Thatcher was right

In a 1987 intervew Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, said that “there is no such thing as society.” It was a remark that was taken by many on the left to summarize in just a few concise words what they perceived as the heartlessness of Britain’s Conservative government, and of the market-first worldview which found its champions in leaders like Thatcher and Reagan.

Of course it’s true that society isn’t a thing, not in the way that a person, or a mountain, or a planet is a thing. But Thatcher was trained as a chemist, and she had to know that what she said, even if it might have been good rhetoric, was bad science. Because science — not just social science but physical science too — is the art of treating abstractions as though they were things.

On Thatcher’s logic, there’s no such thing as a solid, or a liquid, or a gas, or as temperature either — there are only individual molecules and atoms, arranged in certain ways, moving in certain patterns. But she didn’t let her skepticism about abstractions stop her from wearing an overcoat when it was cold outside, or carrying an umbrella when it was raining.

Conservatives love to deny the existence of abstractions. It’s a habit that suits their reputation for plain speaking and plain thinking. But they’re not above invoking the existence of industry, or the economy, or freedom, when they sense that it might help their argument — a raise in the minimum wage, as they like to remind us, would hurt the economy by increasing unemployment, and an increase in the marginal tax rate would constrain the freedom of the ultra-rich to keep as much of their income as possible.

So on a conceptual level, she was wrong, and I doubt she could have really believed what she was saying. But I wonder more and more, as the years go by, if what she said might not have been right. Not right in saying that society can’t exist, that it’s an incoherent concept — but that society in fact doesn’t exist.

Ultimately I consider myself a socialist for reasons that are perhaps a little bit simplistic. I don’t care much, as an end in itself, who exactly owns the means of production, or whether agriculture should be collectivized, or whether the concept of exploitation is logically dependent on the truth of the labor theory of value.

I’m a socialist because I believe that a society ought to be organized in a way that benefits its members — that all the little transactions that collectively make up that abstraction called “the economy” ought to produce benefits for all of us, not just the lucky few. I believe that if we are going to live together we are going to have to demonstrate some concern and care for one another, not engage in an economic war of all against all, making excuses for our selfishness and dressing them up in the language of freedom.

It’s a strange kind of freedom, the freedom to go bankrupt because you couldn’t afford to pay for the medical treatment that saved your life. Or the freedom to lose your home because the only job you know how to do is now done cheaper elsewhere. I believe that a society worthy of the name would view these things as injustices that should be fixed at all costs. Instead we view them as the regrettable price of a few rich people’s freedom from taxation, from responsibility, from the duty to repay some small share of what all of us, individuals though we may be, have collectively given them — not just our labor but the security that comes from living in a peaceful society.

But a society depends on a certain amount of fellow-feeling among its citizens. And that fellow-feeling is hard to come by when citizens can’t regard one another as equals. Under the present iteration of capitalism I can’t see how those at the top and those at the bottom can feel like they live on the same planet, let alone in the same society.

Can a billionaire say, with a straight face, to a man who lives in a tent under an overpass, that you, and a thousand others like you, have to have nothing, so that I can have a billion dollars? Can a CEO explain, to the satisfaction of the workers in a call center or a factory, that they have to work for a lifetime without relief so that he can live like a pharaoh?

I’m a socialist because I believe in society as something we need to strive for — and something we’re a long way from achieving. Because until we can all justify our choices and our actions to one another, and explain that we do what we do out of a recognition of the fact that we’re all in this together, then I don’t see how we can honestly say that what we have is a society at all.


Meritocracy, Equality, and Responsibility

This is the dissertation* I wrote for the University of London’s International Programmes, supervised by Michael Garnett at Birkbeck College. It’s a 17-page elaboration of an essay I wrote a few years ago called “What’s So Great About Meritocracy”, so if you wanted more of that, here it is. I should warn you, if you’re not accustomed to reading contemporary philosophy papers, that it’s a bit on the dry side, so caveat lector:

Meritocracy, Equality, and Responsibility

*In the United States, your dissertation is the book you write at the end of your PhD and your thesis is the paper that comes at the end of your undergraduate degree — in England it’s more or less the other way around.

“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? … What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?” — Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia

If the internet is Nozick’s experience machine, then I have to think he’d enjoy the fact that it’s not a programmed experience handed down by superduper neuropsychologists, but a voluntary delusion engaged in by individuals working independently to satisfy their own preferences….

What’s to stop me from turning this into a running blog anyway?

I’ve been running in Discovery Park for five years now, and in that time I’ve had precisely four Significant Wildlife Encounters. Sure, you might remember the time I helped a baby mouse cross the trail by carrying him on a leaf, or the time I got my first-ever bee sting at the age of 40 and disappointingly failed to die of an allergic reaction, or the time I got run off the trail by a river otter who was absolutely flying down the stairs above the water treatment plant at what looked like about 6-minute-mile pace. But today was the first time I’ve ever been jumped by an owl. I don’t know if it’s hatchling season and I was behaving in a threatening manner, or if I’ve just been initiated into some kind of bird gang, but I do know that about an hour before this picture was taken an owl flew up behind me, swatted me on the head, and then glided away in an extremely sassy manner, coming to rest on a tree branch from which he (she?) proceeded to give me the evil eye until I turned the next corner. Am I banned from that part of the forest? Or do I have to start eating rodent meat? So many questions.

