Je Vous Dis, Merde! 31: How Philosophy Can Change the World — Radically and for the Better
In the 11th and most famous of his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx wrote that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.”
But what did Marx mean, precisely?
In an interesting interview published in The New York Times the day before yesterday, my favorite public intellectual — “favorite” because he’s an autonomous, critical, radical thinker who’s refused to accommodate himself to the academic, cultural, or political conventional wisdom or status quo, and has spoken truth to power for 50 years — Noam Chomsky, said this:
N.C.: I am not sure just what Marx had in mind when he wrote that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Did he mean that philosophy could change the world, or that philosophers should turn to the higher priority of changing the world? If the former, then he presumably meant philosophy in a broad sense of the term, including analysis of the social order and ideas about why it should be changed, and how. In that broad sense, philosophy can play a role, indeed an essential role, in changing the world, and philosophers, including in the analytic tradition, have undertaken that effort, in their philosophical work as well as in their activist lives — Bertrand Russell, to mention a prominent example.
In other words, as per Chomsky, the ambiguity in Marx’s remark is between whether he meant
(i) that the enterprise of philosophy, which previously to Marx was over-narrowly taken to be merely the interpretation of the world, is now revolutionized so that the new enterprise of philosophy aims at radically changing the world instead,
or instead meant
(ii) that philosophers, who, as philosophers, can only ever interpret the world, should stop doing philosophy, and try to change the world instead.
Actually, however, with all due respect to Chomsky, I think that this is what logicians call a “false dilemma” — i.e., the false appearance of an “A or B but not both” inconsistency — and that Marx in fact consistently meant both of those things.
As to (i), Marx was a “Left Hegelian,” aka “Young Hegelian,” who held that the activity of critically and reflectively tracking the dynamic development of human social and political history and the activity of authentic, serious philosophy are one and the same.
And as to (ii), like virtually all Left Hegelians, Marx was an angry, unemployed academic who was passionately looking for some way to go beyond academic philosophy and become a real-world social and political radical activist.
So Marx meant that changing the world is the essential aim of authentic, serious philosophy and also that in order to do authentic, serious philosophy, one has to stop doing academic philosophy and become instead a real-world social and political radical activist, thereby realizing the activity of authentic, serious philosophy in one’s own life.
In this connection, Bertrand Russell is an illuminating case-in-point, because when he became a radical social and political activist and, among other things, challenged England’s involvement in World War I, he was put in prison, removed from his fellowship and lectureship at Cambridge, then briefly reinstated, and then finally quit academic philosophy altogether.
But there is a fundamental problem with Marx’s view about philosophy and radically changing the world, which is that not every radical social and political change is for the better.
Indeed, radical social and political change, as such, can all-too-easily lead to change for the worse, and even to the catastrophically worse.
Thus, for example, Marx’s own imperative recommendation, perhaps best expressed in The Communist Manifesto, that workers take control of the means of economic production in order to liberate themselves from capitalist oppression and alienation from the products of their own labor, eventually turned, under Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, into the dictatorship of the proletariat and then into the dictatorship of the vanguard (i.e., elite leaders) of the proletariat, and thus finally into a brutal, coercive, authoritarian, totalitarian version of (in effect) state capitalism.
Therefore, in order to be able to change the world radically and for the better, it is necessary, first of all, to change one’s own life radically and for the better, because then and only then will be be able to act upon the world in the right way, and change it radically and for the better.
This leads me to a general definition of authentic, serious philosophy, which I think is synoptic, systematic reflection on the human condition in a thoroughly non-ideal world, both natural and social, with the ultimate aim of radically changing one’s own life and others’ lives, and then the larger social and political world, for the better.
Now what does this conception of authentic, serious philosophy imply in concrete, contemporary, real-world terms?
Here is a good example, “ripped from the headlines.”
