. In this new movement, the victor learns not to kill the victim, but to keep him alive and enslaved – making him serve the desires and needs of the master. Hegel regards this new consciousness of master-slave relationship as a dominant factor in shaping the world history, as it commonly occurs during wars, wherein one nation overpowers the other, making the defeated nation serve the will of the triumphant nation. However, Hegel tells us that the master-slave relation suffers from its own inherent limitations or contradictions, which will eventually cause the demise of this mode of relation. In this relation, the slave is forced to work upon material things, to pour out his own existence into them, not for his own benefit and self-fulfillment – but for the welfare of the master. Therefore, the consciousness of master-slave relation renders the slave enmeshed in matter; he becomes indistinguishable from the raw materials and tools he works with; he is reduced to being a thing as opposed to a self; and, he is forced to work upon material things not for his own self-realization, but for the benefit and glory of the master.

Nevertheless, within this relationship, which, on the surface, seems to visibly benefit the master, there are certain internal factors which work over a period of time to favor the slave over the master. First, the master is dependent on the slave’s recognition of him as master, and this dependency of the master is precarious because there is no master unless the slave recognizes him as such. What if the slave refuses to acknowledge him as the master? If the slave determinedly and resolutely stops his self-belittling activities as a slave, then who will serve the desires of the master? Second, the slave has as his mirror the master as an independent person, whereas the master has as his mirror only a lowly dependent slave-self to relate to. This is the master’s only reflection of himself: an impoverished slave-self. Here, the implication is that: By impoverishing and turning the slave into a thing, the master also impoverishes and depreciates his own worth, his own selfhood. Third, and most important of all, although it appears that the master has the advantage in having the slave labor on material things for the master’s benefit, the long-run advantage of this is in fact for the slave. For in laboring, crafting, and producing objects, the slave finds himself in what he makes. He realizes that the objects which he has crafted, which he has transformed from raw materials into utilizable things, is the work of his own hands – and that he is the independent self who has created it. As a result, the slave’s labor, which materializes the will of the master, reveals to the slave that he is not a slave, a thing – that he is, indeed, distinguishable from the materials he works on. He comes upon his own independent existence as a consciousness with the will and power of its own.

Some years later, when German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) lays open the master-slave (“Lordship and Bondage”) chapter in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, he pronounces it as the meaning of labor, insisting that man’s nature is the result of his labor. In his book Capital, Marx affirms:

“As man works on nature outside himself and changes it, he changes at the same time his own nature.”

This is what Hegel’s slave has accomplished: transforming his own nature from a degraded being into an independent self. According to Marx, the modern capitalists (corporations and business owners) are comparable to Hegel’s master, and the modern laborers (i.e., workers or employees) correspond to Hegel’s slave. For him, the modern relations between “bourgeois” (owners) and “proletarian” (workers) are a rendition of the master-slave relationship. (For the rest of the phases of the developmental history of the human self-consciousness refer to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

§5. Karl Marx: Labor and Alienation

Karl Marx is a keen observer of how the modern conditions of labor under capitalism have radically changed our lives and the course of the world history. He believes that the modern economic relations have created a battleground where everybody ruthlessly pursues her or his own private interests. This is a battle of all against all, not excluding the subtle economic tensions existing between family members.

Consider an average American laborer (or worker), who works one or two jobs that are often monotonous, meaningless, and self-humiliating – although the laborer may not be conscious of her or his own woeful situation. The moment the laborer leaves home and hits the road to go to work, the war of all against all nauseatingly manifests itself right there on the road! The laborer labors eight hours or more per day, for five days or more per week. While at work, the laborer has to deal with work conditions that are often hostile and dehumanizing. So, the laborer grows weary and numb at work. Inasmuch as the laborer’s job is the principal source of her or his livelihood and welfare, the laborer’s job defines, regulates, and proceduralizes the laborer’s life both in and – outside of the workplace. Inescapably, the laborer will be socially defined by her or his job and income. Since we popularly value labor by the wage it makes, the less money the laborer makes the less the life of the laborer is valued, unfortunately. Verily, the laborer is chained to her or his job, which by and large pays enough to keep the laborer alive to return to work. After leaving the workplace with a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction, do you suppose the laborer will be in a favorable spirit to go home and meaningfully interact with her or his spouse and children? In all likelihood, her or his spouse is already experiencing the same wretched conditions. So, the couple, feeling unfulfilled and being physically and mentally drained, expediently resort to buy junk food for everyone, rather than enjoying a healthy meal which can cost more time and money. (As Marx puts it, “The less you eat . . . the greater becomes your treasure . . . your capital. The less you are the more you have”.) Hence, the poor labor conditions of the couple – which is the same labor conditions under which millions of other Americans find themselves – pave the way toward the degradation of their psychological and physical health, for which the healthcare industry is awaiting with open arms! (Not many realize how our work conditions bleed into our personal lives and relations.) Later, after some hours of watching their favorite television programs, the couple may suddenly feel that they can find a sense of fulfillment, or even a sense of identity, by going to a mall and shop! Tragically enough, there are those who think that shopping is a great “therapy”, which is in fact a poor substitution for the “happiness” they seek. As long as the legal and political structure of capitalism keeps the working class depressed and spiritually impoverished, the shopping therapy will continue and the wheels of our economy will turn! Unfortunately, our Government seems to value our contributions to the U.S. economy as more important than our contributions to our own wellbeing.

