A Need to Overcome Death’s Stigmatization

This is the final paper I wrote for this past semester’s Sociology of Death and Dying class. It was an extremely interesting, though honestly harrowing, class which I learned quite about myself and how people and different cultures view and death with the concept and actualities of death. The paper is really just a broad exposition of this learning in general. I hope you enjoy it.

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

Personal Impact

In taking the class, “Sociology of Death and Dying”, I’ve come to learn a great deal about my own personal beliefs regarding death, both as a concept and indeed, as a final fact of life itself. It isn’t as though I’ve never thought about such things prior to the class, but not with the same level of depth and analysis. I also certainly hadn’t put much thought into the social impact that death has overall. Again, the social way to which death affects people wasn’t wholly foreign to me, but I simply hadn’t considered the levels of concern that proliferate and to what extent. There’s more mature understanding of respecting how those who think differently about death than I do thanks to a more active engagement with it.

Death is a largely stigmatized topic and within the Western cultures especially, there are certain taboos surrounding its discussion. Often times it is mediated by phrases which seek to limit the direct nature of its legitimacy, as though changing the speech surrounding its actuality will somehow remove its eventuality. But, as a species which can consciously conceive of its own mortality, we know that regardless of how we dress up the language, one thing is an absolute certainty – we all end up dead.

Historical and Cultural Perspectives Toward Death

The topic of death has variegated definitions across history and cultures. Historically, death itself is the most constant thing of which living beings can depend. While death itself has changed in the sense of types of ways in which one can die or be killed, death itself is always, and will continue to be the final point in a living being’s terrestrial instantiation. Likewise, for every sociocultural viewpoint and lifestyle, there are as many (quite possibly more) different perspectives on death. There are differing ways in which death is mourned; the way it’s talked about; and how it’s handled on a pragmatic level. To say that death is historically and culturally complicated would seem a misnomer; after all, how can something as seemingly simple as dying be complex?

Various cultures throughout history have conceived of death in different ways. The discussions which people most used to teach about their conceptions of death were myths. “The precursors of human attitudes, values, and practices are found in myths—that is, stories that explain ideas or beliefs common to the worldview of a people” (DeSpelder & Strickland, 92). Telling stories which are bound to ideas of divine deities is a much more palatable way to convey the harsh realities of death. It also offers ways in which a people can more easily define their own moral values in light of death and dying. To create myths surrounding death is to attempt to assert a metaphysical understanding in order to alleviate the anxieties which arise in light of its realities.

A fairly common trope amongst most myths – and subsequently, religions – is that of an immortal hereafter where an aspect of a person’s individuality is continued beyond its mortal physicality. This is largely a way for people to have a feeling of security in light of their limited time on the terrestrial plane of existence. “Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism performed the ingenious trick of pretending not to want to be reborn, which is a sort of negative magic: claiming to not want what you really want most” (Becker, 12). By instating a belief of a further existence beyond this one, even though it may be in a different form than the one currently held, a people are able to justify the need for morally correct actions in this one. This is done by barring access to the promised wonders of immortal existence by way of contingent prerequisites; namely, by acting within the moral boundaries as set by the belief system to which a person subscribes.

Decisions About End-of-Life

Some of the most difficult aspects of death surround the conversations which must be had pertaining to the end of one’s life. Most people are uncomfortable discussing the pragmatic actions which must be taken in the event that certain decisions must be made, whether expected or not, about the sorts of care and actions to be taken should they be in such positions. The more common discussions pertain to the implementation of proxy control and the types of care which are contingent upon what the patient wants, regardless of their condition – as in DNR (do not resuscitate) orders, or advance directives.

Without such orders or directives, which explicitly express the desires the patient as laid out prior to their debilitating medical conditions, the patients are likely to suffer various forms of extreme pain when the doctors attempt to revive them. “Almost all medical professionals have seen too much of what call ‘futile care’ being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life. … What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist” (Dickinson & Leming, 92). But, if a patient has a medical proxy assigned, or they have a DNR and/or advance directives laid out, doctors are far more likely to follow those directives in order to respect their wishes. This will help ensure that these aggressive procedures, which causes further physical damage, can be avoided when they’re not absolutely necessary. It also allows for the patient to retain their autonomous rights over their body and existence.

It’s these sorts of discussions which are of higher importance than most people seem to realize, until its past time for them. If someone is suddenly put into a state whereby they can no longer make such decisions for themselves, they are simply foisted upon the standard ethics of care which the medical field adheres to; namely, do no harm while fending off death. This sounds noble on the face of it but considering the level to which patients’ bodies can be cut up, poked, stuck with tubes, and submitted to intolerable levels of indignity, the fact is: considerable harm is done, nonetheless.

Funerary Rites & Body Configuration

As humanity evolved, both in its biological nature and its geographical locales, the need for different ways of dealing with the realities of death became more necessary. For instance, when people were living a more transient lifestyle in small tribes of minimal population count, the need for more complex burial practices weren’t as prevalent. This is not to say that bodies were simply discarded as trash when they moved on, but rather that there was a different sort of configuration toward the them. Sky burials, shallow natural burials, and low-heat funeral pyres were fairly standard ways to dispose of the dead, but once people stopped moving around as frequently, setting down permanent residence, the need for more advanced body dispostions arose. This was largely due to having to ensure infectious diseases didn’t spread. This ushered in the use of certain chemicals which would preserve the bodies and keep them from rotting as quickly, deeper burials, and high-heat cremation became the more common practices.

The rituals surrounding funerals are not only a symbolic remembrance of the person who has died, but also a catharsis for those who knew and cared for them. “These rituals allowed bereaved individuals to celebrate the life of the person who died, mourn his or her death, as well as receive the support of others” (Buckely & Feldt, 507). It is by these funerary rites and rituals that people are properly able to exorcise cathexis in a healthy way, surrounded by others with the same intention. It’s a communal way of coping with the emotional trauma which can take hold of people when those they care about have died.

A crucial way in which the death of someone and their subsequent funeral helps is that it truly concretizes the material reality of the person’s death for the mourner(s). The realization of its concomitant effects may not truly hit until later, but the funeral is a sort of grounding point to which they can refer back to as a way of associating the reality of their death to its conceptual understanding. It’s also a useful way for interactions with people who knew the deceased person. Often times the person who has died is shown to have different characteristics as told through the stories of those who knew them which can also bring a deeper understanding to the mourner(s).

Social Impact

While death and dying are most certainly of a personal nature, it also affects society on the micro and macro level. A person’s death can be a quiet affair, or it can be something which causes emotional outbursts locally, and there are some deaths which can shake the very foundation of the world itself. Consider the death of a loved one. This at first may seem as though the only effects are those which are directly related to the family. But there’s an expanding circle which begins touching outside social relations. In the case of well-known people, these deaths influence and cause changes on an even larger scale.
It’s not just the deaths of people which has social implications, but also the business and arrangements toward education of death itself which society participates in. It should come as no surprise that the one trait that all of humanity absolutely shares, regardless of race, class, or gender, is something which the social world is directly and heavily involved with. Recently, with COVID-19 affecting the entire planet’s population in some way, and the advanced, immediate interconnectivity, the social world has been put more directly in touch with death in a way that hadn’t seemed possible. This is not to discount prior large-scale population deaths (9-11, the Holocaust, 1918 Influenza Pandemic, etc.) but until now, a global awareness of these levels of death, which is practically instantaneous, has never occurred.

Socialization of Death

The earlier a person can be educated about death and all of the intricacies which surround it, the more prepared they will be to handle all of its difficulties when finally confronted with its reality. As a person develops their mature concept of death, they come to realize certain actualities about it that had hitherto been unknown, or at least not fully understood. Without an open disclosure of those realities, a person is more likely to find themselves unable to properly cope with death once they encounter it. This is not to say that horrific imagery should be forced upon young children, but rather that if they do have questions – especially in the case that they’re directly dealing with a death – then they should be answered lucidly and with respect to their concerns. “[R]esearch generally has indicated that most children have acquired a mature concept of death around the age of nine, recent studies show that children begin to conceptualize death as a biological event at the same time they construct a “biological model” of how the human body functions” (DeSpelder & Strickland, 55). This is to say precisely that there is essentially no specific age which is deemed as the “correct age” to being discussing death with children as they are capable of conceptualizing certain aspects of it at varying ages and maturity levels.

One of the most prevalent ways in which death is socialized is through people’s religious beliefs and practices. Religion is a more refined, defined, and explicitly conceived structuring of the concept of death than the aforementioned myth-making traditions, but they share the commonality of being able to help relieve the anxieties and tensions which death can bring to those confronting mortality. “Not only can religion help the bereaved cope, and by extension should help those experiencing anticipatory grief, but research also points to the effectiveness of religiosity in coping with illness in particular” (Buckley & Feldt, 445). Through not only the communal aspect of religion, but also the belief in a divine hereafter, those who are anxious about death, nervous about their illnesses, or concerned about those who have died, are more able to feel a sense of ease. There is a promise of something better, or at the very least, something where peace is experienced beyond this terrestrial strife.

Society’s Bureaucratization of Mortality

In a bureaucratic society – especially of the sort the West is – death is swallowed into its machinations, just like anything else. In order to be properly dead, one must be confirmed as such by verification through a death certificate. There have been cases where people have been assumed alive for years, debts continuing to rack up, when they had in fact been dead, but due to some hiccup in the system, their death had never been confirmed. This isn’t the only reason for a bureaucratization of death and the varied aspects of it, related directly and indirectly.

The state plays a large part in dictating whether or not certain criminals are deserving of death or not, what sort of care they are given when terminally ill, and the methods by which they’re put to death. The only institution to which the killing of a human being is specifically allowed by law is that of the state itself. As such, there is a great deal of red tape and confounding channels which must be navigated in order for a person to appeal against the death of another, or indeed themselves, should a criminal prosecution deem them worthy of such action.

