Dear Ethel, Or, What Is To Be Done (Part Three)

Part Three: What is “the Problem”?

(Part One, Part Two)

The Problem

“The problem” is not so much a problem as a way to consider the situation we are in.

As we have seen, the way we define the problem will determine the solution we come up with and the range of actions to do.

Let’s start with a couple of general principles. First, let’s take the largest useful frame of reference we have: namely the planetary world-system.

Second, let us note that human troubles – economic, political, social, intercultural, and to an extent environmental – are a product of human actions.

Our problems stem from what we are doing. The solution is to do something else.

I suggest that we are making problems for ourselves primarily by pursuing the wrong goals for the wrong reasons.

I would also suggest the problem, on the one hand, is an absence of a coherent worldview, and on the other hand, what we are doing in the absence of such a coherent worldview.

What, then, is a coherent world-view?

By a coherent worldview I mean an understanding of ourselves and our world in which our place is clear and the relations between parts of the system are clear. It seems straightforward enough that if we possessed an adequate coherent worldview we would not be wondering what to do; it would be clear what to do, morally and practically. Thus asking the question suggests incoherence in our world-view.

We lack an overall coherent world-view because we have lost our religion. Like it or not (and whether they are “correct” or not), this is precisely what the religious world-view provides: a moral compass for action.

We have replaced the religious worldview with a scientific based world-view, but we have not taken this seriously as a guide to our actions. Indeed, we have adopted scientific ideas very selectively and in a limited fashion. The values implied by the theory of evolution are the intellectual underpinning of capitalism – the logic that unfettered competition between individuals maximizing their personal profit functions as survival of the fittest, and thus is of maximum benefit for society at large. (For example, see Herbert Spencer: )

However, we are yet to incorporate the world-view suggested by general relativity or quantum physics in a widespread way. As Buckminster Fuller noted, we still speak of space and time, not spacetime; yet Einstein published his theory a hundred years ago.
Language is intimately connected to the way we see the world. Yet our use of language is woefully imprecise (and seemingly degenerating). We could instead adopt more operational (and accurate) language such as that indicated by Korzybski. (who had the balls to suggest the theory of relativity was only a special case of his theory of language!)

The picture of the world suggested by quantum physics – of vibrating energy and matter continually exchanging energy with other parts of the system, co-created by observers, and seemingly intimately interrelated and communicating in some sense – has barely begun to filter through to general consciousness. What is the worldview suggested by these developments? That is a large question, and one I don’t think has been answered yet. Certainly many of the divisions humans perceive – for instance, in culture, skin colour, ideology, etc – seem fundamentally irrelevant to the processes of the universe. We are crucially deluded by our sensory apparatus, and our thinking apparatus.

In this light attempts to fuse modern science with Eastern and indigenous spiritual models seem much more relevant – those spiritualities being successfully tested and workable models of humanity and its relation to the universe, and modern physics being our present best scientific picture of the world, it may go some way to what a coherent world-view today would look like.

This is only one part of that coherent world-view. The amount of change in the past century is the reason our world-view is incoherent today. And more change is coming. So we need a world-view which is well adapted to the current situation, and the one which is fast approaching.

What are we doing in the absence of a coherent worldview?

Our lifestyle seems to be in grievous error. For example, for everyone to live as the average New Zealander does would require the resources of seven planet earths (based off the last time I did an ecological footprint quiz, though it should be noted their estimates vary). The ratio is probably worse in the rest of the Western world. The way we live is fundamentally unsustainable.

We have seen how capital claims the legitimacy of science (our most effective means of inquiry into the nature of the world). Capital then co-opts science’s products, but does not subject itself to any intellectual, moral, or ethical rigour in their use. This is why pharmaceutical companies produce erection pills instead of cheap generic medicines to save millions of lives – the impotent rich can pay.

There are the usual crises most people are aware of: pollution, deforestation, despoliation, etc. Starving millions in Ethiopia are not causing climate change, but Western industry probably is. However, it is more profitable to spend a few million greenwashing a situation and litigating than it is to change to environmentally friendly practices. And since corporations only obligation is to make money, they do.

The inequality between first and third worlds. Neo-imperial wars for resources and geostrategic dominance. A corporate media full of fear. Democratic systems woefully corrupted by the money required to get elected. And so on. What is the common link?