Earlier this week, my favorite woke progressive neo-gonzo journalist, the Australian Caitlin Johnstone, published these two pieces: “Corporate Media Aren’t ‘The Press’, And They Don’t Deserve Your Sympathy,” and, on the Fourth of July, “America Celebrates Lateral Transition From Monarchy To Corporatist Oligarchy.”
The titles tell it all.
Whether you agree with Johnstone or not, she is thinking critically, reflectively, synoptically, and systematically for herself about what matters most to her and other people, here and now, and in effect, doing authentic, serious philosophy, with the ultimate aim of radically changing our own lives and those of others, and then the larger social and political world, for the better.
Now you might ask yourself:
“How could I ever become an authentic, serious philosopher and radically change my own life and other people’s lives, and then the larger social and political world, for the better? I don’t have any sort of academic degree in philosophy; and I hardly have enough time and energy to hold my everyday life together, much less just sit around, mentally twiddling my thumbs!”
The answer is already contained in what we’ve seen above when we interpreted what Marx was saying about philosophy and changing the world.
In order to become an authentic, serious philosopher you don’t need academic philosophy; indeed, academic philosophy, which only ever “interprets the world” — in effect, just mentally twiddling its thumbs — is only going to impede your progress towards authentic, serious philosophy.
For authentic, serious philosophy isn’t just sitting around mentally twiddling your thumbs, like an academic philosopher: it is actively engaging your critical intellect, and thinking long and hard about the things that matter most to you and other people, with the ultimate aim of radically changing your own life and their lives, and then the larger social and political world, for the better.
So what you could do right now, as a beginning authentic, serious philosopher, is to take, say, one hour a day, and read some Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Russell, or Chomsky — or Caitlin Johnstone, or even Mr Nemo — and then start thinking critically, reflectively, synoptically, and systematically for yourself about the things that matter most to you and other people, here and now, with the ultimate aim of radically changing your own life and their lives, and then the larger social and political world, for the better.
— Indeed, you might even eventually come up with something like The WTFU Party’s seven-part platform, described directly below.
And as always, to anyone who says that this is impossible or just can’t be done,
Je vous dis, merde!
“Je vous dis, merde!” (literally, “I say to you: shit!” or more loosely, “You’re so full of shit!”) is a morally and politically defiant slogan invented and first published by an early 20th-century Catalan anarchist who used the nom de guerre “Miguel Almereyda.” Almereyda, who was murdered in a French prison in 1917, was also the father of the famous French film director Jean Vigo, who immortalized the same slogan in his breakthrough 1933 film, Zéro de conduite, aka Zero for Conduct.
1. Universal Respect for Human Dignity (URHD):
· Human dignity is the absolute non-denumerable moral value of every member of humanity, and everyone ought to try wholeheartedly to treat everyone else in a way that is sufficient to meet the demands of respect for human dignity, especially including (i) alleviating or ending human oppression, and (ii) actively engaging in mutual aid and mutual kindness.
2. Universal Basic Income (UBI):
· Anyone 21 years of age or over and living permanently in the USA, who has a personal yearly income of $50,000.00 USD or less, and who is capable of requesting their UBI, would receive $25,000.00 USD per year, with no strings attached.
3. A 15-Hour Workweek for Understaffed Non-Bullshit Jobs (FHW-for-UNBJs):
· Anyone 18 years of age or older who is living permanently in the USA, who has completed a high school education, and is mentally and physically capable of doing a job, would be offered an eco-job, paying a yearly wage of $25,000.00 USD, for fifteen hours of work (three 5-hour days) per week.
Thus anyone 21 years of age or older with a high-school degree and who is also mentally and physically capable of working, would have a guaranteed yearly income of at least $50,000.00 USD if they chose to do an eco-job.
The rationale behind the three-year gap between (i) being offered an eco-job at 18 and (ii) beginning to receive their UBI at 21, is that every young adult who has finished high school will have the option of pursuing three years of part-time or full-time free higher education without credentialing, i.e., for its own sake, after high school, before making longer-term decisions about what I call job-work and life-work.