In our prison system, there are various programs called ‘compassionate release’ or sometimes ‘medical parole’, whereby elderly or seriously ill prisoners may be released to the community before the end of their sentence. … 101 federal inmates were approved for compassionate release in 2014 out of a total federal prison population of 214,000 people.

(Dickinson & Leming, 35)

A major problem is that a great number of cases where a person is put to death, later evidence will come forward which exonerates them of the crimes convicted. So, who pays the penalty for this sort of legal murder of an innocent person?

Perspectives on Suicide

The toughest conversations are the ones which tend to be the most important, and paradoxically, they’re the ones which people are the most averse to have. One of those which has 2 key parts that people feel extremely uncomfortable speaking openly and frankly about is that of suicide. The first aspect is that of intentional suicide. What is meant by this is when a person takes their own life far in advance of what their nature timeline would be. This is a person who has no terminal illness but may instead be affected by certain mental illnesses or can’t find any purpose, meaning, or hope in their lives. This causes them to suffer in tremendously detrimental ways which leads them to finally take that final step of their own accord.

The second aspect of suicide is that which is called “assisted suicide” or “death with dignity”. “Laws state persons must make an ‘informed decision’ rather than have ‘informed consent’ … Legislation precisely states physicians cannot assist death, but may assist dying; thus, state agencies deliberately renamed practices as death with dignity” (Buckley & Feldt, 255). These are people who are either suffering from a terminal illness, or have a prognosis which is incurable and degenerative (Alzheimer’s, for instance), which leads them to make the choice to seek out professionals who are licensed and able to help them finalize their mortal existence. Rather than find themselves existing in a manner which they find repulsive to their personal values, they make the choice to end their lives. This gives them their autonomous freedom over their lives, or rather—death.

Suicide is stigmatized to such an extent that even discussing it is taboo. There are tensions which arise when the subject is even broached. It is seen as some sort of moral failing or weakness that needs to be overcome. People who commit suicide are quite often marginalized as persona non grata. Frequently, this sort of treatment is justified by way of religious justification, stating that such an action is expressly against the faith. Interestingly though, most religions do not in fact have specific strictures against the taking of one’s own life, but rather taking life generally. This of course can be interpreted to mean one’s own as well as any other.

The fact is though, suicide has been seen not only favorably, but honorably, in certain contexts. The stoic philosophers (most specifically Seneca) saw suicide as a favorable way to take ownership of one’s own life when it became too intolerable. Japanese samurai culture say suicide (seppuku) as a proper way for one who had dishonored his family to commit the ultimate sacrifice so that they regained, and indeed retained it. The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was the one who pointed out in his short piece “On Suicide”, Christianity’s gripe with suicide stating:

In its innermost core, Christianity bears the truth that suffering (the Cross) is the real purpose of life; and therefore as suicide opposes such purpose, Christianity rejects it, whereas antiquity, from a lower point of view, approved and even honoured it. That reason against suicide is, however, ascetic and therefore applies only to an ethical standpoint much higher than that which European moral philosophers have ever occupied. But if we descend from that very high point, there is no longer any valid moral reason for condemning suicide.

(295)

Final Thoughts

A persistent and resounding theme that I’ve come to notice throughout this paper, this class, and a lot of the reading I’ve been doing lately, is that of humanity’s penchant for denying the cold, hard, realities of death. It’s understandable that a species which has a self-awareness of its own mortality should try to repress such truths. Otherwise, we’d be living in a constant grip of abject horror and anxiety. But this isn’t to say that the open discussion about the various aspects of death and all of its outgrowths should be stigmatized in the way that it is. It’s only by confronting those things that we most fear that we can in fact come to a sense of comfort and ease with it. It’s no wonder that people will turn to all the different ways to which they might gain access to such feelings—meditation, astrology, religion, and even science.

We’re all struggling to find meaning to the short amount of time we have, but this shouldn’t necessitate the need to deny that there is an inevitable end. The more openly we can all discuss the different aspects of death – as a species – the more capably will we be able to handle it when the unexpected happens. And maybe, in our further understanding and acceptance, we might be able to come to be more empathetic toward one another, regardless of race, class, gender, or any of the other categories we so often define for ourselves.

Bibliography

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Buckley, William J., and Karen S. Feldt, editors. Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Death and Dying. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2013.

DeSpelder, Lynne Ann, and Albert Lee Strickland. The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying, 10th ed., McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2015.

Dickinson, George E., and Michael R. Leming, editors. Annual Editions: Dying, Death, and Bereavement, 15th ed., McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2017.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Suffering of the World, Ed. Eugene Thacker. Repeater Books, 2020.

Property, Corporate Capitalism, and Rent-Seeking

This is my final paper for the Political Theory class I took. We were tasked with writing about some aspect which we discusses in class and to utilize readings from the class and tie them together with outside sources. I decided to approach the concept of property, especially as it used as a way of control by way of corporations and rent-seeking. I hope you enjoy it!

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

It is the intention of this paper to explore the concept of property and the way it has transformed over time to become less of that which is privately owned – especially in the case of intellectual property – to that which is properly understood as part of the commons, and how these commons have come to be controlled by corporate capitalists through the development of a rent-seeking economy.  Another term for this state of affairs is rentier capitalism, which can be loosely defined as: the belief in monopolizing access to any sort of property (physical, financial, intellectual, etc.) and gaining substantial profits without contributing anything in return to society.

[private] Property [commons]

When John Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government, defined property as those things having “[t]he labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them” (Locke, Sect. 28), he was writing more generally about land as property, but he spoke further about those provisions:

[F]rom all which it is evident, that though the things of nature are given in common, yet man, by being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it, had still in himself the great foundation of property; and that, which made up the great part of what he applied to the support or comfort of his being, when invention and arts had improved the conveniences of life, was perfectly his own, and did not belong in common to others.  

(Locke, Sect. 44)

As such, these provisional objects, having borne one’s labor – whether through harvest, production, or industry – are thus inscribed with the ownership as property to whomsoever labors upon them, removing them from the common space to which all people are able to partake.  “We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state of nature leaves it in, which begins the property…” (Locke, Sect. 28).  This formulation is not so far removed from that of Karl Marx, for as he defined it:

Property thus originally means no more than a human being’s relation to his natural conditions of production as belonging to him, as his, as presupposed along with his own being; relations to them as natural presuppositions of his self, which only form, so to speak, his extended body. 

(Marx, Grundrisse, 491)

And it is by such actions of labor upon and removal of objects from out of the state of nature by an individual (or conglomerate) that private property is conceived.

Could Locke, or even Marx, have ever imagined to what extent the concept of private property would be expanded?  The various incarnations it has undertaken and the variegated aspects it has changed into over the centuries have come to make it seem as a foreign idea in comparison to its originary state of being.  It would be a far cry and indeed, an incredibly prescient one, if they could have had a notion of the way to which their original definitions would evolve into something wholly unrecognizable.  For how is it that the private property of one has now become something more akin to that which was previously defined as the commons?  The commons being those resources to which there are no contractual ownership – whether by purchase or labor – that one person (or conglomerate) may lay claim to.  “There are common property resources whose productivity can be appropriated at little or no cost to the beneficiary as they are over-exploited at the expense of future generations” (Albert, 73).  In inverse relations, such common ownership of that which would previously be defined as private has been shown in legal battles of recent years over that which is called intellectual property, and the rights to who retains ownership – the profits from which will be doled out by dint of that ownership.  “The field of intellectual property rights in particular is currently riddled with controversy and conflict.  Should knowledge be universally available to all or privately owned?” (Havery, Seventeen Contradictions, 41).  How can something as innocuous as something borne solely from the intellect be anything other than common usage?  How is such a Hegelian negation of negation – common property of the intellect reversed into private property of the commons, reversed again to ownership solely by one (or conglomerate) who had no part in the labor – be functionally conceived?  The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from capitalism itself.

It was Marx who was able to describe how “Private property which is personally earned, i.e. which is based, as it were, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent working individual with the conditions of his labour, is supplanted by capitalist private property, which rests on the exploitation of alien, but formally free labour” (Marx, Capital, 928), thus showing how the exploitative nature of capital will swallow the property formally deemed as that which is belonging to another, with no regard for that ownership, as it sees fit.  It is inscribed into the ontological characteristic of capitalism, whole cloth.  “[A] capitalist market, as opposed to a free one, is characterized by artificial property rights, artificial scarcities, subsidies and monopolistic entry barrier or cartels” (Carson, Free Markets and Capitalism?, 194).  As such, there can be no room for considerations of ownership – whether public, private, or intellectual, etc. – once such property is deemed necessary for capital’s expansion.  And it is always expanding. 

[P]rivatization of public assets, the creation of new markets and further enclosures of the commons (from land and water to intellectual property rights) have expanded the terrain upon which capital can operate freely.  The privatization of water provisioning, social housing, education and health care and even war making, the creation of carbon trading markets and the patenting of genetic materials have given capital the power of entry into many areas of economic, social and political life that were hitherto closed to it.

(Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, 235)

The contradiction of the concept “private property” is exposed by the functioning of capital.  Even the most private (the intellectual) or the most sacrosanct (the commons) are possible properties of value which can be exploited in the interest of capital’s expansion of control.  “Because there are now more ways in which property may be acquired, there are likewise more categories of theft” (Durkheim, 121).

