Koestler, A. (1947) The Yogi and the Commissar
Having been a member of the Dutch social-democratic party with Marxist tendencies when I was in my twenties, of course I should have read this book at that time. It was mentioned a lot at that time, but always with a certain disdain. But actually it is well informed, well written and raises important issues.
Already in 1947 it gives a lot of facts about the Soviet Union that makes it very clear that it in no way can be understood as a socialist state or even a state that is striving to become one. Rather, under Stalin it was reformed back to a Tsarist - but now totalitarian - regime. Koestler paints a very specific picture about changes in the law and assigning state heroes from the old regime that leave no doubt about how Stalin saw himself. Even now worth the read I think.
Still, Koestler defines himself as a socialist at that time. In his analysis about what went wrong and how to escape, he points to the ethics of the Commissar as against that of the Yogi. Ethics has been reduced to psychology (Freud - Superego), physiology, self-interest etc. This leads of course to cynicism and a practice where attaining a goal justifies the use of any means. It leads to the power politics of the Commissar.
Using insights from science about the irreducibility of complex phenomena to `lower’ levels - insights that are broadly in line with contemporary ideas about it -, Koestler argues for the irreducibility of ethics as an experience of human beings in society.
Now, whereas normally our practices are done in a specific level of complexity, Koestler sees the Yogi as looking `sideways’ at these levels and thus having a broad view of reality. Koestler argues that such a view is needed to transcend being stuck in the view of the Commissar and in power politics.
Although not very convincing in it self, Koestler’s Commissar / Yogi view points to difficulties in ethical practices in modern society that are very real. In this sense this part of the book is a forerunner of Peter Sloterdijk’s Critic of Cynical Reason. The problems can be summed up as the decline of `good will’ under the force of circumstance; everyone really wants to act ethically correct, but the force of circumstance dictates otherwise.
Said differently, we are trapped in subsystems for which ethics is not a meaningful way of communication. We have to act according to the practices of the subsystem or radically step out of it (unthinkable). We don’t want to pollute the environment, but we need a car to get to work. Our company wants to use non-slave-produced materials, but it has to compete with other companies in the field. The commissar does not want to chop off heads, but the damned capitalists are after his throat.
All in all this book is a better read for its facts and the questions that it raises, than for its analysis of them.
So, would you use power politics if your life is in danger?
(actually my Amazon review)
D.K. Lewis on counterfactuals and truth
I.e. according to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lewis_(philosopher):
“According to Lewis, what makes a counterfactual conditional of the form
"Had I made that shot our team would have won the game."
true is that there is a world, as concrete as ours and significantly similar to it, in which my counterpart makes rather than misses the shot and the counterpart of our team wins the game. Had there been a world even more similar to ours in which my counterpart makes the shot but the counterpart of our team still loses the counterfactual would have been false. When we speak of counterfactual possibilities we speak of what is the case in some possible world or worlds. “
So, even if you grant all possible worlds the reality that Lewis seems to attribute to them, this still leaves his truth criterion for counterfactuals quite problematic. It supposes a metric for all possible worlds which allows us to measure how ‘far’ two worlds are apart. I.e. how ‘alike’ two worlds are. The metric would produce a real number for any two possible worlds (including our own) to give a statement about their ‘likeness’: D(W1,W2). Given the complexity of ‘worlds’ it seems highly debatable to me that such a metric would exist.
But even granted such a metric exists. The truth criterion for counterfactuals calls for the comparison with all possible worlds when it says that the counterfactual is false if it is false in a world even more similar to ours than a world where it is true. Now what if it is true in W1 and false in W2, but D(W,W1) = D(W,W2). I.e. both worlds are equally similar two our actual world. And mind you, such things might easily happen when you project a multidimensional entity onto a one dimensional entity like a metric (think of persons and their IQ’s).
Things get even more interesting if we ponder a bit about the ontology of the possible worlds, i.e. one could ask how many different possible worlds there might be. This clearly depends on the number of constituents of the possible worlds themselves. E.g. if every possible world would have only a finite number of constituents, the number of all possible worlds would be countable infinite at the most.
