In ‘Ways of Thinking (Part 1)’, dialectics was described as a system of thinking, which unlike dualism, asks much more searching questions and does so over a number of stages, before coming to any conclusions. Even then the method of dialectics does not consider these conclusions as necessarily fixed or final. This reluctance or refusal to be dogmatic is because, new evidence may come to light or old evidence re-evaluated so as to refine the conclusion or even in extreme cases overturn it. For this reason, real-world dialectical thinking transcends all forms of dualism, dogma and intolerance due to their presumptions of possessing the ‘truth’. This second article will attempt attempt to substantiate that claim mainly by providing examples of dialectical understanding as applied to the spheres of nature, economics, ecology, society and politics.
However, before that, it should be noted that religion for centuries, has also been based upon, dualism, dogma and intolerance. Papal authority, for example, dogmatically relying upon what someone had written in the bible and what appeared in front of their eyes, considered that the sun went round the earth. They severely censured those who contradicted this assertion. For those who had accepted the religious form of dualist thinking, there could be no other explanation. Nevertheless, there was. However, the dogmatic rail tracks the religious intellect was trained to run upon could not conceive that their ‘borrowed’ way of thinking was incorrect and so they silenced and punished any alternative way of reasoning. [See ‘Religion versus Women’s Rights’ on this blog.]
As discussed in part 1, dialectical reasoning, recognises the difference (the contradiction) between the outward appearance of something and fully understood essence of it. This essence containing far more than first meets the eye and involving internal and external connections. It also accepts that the essence of ones idea of something, once seriously considered, may contain it’s own dynamic contradiction which sooner or later will change how that something is understood. This is no more than a belated recognition that the ideas of us natural beings as well as our bodies, can undergo a similar evolution or transformation as the natural ‘things’ we study. Some ‘things’ seem fixed and unchanging, (as do some ideas) but sooner or later they reveal themselves to be in the process of change. The ‘thing’ (or spacial position) of the ‘thing’ has changed into something else or moved somewhere else, or even both. A recognition of this general process suggests the ideas about about our world should at least try to keep up with changing reality and not wilfully or neglectfully get stuck in the past.
Before going further it should also be recognised that these changes, in the natural world as well as in the social and emotional realm of human affairs, are not undertaken or achieved without some difficulty. Births and deaths can be painful; engineering and metallurgy can involve quite extreme and often dangerous processes; developing high level skills can take time and excruciating effort. Change of any kind invariably involves stresses or strains of one kind or another. Dialectical thinking stems from a recognition of the connection between real world contradictions and the changing thought processes needed to take stock of this. Therefore it is to be expected that changes in understanding may also be accompanied by difficulties. Accepting new ideas and paradigms of thinking is not always easy for many people. However, painful this process is for some, the change element in the real world should by now be more acceptable to modern thinking, since science and technology has increased awareness that everything seriously studied is in a state of change. Consequently, methods of thinking have evolved as the following examples hopefully make clear.
Dialectics in the physical world.
Laser measurements have disclosed that even things as seemingly eternal as mountains, continents and planetary orbits are subject to small but accumulating changes, when not changed rapidly by irregular occurrences. Weather patterns, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, eclipses, shooting stars, asteroid collisions etc., are no longer thought of as acts of an imaginary god, or gods, but are understood as natural occurrences, where, small quantitative changes (such as result from saturation, pressure, speed of movement or position) accumulate to create a sudden qualitative change. The contradiction being that something seemingly stable becomes by degrees unstable before a change occurs and a further stage of seeming stability may or may not present itself. In other words, the appearance of something, at any one moment, is not necessarily the full essence, the completed process, or even the potential metamorphosis embodied within and around it. The fact of, and the process of, quantitative alterations leading to a change in quality, is part of the dialectical understanding and again modern life is full of such examples. I shall just outline a few more of the obvious ones, in each category just to emphasise the point.