Here are a few more details about UBI and eco-jobs.
(i) The UBI is to be paid by a monthly stipend check.
(ii) Eco-job income is not taxed.
(iii) For all individual yearly incomes of $50,000.00 USD or under, no tax will be levied; hence for someone receiving their UBI and also doing an eco-job, no income tax will be levied.
(iv) For all individual non-eco-job incomes, for every $1.00 USD earned above the standard UBI of $25,000.00 USD, the monthly UBI stipend is reduced by 50 cents, until the recipient’s UBI is reduced to zero; hence for those individuals with yearly non-eco-job incomes equal to or under $50,000.00 USD, the maximum UBI + non-eco-job income sum is always $50,000.00 USD.
(v) For all individual yearly incomes over $50,000.00 USD, for every $10,000.00 USD earned, that surplus income is taxed at the rate of 1%, with the highest surplus income tax rate being 50%; hence the maximum surplus 50% tax rate starts at individual yearly incomes of $550,000.00 USD, and applies to all higher surplus incomes.
4. Universal Free Higher Education Without Credentialing (HEWC):
· Everyone would be offered, beyond their high-school education, a free, three-year minimum, optional (but also open-ended beyond those three years, as a further option), part-time or full-time universal public education program in the so-called “liberal arts,” and also in some of the so-called “STEM” fields, including the humanities, the fine arts, the social sciences, mathematics, and the natural sciences.
· For many or even most people, their HEWC would fall between (i) the end of their high school education at age 18 and the corresponding availability of eco-jobs, and (ii) the beginning of their UBI at age 21.
· But HEWC would be open to anyone with a high school degree, no matter how old they are, provided they are mentally and physically capable of doing the program.
5. Universal Free Healthcare (UFH):
· Every human person living permanently in the USA will receive free lifelong healthcare.
6. 2-Phase Universal Open Borders (2P-UOB):
· Phase 1: Starting in 2021, there will be universal open borders with Canada and Mexico, and everyone who moves across those borders and then claims residence in the USA, will receive temporary or permanent residence in the USA and also full membership in the system of UBI, FHW-for-UNBJs/eco-jobs, and UFH in the USA, with the precise number of new temporary or permanent residents to depend on the current availability of (i) adequate funding for UBI, eco-jobs, and UFH , and (ii) adequate living accommodation, in the USA, provided that all new residents also fully respect the human dignity of everyone else in the USA and elsewhere in the world.
· Phase 2: Also starting in 2021, the USA, Canada, and Mexico will collectively form a Global Refugee Consortium (GRC), with three-way open borders to any political refugee, economic refugee, or asylum seeker from anywhere in the world (aka “global refugees”), who will receive temporary or permanent residence in the USA, Canada, or Mexico, and also full membership in the system of UBI, FHW-for-UNBJs/eco-jobs, and UFH in the three GRC countries, with the precise number of new temporary or permanent residents, and the precise distribution of new residents among the three members of the GRC, to depend on the current availability of (i) funding for UBI, eco-jobs, and UFH , and (ii) adequate living accommodation, in the three GRC countries, provided that all new residents also fully respect the human dignity of everyone else in the GRC and elsewhere in the world.
7. Universal No-Guns (UNG):
· No one in the USA, including police, internal security forces of all kinds, armies, and intelligence forces of all kinds, has the moral right to possess or use guns of any kind, for any purpose whatsoever, because the primary function of guns is coercion, and coercion is immoral.
· UNG would be implemented by repealing the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in 2021 and then universally banning the possession or use of guns thereafter.
I’m also assuming that Universal Public Education (UPE) — universal free access for all human persons of any age to good public education up to the end of high school — already exists in most countries, and needs no further justification.
Where UPE does not already exist, it would automatically become a necessary part of the seven-part WTFU Party package, thereby making it a eight-part package.
Mr Nemo, Nowhere, NA, 7 July 2017