Here, my point is that, as Marx thinks, our modern economic conditions (of which the labor conditions are an integral part) create a social setting that the more one participates in it – the less human one becomes. As he expresses it in his Paris Manuscripts:

“Money . . . transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence and intelligence into idiocy.”

In the case of the American laborer and his or her spouse, their jobs – or more specifically, the prevalent economic conditions – deprive them of their health, self-identity, and meaningful relationship with one another, with their children, and with their coworkers – and all this in the country that self-professedly is all about “family values”! In his Manifesto, Marx writes that the capitalists as “leaders of whole industrial armies” have overturned the traditional human relationships of the feudal age, leaving no other relationship “between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” Furthermore, under capitalism, the institution of family itself has become a monetary unit, wherein members of family relate to one another monetarily. Capitalism, according to Marx, has mercilessly turned family and social values into monetary values. As he puts it, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . . .” Since in capitalism capital is of “utmost value”, other values – such as values of love, marriage, family, friendship, decency, mercy, honesty, fairness, truth and so on – become subservient to the value of money and property.

According to the dominant capitalist mentality (of which the American work ethics is a byproduct that has been stealthily implanted in peoples’ unconscious minds as their own), your misery and unhappiness are entirely your own fault, and that you deserve it and should not complain about it. Certainly, there is an element of truth to this admonition. However, this truth will not run very far as long as our government does not wholeheartedly and indiscriminately provide the necessary conditions under which all the citizens can have the opportunity to educate and better themselves. By analogy, an apple seed can grow to become an apple tree – only under the right conditions: namely, proper weather and soil, adequate amount of water, and enough sunlight. One would not expect an apple seed to grow on its own accord and become fruitful in middle of a barren dessert. In the same manner, a woman or a man needs the proper conditions in order to develop as a human and to be a fruitful member of the society. One needs to be free from ignorance and prejudice in order to be free to humanly cultivate one’s potentials. What is the point if one demands freedom of speech when one is not enabled or educated enough to know how to exercise the right? The eminent Cordovan philosopher, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), known in the West as Moses Maimonides, insisted that, “The aim of any society . . . [should be] the development of human beings and not of wealth.” In the same spirit, the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) stated, “Create citizens, and you have everything you need; without them, you will have nothing but debased slaves, from the rulers of the State downwards.”

Marx fundamentally construes humans as adventurous and creative beings, with faculties geared toward externalizing their creativity through productions of cultural artifacts, such as tools, buildings, artworks, literature, science, and etc. However, under the present economic conditions under capitalism, laborers’ work products have become alien to them because, according to Marx, their productive activities are done in servitude to the money-God, rather than in serving their own human potentials and fulfilling their own creative nature. Therefore, per Marx, the history of human creative production has been a history of alienation from our creative nature. In his essay entitled “The Jewish Question”, he writes:

“Money is the jealous one God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand. Money dethrones all the gods of man and turns them into a commodity. Money is the universal, independently constituted value of all things. It has therefore deprived the whole world, both the world of man and nature, of its own value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and his being. This alien being rules him and he worships it.”

For Marx, the modern commercial world under capitalism is a religion of money worship, which disunites and alienates (estranges) members of society, including family members, from one another. In accordance with his Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844, human alienation takes on four forms:

1)    Alienation from your work products: The money economy of capitalism alienates the worker from her or his work products, which exist as things estranged and indifferent to the worker who creates them, and which also exist as objects of pleasure for somebody else.

