ACM: Can the human mind comprehend today’s world? A challenge to all who engage in politics
by don mikulecky
This diary is being written by request. The subject is all mine but I am doing this because I was asked. I write this caveat because as time goes on my radical take on the world seems to diverge more and more with the rest of the commentators. I am unable to focus on details and reductionist pieces any more. I long ago came to the conclusion that these methods and the ideas they generated have failed. If this is arrogant then I am arrogant. I have studied for over half a century and these are the conclusions I have come to. I have coauthored a book that sums up much of what I have learned and I’ll give a link if you want it. The purpose of this diary is to give you a snapshot of the world model we have developed. It is changing constantly so it needs periodic updates. Read on below and I will give my answer to the question I ask in the title.
First of all the antithesis to the reductionist approach is that of systems analysis. I will take a moment to remind you that when I use the word “system” it is in a very special context. The reductionist counterpart has no meaning in this context. The group is interested in the writing of Marx. Marx wrote in a context that had little resemblance to the modern world. Yet Marx had insights that outlive those limits. The trick is to save the baby as we discard the bathwater.
Marx, for his time, was ahead of the field in understanding systems. His ideas were founded on a sense of certain things happening without a mechanistic simple cause. He wrote extensively to weave a more holistic view of what economics was as it connected with so many other things in human activity. This was good and we need to go back with our modern understanding and put those ideas into today’s perspective. This diary is not the place for that since it is at least a book.
Rather than do that I want to paint a picture (I am a painter…watercolor) of the world today as we might see it if our minds were able to take it all in. (The reductionist paradigm came about as a way of avoiding such an impossible task). We are being forced to try to grapple with the whole system because we have more or less filled the planet and made the isolation of the past something that is disappearing as we watch in awe.
The earth system with its atmosphere and climate and oceans and ecosystems, etc has never been the subsystems our reductionist mentality created to deal with it, but as time goes on the error is being magnified non-linearly. The role of the human species is a growing influence over time, anthropogenic global warming being but one aspect of this. What Marx was concerned with was the role of the economic/political system in the way this one dominant species impacted on the world although he dealt with it as all humans did and most do, as if we can isolate our existence and our problems from the impact we have grown to have on the earth system.
Humans have generated conflicting world models within the common sphere of reductionist thought. We have religions, reductionist science and other fragmented pieces of human “knowledge”. We evolved from some beings that chimps have for example. We like to think we are very different from them and we indeed are. The scary part is the ways in which we remain similar. Male female relations, political power, etc can be seen to have common features in both groups.
Part of the legacy of Cartesian reductionism is the mind/body duality and the way the living organism was metaphored as a special kind of machine. These factors became integrated into the Capitalism Marx thought about and they shaped the way the relationship between wealth and labor were seen. Power relations became formulated in terms that Marx described so well. The problem is that these ideas were still in a reductionist box and remain there to this day.
So we have the fundamental challenge to face at this moment in history. Is the human mind able to step outside of these long entrenched limits and confines and see us as a rouge species acting almost like a cancer on the planet? Marx diagnosed the nature of this metastatic disease we had become. He saw it in terms of the way the labors of humans that could be used in so many ways were channelled by the owners of the means of production into the creation of capital.
Here is where the systems idea is very enlightening. The traditionional picture is that the greedy among us rise to power and control the rest of us and insist on a growing, unsustainable system to satisfy their greed.
Systems theory asks an important chicken and egg question at this point. Is it the greedy humans that create the system or does the system simply find as many greedy humans as it needs to sustain itself and grow? I submit that Robert Reich was correct in his book about “Supercapitalism” when he asserted that we could eliminate WalMart tomorrow and some other entity or entities would immediatly fill the vacuum and probaly evolve into something worse because of the ability to shed excess baggage.
Reductionism is wonderful for the human mind because it supplies answers. Systems theory, recognizing the myriad complex interactions, can only describe things in general ways and can not supply false mechanistic explanations.
If this makes sense to you I apologize for bringing you to this point for you will not be able to go back. Nor will you come up with answers the way you did before. Nor will the political system seem like a useful tool for helping us. No, those of us who have crossed the line are pessimistic. The system grinds on. It is like a cancer on the planet. And as we look at our kids and grandkids we wonder. And we hurt.