It has long been observed that gradually decreasing heat within water, beyond a certain point, changes it into a solid – ice! Increasing the heat within water beyond a certain point, changes it from a liquid to the gaseous form of – steam. Both are examples of the fact that ‘wholes’ contain contradictory elements and that processes of quantitative changes (internally or externally generated) can result in a new quality – steam or ice. Steam, a new quality of extremely heated water, once harnessed was used as a source of power to usher in the industrial revolution by driving complex machinery. This was another qualitative and dialectical transition within mechanics, and one which branched off in many directions. Furthermore, real world contradictions don’t end there even in the case of water. We also know that water can extinguish fire, yet the gases which are contained within water – hydrogen and oxygen – both initiate and/or sustain fire. How counter-intuitive (or rather dialectical) is all that? Until we know more about the abstract category ‘water’, our initial idea of it as just something to drink or wash with isn’t wrong, it is just incomplete.
Similarly, mixing chemical substances together in certain proportions, (or dividing them up) changes them into new solid, liquid or gaseous compounds. Some mixtures having explosive consequences. These are processes now developed into massive global and mostly dangerously polluting industries. Again, in these areas we have quantitative changes creating new qualities. Our modern world is bursting at the seams with examples of this dialectical process applied within and onto capitalist production methods. This fact alone should stimulate a dialectical understanding and it does to a certain extent within the fields of applied science, engineering, technology, plate tectonics, plant biology and even human biology. Once thought impossible, heavier than air vehicles now criss-cross the skies and even visit other planets due to the planned alteration and accumulation of quantities of materials into new complex combinations and design qualities.
In other words, from these various accumulated quantities of knowledge, skills and materials, new qualities have emerged in the various methods of production and final construction and not just in metallurgy and chemistry. Body organ transplants are now routinely possible, but such organs are never independent. They are dependent upon a donor and successful medical integration. Test tube medical science can now artificially replicate some parts of the natural human fertilisation process, in which two discrete and separate qualities, sperm and ovum combine to create multi-cellular quantities and finally after many further transitions a new quality – another unique human being. The connectedness of stages, and the transformation of quantity into quality has long been evident in the natural world and in the evolution of plant and animal life forms, even though this natural process was not always fully understood, appreciated intellectually, or the analogy applied to other fields of study. For generations, the prevalence of empiricism and dualism and the lack of knowledge meant that many processes of change, as with planetary orbits, weather patterns, etc., were seen as mystical, magical or the unseen actions of the gods – who were imaginatively conjured up abstractions for just that pre-scientific explanatory purpose.
Yet, even in times past, certain specialists often had a dialectical understanding of their particular field of study. Indeed it was impossible not to have it to some degree and be successful in many specialist areas. However, even there, the intellectual framework of dialectics was (and still is) frequently left in the locker rooms along with any specialist tools and clothing when the working shift was over. The phenomena of dialectical and sceptical scientists etc., busy with understanding contradictions during the working week and becoming religious, gullible, dualist-minded citizens on Saturday or Sunday has never been an uncommon symptom. The result has been that the dialectical method of thinking has been rarely applied to societies and modes of production. Or to modes of thinking in general for that matter. In these particular areas of concern and in the lives of most people, dualist thinking continues to reign. The bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie in our era has accepted and championed dualism in economics, politics and social life, because it expresses, their economic and social reality as well as their class needs.
Dialectics in social affairs.
In modern social affairs, for example, the Conservative (or Republican) minded bourgeoisie generally consider ‘bad culture creates poverty’; for the Liberal/Labour (Democratic) minded bourgeoisie, it is often the opposite; ‘poverty creates bad culture’. These are two ends of a dualist conceptual spectrum view of the working class or the non-working – under-class. That way both political wings of the ruling elite consider the problem of poverty as being mainly the fault of the current poor themselves. Accordingly, the poor are considered to need patronising support or harsh penalties of one form or another. A warm bath or a cold shower: more benefits or less benefits, job counselling or job compulsion, etc. The preferred remedy being dependant upon whether the political left, right or centre expresses the viewpoint. On the surface these contrasting petite-bourgeois views of the poor may seem opposed, but they are connected by the fact that they conveniently avoid the spotlight falling on the capitalist system which has created poverty from its domination centuries ago. It also avoids recognising the fact that culture in all its forms, is to a considerable extent, a direct or indirect product of the dominant economic system.