2)    Alienation from your productive Activities: The money mania of capitalism alienates the worker from her or his productive activities – activities which are turned into “forced labor” because the activities of the worker are not of personal interest to her or him, who is compelled to perform them just to keep alive.

3)    Alienation from your human qualities: The modern money economy alienates the worker from her or his fundamental human and social qualities, such as love, sympathy, kindness, leisure, and etc.

4)    Alienation from your fellowmen: At last, capitalism alienates the worker from her or his fellow men. Marx called this “the estrangement of man from man”, whereby we all compete against each other.

Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929)

§6. Habermas: Labor, Communication, and Emancipation

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is known for his reformulation of a pre-existing theory known as the “critical theory” – a theory whose interest is in the practical, not just theoretical, emancipation of human beings. German philosopher Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), a pioneer of this theory, under whom Habermas had studied, stated in his Critical Theory (Kritische Theorie) that a theory is vital or critical to the degree it endeavors “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”. Critical theory is based on and builds upon philosophy of Karl Marx. Indeed, the critical theory’s longing to liberate human beings in practice is expressive of Marx’s statement, “The philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (Italics are added.).

In concocting his theory, Habermas maintains that the human species has three fundamental (or critical) interests: in labor, communication, and emancipation. He insists that these fundamental interests are so essential and vital that we cannot meaningfully subsist without them. He commences his critical theory by making a distinction between labor and communication. The first fundamental interest of the human species is in reproducing their lives through labor (or work). The second fundamental interest of the human species is in communication (or interaction) with one another. Without these deeply seated interests in labor and communication, social bonds would disintegrate and society would parasitically consume itself. For Habermas, the formation of human self takes place in the spheres of both labor and communication within social context. However, he construes the communicative dimension of human interactions as having a primary role in development of human self, since he, akin to Hegel, is of the conviction that we become selves in our interaction with other selves. In this context, if an individual is incapable of adequately communicating with others and incapable of psychologically and morally benefiting from her or his productive activities, the individual would be vulnerable to self-deficiency. Habermas emphatically insists that human development is significantly contingent on how human beings externalize their creativity in their labor and how they communicate or interact with each other. Besides labor and communication, Habermas claims that the human race has a third fundamental interest: the critical interest in human emancipation, in human liberation from unnecessary constraints to their psychophysical and moral development. Indeed, a society that does not embody these three rudimentary factors in its fabric would be in a state of disintegration, and the members of such a society would become alienated from their own selves, each another, and their socio-economico-political institutions. One wonders that to what degree the United States has incorporated the three fundamental factors in its institutions of labor, mass communication, and so forth.

Emphasizing the fundamental human interest in clear and unobstructed communication with one another, Habermas makes a contrast between “undistorted communication” and systematically “distorted communication”. He lays out a series of qualifications for undistorted communication. According to one of the qualifications, truly undistorted communication must have “symmetry conditions”. In political terms, it means that everyone must have an equal opportunity to talk and to listen, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey. This symmetrical communication is an egalitarian principle, without which the possibility of undistorted communication among various parties becomes knotty and problematic. When an employer or government holds power over powerless employees or citizens respectively, the inequality of power between them creates a condition for distorted communication. Unequal power distorts communication. This is why employees seldom get the undistorted truth from their employers, and employers seldom get the undistorted truth from their employees. Their communication is often distorted by relations of unequal powers.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates owned nothing and was virtually in no position of power in Athens. Yet, his charm was that when he engaged in an argument with someone who had power (either of political nature or of social status) over him, Socrates would compel him to depend solely on the force of his argument, as opposed to his political power or social status. In other words, this was no situation where “might is right”. The only force that Habermas wants us to recognize is the unforced force of communicatively rational argument, as opposed to brute power of money or physical might. A free human being is one who can change his or her mind upon hearing a better argument – without feeling any shame. When a judicious argument has the force to make one see the weakness of one’s own argument and change one’s mind in accordance to it, this is the force that only a free human being can recognize.

Habermas contends that our survival fundamentally pivots around liberating ourselves from distorted communication and fostering humane practices of labor. Is it the case that the American labor force – whose labor conditions are alienable and not as humane as they seem – has managed to subsist so far because of the mass communication industry which actively distorts laborers’ perceptions of their own misery and compels them to pacify themselves with consumer goods and services? In a nation where capital is of utmost value and where perpetual mass consumption of goods and services vitally sustains the heartbeat of the nation, there may not be any other way.