World In My Eyes

I am reliably informed by the aggregative intelligence of social media that Depeche Mode’s Violator album was released on this day twenty-five years ago.

Twenty-five years ago I was living in Denver, fifteen years old, shopping at a record store in the Tiffany Plaza mall whose name entirely escapes me. They had all the 12″ remixes and import-only releases, despite the fact that they were in a mall, next to the movie theatre that is still the Platonic theatre which I imagine when I think in an abstract way of the moviegoing experience. I used to browse, obsessively, the Cure, the Depeche Mode, the New Order sections, as the only way to find out about a new release in those primitive times was actually to see it in the bin.

It always felt like there were only a few of us listening to that music, me and a few friends, and (presumably) our misfit counterparts at other schools. But the shops stocked it all without fail. And by the time I got to college I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t grown up a “waver,” so if we were a minority, we were a large one. All the same I think I got my need to be part of one cult or another from that musical experience. My classmates liked Tom Petty and AC/DC, and the Cure felt much more mysterious and substantial.

I remember feeling actually aggrieved when one of the pretty, popular girls showed up to our English class in a Depeche Mode t-shirt. I never doubted the sincerity of her fandom, but it felt like an invasion in some way. Surely, I thought, this meant she would be kicked down to the level of the fringe art geeks who listened to “gay” european music. Or better yet, it might even get us kicked up into her social echelon, invited to keggers or boat races or whatever it was I thought the popular kids were up to in those days.

But no, nothing happened. I didn’t know this at the time, but if you are outgoing and friendly and socially fluent you can be friends with just about anyone, Depeche Mode or no Depeche Mode. Likewise, if you’re a ¾ scale model of an awkward introvert who’s so hypersensitive to every nuance of every social interaction that walking to the dining hall for lunch feels as intense as a whole Wagner opera cycle condensed into seven minutes, you’re going to have a pretty rough go of high school, no matter what music you listen to.

I remember buying Violator on CD at that very same record store. I remember the first time I saw the cover art, which is demonstrably, scientifically perfect. And I remember getting home, putting it on, and the sonic space of my room was filled with those syncopated synth notes, so richly textured you wanted to grab them out of the air and chew on them. Go on, listen to World In My Eyes and tell me you wouldn’t eat that riff.

If you’d asked me ten or fifteen years ago I’d have said Violator changed my life. It definitely changed something in me the first time I heard it. The world was bigger and darker and grander than it had been before, the universe’s backdrop a warm matte black instead of a glossy cold black, if that makes any sense. Seeing Depeche Mode at Red Rocks changed me again, watching Depeche Mode 101 yet again, meeting D.A. Pennebaker in our documentary film class and asking him not about Don’t Look Back or Ziggy Stardust but about 101.

I’d like to say that I knew, upon hearing those notes, that I was being set on a path I’m still on today. It certainly felt that way. Of course the way I think about melody and harmony was shaped by those minimal arrangements, those intersecting geometric lines. Not for Depeche Mode the simple strummed chord progression, with its redundant voicings and smothering rhythms.

But what path? I spent years in a band that was not very much like Depeche Mode at all, by any metric of comparison. But I don’t play music anymore, except once in a while to exercise my hands, or to try to take apart a song I like and see how its pieces function. (I don’t wear watches anymore, I just like repairing them.) 

There’s another version of me out there in the multiverse who took Violator as a call to arms and never looked back. He took it in, all at once, and spent the rest of his life reflecting it back out.

Here in this timeline I guess I’m still taking it in.

This has been another episode of “blogging with Ambien.” I’d like to thank my sponsors, Sanofi-Aventis, whose hypnotic sleep aid, now sold in generic form, provides the same disinhibitory effect as a shot or two of whiskey but without the unfortunate side effects of sloppy typing and maudlin sentimentality*.

*all maudlin sentimentality supplied by the author

I will tell you a philosophical joke. Once upon a time, a visiting scholar presented a lecture on the topic: ‘How many philosophical positions are there in principle?’ ‘In principle,’ he began, ‘there are exactly 12 philosophical positions.’ A voice called from the audience: ‘Thirteen.’ ‘There are,’ the lecturer repeated, ‘exactly 12 possible philosophical positions; not one less and not one more.’ ‘Thirteen,’ the voice from the audience called again. ‘Very well, then,’ said the lecturer, now perceptibly irked, ‘I shall proceed to enumerate the 12 possible philosophical positions. The first is sometimes called “naive realism”. It is the view according to which things are, by and large, very much the way that they seem to be.’ ‘Oh,’ said the voice from the audience. ‘Fourteen!’

Jerry Fodor