Process and Difference in the Pluriverse: Plato, William James, & W.E.B. Du Bois

I’m sharing the lecture from the first module of my course this semester at CIIS.edu, PARP 6135: Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. The lecture discusses Plato’s Republic, William James’ pluralism, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ critical inheritance of James’ philosophy.

Here’s a PDF transcript of the lecture

Process & Difference in the Pluriverse, an online course at CIIS.edu

A trailer for my course being offered this Spring at CIIS.edu.

PARP 6135 Process and Difference in the Pluriverse will explore the ethical, social, political, and ecological implications of process-relational philosophy. You could call it a course in applied or experimental metaphysics. We will read and discuss texts by radical empiricist William James, revolutionary sociologist WEB DuBois, pluralist political scientist William Connolly, process theologian Catherine Keller, philosopher of science Donna Haraway, Gaian sociologist Bruno Latour, and object-oriented ecocritic Timothy Morton. Each in his or her own way brings the process orientation down to Earth by articulating it’s relevance to the struggle for social, economic, racial, and ecological justice.

I hope this course provides a space for us to imagine a more symbiotic future together. I doubt there will be any answers that emerge from what we study together, but I do hope we will get closer to asking the right—that is, the life enhancingcreativity engendering—questions. My goal is to infect your political passions with process-relational ideas, to invite you into the role of philosopher-activist. Activism becomes philosophical (in the process-relational context explored in this course) when it affirms an ethos rooted in relational alterity and creative becoming. Such an orientation provides an antidote to the neoliberal ethos rooted in private identity, property ownership, and wage labor.

Responding to the Alt-Right

After replying to an alt-right tweet this morning, I somehow fell through an interdimensional hyperlink and found myself reading Atlantic Centurion’s blog. Here’s his post explaining the 7 pillars of the alt-right. He elaborates on each of the seven here.

I felt like offering a few reactions to each of them, which I’ll write in blue below (I’ll paste AC’s pillars in red).

  1. Understanding human difference, e.g. race, sex, ethnicity, intelligence, abilities, genetics, moral foundations, etc. As someone who often finds himself defending both ontological and political pluralism, I can’t help but agree here that human difference, like all difference, is real and must be acknowledged as such. This acknowledgement has social, cultural, and political consequences.  The point is that we must attend to one another’s differences in a just and responsible way. But our difference doesn’t mean we aren’t all still human, and even more foundationally, that we aren’t all still earthlings. The evolutionary history of this planet is a geostory of relationship and symbiogenesis, not a war of each against all. Difference is inescapable, but individual and clade differences always arise in concert with one another as part of a single earthbound (earthbound but not impermeable to astronomical intrusion) evolutionary process. In other words, organisms always evolve ecologically. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Or, as Whitehead puts it, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”  So while I agree even a free and just society cannot promise equal outcomes to everyone, I must add that, to qualify as a freedom and justice loving society, it must at least strive to provide equal opportunity to all. Otherwise it is a tyranny or a state of war, not a society.
  2. Recognizing the reality of tribe, that there is no universal man but a world of rooted identities.
    That humans have tribal tendencies cannot be denied. But I for one am not willing to artificially delimit the possible breadth and depth of a human being’s cosmic and moral identity. We are not simply selfishly driven skin-encapsulated egos. Yes, we are born to parents in particular locations and enculturated in unique ways. We are rooted, but behind our merely human identities, we are also rooted in the Earth, an expression of its multibillion year symbiogenetic geostorical adventure. Unless humans begin to take our earthbound nature seriously very soon, we will drive ourselves into extinction. The task of forming a planetary identity so that we can act to address our collective ecological problems has never been more urgent. This needn’t mean annihilating our personal, familial, and more local identities. It’s a both/and thing.Human history itself at least appears to display something like an evolutionary trajectory, even if it is not a simple progression. Spiral Dynamics captures this well enough (though things get knotted up once you reach the “integral” stage, imo).  sprialdynamics-aqal-large7
    Tribalism is a simpler, primal form of human organization, a form long since advanced upon. When the civil order decays, there is always a chance humans will slide back into tribalism. But thankfully, tribalism is not the only social reality humans are capable of constructing. 
  3. Rejecting anti-Whiteness, the belief that Whites are exceptionally wrong and should not be allowed to have collective interests as a people.
    If we are to compose a society together based on the values of freedom and justice (and this willingness to compose a common world together cannot be assumed in advance, though the only alternative I know of on this crowded planet is war), then we must do so on the basis of a shared identity deeper than the shade of our skin. This doesn’t mean we pretend our differences don’t exist, or that we ignore racism by pretending we are colorblind; it means that for the purposes of democratic politics, we play our proper part as citizens of the cosmos, not as parochial bigots. White identity politics leads nowhere. Human evolution is convergent. 
  4. Gender roles matter, men and women are similar in many ways but complementary rather than “equal.”
    Sure they matter. But who says gender—and sex, for that matter—haven’t always been transforming over the course of natural and cultural evolution? Nature is composed of relational processes, not static essences. Nature is way queerer than the alt-right imagines. Gender, in our and most species, is a fluid spectrum. Sexual desire can never be fully domesticated by cultural norms. Get over it. 
  5. Responsibility over freedom, unchecked freedom and individualism lead to social harms.
    This is why the role of childcare and education is so important in democratic societies. The values of freedom and justice have to be cultivated collectively via rituals of mutual recognition. We are not simply born free individuals. Individuality is in large part a gift from the communities that raise us. Only if we are cared for in this way by our society will we grow up to express and realize our freedom responsibly, passing these values on to the next generation through social reproduction.
  6. Limited franchise, not everyone is qualified to decide the fate of nations by pulling a lever, sorry.
    Oh, I see AC is not interested in a democratic society. Perhaps this is a waste of time…
  7. The Jewish Question, recognizing that elite overseas Israelis promote policies which are in the net harmful to their White hosts.
    Yep, hopeless. 