Corporate [capitalism]

To aid in the service of capitalism as the predominant sociopolitical and economic ideology across the globe are transnational corporations.  A corporation can be defined as a “social relationship which is either closed or limits the admission of outsiders by rules … so far as its order is enforced by the action of specific individuals whose regular function this is, of a chief or ‘head’ and usually also an administrative staff.” (Weber, 146).  It is by way of these corporations that a majority of individuals are able to come together, combining their collective financial and political powers as one entity (often, as in the U.S., having the legal status of personhood), to exert further control over various properties and the rights therein.  These properties have increasingly become those of the intellectual sort as by controlling the rights – and thus the profits derived from such usage – they are then able to fully draw out every advantage such properties are able to provide.  This goes above and beyond just profit in the monetary sense, but a new conception of the surplus value writ large.  It is value added over and above the originary intention as such corporations are more readily disposed of dispatching time, energy, and labor power toward research and development that seeks to find new and unforeseen uses of such properties.  And as the corporate game within capitalism is based upon being the one who has the newest innovation, it is incumbent that every last use-value be discovered and withdrawn for use; otherwise, the competition will surely find a way to garner those profits for themselves.  “The fact that what is called the technological development of modern times has been so largely oriented economically to profit making is one of the fundamental facts of the history of technology” (Weber, 163).

            It is with this corporate power that the interests of capital are able to monopolize access to the aforementioned various forms of property.  These corporations do so by subversive means, skirting the laws which are put in place to restrict such totalizing control, and lobbying their interests with governmental powers.  Quite often it is former members of corporate boards who sit on overseeing committees within the government itself.  These committees vote in the interests which most suit the needs of the corporate control over property rights.  And it is also by these governmental relationships that such things as corporate bailouts go to bolster those which find themselves in financial crisis.  “The corporate titans that dominate our economic and political life could hardly survive for a year without the continuing intervention of the state in the market to sustain them through subsidies and monopoly protections” (Carson, Free Markets and Capitalism?, 132).  This runs counter to what is frequently espoused by those who prop up the capitalist economy as the strongest form of meritocratic democracy.  “Displacing private in favor of state property and markets in favor of state planning are the sins usually charged to socialism by the conservative supporters of capitalism” (Wolff, 211).  When a person falls prey to investment troubles and a debt crisis, there is no governmental hand which reaches out, settling all accounts.  Yet, when a corporation, deemed “too big to fail”, experiences similar such crises, they’re offered incredibly vast sums which bring them from the red into the black – at the expense of the taxpayer no less!

Rent [seeking]

Turning to the notion of rentier capitalism, by way of a instating a rent-seeking economy, it can be easily seen that the corporate control over intellectual property and the access to various other forms of property is a crucially valuable aspect of how capital continues its global expansion.  “A rent seeker is clearly defined as a person [read: corporation] who profiteers by redistributing wealth among different groups without creating new additional wealth.  Rent seeking is extracting value, without giving any real value back” (Bule).  It is by way of this rent-seeking that corporations which control various properties continue to extract monetary profits from them, without actually contributing anything new or innovative on their own.  In the advanced technological era which we are in, there are new and surprising ways that rental appropriation is utilized for maximization of the aforementioned types of surplus value.  “The West became more and more focused on rent extraction through the development of finance, insurance and real estate, alongside a consolidating regime of intellectual property rights, cultural products and corporate monopolies (like Apple, Monsanto, the big energy companies, pharmaceuticals, etc.)” (Havery, Seventeen Contradictions, 123).

            In order for proper enclosure of properties toward which corporate investments may subjugate the populace for profit, capital’s rent-seeking economy has been pursued with vigor by those who control such properties.  This is evidenced by the need for “rent paid to those who have privatized parts of the ‘general intellect’ (like Bill Gates, who collects rent for enabling people to participate in global networking)…” (Žižek, End Times, 234), and can be seen in point of fact as “Apple and Google act as extractive rentier capitalists in the mobile app market” (Gilbert).  Furthermore, “What we now see in the tech space is not a traditional kind of rent seeking, (manipulating the political system for benefits), instead we are seeing software vendors manipulate another mechanism, the billing/payment process, to convert their customers in ‘subscriptions’ instead (Bule).  It is through these subscriptions that people find themselves in a perpetual state of paying to use an aspect of a property which is no longer a materially substantial form of commodity; but rather, access to an outcome from an immaterial notion formulated by someone to whom the monetary benefit (or, the surplus profit) doesn’t even go.  “It is only through this ‘dematerialization’, when Marx’s famous old thesis from the Manifesto, according to which ‘all that is solid melts into air’, acquires a much more literal meaning than the one Marx had in mind…” (Žižek, Universal Exception, 231).

            A final thought: It is through the control of the various sorts of property – whether through means of manipulation via the state, the market, or the populace – that different entities have, and continue to, expand the control of capital.  Limiting access to certain properties, corporate capitalism, and a rent-seeking economy are all ways in which this ideological control is perpetuated and renewed, making those with wealth see only even greater profits, while marginalizing an ever-greater portion of the world’s populace.  Even John Locke saw that there should be limits to what is to be taken from the state of nature and inscribed as property: “[W]hat portion a man carved to himself, was easily seen; and it was useless, as well as dishonest, to carve himself too much, or take more than he needed” (Locke, Sect. 51).

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Wall, Derek. “Corporate Capitalism: Not Simply a Product of the State.” Free Markets and Capitalism?: Do Free Markets Always Produce a Corporate Economy?, edited by James Tuttle, The Center for a Stateless Society, 2020, pp. 205-213.

Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons, 1947. Free Press, 1964.

Wolff, Richard D. Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It, Olive Branch Press, 2010.

Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. 2010. Verso, 2018.

—. “The Three Faces of Bill Gates.” The Universal Exception, edited by Rex Butler and Scott Stevens, Continuum, 2006, pp. 227-236.

On Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”

The following is a paper I wrote for the Sociology of Death and Dying course I took this semester. We had to choose a book which dealt with the concept of death and write a paper which summarizes the overall thesis, but also add our own interpretations and analysis. I chose Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death” because I had purchased a copy to eventually read and this class just so happened to offer the perfect opportunity! I hope you enjoy reading it and I would urge you to also read the book itself as it is honestly an astonishing, rigorously researched book which approaches the concept of death from various views.

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

[T]he fear of death is a universal in the human condition.

Becker, xvii

            As the foregoing quote states, one of the most universally understood fears of humanity is that of death itself.  The reasoning for this might seem extremely dense, multi-faceted, and innocuous to grasp; but, the seeming incomprehensibility of this fear can be boiled down to this: humanity’s self-awareness of its own mortality terrifies it due to this being an admission of its inherent animal nature and thus, its finitude.  This circular understanding bears the brunt of humanity’s ontological truth; namely, we’re born to die.  

[T]he idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.

xvii

What this doesn’t explain though is how one is supposed to reconcile this fact with the desire to find meaning within the limited span of existence they’re subject to. 

Ernest Becker, in his book The Denial of Death, extends the understanding of why humanity both fears and reviles death, while also examining how we seek meaning through our symbolic inscriptions and social interactions.  Through a systematic comparative analysis of death through the various lenses of psychoanalytic theories, philosophical concepts, and religious beliefs, he explicates the variegated ways in which one might conceive of, despair over, and indeed—how one might overcome the fear of death itself.

            Becker wrote this stunning cross disciplinary study of humanity’s confrontation with the concept of death and its constant struggle to find meaning in light of its awareness of its own mortality in 1973.  As such, it is rife with various problematic terminology and long-since refuted ideas about subjective sexual choice; but, this doesn’t refute the overall thesis of the book or its intentionality—namely, the exposition of humanity’s desperate craving for immortality through creative projects, interpersonal relationships, and individuated transcendence in attempts to stave off the horrific notion of existential finitude.  “[O]f all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death” (11).  It is in this state of terror that humanity will find its desire for meaning, for once aware of one’s own mortal nature, one is driven to make sense of their temporal instantiation in self-conscious existence.

            It is by first focusing on the psychoanalytic theories and the psychology behind humanity’s desire for meaning by way of various thinkers – primarily, though not limited to, Sigmund Freud, William James, Alfred Adler, Otto Rank, Erich Fromm, and Norman Brown – that Becker presents his idea which is central to understanding what sustains humanity: “[W]e like to be reminded that our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic” (1).  It is through these acts of heroism – not limited to the conception whereby one commits acts of valor – that humanity is able to, through acts of subjective significance which serve to reveal meaning, stave off the constancy of the fear of death and live their lives without being ever gripped by the terror of its inevitability.  “The ‘healthy’ person, the true individual, the self-realized soul, the ‘real’ man, is the one who has transcended himself” (86).  Becker goes on to explain:

The self must be destroyed, brought down to nothing, in order for self-transcendence to begin. Then the self can begin to relate itself to powers beyond itself. It has to thrash around in its finitude, it has to ‘die,’ in order to question that finitude, in order to see beyond it.

89

Once one is able to see beyond their subjective narcissistic understanding of the world in front of them, they are then ready to attempt acts of heroism, typically by way of creative projects and interpersonal relationships.  It is through such acts that one will able to transcend their reality through symbolic representation and achieve individuation.  “Man needs a ‘second’ world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatize, nourish himself in. … Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal” (189).  Without creating a symbolic order – specifically inscribed by the illusions of cultural normativity, social mores, and language itself – which lays over top of the harshness of the real, which undergirds reality itself (the philosopher Immanuel Kant defined the distinction between the symbolic order and the real as the phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm, respectively), humanity would descend into madness.  As Becker explains, “[T]o see the world as it really is is devastating and terrifying. … It places a trembling animal at the mercy of the entire cosmos and the problem of the meaning of it” (60).  In order for humanity to retain a semblance of sanity, a constant state of repression of the real is perpetuated via symbolic inscription and interaction.  For, as Becker asks, “What exactly would it mean on this earth to be wholly unrepressed, to live in full bodily and psychic expansiveness?” to which he answers in turn, “It can only mean to be reborn into madness” (66).