Habermas’ concept of distorted communication corresponds to Karl Marx’s concept of “ideology”: the ruling ideas are in every age the ideas of the ruling class – connoting that, the ruling ideas of the ruling class are ideologies that are purposefully devised to impoverish the masses and to maintain the elite in positions of power. Further, Habermas’ concept of distorted communication passes the test of ideology by asking: Is what you believe – in the interest of those who want you to believe it? For instance, one can take “democracy” as it exists in the United States. The powerful – those who own and control the means of production, communication, information, and dissemination – want the citizens to blindly believe that democracy is a present and immanent reality in this nation. Yet, American democracy and its exportation around the globe, under the banner of freedom, is an outstanding example of systematically distorted communication – as our existing democracy gutlessly backstabs the principle of having a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. “Work ethics” in America is another striking example of systematically distorted communication. In reality, work ethics in America is not so ethical at all – for it is an ideology or sets of codes of conduct that are designed to systematically manipulate and deprive the working class for the sake of benefiting the capitalists. The American work ethics – which has been so cunningly and subconsciously embedded in the minds of the American working class – has deprived them of their leisure, dignity, humanity, family, health, and etc. – and all this serves the interest of those who own the means of production, communication, information, and dissemination. Do you think a capitalist boss is ready and willing to engage in “undistorted communication” with her or his employees? The capitalist boss may never acquiesce to engage in undistorted communication with her or his employees; however, her or his employees’ enlightened consciousness – if enlightened at all – of their own dehumanizing labor conditions would make it difficult for the boss not to submit. Money and power, as abstract systems, need to be harmonized with the rest of our social system before we can be in a position to truly communicate with one another rationally and without distortions.

(Dear reader, please feel free to make a critique of this article. I look forward to learning from you!)

For further exploration of philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Jürgen Habermas see the following links:

Jürgen Habermas (Disentanglement of Reason from Terror): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/critical-theory/

Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, Part 1): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/being-and-time-part-1/

Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, Part 2): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/being-and-time-part-2/

Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, Part 3): https://philossophy.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/being-and-time-part-3/

April 17, 2010

Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas

Disentanglement of Reason from Terror

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is an ardent champion of rationalism in a period of philosophy wherein rationalism has lost certain credibility. During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century Europe, the spirit of the time inspired many Europeans to believe that, for the first time in history, humans through the power of reason are grasping the expanding truths of science and natural rights of man, and that these truths will free mankind from ignorance, dogma, and tyranny. They firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are now equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to eliminate or reform the unjust social and political institutions. The vision of the Enlightenment was the reconstruction of the human world through reason in order to serve the natural law of “progress”. They looked ahead to a bright future for all humanity, which they thought is guaranteed by the necessary natural law of progress. They deemed the natural law of progress as the natural law of human reason to discover scientific truths about nature and turn this expanding knowledge into practice in the form of technology for the benefit of humanity. In addition, the natural law of progress entailed discovering truths about human nature and turning these truths into practice in order to remove or rectify fraudulent social and political institutions. Never before had human beings been so confident in their knowledge of the natural world and human nature. With a great sense of optimism, they believed they could rebuild the social and political world on a foundation of universal truths. They believed they were, or would be soon, in command of all the knowledge necessary to improve the world. But, today, we are less confident of having the knowledge to solve the problems of poverty, hunger, healthcare, population control, unemployment, political uncertainties, economic crises, energy, and et cetera. Have we lost our Enlightenment sense of optimism?

§1. Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas, as a great defender of the Enlightenment dream of renovating the human world through reason, ventured to reformulate a pre-existing theory known as the “critical theory”, a theory whose interest is in the practical, not just theoretical, emancipation of human beings. German philosopher Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), a pioneer of this theory, under whom Habermas had studied, stated in his Critical Theory that a theory is vital or critical to the degree it endeavors “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”. Critical theory is based on and builds upon philosophy of Karl Marx. Indeed, the critical theory’s longing to liberate human beings in practice is reminiscent not only of Marx’s assertion “The philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, but also of the Enlightenment idea to reconstruct the human world. Habermas is critically interested in human liberation from unnecessary life sufferings. There is a significant difference between living a relatively healthy life and dying at an old age, and living in poverty and dying at an early age. In concocting his theory, Habermas asserted that the human species has three fundamental, or critical, interests in labor, communication, and emancipation. He insisted that these interests are so fundamental and vital that we cannot meaningfully subsist without them.