In contrast a dialectical explanation examines the role of capital and labour in the production of the essentials and non-essentials of life along with the role of technology in capitalist production. It notes how this technology regularly replaces workers by machines and draws some obvious conclusions. If the system regularly creates armies of unemployed and precariously employed workers, with no other alternative, then certain connected things are sure to follow. Among the resulting symptoms are the many citizens who consequently sink into poverty and some into antisocial ways such as theft, drug addiction, gang membership etc. The dialectical contradictions and real-world connections are all there just waiting to be recognised for those who want to take their thinking further. So a fuller version of capitalist socio-economic reality, for example, reveals that increased social productivity and therefore an increase in the mass of economic wealth at one end of society, produces poverty at the other. How contradictory is all that? Yet bourgeois dualist forms of thinking are content to just stay in the virtual world of surface abstractions and discuss culture and poverty without their connection to the mode of production. Isn’t that a convenient way of thinking, if the rest of us just accept it?
An interesting dialectical contradiction also exists with regard to ownership and control under the capitalist system. Normal capitalist legal logic suggests that if you pay for something or part of it you are entitled to control or at least part control of it. The buildings and inventory of hospitals, schools, military, air force and naval establishments, along with local and national government building/contents, for example, are paid for by public taxation, yet these goods are not owned and controlled by the public. Instead, they are rigidly controlled by a relatively few and usually unelected elites. Yet these few controlling elite actors cannot operate these complex buildings and organisations themselves, but need those who have no ownership or control of them to operate them. This they do by granting working people access to do work, and then lock them out when their work is not needed! The same goes for private industry and commerce. In each case only those who do not control them can make them function, whilst those who do control them cannot possibly partly staff them, let alone make them function. And again in this economic relationship we have a bizarre reversal of logic rationalised as a desired state of affairs and presented by bourgeois dualistic reasoning as ‘natural’.
A more fundamental example applies to two of the categories of the means of production under capitalism – workers and the main tools of production represented by capital. To the bourgeois economic dualist, Labour and Capital are two polar opposite categories to be taken for granted as ‘natural’ with just the separate problems associated with this productive bifurcation to be worked out. Of course thinking about this ‘appearance’ a good deal further, suggests that it is not ‘natural‘ that some people own large amounts of capital whilst others own none. Nature does not produce owners of means of production (capitalists) and non-owners of means of production (workers), nor their opposed interests. It takes a socio-economic system to do that and a warped one to boot. Hence dialectical thinking goes further than such surface abstractions and reveals more. By reflection and critical thinking it notes the following. That in this case also the tools of production, (factories, machines, planning, development etc) presently owned by relatively few individuals, have become so complex and extensive they can no longer be operated by those who own them. In other words a dialectical reversal of historic tool ownership and use. And again, on the other hand those who can operate them, the workers, are now collectively too poor to own them.
This contradiction is even greater when we consider that the tools of production, buildings and machines, were also not built by the owners but by other workers, who also do not own them. The fact that owners cannot operate them and the workers cannot own them – is a massive social contradiction with unresolvable problems (as long as this division continues) effecting employment, over-production, climate change, pollution, health and safety, to identify just a few. What appears on the surface of bourgeois society as a static dualist opposition between capital and labour, is in fact a volatile dialectical opposition which involves perpetual class struggles over wages, safety, employment, wars and now increasingly environmental issues. The resolution (the human negation) of this fundamental contradiction of economic and social class differences, within humanity, will therefore not be achieved without considerable difficulty both in fact and in the depth of understanding needed. A later section will indicate that particular difficulty being revealed in contemporary politics.
Dialectics in ecological and economic affairs.
The development of the capitalist mode of production, since the end of the Second World War, has seen remarkable technological and social progress. Full employment and mass industrialised production had been the foundations which supported the post -war development of welfare states and the liberal-democratic political systems which were integral to them. However, the sheer quantity of scientific and technological inventions has led to a new quality in production methods and materials. Automation, artificial intelligence, advanced computer controls have permeated all types of production, transportation and sales outlets. The capitalist mode of production has also led to serious environmental pollution problems and increased ecological devastation. The pursuit of profit via the unrestricted production of commodities and services has progressively increased the quantity of products available. That quantitive increase in new stuff, has qualitatively changed the problem of disposing of unwanted old stuff and the non-degradable waste materials used in their production. The examples of plastics, petroleum products, nuclear energy and anti-biotics, almost serve as metaphors for capitalism in general.