To be sure, this repression certainly is necessary for humankind to capable operate within reality.  “The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so fully of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act” (50).  The fact is though, that there remain cracks within the symbolic edifice whereby realizations of the real slip through, causing people to nonetheless retain an understanding of their terminal prospects.  This results in (as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard formulated, later taken up and expounded upon by Martin Heidegger) an anxiety-toward-death, which paradoxically produces an anxiety-toward-life.  This is quite the twist when considered in light of humanity’s efforts to deny their own mortality by finding meaning in their lives.  As Becker expertly put it, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive” (66).  So we find ourselves in a constant tension between our fear of dying, which is based in the anxiety of the unknown void where our subjective consciousness ceases to exist, and an anxiety toward truly living, which is both the very way by which we free ourselves from the fear of death and that which is its very cause!

It is with this understanding of the purpose of the symbolic order, its cultural instantiation, and the repression of the real, that Becker turns to how certain mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression, and neuroticism come to affect persons.  Becker posits that a likely reason for schizophrenia is that there is no longer a mediating force (the symbolic order) from a person fully experiencing the real and they are thus struck by the full weight of all creation, embracing an unbridled eternity which is seen as incompatible with their terrestrial mortality:

Too much possibility is the attempt by the person to overvalue the powers of the symbolic self. It reflects the attempt to exaggerate one half of the human dualism at the expense of the other. In this sense, what we call schizophrenia is an attempt by the symbolic self to deny the limitations of the finite body; in doing so, the entire person is pulled off balance and destroyed. … [T]he person becomes sick by plunging into the limitless, the symbolic self becomes ‘fantastic’ … when it splits away from the body, from a dependable grounding in real experience in the everyday world.

76

Conversely, there are persons who are most liable to constantly build upon the symbolic order, creating networks of self-imposed lies, layering them upon one another in desperate attempts to deny the underlying real of reality—these persons are classified as suffering from neuroticism. 

Becker describes the neurotics’ condition thusly: “Neurosis is another word for describing a complicated technique for avoiding misery, but reality is the misery” (57).  It is their unconscious awareness of this truth about reality that drives the neurotic to continually bolster their subjective symbolic construct to stave off encountering the real.  It is the depressive person though who stands most firmly within the world, as Becker explicates:

Depressive psychosis is the extreme on the continuum of too much necessity, that is, too much finitude, too much limitation by the body and the behaviors of the person in the real world, and not enough freedom of the inner self, of inner symbolic possibility. … [T]he schizophrenic is not enough built into this world—what Kierkegaard has called the sickness of infinitude; the depressive, on the other hand is built into his world too solidly, too overwhelmingly.

78

They are those who realize their finite nature in the most complete way and are unable to reconcile that fact, are unable to realize their own meaning; namely, their heroic acts are nonexistent and thus, they can do nothing but focus on their own mortality, feeling as though there’s no reason to their existence as such.

            Finally, Becker touches upon humanity’s desire for finding meaning through religious projects and beliefs.  It is through such beliefs that humanity is more able to face the impending reality of each new day fully aware of their own finitude, but secure in their subjective understanding that come what may, their lives have meaning as indicated to them by the religious doctrines and teachings to which they adhere.  “We need the boldest creative myths, not only to urge men on but also and perhaps especially to help men see the reality of their condition. We have to be as hard-headed as possible about reality and possibility” (280).  It is through these tales, allegories, and myths that people are able to find possibility in the darkest times—even on their death beds.

            This has been by no means a thoroughgoing account of the riches this book has to offer.  I have attempted to highlight some of the broader and more expansive topics which Becker has brilliantly discussed, but there are manifold reasons why any reader would gain a wealth of knowledge from within the pages.  Becker describes aspects of psychoanalysis which, while I had previously known of and dismissed as being too couched in theoretical belief to be applicable – concepts such as anality, oedipal dynamics, transference, fetish object, etc. – now are more concretized and significant.  I barely touched upon how important interpersonal relationships and sociocultural relations are for individuated transcendence.  Becker in fact states, “Culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness” (159) and further explains the importance of loving another as, “the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. All spiritual and moral needs now become focused in one individual” (160).  And there are further expositions on the importance of one’s working projects, the creative arts, and the influence they may have on the world writ large.

            The Denial of Death stands to this day as one of the most important and thoroughly researched books which deals with humanity’s approach to and interaction with, the concept of death.  It pulls no punches and posits plainly exactly how the very self-awareness which humanity has of its own finitude is quite possibly its most pressing concern and indeed stands as one of the most primary of influences upon our very psyche.  For it is as Sam Keen writes in the foreword, “Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates” (xii).  But it is also Keen, further into his foreword, who answers the implicit question in the face of this: What can we do?

Becker, like Socrates, advises us to practice dying. Cultivating awareness of our death leads to disillusionment, loss of character armor, and a conscious choice to abide in the face of terror.

xiv-v

The Western Feminist’s Missionary Position

What follows is the final short paper I had to write for this semester’s Feminist Theory class. Tasked to compare/contrast the work of two thinkers we had read, I chose Serene J. Khader and Ann E. Cudd, respectively. [Leslie E. Jones is listed as coauthor of “Sexism”, but I couldn’t find any information or photo of her] I tried something different out with this and tried to analyze what they talk about by way of an exploratory example. I believe it holds up, but then…I’m biased! Anyway, I hope you enjoy it and please feel free to let me know your own thoughts.

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

Chapter 1 of Serene J. Khader’s book, Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic, outlines the various ways in which Western feminists tend to devalue and ignore the culturally specific needs of women in countries which aren’t within the Western boundaries.  She highlights the imperialistic nature of certain feminisms – specifically, ‘missionary feminism’ – and how they tend to force their own Enlightenment values upon those of other cultures, claiming a universalist project as being that which adheres to those values.  This is problematic as it negates any cultural norms and accepted values within those cultures as being ‘primitive’ or ‘barbaric’.  In light of these issues, Khader asserts that,

Missionary feminists take the West to be an agent of morality, and they preserve the deep psychological and ideological association between the West and morality by altering away information that might reflect poorly on the West or its values. 

Khader

This effectively forecloses the possibilities for criticism against the West, for to do so is to then be accused of criticizing values as such.

By dubbing such feminisms which seek to bring the ‘other’ countries and cultures out from their ‘primitive’ ways and into the modernized West’s fold as missionary feminism, Khader is actually affecting a two-fold meaning.  The first is that akin to the religious missionaries who go on pilgrimages to far away lands in order to spread their gospel and values to the inhabitants therein.  This is an apt characterization as religious missionaries tend to reject all other cultural values as being naïve and morally bereft.  As Khader states, “[M]issionary feminists suppose that other moral languages are bankrupt” (Khader, 25).  This runs in harmonious concurrence with the ideals of the religious missionary.

Another (vulgar) interpretation of the term missionary feminism can be seen in the sexual act known as the ‘missionary position’.  If we map Ann E. Cudd and Leslie E. Jones’ concept of interpersonal sexism as defined in their paper “Sexism”, which states “Interpersonal sexism comprises actions and expressions between persons that create, constitute, promote, sustain, and/or exploit invidious sexual inequalities” (Cudd & Jones, 78), onto the sexual act itself (using a heterosexual modelling for the purposes of this example), the missionary position is defined as having the man on top of the woman while she is on her back.  He is in a domineeringly aggressive stance, over her body, frequently clutching her with the full weight of his physicality.  She, on the other hand, lays below in a subservient position with his arms on both sides of her, confining her within his grasp.

While this a bit far afield, consider the missionary feminists (representative of Western imperialist oppression under the guise of care) being in the position of the man, while those ‘other’ women in countries outside of the West (assumed to be naïve and foolishly subservient to their own ‘primitive’ cultures) as being in the position of the woman in the aforementioned example.  Doesn’t this seem to represent how a patriarchal sexist belief can be found in the misattributed act of care?  How many men would profess to thinking that the missionary position is solely one of equal respect and never consider it as being a domineering one?  This, to me, tracks almost perfectly with Khader’s conception of missionary feminism, whereby “[M]issionary feminists ignore the harms of Western intervention in the lives of ‘other’ women” (Khader, 26). 

And to finally put this particular example to bed (pun intended), I believe it also shows, when compared with the missionary feminists’ project, how imperialism sneaks its way into what seems on the face of it, at least to those participating in such projects, as being reasonable efforts of care.  The problem being, more frequently than not, the women to whom this care is being foisted upon by way of the missionary position, aren’t consulted. 

Imperialism typically involves cultural differences between the dominator and the dominated, and we want criticisms of imperialism to be able to show more than that imperialism appears wrong from the perspective of the dominated. 

Khader, 29

Without such involvement, the person (read: culture) is dismissed out of hand as being irrelevant, submitting them to Miranda Fricker’s concept of hermeneutical dissent, whereby “…interpretations of a certain group’s experiences and the resulting concepts are unduly dismissed by others” (Fricker).

Khader’s paper goes on to explore various reasons for the problematic of missionary feminism as such; including, ethnocentric justice monism, idealizing and moralizing, and nonnormative assumptions.  They all serve as evidentiary claims for the reasons why such practices need to be taken into account when criticizing the West’s frequently misguided attempts at asserting their values upon ‘others’.  But I think the greatest strength of her claims and critique is explaining how a pragmatic approach toward transnational, anti-imperialistic feminist projects can be implemented. 

[O]nce transnational feminist praxis appears to be about justice enhancement, the case for feminist activism “from below” becomes very clear— and clear in a way that is fully compatible with universalism.