§2. Fundamental Human Interests: Labor, Communication, and Emancipation

The first fundamental interest of the human species is in reproducing their lives through labor (or work). The second fundamental interest of the human species is in communication (or interaction) with one another. For Habermas, the formation of human self takes place in the spheres of both labor and communication within social context. However, he construed the communicative dimension of human interactions as having a primary role in development of human self because he was of the conviction that we become selves in our interactions with other selves. In this context, if an individual is incapable of adequately communicating with others and is incapable of psychologically and morally benefiting from her or his productive activities, the individual would be self-deficient. Human development is significantly contingent on how human beings externalize their creativity in their labor and how they interact with others. Besides labor and communication, Habermas asserted that the human race has a third fundamental interest: the critical interest in human emancipation, in human liberation from unnecessary constraints to their psychophysical and moral development, the unnecessary constraints to the fundamental interests in labor and communication. Indeed, a society that does not embody these three rudimentary factors in its composition would be in a state of disintegration, and the members of such a society would become alienated from their own selves and each other. One wonders that to what degree the three fundamental factors have been incorporated in the fabric of the American society. Without these deeply seated interests in labor, communication, and emancipation, the social bonds would disintegrate and society would parasitically consume itself.

§3. Instrumental Rationality and Communicative Rationality

Next, Habermas made a distinction between “instrumental rationality” (or instrumental reason) and “communicative rationality” (or communicative reason). Each mode of rationality is governed by a specific set of values that defines its unique functions, operations, and goals. Generally employed in diverse ways in spheres such as science, technology, medicine, healthcare, human labor, legislation, social engineering, economics, and politics, instrumental reason is a particular kind of human reason that is instrumental toward producing a specified, isolated result. For instance, in the realm of science, human reason has contrived investigative methods that are instrumental toward finding causes of natural phenomena. In the realm of politics, human reason has produced governmental agencies and policies that are instrumental in running the domestic and international affairs of the state. Or, in the sphere of human labor (where a current dominant value is efficiency for the sake of profit), human mind through use of technology has devised tools such as hammers or computers that are instrumental in producing certain products and services. In its obstinate pursuit of its objectives, instrumental reason is often insensate to moral, social, environmental, economic, and/or political concerns, just to name a few. Therefore, instrumental reason is characteristically unperceptive to the long-term consequences of its objectives. Further, instrumental reason is more monological than dialogical, and more unilateral than multilateral in its thinking process toward accomplishment of its individuated goals. (For a more thorough treatment of “instrumental rationality” see “Totalitarian Reason”.) On the other hand, communicative reason, commonly exercised in the spheres of the humanities and ethics, is dialogical and interactional. Communicative reason, with its own specific set of values, is a mode of human thinking geared toward interaction with one another and enlightenment.

§4. Communication and Labor

According to Habermas, the sentences that we utter fundamentally have built into them a desire or tendency for consensus or unconstrained understanding. When a person speaks a sentence (e.g., “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”), it has built into it the desire that others understand the person. In other words, our sentences already contain the “critical” impulse, i.e., the fundamental human interest in communication. Habermas insists that the fundamental human desire for clear communication, for the sake of understanding one another, is embedded in the structure of phonetic languages. Emphasizing the fundamental human interest in clear and unobstructed communication with one another, Habermas made a contrast between “undistorted communication” and systematically “distorted communication”.

§5. Undistorted Communication

Habermas laid out a series of stipulations for undistorted communication. According to the first stipulation, truly undistorted communication must have “symmetry conditions”. In political terms, it means that everyone must have an equal opportunity to talk and to listen, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey. This symmetrical communication is an egalitarian principle, without which the possibility of undistorted communication becomes problematic. When an employer holds power over a powerless employee, or when a government holds power over a powerless citizen—the inequality of power between them creates a condition for distorted communication. Unequal power distorts communication. This is why employees seldom get the undistorted truth from their employers, and employers seldom get the undistorted truth from their employees. The same also applies to marital relations; communication between a wife and her husband is often distorted by relations of unequal powers. To be communicatively rational, everyone must have the same right to speak and to be heard, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey.