Plastics, in various forms, were heralded, when I was younger, as as long lasting wonder materials with so many positive uses that some had yet to be discovered. Now, there is so much indestructible plastics in the environment that when broken down they have entered the food chain at a microscopic level and if not already there, are on the way into the bloodstream and internal organs of animals and humans. And with likely devastating consequences. So a sequence of quantitative increases in technical and chemical know how produced a new quality – plastics, but this new quality under the incentive of production for profit became a new quantity, which has led to a further (but unwelcome) negative quality – macro and microscopic pollution – on a global scale! This type of dialectical process of quantity into quality (and increasingly negative quality into negative quantity), fuelled by capitalism, can be replicated add nauseum. Each addition of atomic power production, for example has added up to a qualitatively new problem of disposing of its radioactive residue; more and more fossil-fuel energy use (quantity) has had a qualitative effect upon planetary warming; quantitive increases in anti-biotic uses over decades has led to the new negative quality of drug resistant bacteria. Capitalist production is killing, animals, insects, birds, environments and humans. Like cigarettes, it should come with a health warning.
But this is not all. The automation and computerisation, mentioned above has also led to vast reductions in the numbers of workers required to sustain or increase the current levels of production. The thousands of factories with thousands of workers inside, producing stuff each day during the 19th century, are now almost a thing of the past – at least in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and America. The resulting large-scale unemployment and low-paid precarious employment has drastically reduced the amount of taxes paid to governments; less money in wage packets has also reduced the amounts workers spend in consumption. So the reality is that increased production on the one hand, restricted consumption on the other, together with surplus commodities and shrinking state revenues, are all due to the same economic process governed as it currently is by capital and greed for profit.
This symptom of relative overproduction demonstrates dialectical transformation in the field of economics, which is just one more dialectical transformation among many currently at work. Otherwise positive developments become channelled into a negative outcomes courtesy of the capitalist mode of production and greed for profit. At the economic and financial levels, this new productive quality has led to overcapacity, overproduction, economic stagnation, financial instability and downward spirals into recessions. At the social level, both of these latter quantitive reductions have led to reductions in the quality and quantity of welfare provision. The two aspects are not separate and independent, as everyday dualistic thinking would suggest, but connected and dependent. Yes, here in the social world as in the natural world, dialectical processes can work in an ascending or descending direction; in a positive or negative way. However, the domination of capital over our present mode has the uncanny knack of making most of the positives negative.
Moreover, the much touted progress toward fully automated and future artificially intelligent algorithm-supported production methods are set to take this process even further. Already, factories exist staffed mainly with robots, linked to computer technologies and capable of self correction and improvement. Ultimately, from this scenario, capitalist production now and in the future doesn’t need many workers to produce more and more ‘things’. However, to return profits on invested industrial and commercial capital, there still needs to be millions of paying consumers to buy them or future production will be stopped. So who is going to buy what is produced to prevent this? This contradiction represents a massive problem, but only under capitalism. The current speculative ideas of giving ‘things’ away or giving money away to buy them – on such a general scale – such as the unworkable Universal Basic Income (UBI) or the unequal Job Guarantee Programme (JGB), points to more than the need for further petite-bourgeois patronising charity. For those who can see beyond surface phenomena, it is another pointer to the need to go beyond capitalism.
Yet even with the already existing levels of production, the world is coming apart in so many ways and in so many places. At the same time the dominant ideological mode of viewing partial realities is incapable of joining the dots and revealing their links to the capitalist mode of production. Mainstream bourgeois thinking has yet to catch up with reality. Nevertheless, the quantitive changes in production methods are not only leading to the above noted changes in the amounts of pollution, ecological damage, war ravaged countries, saturated markets, large-scale unemployment, precarious employment and reduced amounts of consumer taxation and spending, but also to changes in consciousness and political preferences among voters. Much of the latter changes being understandably contradictory since politics is part of the problem – as will be indicated in the next section. Despite such contradictions, most citizens are responding to their direct experience of one or other of these changed and changing economic and social realities. Very few are likely to be fooled by internet ‘fake-news’ or Russian/Chinese manipulated propaganda.