Khader, 45

Means of Embodied Identity Toward Emancipatory Ends

What follows is a short paper I wrote for Feminist Theory. We’re tasked with outlining a particular concept from two separate thinkers we’ve read and then contrasting and/or comparing them. I’m not fully certain what it was that made me think of these two in particular, but I can say I really enjoyed writing this one and my professor liked it too as she’s proposed possibly expanding it into a full-length paper!! Anyway, please feel free to let me know what your thoughts are.

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

By examining the first chapter of Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, in conjunction with the paper “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” by Judith Butler, there’s an interesting comparison that can be made between the two, where the performativity of women within the patriarchal social milieu can be utilized in an emancipatory manner from the constrictions placed upon them by institutionally supported misogynistic sociopolitical structures.

Manne’s work is focused primarily on how the term “misogyny” has been misattributed as a feeling of hatred toward women in a broad sense, which she calls naïve misogyny.  She explains how the acceptance of such a definition actually limits women’s access to the knowledge required to formulate critiques of the phenomenon and that it relegates those of whom are agents as suffering from some mental problems (as in the case of the Isla Vista shootings) rather than engaging in a direct assault on women qua women. Manne goes on to further explain, “This conception also fails to encompass more than a psychologically and hence metaphysically obscure phenomenon” (Manne, 45). What she is getting at with this statement is that the naïve definition of misogyny is seeking to side skirt the implication inherent in it; namely, the dismissal of misogyny as being ontologically instantiated within the ideological framework of the patriarchal society.

By reconceptualizing the definitional aspects of misogyny, Manne seeks to disclose the availability of understanding for which women will have a firmer grasp; thus, opening possibilities for analysis, critique, and criticism. She defines misogyny as:

primarily a property of social systems or environments as a whole, in which women will tend to face hostility of various kinds because they are women in a man’s world (i.e., a patriarchy), who are held to be failing to live up to patriarchal standards (i.e., tenets of patriarchal ideology that have some purchase in this environment).

(Manne, 33-4)

It is with this reconceived understanding of misogyny as ideologically driven throughout all aspects of society that women (and society at large) will be more able to see the various ways in which it affects not only the universal of women, but also the particular of individuals as such. “These coercive enforcement mechanisms vis-à-vis patriarchal norms and expectations, and the social roles they govern, are the functional essence of misogyny” (47). And with this added understanding comes the answer to how to effectively enact liberatory moves in order to battle against such oppressive constraints. First though, a discussion of Judith Butler’s project.

What Butler’s paper is pursuing are the performative acts which everyone engages in within their respective societal structures as being those which are in direct relation to their expressions of gender. They explain in a rigorous cross-examination of feminist theory avec phenomenological methodology how, “[t]he gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives” (Butler, 526). Through a constancy of performativity “[t]he body is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities…” (521) and it is through this embodiment that one is capable of emancipating themselves from the aforementioned restrictions and realize their subjective autonomous identity, though not without risk.

Due to the social milieu in which patriarchy is the standard by which norms of gender expression and expectations of sexed bodies are implemented, those who don’t conform to those standards are vilified, ostracized, and often outright attacked. As Butler explains, “Discrete genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished” (522). This is similarly echoed by Manne in the case of those women who are perceived as not falling in line with their socially expected roles, “Misogynists … need not hate women universally, or even very generally. They tend to hate women who are outspoken, among other things” (52). She’s highlighting the ways in which those women who push back against the prescribed roles set upon them by the social order are seen as a threat. “A woman’s perceived resistance to or violation of the norms and expectations that govern these social roles would naturally tend to provoke just these kinds of reactions” (49).

            I claim that in the case of Butler’s notions of performativity in service of embodiment, coupled with the understanding of Manne’s conception of misogyny as socially instantiated and supported by the underlying patriarchal ideology, opens avenues for emancipatory acts by which persons (for the purposes of this paper – specifically women) are able to resist their oppressed status. When utilized as a tool for resistance, performativity can be shown to upset the standard social order and can in fact work toward redefining the coordinates of such frameworks. As Butler asserts, “what is called gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanctions and taboo” (520) which they further explain, when experienced subjectively, “is not only structured by existing political arrangements, but effects and structures those arrangements in turn” (522) – this is the key! By utilizing the performative act of one’s own identity (gendered/sexed/otherwise) as a way to push back against the existing ideological, sociopolitical strictures and structure, one in fact reinscribes the social understanding of identity as such. With enough time and effort, the social milieu itself will change to embrace this understanding.

            As can be seen with the women’s liberation and feminist movements (though there is still much work to be done) a social shift has been accomplished over the past few hundred years. This was due in large part to the work of women who refused to live within their prescribed social roles. Manne explains the concept of “unbecoming women” as those women perceived by society as:

traitors to the cause of gender— bad women, and “wayward” ones. And the victims of misogyny hence tend to include women entering positions of power and authority over men, and women eschewing or opting out of male-oriented service roles. Among others, its natural targets will be (surprise) feminists.

(Manne, 51)

It is precisely these women who have sought to upset the social order in efforts toward changing their oppressed status and to redefine society’s understanding of women’s positionality. She further explains how “[t]he idea of “unbecoming” a woman by resisting patriarchal oppression can be interpreted semi-literally on some accounts of what it is to be a woman” (51) and it is this performative act of their subjective identity qua woman which served to redefine the social conception. As Butler expertly assessed:

Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all. That this reassurance is so easily displaced by anxiety, that culture so readily punishes or marginalizes those who fail to perform the illusion of gender essentialism should be sign enough that on some level there is social knowledge that the truth or falsity of gender is only socially compelled and in no sense ontologically necessitated.

(Butler, 528)

By the very fact that punishment is enacted upon those who don’t fit within the prescribed social roles of embodiment and expectation, the assertion that there are definite forms of such social understanding which are “right” vs those which are “wrong” is shown to be hinged on an epistemological antinomy. And it is exactly this contradiction which can be utilized as a pressure point toward emancipatory movement.

Ideological Contractarianism

What follows is the first essay I had wrote for this semester’s Political Theory class. I decided to choose David Gauthier’s paper “The Social Contract as Ideology” and the task was to explain the overall thrust of his thesis, discuss its intention, and whether its convincing/something we agree with. I enjoyed the paper in general, but as you’ll find, it’s a position I don’t align with personally. I also liked writing the paper – even though I’m not thrilled with the class itself – and it’s possible I’ll continue exploring ideas in this vein. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it and please feel free to let me know your own thoughts!

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

David Gauthier’s 1977 paper “The Social Contract as Ideology” seeks to explain how the substructure of societies’ ideological edifice – conceptualized by Gauthier as grounded within humanity’s self-consciousness – is influenced by Thomas Hobbes’ radical contractarianism and that, despite an expanding understanding of this fact, society is proceeding “towards a more Hobbist position” (Gauthier, 136).  He asserts further that by humanity’s increased awareness (on a conscious level) of the ideological realities which they are ingratiated – due to their attempts at liberatory self-actualization as appropriators from their coercive social relationships – the inherent stability of the system itself will be put into jeopardy, throwing the entire framework into disarray.  And as the ensuing chaos of an untethered social structure runs rampant, the people therein will seek guidance from a sovereign (in the Hobbesian sense) to regain some semblance of control.  Alas, none will be accessible to properly fulfill this need.

            Gauthier posits that for contractarianism to be constitutive of society, it presupposes that human beings necessarily must be understood apart from society, not prior to it.  This is dependent upon the understanding that, when in the state of nature, humanity is not the same aspect by which it is judged within a socially contracted society. 

…I have pointed out, the language of the theory is the language of ideal explanation, the men in the state of nature are not ourselves.

Gauthier (138)

As such, the social existence which humanity finds itself is shown to be the product of sociability, rather than its condition. As Gauthier explains, were it the other way around, people who were fully self-conscious would have relationships entirely mediated through contractual agreements.

            A sufficient rationale of social relationships within contractarian societies as constructed through ideological functioning can best be understood “as if we supposed that all social relationships were to be rationalized in contractual terms” (136).  And, it is by taking this stance in the analysis that the subversive nature of this rationale’s intentions become disclosed; namely, contractarianism is most effective when those within its structure make overt ascriptions of denial about its actuality. 

To say that an ideology is false or invalid must, then, be to say that the rationale it provides for society is incompatible with the literal truth about that society.

Gauthier (138)

It is through the rational expression of humanities’ characteristics that society grounds itself as having instrumental value recognizable to the individual; thereby allowing for this fundamental constitutive need for social relationships to be resolved.

            As Gauthier explicates, in order that society may function optimally and within the bounds of a necessary coercive authority, “…there must be considerable competition for the goods sought” and that “[t]he resources available to the members of society must be insufficient to permit the full or almost full satisfaction of everyone simultaneously…” (145) so as to ensure that a constant state of dynamic tension perpetuates a need for appropriation.  It is through this continual want for the possession of property within a social order which operates via relationships based in competition that the market is formed – and with it, money.

            Money is the representative token which allows for an ever-expanding market system based upon the subjective desire for constant appropriation to operate beyond a theoretical concept; it is reified materially through its strength in abstraction. 

[M]oney as a particular object is replaced by the purely formal notion of utility, an object conveniently divested of all content.

Gauthier (152)

It is precisely due to the strength of this symbolic representation that human subjects are able to conceive of themselves as individualistic utility maximizers as appropriators which, when coupled with the rational instrumentality of social relationships, instantiates the necessary means for contractarian society. 

Thus society as conventional, human nature as appropriative, and rationality as maximizing cohere together at the core of our ideology.

Gauthier (153)

            Gauthier’s dénouement is a discussion of how the motive forces of love and patriotism have been essential factors to the historical development and sustainment of the political order. 

Patriotism and love thus maintain the enduring political basis of contractual market society. 