Philosopher Socrates owned nothing and was virtually in no position of power in the ancient Athens. Yet, his charm was that when he engaged in an argument with an interlocutor who had power (either of political nature or of social status) over him, Socrates would compel him to depend solely on the force of his argument as opposed to his political power or social status. In other words, this was no situation where “might is right”. The only force that Habermas wants us to recognize is the unforced force of communicatively rational argument as opposed to money or power. A free human being is one who can change, without feeling any shame, her or his mind upon hearing a better argument. When a judicious argument has the force to make one see the weakness of one’s own argument and change one’s mind accordingly, this is the force that only a free human being can recognize.

According to the second stipulation, to achieve undistorted communication, one’s contribution in communicating with others should be true, sincere, and relevant. The third stipulation, in attainment of undistorted communication, is a moral condition, that one must try to make one’s contributions toward advancement of a right cause or what is right. Here, there is no theory of “right” other than being true, sincere, and relevant.

§6. Distorted Communication

The critical interest in human emancipation from unnecessary constraints to human development entails freeing ourselves from both the distortions of instrumental reason and the distortions of communicative reason. Is it the case that the American labor force, whose labor conditions are alienable, has managed to subsist in part because of the mass communication industry which actively distorts laborers’ perceptions of their own misery and compels them to pacify themselves with pacifiers such as consumer goods and services? In a nation where capital is of utmost value and where perpetual mass consumption of goods and services vitally sustain the heartbeat of the nation, there may not be any other way.

Habermas’ concept of distorted communication corresponds to Karl Marx’s concept of “ideology”: the ruling ideas are in every age the ideas of the ruling class—that the ruling ideas of the ruling class are ideologies that are purposefully devised to impoverish the masses and to maintain the elite in positions of power. Further, Habermas’ concept of distorted communication passes the test of ideology by asking: Is what you believe—in the interest of those who want you to believe it? For instance, let us consider democracy as it exists in the United States. The powerful—those who own and control the means of production, communication, information, and its dissemination—want the citizens to blindly believe that democracy is a present and immanent reality in this nation. Yet, American democracy and its exportation around the globe under the banner of freedom is an outstanding example of systematically distorted communication as our existing democracy gutlessly backstabs the principle of having a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Work ethics in America is another striking example of systematically distorted communication. In reality, work ethics in America is not so ethical at all—for it is an ideology or codes of conduct that are systematically designed to manipulate and deprive the working class for the sake of benefiting the capitalists. The American work ethics, which has been so cunningly and subconsciously embedded in the minds of the American working class, has deprived them of their leisure, dignity, humanity, family, health, and et cetera. Do you suppose a capitalist boss is ready and willing to engage in undistorted communication with his employees?

§7. Interpretive Basis of Communication

For his communication model, Habermas employed an interpretive base. One way the humanities employ communicative reason to advance clear communication is through interpretation of texts. Habermas highly stressed the critical role of interpretation in our daily lives. A great many people have suffered grim consequences because of interpreting a certain text in a certain way. Consider the Bible: reading and interpreting it in certain ways have sent a great many people to their deaths. Or, take the U.S. Constitution. According to the First Amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” What if one decides to exercise a religion of human sacrifice because the text says that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”? The Constitution must mean that; “no law” means no law! The point is that interpretation of text is quite indispensible and consequential in our lives. Habermas insists that we are interpretive beings, with the implication that interpretation is, perhaps, one of the fundamental conditions for formation of the human self. We are always interpreting our and others’ physical and mental states. Am I sad or cheerful, displeased or pleased, chubby or skinny? When we stop at a red traffic light, we are already engaged in an act of interpreting the color red. The color red can have many other meanings: danger, communist, sexy, or else. When we perceive smoke rising from behind a building, we immediately interpret the smoke as having been caused by a fire. People who have been married for over thirty years still keep interpreting each other’s moods and behaviors. This demonstrates the ubiquity of interpretation in human life. (And, one may add to this that, perhaps it is the television shows that interpret themselves to the viewers by bypassing their upper brain functions and directly injecting information into their subconscious minds. In other words, the viewers may not get to interpret the images on television screens; the images interpret or define the viewers.) Hence, Habermas’ theory of communication has an interpretive foundation.