Such is not the case however, since a possible world could be made of ‘gunk’, a concept D.K. Lewis uses which refers to stuff that is infinitely constituted of parts. So, not like there would in the end be elementary particles where the divisions would end, but the divisions can go on and on and on. While ‘gunk’ is in itself an interesting (if not mind boggling) concept, for now we can use it to assert that there will be worlds which have at least an uncountable infinite number of constituents.
Now, to fly-by some elementary calculus, it is not difficult to imagine a series of possible worlds Wi (i = 1, 2, …) converging to our actual world i.e. lim (i to infinte) D(W,Wi) = 0, but where for every n : if the counterfactual is true in world Wn than it is false in world Wn+1. In other words, there is no truth convergence for the counterfactual.
Both examples clearly leave us with three classes of counterfactuals: (1) True, (2) False, (3) Undecidable. Which I think is a nice result. Do you feel the same way about it?
This was inspired by isomorphismes (http://isomorphismes.tumblr.com/post/65257487291/gunk)
We often speak of an object being composed of various other objects. We say that the deck is composed of the cards, that a road is [composed of asphalt or concrete], that a house is composed of its walls, ceilings, floors, doors, etc.
Suppose we have some material objects. Here is a philosophical question: what conditions must obtain for those objects to compose something?
If something is made of atomless gunk then it divides forever into smaller and smaller parts—it is infinitely divisible. However, a line segment is infinitely divisible, and yet has atomic parts: the points. A hunk of gunk does not even have atomic parts ‘at infinity’; all parts of such an object have proper parts.
Ted Sider, Van Inwagen and the Possibility of Gunk
to recross is not to have crossed at all
Our iceberg is melting - a leninist story
Reading John Kotter’s Our Iceberg is Melting, a fable about changing organizations, is a pleasurable experience. There are heroes and villains and swashbuckling adventure, all on the level of a society of penguins whose iceberg is melting and are in need of migration. But once you start looking beyond the charming tale to the view of society and politics it presents, innocence is lost and one gets entangled in paradoxes of leadership and democracy. This becomes all the more tricky, if one wants to apply it to the analysis and possible solutions to the environmental crisis. Which I want to.
John Kotter is a ‘leadership and change guru’ from Harvard Business School. Based on numerous studies of organizations he formulated an eight step method for change in an earlier book. In Our Iceberg is melting he illustrates this method by telling a fable of a colony of penguins living on an iceberg that is melting. This creates a crisis which they overcome by implicitly using Kotter’s method. According to the booklet, it should be applicable for organizations and nations alike. Since in the fable his method of change management is applied to an entire society, one could even take it as a political philosophy (I think).
In Collapse, Jared Diamond analysis several historic societies and the way they collapsed or survived crises that had environmental aspects. Norse Greenland and Easter Island being amongst the ones that failed, Japan and Tokipia that succeeded.
I started reading ‘Our Iceberg’ because of changes needed in the organization where I work. But being on a self-appointed project about the causes and solutions to the environmental crisis, I end up looking at it in a more sociological and politico-philosophical way.
Method The eight step method for ‘succeeding under any conditions’ as stated in ‘our iceberg’:
Set the stage
- Create a sense of urgency
- Pull together a guiding team
Decide what to do
- Develop the change vision and strategy
Make it happen
- Communicate for understanding and buy in
- Empower others to act
- Produce short term wins
- Don’t let up
Make it stick: Create a new culture
Although the fable is a very charming story of mostly loveable and admirable penguins, as is the way of methods, it can be used to achieve anything. From the loftiest (rescue humanity) to the most devilish (organize the Endlösung): It is a means that can be used to any end. In fact I can see some parallels with ‘methods’ used by Jesus in creating a new religion, Buddhism striving towards Enlightenment, Lenin and the Russian revolution.
I’d like to point out a number of characteristics of this / any method for change:
- Facts play no role; they are taken to be undisputed by the change team. They have been established once and for all by the experts. This is a technocratic aspect.
- Morality plays no role; this method as a method is about ‘succeeding under any conditions’, not about fair play. This is a machiavellist aspect.
- Faith in social engineering, the manufacturability (Dutch: maakbaarheid) of people, organizations and societies. How else can you claim to succeed under any circumstances? This is a thoroughly modernist aspect.