Gauthier (161)

As such, the ideological construct has perpetuated across transgenerational bounds via a mixture of fear and care, which has furthered its indoctrination – subordinating certain areas of humanity to an ignorance about their inherent positionality within society – allowing for those in dominant positions to sustain their exclusive control as seemingly necessary for contractarian society to maintain its homeostatic balance; ironically, through imbalance. 

            There are further assertions, claims, and suppositions which can be thoroughly analyzed which would certainly be fruitful in conceiving how the subjective realization of the ideological substructure of radical contractarianism can be seen as having negative outcomes for the society which operates within it, but these analyses are best left for a future paper.

            While I don’t summarily disagree with David Gauthier’s propositions, I do believe he is discounting various factors of humanity’s capabilities toward incorporating and adapting to new ideological structures throughout history.  He seems to argue largely in favor of maintaining some semblance of the status quo, which I patently disagree with.  I’m of the mind that radical change is needed in order for hierarchal structures to be abolished, in favor of a truly emancipatory egalitarianism across all intersectional dimensions of humanity.  I believe that a new social contract needs to be instantiated in order for this sort of revolutionary, liberatory movement to take place; whereby, appropriation is no longer the primary motivation within the socio-political order, but rather an empathetic understanding for all conscious beings becomes that which mediates all social relations.  And while this has a ring of idealistic utopianism, my thought aligns with the maxim put forth by Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History:

We assert, then, that nothing has been accomplished without interest on the part of the actors; and if interest be called passion, inasmuch as the whole individuality, to the neglect of all other actual or possible interests and claims, is devoted to an object with every fibre of volition, concentrating all its desires and powers upon it, then we may affirm absolutely that without passion nothing great in the world has been accomplished.

Hegel (22)

Haslanger meets Mill

What follows is the second short paper I wrote for my Feminist Theory class. It required that we utilize work from two of the philosophers we had read up to that point, comparing/contrasting their positions. I found some unexpected parallels between Sally Haslanger’s “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” and John Stuart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women” which I decided to try and tease out – to some success I believe. I hope you enjoy the paper!

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

In the paper “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Sally Haslanger critically analyzes the definitional uses of the terminology surrounding the concepts of ‘gender’ and ‘race’.  She utilizes conceptual, descriptive, and analytical methodologies of inquiry focused through a feminist materialist lens in order to highlight how the oppressive systems in which gendered and racialized people find themselves further bound by the common usage of language which serves to keep the discourse equally as subservient to such oppression.

In asking what race is, or what gender is, our initial questions are expressed in everyday vocabularies of race and gender, so how can we meaningfully answer these questions without owing obedience to the everyday concepts?  Or at least to our everyday usage? 

(Haslanger)

By showing the various ways the terminologies of race and gender are conceptualized in theoretical and political fields, Haslanger puts forth an assertion of not only redefinition, but reidentification. 

The issue is not just what words we should use, and who gets to say what words to use, but who we take ourselves to be, and so, in some sense, who we are.

(Haslanger)

Through this (re)conceived understanding of identity, the epistemological edifice of language which holds oppressed people within it will lose its inherent strength, thereby denying its power over them.

An interesting similarity can be shown in the content of John Stuart Mill’s paper, “The Subjection of Women”, which states that

[T]he adoption of this system of inequality never was the result of deliberation, or forethought, or any social ideas, or any notion whatever of what conduced to the benefit of humanity or the good order of society.

(Mill)

Mill is explicating the idea of a structural inequality which precedes any rational debate or discussion about the relative effects felt by those who stand to benefit or suffer from it, but that its legitimization has been mediated by societal laws. 

Human society of old was constituted on a very different principle.  All were born to a fixed social position, and were mostly kept in it by law, or interdicted from any means by which they could emerge from it.

(Mill)

While Mill is seeking to explain a previous epoch where an individuals’ options were predetermined by their position in society at the time of their birth, comparisons can be drawn to the ways structural inequality remains prevalent, though it attempts to remain hidden beneath layers of linguistic confusion and ideological subterfuge.

If thought together, both the Haslanger and Mill papers can be shown to have a reliance upon the understanding of how language and discourse are utilized (or, not so) in order to maintain the subordinate positionality of people who are defined as those not capable of occupying the superior position.  Whether through the manipulation of language via definitional terminology or directly effecting the law, the fact remains: these are techniques which seek systemic control of others deemed by the dominant gender, race, or class as being unworthy of the same considerations they enjoy.

In order to combat such epistemological control, Haslinger proposes:

…we should work to undermine those forces that make being a man, a woman, or a member of a racialized group possible; we should refuse to be gendered man or woman, refuse be raced … The point is not to legislate what terms to use in all contexts, but to offer resources that should be used judiciously.

(Mill)

It can be understood that by consistently seeking to change the way not only language is used, but also of how such terminologies and laws are utilized; a liberatory process can effectively change the substructures which guide the ideological beliefs toward the oppressed, thus allowing for possibilities of emancipation.

hooks avec de Beauvoir

What follows is the first reflection assignment for this semester’s Feminist Theory class I’m taking. We’ve read a few different selections and were tasked to choose two to write a short piece contrasting and comparing their respective positions. I chose bell hooks and Simone de Beauvoir, both of whom I quite thoroughly enjoyed. We only read the paper mentioned below by hooks and the introduction to de Beauvoir’s ‘Second Sex’, but they offered rich content to utilize for this assignment.

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

In bell hooks’, “Black Women: Shaping Feminist History”, she makes a strong case that the history of feminism until that point had been primarily focused on white, middle-class women, and that those who wrote of/within the feminist movement itself were further perpetuating this standard.  Due to white women (especially those of means) having more access to higher education, publishing, and levels of comfort which black women weren’t afforded, the narrative and focus of women’s liberation was directed inward, rather than in an outward and inclusive manner. 

By bringing attention to the fact that many within the feminist movement have in fact, whether overtly or covertly, worked to further undermine it by continuing the patently racist and exclusionary language, hooks is accurately critiquing the faults which have kept feminism as whole in a constant state of recovery.  How is it possible for a truly emancipatory movement to take place when a significant portion of the oppressed – in fact, the significant portion – are consistently pushed to the margins, their voices ignored as being less important than those of whom speak from a generally more privileged position? As hooks states, “Frequently, white feminists act as if black women did not know sexist oppression existed until they voiced feminist sentiment.”  This sort of divisionism serves to further the stranglehold of the patriarchal rule by exempting any sort of unification against it.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her introduction to The Second Sex, echoes a similar (though admittedly different) notion as that of bell hooks.  She highlights the fact that feminism has been built upon the structural inequities of women and men, but that it’s often found itself to be inaccurately compared with structures such as class – equating the plight of women with that of the proletariat – in an attempt to make the understanding more palatable.  de Beauvoir explicates the distinction thusly:

The parallel drawn […] between women and the proletariat is valid in that neither ever formed a minority or a separate collective unit of mankind.  And instead of a single historical event it is in both cases a historical development explains their status as a class and accounts for the membership of particular individuals in that class.  But proletarians have not always existed, whereas there have always been women.

While the working class as such has faced its fair share of oppression, the fact is, not only have women been in the subordinate position to men throughout history, but they too have experienced the maltreatment of the working class due to also being part of it, leaving them in a double-bind.  Further, women of marginalized and oppressed races have been exploited even more, taking their oppression into a realm which even the poorest of white women couldn’t explicitly comprehend, much less those of the middle-class to whom hooks is addressing; and, as de Beauvoir explains, “The most sympathetic of men never fully comprehend woman’s concrete situation.”

hooks’ final call to action is one of appeal to an understanding from where contemporary black women are coming from while also urging them to realize the power their position gives them as agents of social change:

As a group, black women are in an unusual position in this society, for not only are we collectively at the bottom of the occupational ladder, but our overall status is lower than that of any other group. […] It is essential for continued feminist struggle that black women recognize the special vantage point our marginality gives us and make use of this perspective to criticize the dominant racist, classist, sexist hegemony as well as to envision and create a counter-hegemony.

I find that bell hooks has done a wonderful job of bringing to light a systemic problem which has plagued the movement of feminism for far too long, but which is steadily changing, in large part due to her writings.  If the emancipation of women – all women – is to take place, then a more enlightened, accepting, and understanding relation between them (and the men who support the cause) needs to be actively sought.  As hooks herself writes, “The formation of a liberatory feminist theory and praxis is a collective responsibility, one that must be shared.”

Capitalist Destructive Consistency:

An Analysis of Capitalism’s Metamorphosis from the Industrial Era to Modern Neoliberalism

What follows is the final paper I was assigned to do for this semester’s Social Theory class. We were tasked with utilizing quotes from the readings we did and create a thematic paper which wove together the ideas of theirs and our own. I essentially wrote this all in one day due to my procrastinating nature, which is too bad because it’s something I would like to write a good deal about at some point in the future. Hopefully it’s not stilted and flows fairly well. I shouldn’t have left it off so long, but it’s been a weird semester to say they least!

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

Abstract.  Capitalism has survived a multitude of crises since its inception and proliferated globally via the advances of the industrial era while technological advancements contributed to the explosive growth of the production process.  On the surface it may seem that such contributions to the global social economy are entirely positive; but, I seek to show with this paper how these advancements have served to only broaden and deepen the class distinctions while also foisting capitalism upon an even greater swath of the global population via the subordination of the culture industry to the profit motive, the alienation of the working class from the means of production, and the imperceptible cage surrounding them due to society’s fetishization of commodities at the cost of others.  The evolution of technologies is constitutive to these processes continuing thus far, and they’re a vital part of capitalism’s colonization and the historical dialectical change from industrial capital to contemporary neoliberalism.  Due to capitalism’s degradation of the social relations between laborers and the alienation from that which they produce; the working class and the bourgeoisie; and the culture within which the people under capitalism toil; a sum total of negative effects has proliferated in the social order since the 19th century through the 20th and now into the 21st century.  The only real change has been inflating disparities between socio-economical classes.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

(Marx & Engels 34)

As the march of history pulls the populace of the world inexorably forward, the divisions of class remain constant, or if anything – increase, as do the inequities inherent in them.  In order for there to be a dominant class within capitalism (the current economic-political system) there needs to be a class of the underprivileged (the working class) which maintains the dominant classes’ (the capitalist class) status by having no access to the means of production.  The ownership of such means stays within the hands of those who control the flow of capital, while any surplus value created by those who operate those means is redirected back to the capitalist class, rather than being shared amongst those who labored for its creation.