In order to overcome systematically distorted communication, Habermas adopted Freud’s psychoanalytic method of removing problematic symptoms. Freud’s method of removal of symptoms was practiced in a setting where you have an analyst and a patient, wherein the latter “free associates” or reveals her or his train of thoughts while the analyst closely listens. In this setting, the goal is practical, that is, to cure the patient and to remove the symptoms. Further, for Freud, the way the analyst can bring the analysis or therapy of the patient to a conclusion is when the therapist intervenes by presenting a possible interpretation of the symptoms to which both the therapist and the patient are in agreement. In this manner, the psychoanalyst helps the patient to remove her or his own blocks to communication between his or her unconscious and conscious mind. This is the Freudian psychoanalytic method that Habermas adopted, with modifications, in removing blocks or ideologies that distort clear communication between various parties, let’s say between the citizens and their government or between those who own the means of productions and those who work for those who own the means of productions. A capitalist boss may never acquiesce to engage in undistorted communication with her or his employees; however, her or his employees’ enlightened consciousness of their own dehumanizing labor conditions would make it difficult for the boss not to submit.

§8. Distortion of Reason is not a Paradox of Reason

Habermas was cognizant of how instrumental reasoning led to mechanization of human life since the Enlightenment onward and the blow instrumental reason received as a result of the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 20th century. Nevertheless, in his passionate attempt to defend human reason, he tried to mark off a sphere of undistorted communication that can serve as the basis for his concept of communicative reason. His purpose was to untangle the entwinement of enlightened thought and the paradoxical barbarity that has been unfolding since the advent of modernity. The grand vision of the Enlightenment—through its unwavering trust in human reason—was the emancipation of mankind from oppression, yet paradoxically the Enlightenment led to a new form of oppression, irrationality, mechanization of human life, bureaucratization of human societies, totalitarianism of governing powers, and dogmatization of sciences. The promoters of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, could not predict an outcome so contrary to human reason. To Habermas, the failures of reason in events such as the rise of communism, fascism, the Cold War, the U.S. war against terrorism, or the fall beneath the level of civilization reached by capitalism—are not indicative of hypocrisy of the Enlightenment dream and of human reason. He attributed such failures to the distortions of reason and communication. According to Habermas, the trick is not to give up on modern life, but to disentangle enlightenment from terror and barbarism. Undoubtedly, modernity has given mankind certain benefits; it is better to have toothache in 2010 than in 1710. It is not human reason that we must abandon, but its distortions.

In conclusion, Habermas insists that communicative rationality is a process of enlightenment that includes all, janitors and senators. In his Theory and Practice, Habermas stated, “in a process of enlightenment there can only be participants.” Money and power, as abstract systems, need to be harmonized with the rest of our social system before we can be in a position to truly communicate with one another rationally without distortions, and be in a position to find our way out of this entwinement of enlightenment and terror. Habermas thought that such a possibility exits.

April 14, 2010

Totalitarian Reason

Herbert Marcuse

One-Dimensional Rationality

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1798-1979) was a notable critic of modernity. He perceived a certain contradiction or crisis that has always been brewing at the core of modernity, of the modern Western world having been rationalized, technologized, and bureaucratized. Modernity grew out of the 18th century Enlightenment’s ideals to free the human mind from prejudice, superstition, church dogma, and monarchical tyranny. According to eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), daring to think for oneself or daring to use one’s own reason was the fundamental principle of the Enlightenment. The patrons of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to remove or reform the corrupt social and political institutions. The grandiose vision of the Enlightenment was to reconstruct the human world—through the use of reason, science, and technology—in order to serve the natural law of “progress”: that human reason can discover scientific truths about the natural world and human nature, and turn these bodies of knowledge into practice in forms of technology and social reform for the benefit of humanity. The Enlightenment excelled the rise of science, technology, secularization, industrialization, and capitalism to demystify the world. However, according to Marcuse, the attempt to make the world transparent to rational human reason was pregnant with a crisis, a paradox. The paradox of the Enlightenment project is that it has had inadvertent consequences: dogmatic scientism, totalitarianism, and irrationality.

The more science did housecleaning of the traditional religious views, the more technology innovated machines to make human life convenient, and the more industrialization and capitalism implemented technological innovations to mechanize production—the more convoluted and complex our lives became. Furthermore, the more refined and less dogmatic science became and the more people became convinced that science in service of technology can change our world for the better—the more dogmatic people became about science and its findings, for they neither have the time nor the knowhow to scrutinize them. Hence, this attitude, abreast of the idea of “progress”, gave birth to “scientism”: the belief that the investigative methods of science are applicable to various areas of human life. Here, of course, Marcuse’s point is not to depreciate the instrumental value of science, but to point out its limitations and ramifications.