Although the method is ‘empty’, i.e. devoid of specific personal, cultural, or any other context, the fable itself works with content that seems somehow to be an essential part of what is happening. To name a few:
- A situation is constructed where everyone is forced to have the same overarching interest: to survive the meltdown. In real-life organizations one can always look for another job, and examples are known where managers earned a lot of money while the ship sank.
- The ‘guiding team’ is headed by the leader of the penguin society and rather surprisingly this happens to be a very benevolent, able and wise leader. This enables the telling of a story where no real revolution has to take place; at the end of the day the old guard mostly stays on the job.
- In real-life this can be quite problematic. It is here where Diamond is much more critical of leadership. In a number of historical cases as well as in modern US, he identifies an elite that sticks to its own privileges and ways of living, while letting others take the damage. They protect themselves from the impact of the changes for as long as possible, ‘thus buying themselves the privilege of being the last ones to die’.
- In fact (according to Diamond) in most cases, it is the elite that get entangled in a status competition amongst themselves, which is a big part of the problem. E.g. on Easter Island this was competition about who could have his underlings built the biggest statue. At some point it must have been clear to the leaders that this was using up all the forest (gliders for the statues). But none of them could afford to stop the insanity and having the smaller statue and thus having lesser status, being a less powerful leader. On the short term status is more important than the fate of the island on the long term.
- What to do with such leaders is a question that in real-life cannot be avoided. It either leads to promoting them to harmless places or to revolution.
- Epistemology of the leaders vs. the masses. The first female penguin and the penguin leader of the community are persuaded by carefully presenting facts and theories and a lot of discussion. Opposed to that the masses seem to be a lot more intelligent; they can be persuaded by a few facts and a few sweeping rhetorical questions of a charismatic leader. If it where a democracy, it would have been the old tension between enlightenment democracy (where decisions are taken on rational grounds that everybody understands) - and mass democracy (follow the leaders and the slogans), the tension between democracy and leadership. In all its innocence the story drives home this point: enlightenment democracy is an illusion, people are too stupid, the situation too complex. We need ‘realpolitik’ if we are to be saved.
- A number of antagonistic forces are identified and neutralized in specific ways:
- Irrational fear mongering. Penguin Nono as an exemplary of all those people that see any change and any venture into the unknown as highly dangerous and surround is with the vision of extreme disasters. The penguin professor is put to use here. However, his constant arguing with Nono, is not the free and open discussion of the Enlightenment, but functions as a basketball player covering another: it merely prevents Nono from acting.
- People, like the old penguin kindergarten teacher who are afraid to be left out in the new situation. Her behavior and feelings are seen as irrational. She is coaxed towards a more compliant and optimistic behavior by a charming young penguin, i.e. by charm and not by reason.
- Obsolete cultural habits. Old habits might be harmful in the new circumstances. It is irrational to hang on to them. In the fable it is the penguin children that push their parents towards new behavior patterns, by having them donate fish to the scout penguins that try to find a new home. Before, donation of fish was unheard of.
- This is a point that Diamond confirms with historic material. E.g. the Norse Greenlanders that stuck to their food patterns of eating flesh instead of fish. Would they have started eating more fish, living more like the Inuit, they might have survived. This also has to do with status: only poor people eat fish. And no one wants to look poor.
- Point is that in a method where the facts play no role, any resistance to the change team has to be identified as ‘irrational’. The only question for the change team is how to channel the resistance, neutralize it. Luckily a lot of methods are available these days. On the individual, the political as well as the mass-media level. Among my personal favorites are the Broad Societal Discussion (Brede Maatschappelijke Discussie) (nuclear energy is safe), and the objective scientific information campaign (genetically manipulated food is good for us).
- So I think the method should have one more explicit step under ‘make it happen’: Deal with antagonistic forces (in a ruthless way)
- Becoming nomads. Although in the method the cultural change could be in any direction as the circumstances ask for, the fable is highly suggestive of one specific change. On this meta level it says that circumstances are always changing, so the best for everyone is to be nomads – if not in the immediate physical sense, then in our minds. Always be prepared for changes, don’t cling to cultural habits. We should no longer see a specific culture and its values as part of our identities. As Marx already stated, ‘all that is solid melts into air’ (and he was not speaking of an iceberg).
Kotter, J. & Rathgeber,H. (2005) - Our Iceberg is melting. Changing and succeeding under any conditions.