Dialectics in political affairs.
The above mentioned voter response to the changes outlined in previous sections represents a transformation in voter attitude and opinion, which is likely to continue. And here in the field of politics another dialectical transition can be witnessed. The years of increased quantities of incompetence, lies and broken promises which mainstream politicians have perpetrated upon the public has produced a qualitative change in voters opinion of politics and politicians. Many people no longer believe what they are told by politicians and their paid servants in government, academia and the media. They are questioning whom and what they vote for. Politicians the world over, are again no longer trusted and capitalist, along with state-capitalist political systems are viewed with disdain, if not outright hostility. Politics is increasingly being seen, not as it is presented, – as the rational solution to social problems – but as part of the irrational problems facing humanity.
And the political contradictions are growing. There are now virtual civil wars taking place within the political establishments of many countries between left liberal/democratic and right conservative/republican. There is a deep split developing between these twin establishment political elites, over how to rescue the capitalist system from its obvious contradictions. One set of the international political class has started to reject neo-liberal globalisation and seeks solutions within an authoritarian nation state, whilst another set seek to reform neo-liberal globalisation and give it a more humane face. On the world stage these positions are personified by Donald Trump in the USA and Macron in France, but the trends, to a greater or lesser degree, are global and are visible in most countries. This contemporary split is similar to that which occurred during the last global crisis of the capitalist mode of production in the mid-nineteenth century. And now, as then, both these pro-capitalist currents need to appeal to the working classes as these are the voters in the current and coming electoral wars and of course, the shock troops in any future civil wars.
The elites nationally and internationally are at ideological war with each other, working people would be wise to avoid joining any side in this self-defeating spat. For distortions are being piled upon distortions; intolerance upon intolerance, misrepresentation, upon misrepresentation. The petite-bourgeois concept of fair play has all but disappeared from public discourse, along with innocence until proven guilty. Guilt is assigned to whole swathes of people based on nothing other than a common identity. All men are predators; all pale-skinned people are racists; all gentiles are anti-semites; all Muslims are terrorists; etc. Deep pools of anger and frustration among many citizens, are being manipulated and guided by politicians into verbal stand-offs between secondary identities, such as gender, skin colour and sexual preference – any form of identity except class is being highlighted and championed! Shouting matches are now in vogue where no evidence is required to substantiate a polarised opinion, only partisan assertion.
Taking political sides on any so-called ‘politically correct’ issue, has become an emotional reflex, impervious to any request for sufficient evidence to substantiate any dubious assertions. Indeed, even requesting evidence becomes perceived by either side as an act of hostility or disloyalty. Twenty first century politics is reviving and updating its 1920s and 30’s surreal period. To the unattached observer, this spectacle presents something of a theatre of the absurd, except that in certain circumstances, ideological civil wars, can be transformed into actual civil wars. Those who doubt this possibility should reconsider the Aryan ‘identity’ issues and nationalistic descent of parts of Europe (Italy, Germany, France and Spain) in the mid 20th century economic and financial crisis. The collapse of Lybia, Syria and Yemen in the 21st century, which in those cases went from initial citizen protest to sectarian civil wars based on contrasting Islamic or secular identities, demonstrates such possibilities – when taken to extremes – still exist.
This quantitative and qualitative (dialectical) change in how bourgeois democracy is viewed has also had further global repercussions. The decades – long experience of of western capitalist democracy by citizens of many middle eastern countries, for example, has changed their view of its supposed benefits. From initially welcoming secular politics as a means of supplanting (negating) pre-existing theocratic or aristocratic oppressive systems, large numbers have now decided otherwise. A hundred years of European and North American interference in the former Ottoman Empire region (NB. epitomised by Sykes/Picot/Balfour and Bush x 2) has seen many people there reject exploitative, manipulative, bourgeois secular democracy in favour of a return to Islamic forms of governance. The historic move from 2000 year old religious and despotic forms of politics and governance which was negated through the ‘reformation’ struggle in Europe was then reversed (further negated) in Europe during the 1930s in favour of authoritarianism. A similar pattern has occurred in the middle-east with Egypt and Iran being prime examples. Religious and despotic forms of politics and governance are being artfully resuscitated in every part of the region.