According to Marcuse, we have constructed a human intellect powerful enough to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, but any intellect that powerful has a tendency to be tyrannical! While it is true that science and technology have helped us to procure the knowhow to deal with certain areas of human life (such as in the fields of civil engineering, medicine, and et cetera), it may not be a fair assessment that the progress of the Enlightenment project has made us less fearful and unsecure in the face of the modern problems. We are still wrestling with the problems of poverty, hunger, healthcare, population control, unemployment, political uncertainties, economic crises, and energy. What is paradoxical about the Enlightenment’s tenacious confidence in human reason is that, it has turned into a force of mystification of the human world. For instance, how is it that the Germans, who highly excelled themselves above many other people in science, technology, arts, literature, philosophy, civics, and industrialization since the dawn of modernity and became an epitome of civilization, how is it that such people, who have given Goethe, Beethoven, Einstein, and many more to the world—also gave birth to Nazism and brutality? They built a human intellect firm enough to withstand excruciating challenges and to ennoble man’s spirit, yet this intellect became totalitarian. How so?

Marcuse construed instrumental rationality/reason as a major cause underlying the crisis in the heart of modernity. Instrumental rationality, as a specific mode of human reason, is principally predicated on efficiency (in terms of time, cost, and procedure) in relentlessly reaching its individuated goals, which are not critically evaluated in terms of moral, social, economic, political, and/or environmental considerations. In other words, instrumental rationality—governed by a specific set of values that define its unique functions, operations, and goals—is a particular kind of human reason that is instrumental toward producing a specific, isolated result that is often shortsighted toward its far reaching moral, social, economic, political, and/or environmental consequences. In a sense, instrumental reason’s objectivity renders it insensitive to moral, social, or other vital concerns for the sake of focusing solely on the result it persistently pursues.

Generally, instrumental reason is employed in various ways in the spheres of science, technology, economics, labor, legislation, and politics. In the context of modern Western societies, the bigger an organization is, the more it is instrumentally rationalized compartmentalized, and bureaucratized. In addition, instrumental reason is highly informative toward our daily decisions and activities. Almost all workplaces in the United States, particularly large business organizations, instrumentally rationalize their business affairs and human resources. Often, this kind of mentality divests the employees of their individualities and brings them to conformity or drives them up the wall. As Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) stated in his essay “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”: “Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity. Society, by automatically stressing all the collective qualities in its individual representatives, puts a premium on mediocrity, on everything that settles down to vegetate in an easy, irresponsible way. Individuality will inevitably be driven to the wall.”

The present problem of global warming may serve as an unforeseen ramification of instrumental rationality, as an unintended consequence of instrumental reasoning within the sphere of production of goods. Capitalists, motivated by profit, have instrumentally rationalized means of production (such as air-polluting factories) in order to produce goods (such as automobiles) that have contributed to emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and hence, contributing to the global warming. Use of rationality as a tool toward an isolated end—which is blind to moral, social, and/or other crucial considerations—may result in unanticipated ramifications.

According to Marcuse, because the Enlightenment focused upon reason as individuated efforts of individuals, it did not foresee that the overall effects of reason might be irrational. Individual, rational decisions of a people may lead to irrational results. For instance, after eight hours of work, workers make individual, rational decisions to leave work around 5:00 PM. However, the collective result of such singular, rational decisions produces an irrational outcome: traffic congestion. Economy is full of such paradoxes. The global stock market crash of 1987 (known as the “Black Monday”) is said to have been caused by computers, each individually making a rational decision, together crashed the market. In this sense, instrumentally rationalizing the constituent parts of a system in isolation from one another can bear irrational consequences.

For Marcuse, the point is not to abandon instrumental reason, but to lay bare its one-dimensional nature. Human reason has other dimensions besides this. The challenge is to find a balanced approach to reason. Instrumental reason, sharply focused on its isolated efforts and ends is blind to surrounding circumstances. Instrumental rationality is partly a result of self-absorbed individuals isolating themselves from each other in a fragmented, individualistic society where genuine social bonds are disintegrated and supplanted with materialistic values which dictate our lives. While the Enlightenment demythologized the world in a certain sense, it carried myth along with itself. It created new myths. The crisis at the heart of the Enlightenment seems to be fundamentally a crisis of human imagination or the lack thereof.

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