[T]he worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands… 

(Marx 1844, 29)

With the increases in technological advancement, globalization, the transformation of capitalism itself, and the immense availability of commodities and free-flowing capital, the fact is that the differentiation of classes hasn’t changed significantly since the industrial age.

When examined thoroughly, it can be shown that capitalism has historically subjugated not only the people who operate within it, but also due to its inflationary and expansionary speed, the planet itself has suffered irreparable harms.  Evidenced by the multitude of ecological crises that currently threaten life across the globe, the increased proliferation of deadly diseases (COVID-19 being a present example), and the monetization of the very natural resources – oil, metals, wood, and now even water – into financially traded commodities, the precarity of the future comes into clear view.  While it is easy to think that these sorts of crises affect everyone, and indeed the common appeal to change follows this line of thinking – save the planet because otherwise we all suffer! – but, this isn’t quite the truth of the matter. 

[T]he globality of risk does not, of course, mean a global equality of risk. The opposite is true: the first law of environmental risks is: pollution follows the poor

(Beck 484)

As the global North continues to consume on a scale hitherto unseen in history, the global South suffers the consequences of our desire for comfort.  This is a necessary aspect of the ever-growing machine of capital, especially in its neoliberal form. 

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.

(Harvey 470)

The actual nature of neoliberal capitalism is one of subjugation.  It seeks only to expand ever outward into all areas of the globe, and indeed, into the very ideological beliefs of everyone within.  Its pervasive intrusion into every aspect of the material world has progressed across history to our current era whereby the use of various forms of entertainment and advertising has impeded its ideology into the very minds of the populace. 

Neoliberalism has, in short, become hegemonic as a mode of discourse. It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common- sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world.

(Harvey 470)

Prior to the contemporary age, the industrial era reigned and capital as an ideology began to expand at a more rapid pace than ever before.  Capitalism had existed before the industrial age, but with the advent of various forms of production machinery which could reduce overall cost for capitalists, it exploded!  The speed of capital and the free-flowing nature of its accumulation became not only the standard, but rather the fundamental basis for economic existence. 

[T]he earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudaemonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life.

(Weber 84)

No longer was the idea of a good life one which consisted of seeking one’s own happiness or sense of well-being; rather, life had become bound with the ideology of capital accumulation.  Happiness itself was now married to the profit-motive.  To act otherwise was to be seen as someone who disagreed with the common, accepted morality.

The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself.

(Weber 84)

The ideology of capitalism, in conjunction with the frenetic technological growth of the industrial age, opened the doors for new avenues of domination via the accumulation of not only capital, but also of debt.

Not only has the gap between rich and poor grown, but more people are falling into the poverty trap. Free-market economic policies, imposed on indebted countries by the West, worsen the situation by forcing countries to develop expert industry to supply the rich, rather than to protect, educate or care for the weakest. The poorest countries now spend more servicing their debt to the richest countries than they do on health and education in their own countries.

(Beck 484)

It is through the early industrial age’s advancement and colonial expansion that those countries, and the people who work menial labor in order to prop up those in the global North, were further pushed down the economic ladder, forced beneath the burden of impossible debt.  This was all part of an intentional form of domination in order for those first world countries to retain the luxuries and positions of power to which they sought, and indeed still seek, to retain.

Toward the end of World War 2, American society entered into an economic boom which became known as “The Golden Age of Capitalism”.  Suffused with a new nationalism due to a feeling of being part of ending the most horrific war in history, and the explosion of the middle-class due to advancements in production and distribution, the country bought in to the dream of the “rags-to-riches” stories and the hope of a utopian future.

In wartime, commodities which can no longer be supplied continue to be advertised merely as a display of industrial power.

(Horkheimer & Adorno 174)

These were bolstered by technological advances such as the television which, as it became increasingly more affordable and prevalent, was able to spread the [propaganda] information which capitalist interests wanted to indoctrinate the consumer with. 

Today, when the free market is coming to an end, those in control of the system are entrenching themselves in advertising. It strengthens the bond which shackles consumers to the big combines. 

(Horkheimer & Adorno 174)

Through the sudden flood of advertising, directly into the homes of the consumer, corporations were now able to sway the entire market and manipulate the desires of the populace, furthering the velocity of capital’s flow.  An era of production, predicated by the increased need for consumption, proliferated unchecked throughout the 1950s at a pace which quickly outstripped any boundary which society could place upon it, and the rise of globalization began in earnest.

The effects of globalization have been felt, unironically, the world over.  There are no longer borders by which capitalism is constrained.  Neoliberalism, which rose to prominence in the 1970s, has proliferated across the world and has gained a stranglehold in the hearts and minds of those of the global North, specifically those countries known as Western.  But it doesn’t end there.  The Western countries of the global North were merely the beginning, but as has been shown previously, ideologies such as these, due to the increased availability of transnational communication, proliferate and indeed flourish elsewhere.  Sometimes by dint of their successful strategies; other times, by force.

There has everywhere been an emphatic turn towards neoliberalism in political-economic practices and thinking since the 1970s. Deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision have been all too common. Almost all states, from those newly minted after the collapse of the Soviet Union to old-style social democracies and welfare states such as New Zealand and Sweden, have embraced, sometimes voluntarily and in other instances in response to coercive pressures, some version of neoliberal theory and adjusted at least some policies and practices accordingly. 

(Harvey 470)

By capitalist’s avaricious desires for constantly increased profits, their interests are often pursued extra-legally in effort to cement their influence around the world, due in large part to the fact that the global South is replete with unregulated labor and resources which are tenuously secured.  Such exploitation serves to further prop up the disparity of the global capitalist and working classes, respectively.

In so far as neoliberalism values market exchange as ‘an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs’, it emphasizes the significance of contractual relations in the marketplace. It holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market.

(Harvey 470)

This can be seen today in companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Walmart (and an uncountable number in addition) which have expanded beyond any border and transformed themselves into something larger than a corporation.  They’ve become world-shaping entities which effect every corner of the globe.  They are part of a new aspect of capitalism which is beyond even neoliberalism. 

A new kind of capitalism, a new kind of economy, a new kind of global order, a new kind of society and a new kind of personal life are coming into being, all of which differ from earlier phases of social development.

(Beck 482)

The capitalism which prevails in our contemporary period no longer finds itself bound to the strictures and structure of neoliberalism but has rather metamorphized into something new.  It’s becomes an ontological reality which, despite its various incarnations, shares the dominant mode of thought that indicates the profit-motive as sole reason for being.  Its ideological formation isn’t strictly one of adherence to capitalism as such, but rather of an illusory notion of democratic freedom of choice. 

[F]reedom to choose an ideology, which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom to be the same. 

(Horkheimer & Adorno 176)

Within the ideals of this perceived freedom of choice is the undergirding structure of the amorphous, ever-changing, adaptive functionality of capitalism, the concerns of which are no longer of anything beyond or separate from growth.  Profit-motive has transformed from the common notion of accumulation of wealth into something far more pervasive and endemic to the moral and ideological fibers of not only humanity, but the ecological system of the entire planet. 

[M]odern society lives off moral resources it is unable to renew; the transcendental “value ecology,” in which community, solidarity, justice and ultimately democracy are “rooted,” is decaying; modernity is undermining its own indispensable moral prerequisites. 

(Beck 485)

We see its prevalence in every aspect of our daily interactions.  Social media seeks to sell everyone not only consumer goods via a constant bombardment of advertisements, but also the promise of lives better lived through capital accumulation, displayed by those who [seemingly] have more.  The working class is increasingly subjugated to restrictive practices – implementation of part-time work instead of full-time, ever lower corporate contributions toward retirement, shoddy health plans, etc. – which keep them under the bootheel of the capitalist class.  There are people who currently have net worth which is higher than entire countries while billions of people live in abhorrent conditions.  The planet itself is in decline as species die out in record numbers, forestry is destroyed beyond repair, land is strip-mined into devastation, and animals are slaughtered in unprecedented numbers – raised in conditions no living creature should suffer, and children are born into working conditions the likes of which those of the global North have the arrogance to think no longer exist.  The atrocities perpetuated by this new beyond-neoliberal capitalism has wrought is both unthinkable and incalculable.

The desiring nature of humanity is a perfect union with the growth of capitalism.  Indeed, its collective eyes are bigger than its belly, and time will soon show what the end point is because as much as we like to think we’re incapable creating or furthering that which will be our own demise, the sad fact is, we have not only done so materially, but also spiritually.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.

(Weber 85)

But is that all there is then? Is there truly no alternative?  Can humanity find itself a way out of this constant desire for more at the expense of even their moral beliefs?  I don’t know.  My thought is unfortunately of a fairly pessimistic viewpoint overall, but there are many who are continually trying to assist in the exploration and implementation of new ideas that may bring about the necessary changes which can progress humanity to a unilateral freedom from the crippling effects of capitalist ideology. 

Freedom’s children feel more passionately and morally than people used to do about a wide range of issues— from our treatment of the environment and animals, to gender, race and human rights around the world. 

