Better People For Better Worlds Dept.


When I was younger — we're talking in my late teens, early twenties — I got into a argument-of-sorts with a then-friend that went along these lines. Most people, the overwhelming majority, do not want to use their minds. They want their newspaper to do their thinking for them, their TV to do their dreaming for them. They refuse to accept responsibility both for their intelligence and their imagination.

I'm not proud to say I was in agreement with this line of thinking at the time. Where I did break rank with my friend then, though, was over the idea that Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur — that because people have this tendency, it's okay to screw them, because that's what they really want. Never mind it's not what they really need. Whether or not one's intentions had to be good to get away with this was not discussed then, but the mere idea was on the table.

So what's the alternative?

The radical anarchist in me (such as there is one) is tempted to imagine a world where the exact opposite is the case — where everyone is engaged by default, where their imaginations and their intelligences are fully alive.

Great idea! Except that it rarely amounts to more than an idea. Once you imagine such a thing, you have to advance to the far harder step of describing in working detail what such a world would be like. Most such attempts end up being a bag of vague terminology, not an end-to-end plan. You cannot build a world backwards from general inferences about it; the inferences are derived from the particulars, and the particulars matter.

I'm reminded of the way socialist scholar Edward Thompson described his ideal society:

... a world (as D. H. Lawrence would have it) where the 'money values' give way before the 'life values', or (as Blake would have it) 'corporeal' will give way to 'mental' war. With sources of power easily available, some men and women might choose to live in unified communities, sited, like Cistercian monasteries, in centres of great natural beauty, where agricultural, industrial and intellectual pursuits might be combined. Others might prefer the variety and pace of an urban life which rediscovers some of the qualities of the city-state. Others will prefer a life of seclusion, and many will pass between all three. Scholars would follow the disputes of different schools, in Paris, Jakarta or Bogota.

And then there was Leszek Kołakowski's rejoinder:

[This writing] amounts to saying that the world should be good, and not bad, and I am entirely on your side on this issue. I share without restrictions your (and Marx's, and Shakespeare's, and many others') analysis to the effect that it is very deplorable that people's minds are occupied with the endless pursuit of money, that needs have a magic power of infinite growth, and that the profit motive, instead of use-value, is ruling production. Your superiority consists in that you know exactly how to get rid of all this and I do not. 

I included the whole graf for context, but it's the bolded part (my bold) that is what matters most. It has never been possible to simply wish for a better world, and to have the wishing performed as part of an intellectual tradition doesn't make it any less wishful. It also does not make the path to such a better world any more obvious.

The real issue for me, though, is in saying "This is the way people are — easily led, banal, preoccupied with trivial things — so be it." This is the attitude of either the defeatist or the opportunist. The realist accepts this and works with it; the optimist accepts this and works to make it as temporary and provisional a condition as possible.


Tags: psychology society sociology


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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2016/08/06 18:00.

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