This political negation of the negation is being demonstrated in practice, and not only in the middle-east, but globally. In terms of humanity, this trend represents another change but one which is again definitively backward. The status of workers, trade unions, women and gays, being the most clear indicator of how backward this theocratic and authoritarian reactionary development is. Governance by religious minded people who believe in mystical fictions such as gods, angels, devils and a heaven staffed with virgins is seen by millions as preferable to governance by people who believe in capitalist exploitation and military interventions to ensure their profitability survives. Here in Europe and the west, there has also been a rejection of neo-liberal economics and the bourgeois democratic political forms established to govern it. Some of this also represents a step backward, not forward towards a positive post-capitalist future, for here too there is an increased leaning toward authoritarianism. However, looking for a strong man (or woman) to sort out the contradictions has been tried a number of times before – and failed. To keep trying the same thing and expecting a different result is not really sensible. So the question is why is this happening? And the answer is not simply one of voter nostalgia or stupidity as some fixed-rut observers have suggested.
The lack of dialectical understanding in the political mindset over generations was starkly revealed in 2016 and continues today. For example, those citizens who voted the way the elite wanted them to vote were viewed as responsible, whilst those who did not were viewed as despicable – or stupid enough to be influenced against their will by foreign powers. Political dualists typically see two opposed groups of citizens who need to be praised, tolerated or vilified depending on which side they have voted for. Considered from a deeper understanding, however, this difference was clearly superficial and inaccurate. In essence both sides of this particular working class divide were wanting things to get better, they just differed in how that could be achieved. The immediate form of their protest against their situation (voting on elite-provided petite-bourgeois solutions) did not adequately represent the content of it, and this shared content, where it is allowed expression, may yet create another dialectical change. But emphasising a dualistic difference of skin pigment, gender or sexuality, as fundamental distinctions is useful to the elites. That way they create a virtual world of separation among working class human beings based upon ideologically derived differences rather than the unity of their shared oppression and exploitation. This allows the elite to divide potential opposition to their economic system and avoid any responsibility for what transpires due to their own actions.
Whatever area of life we consider, dialectical reasoning and understanding leads to very different conclusions than simple empiricism, idealism or dualism, as we have seen and would see more if we cared to look. For it is now becoming clear, to those who are able to consistently go beyond those first surface levels of thinking, that the post-Second World War, American-led, liberal world order, at the political and economic levels, is now progressively unravelling. The capitalist economic system is going down and the dualistic-minded elite globally who live on its proceeds, are on a course to take us down with it – if we let them. The capitalist mode of production, economically, financially and politically is certainly not in crisis because of foreign manipulation or citizen stupidity, but because of its own internal contradictions. Its positives are turning into existential negatives, which urgently need to be seriously examined and definitively solved. Dualist methods of thinking cannot begin to adequately explain and help positively intervene in this evolutionary and transformative socio-economic process, but dialectical methods can.
Dialectics reveals that class is the fundamental division within capitalist societies and whilst class struggles can include support for other identity struggles, the opposite is not the case. Secondary identity is too narrowly drawn and consequently too weak to include or remedy the negative situation of other identities, let alone to remedy those associated with class. In fact identity politics is in direct competition with other secondary identities for remedial action and is consequently divisive and reformist rather than revolutionary. Us first, and us too, forms of organisation go no further than confronting specific surface symptoms of the capitalist mode of production, whilst ignoring the causes embedded in the foundations of the mode of production itself. Consciousness of fundamental class divisions and dialectical understanding offer an alternative way of thinking for revolutionary – humanists, to acquire and promote in active opposition to the current dangerous domination of dualism in politics and social affairs.
Roy Ratcliffe (October 2018.)