(Beck 484)

With a new generation of open-minded, forward-thinking, and proactive people trying their best to raise awareness and implement global change, there may still yet be a chance for humanity to escape the crushing embrace of capitalism.  People like Litia Baleilevuka, Marinel Ubaldo, Jamie Margolin, Greta Thunberg, and so many more.

There’s a notion that with the rising tide of capitalism, all other boats are lifted, and perhaps there is some truth to this, but at what cost?  Throughout history capitalism has shown itself to be profitable and beneficial for far fewer than it has harmed.  It has pervaded the ideological structure of nearly every country on the planet and positioned itself as the dominant morality.  When COVID-19 hit, the politicians of the U.S. decided to infuse the banks with approximately 1.5 trillion dollars in an effort to stave off the financial plummet of the stock market.  This had virtually no effect.  Rather than use that money toward something that might benefit the working class – cancel student debt (which is approx. $1.5 trillion) – the capitalist class chose instead to attempt to prop itself up.  The top companies in the world are currently experiencing unprecedented profits during the contemporary era’s largest worldwide crisis. 

We live in an age of risk that is global, individualistic and more moral than we suppose. The ethic of individual self-fulfillment and achievement is the most powerful current in modern Western society. 

(Beck 484)

None of this comes as a surprise anymore, it stands as ideological fact, accepted whole cloth.  The only hope humanity has of surviving the ever-increasing risks which these sorts of global catastrophes present is to somehow find a way to reconcile with our avarice and find a way to move beyond capitalism, in whatever form it takes.  There could be a truly utopian vision of the future, which is possible to attain, but it’s certainly not one where capitalism exists.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry as Deception.” Social theory: the multicultural, global, and classic readings, edited by Charles Lemert, Routledge, 2018, pp. 173-175.

Beck, Ulrich. “World Risk Society.” Social theory: the multicultural, global, and classic readings, edited by Charles Lemert, Routledge, 2018, pp. 482-485.

Engels, Friedrich, and Karl Marx. “The Manifesto of Class Struggle.” Social theory: the multicultural, global, and classic readings, edited by Charles Lemert, Routledge, 2018, pp. 34-37.

Harvey, David. “Neoliberalism on Trial.” Social theory: the multicultural, global, and classic readings, edited by Charles Lemert, Routledge, 2018, pp. 470-471.

Marx, Karl. “Capital and the Fetishism of Commodities.” Social theory: the multicultural, global, and classic readings, edited by Charles Lemert, Routledge, 2018, pp. 46-48.

—. “Estranged Labor.” Social theory: the multicultural, global, and classic readings, edited by Charles Lemert, Routledge, 2018, pp. 28-33.

Weber, Max. “The Spirit of Capitalism and the Iron Cage.” Social theory: the multicultural, global, and classic readings, edited by Charles Lemert, Routledge, 2018, pp. 82-86.

The Cult of Academia Perpetuated via Exploitation of Trust, Powerlessness, and Echo Chambers

This is the final paper which I wrote for this semester’s Philosophy class. We were tasked with finding an article from within the past four years which we could then compare with readings we did in class. I focused on Annette Baier, Iris Marion Young, and C Thi Nguyen’s papers, respectively. I’ve also included to required argument map at the end.

Take care of each other.
-p.a.k.

Cults are systems of social control. They are insular but often […] rooted in submission to a dogma manifested by an authority figure: a charismatic preacher or, say, a tenured professor.  

(Marzoni)

The 2018 Washington Post article, “Academia is a Cult” by Andrew Marzoni, is an interesting exposition of the cult-like aspects found in the pursuit of graduate-level education, contrasted with the author’s firsthand experiences growing up within the Christian religious cult known as the Living Word Fellowship.  He highlights how both Academia and the cult rely on systems of control and oppression in order to gain the upper hand over their adherents, seeking to foreclose the possibilities of external influences which may alter the mindsets of those within these institutions, keeping them in echo chambers.  To understand the concept of echo chambers we can turn to C Thi Nguyen’s paper “Escape the Echo Chamber”,

An ‘echo chamber’ is a social structure from which other relevant voices have been actively discredited.

(Nguyen 2)

These echo chambers, built upon systems of oppression, are then reenacted by the very victims of them, continuing in a perpetual cycle that both feeds upon those within it but also empowering them to do so to their subordinates themselves. Marzoni finishes the article by discussing how those within the upper echelons (whom I will henceforth refer to as ‘professors’, in the interest of expediency) of Academia have taken advantage – and still are to this day – of their privileged positions in order to exert a level of control over their advisees and students which almost directly mirrors the sorts of oppressive behaviors found within cults.

By exploring the idea of “powerlessness” as defined by Iris Marion Young in her paper “Five Faces of Oppression”, it can be shown that graduate students, post-doctorates, and those attempting to attain tenured positions (all of whom I will henceforth refer to as ‘students’ in the interest of expediency) find themselves relegated to the role of one who is subjugated.

Powerlessness […] describes the lives of people who have little or no work autonomy, exercise little creativity or judgment in their work, have no technical expertise or authority, express themselves awkwardly, especially in public or bureaucratic settings, and do not command respect.

(Young 283)

This hierarchal positioning within the world of Academia in addition to the acknowledged, and indeed accepted, systems of oppression that those who loom large atop the “Ivory Tower” willingly promote tend to go unchecked, much to the detriment of the students’ mental health and financial well-being. 

It’s not unusual for academic job seekers to spend 10 percent of their annual income […] attending a single conference for an interview (including airfare, lodging, registration fees and incidentals). 

(Marzoni)

By being in a continual state of mental, emotional, and financial unrest, the student is kept on a precarious perch, balancing the many responsibilities they must attend to while also being expected to manage the aforementioned stressors. 

Juggling variegated commitments leads to a continued state of isolation from outside influences for the student which further effectuates the indoctrination into Academia (as cult).

A cult isolates its members by actively alienating them from any outside sources. Those outside are actively labelled as malignant and untrustworthy. A cult member’s trust is narrowed, aimed with laser-like focus on certain insider voices.

(Nguyen 2)

The professors often take advantage of this isolation and the expectations in order to prove their commitment. 

[A]djuncts, like cult members, are usually required to work long and hard for little remuneration, toiling in support of the institution to prove their devotion to academia.

(Marzoni)

As the student is continually piled upon by a seeming avalanche of work and responsibilities they are increasingly separated from their private lives, the outside world, and become more susceptible to Academia’s myopic viewpoint, allowing for no interference of its inculcation.

[E]cho chambers work by systematically alienating their members from all outside epistemic sources.

(Nguyen 4)

While all of this may seem overblown and perhaps overly judgmental, the sad fact is, this is the current state of affairs within Academia and is actively participated in by those who occupy positions of power.  This is an unhappy consequence of giving one’s trust to those who are positioned higher up in a hierarchical structure.

Trust alters power positions, and both the position one is in without a given form of trust and the position one has within a relation of trust need to be considered before one can judge whether that form of trust is sensible and morally decent. 

(Baier 240)

Too often the abuses perpetrated by those in tenured positions aren’t addressed or if they are, they’re of little consequence to the abuser and more often tend to negatively affect the abused.

One department chair, who had trained as a community organizer in the 1960s, threatened to use the Freedom of Information Act to read graduate students’ emails; she could have, too, since we were technically employees of the state. Elsewhere, a senior colleague propositioned my friend for a sex act I cannot name in this newspaper before the first semester at her new job had even begun; after she complained to her boss, she was removed from her position under other pretenses. 

(Marzoni)

These perversions of the trust relationship between student and professor serve to perpetuate and enforce the cult-like aspects of Academia, highlighting the defined gap between professor and student, which allows exploitation to become the dominant modality in which the students’ work props up the professors’ reputation or commits it to the professors’ viewpoint. 

A peer of mine was even directed by her adviser to write a doctoral dissertation renouncing the subject of her master’s thesis, a philosopher whose views do not align with the adviser’s own. 

(Marzoni)

The more this continues, the more entrenched the student becomes and the further their subjugation becomes whereby the professor retains and strengthens their dominant position.

The central insight expressed with the concept of exploitation […] is that domination occurs through a steady process of the transfer of the results of the labor of some people to benefit others.

(Young 278)

Through an unfortunately limited analysis of Andrew Marzoni’s article in conjunction with the works of Annette Baier, C Thi Nguyen, and Iris Marion Young, I believe I’ve offered a cursory view of how, through the exploitative practices by professors of students’ trust, their positions of relative powerlessness, and the positioning within echo chambers – albeit, loosely defined – Academia can be shown to correlate closely with many practices which cults rely on to indoctrinate and retain their control over people.  A more in-depth comparison would further elucidate these connections, bringing to light a more pervasive, often violently adhered to, belief system within Academia which stands as a mirror to those within cults. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the structure found within Academia is that not only does it appear to have many similarities to the operational framework of cults, but that it continues to perpetuate and support it generationally – much the same as cults do.  This is endemic to the entire system of Academia, as such.  As Marzoni states:

The fault doesn’t lie with any one school of thought so much as with the academy itself.

(Marzoni)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baier, Annette. “Trust and Antitrust”.  Ethics, vol. 96, no. 2, Jan. 1986, pp. 231-260.

Marzoni, Andrew.  “Academia is a Cult”. Washington Post. 01 Nov. 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/academia-is-a-cult/2018/10/31/eea787a0-bd08-11e8-b7d2-0773aa1e33da_story.html Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.  

Nguyen, C Thi.  “Escape the echo chamber”.  Aeon.  09 Apr. 2018.  https://aeon.co/essays/why-its-as-hard-to-escape-an-echo-chamber-as-it-is-to-flee-a-cult

Young, Iris Marion.  “Five Faces of Oppression”.  The Philosophical Forum, vol. 19, no. 4, Summer 1988, pp. 270-290.

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