Since we have decided on a global frame of reference, let us look to the dominant world spanning system, which is: unfettered global capitalism. A world spanning system whose highest value is profit – a fundamentally inhuman and artificial goal.

What is going on?

We are doing things for the wrong reason: the pursuit of profit above all else.

Our present world system is geared around this goal. Remember that “the system” is a bullshit abstraction. People do stuff. Any system is a product of those actions.

Capitalism does nothing. People working together do stuff.

Why do we do what we do? What goals do we set for our actions, and why?

If, instead of the capitalist goal of maximizing profit at any cost, we were to substitute a goal of, say, feeding, clothing, immunizing, educating, and housing everyone in the world to a decent standard in a sustainable manner, then we could turn the enormous productive capacities of science and technology and people working together to that goal.


Next: So if it’s that simple, why isn’t it happening? OR: What is the Situation?

Your homework is to go and see V for Vendetta, the greatest movie in many years, which should aid understanding of this.

[Edit: (Part Four, Part Five)]

No Responses to “Dear Ethel, Or, What Is To Be Done (Part Three)”

  1.   bradley
    April 3rd, 2006 | 11:03 am

    Regarding ‘V for Vendetta’. Have you read Moore’s graphic novel? Why do you think he despises the movie so much?

  2.   R-bot
    April 3rd, 2006 | 2:22 pm

    The impotent rich can pay. Damn right they should.

    So, its it feasible to have the power of a corporation, yet retain humane ethics? Is Dick Hubbard the man?
    I guess it needs to be a shift just for those six guys that matter. We need to send an adorable doe-eyed girl to Corporation HQ with puppy in tow. “Pweese Mister, you’re making Benson sick. Stop the suffering. PUH-WEESE?” After Shell, TimeWarner, Halliburton etc realise the error in their ways and decide to make a difference at the expense of profit, will everyone else follow suit, or will others rise up to replace the weak?
    Do Humans fundamentally just want to trash the place? I’m only here for seventy years, at least it’s not the dark ages(!), I may as well ride the crest of the wave down into oblivion.
    How do you teach people that things are not what they seem. How to give people all the information, and have them draw the right conclusions?

    Anyway, congratulations on the great blog, and sorry for soiling all over it 🙂

  3.   Administrator
    April 3rd, 2006 | 2:23 pm

    Regarding Moore and the movie, I suspect it is a question of timing and things coming to the surface now, rather than anything specific to do with the movie, which I doubt he has seen, and I suspect the draft he read was an earlier one given the specific criticism I am aware of that he made does not apply to the movie I saw.

    A long and messy legal history exists between him and DC, who own the rights. He wants his name taken off everything he doesn’t own. It is far from being just V-related. He is very pissed off, and he has a point. And I don’t think he trusts anyone in movies after what was done to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. 😉

  4.   ed
    April 7th, 2006 | 4:29 pm

    side point:
    Darwinism was also claimed by Marxists to support communism – I think (but cannot recall), along the lines of speices that co-operated survived.

  5.   Administrator
    April 7th, 2006 | 5:11 pm

    Uh, maybe. I thought it was something about casting the class struggle in terms of competition; since the proletariat would obviously win, they were more fit to survive. Something like that. The mutual aid riff was more of a Kropotkin riff.

    And, hell, eugenics and Nazism developed from a different strand of thought from adapting evolutionary theory. But these are very side points.

  6.   Andrew
    April 8th, 2006 | 10:38 am

    Just as a totally pedantic side-note about this line – “The values implied by the theory of evolution are the intellectual underpinning of capitalism” – they aren’t implied, they’re inferred.

    The theory of evolution does not neccesarily support capitalism (here as in an “unfettered competitiveness” model of capitalism) . The reading of evolution as competitive/ heirarchical is more like a *misapplied* reading inherited from the far more religiose theory of the Great Chain of Being, in which life ascends from the “lowest” form of life toward god(s). Evidence of this wrong reading is found in any phrase that talks of something as “more evolved” than something else. I’d be far happier to suggest that the Great Chain of Being “implies” capitalism (though again, pedantry will force me back on the word “infer” ;))