Slavery and Capitalism in America

I’m about halfway through The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) by Edward Baptist.

edwardbaptist-thehalf

Baptist’s book embeds an economic history of post-revolutionary America in the personal stories of slaves. He brings into question the still dominant version of American history, “the half that has ever been told,” which argues that slavery was an old world anomaly set apart from the rest of the early nation’s growing capitalist economy. “Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventions,” writes Baptist, “but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor” (xviii). Painting slavery as somehow outside the modern capitalist system–more a drag than a boost to America’s young economy–meant that none of the massive quantities of wealth accumulated as a result of the cotton trade could be claimed to be owed to African Americans.

Many white historians have long argued that slave labor was less efficient than paid labor, and that market forces made its eventual demise inevitable. The evils of slavery, they argue, are reducible to the denial of liberal subjectivity to enslaved African Americans. “Surely,” writes Baptist, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen–even elect one of them president–to make amends” (xix).

journey-to-the-coast

By tracing the westward expansion of US borders from the 1780s to 1860,  Baptist unveils a more troubling reality. As the borders of the young nation expanded and its economy boomed, so, too, did the slave industry. From the time the Revolutionary War ended to the start of the Civil War 80 years later, America’s slave population quintupled. During the same time period, enslavers marched about 1 million men, women, and children chained in heavy iron coffles hundreds of miles southwest from the old slave states to the new frontier states (xxiii). US cotton exports soared after white enslavers developed elaborate methods of torture to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people (e.g., one lash for every pound a slave fell short of his or her daily quota). Slave labor thus “rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market” (xxi).

“What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton: an absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. This system confounds our expectations, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than systems of coercion, but more efficient. Faith in that a priori is very useful. It means we never have to resolve existential contradictions between productivity and freedom” (130-131).

In 1800 the US exported fewer than 200,000 bales of cotton per year (a bale is a compressed box of cotton weighing about 450 pounds). By 1860, exports had skyrocketed to 4 million bales (1 billion 800 million pounds) per year, such that 75% of the cotton imported by Britain’s textile mills was being picked by slaves in American labor camps. 19th century African American slaves worked the land of their owners to produce massive amounts of the most important raw material powering the industrial revolution. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that African Americans carried as much economic weight as steam engines during the same timeframe.

“Both South and North depended on slavery’s expansion. The products generated form the possibilities of co-exploitation explain much of the nation’s astonishing rise to power in the 19th century. Through the booms and the crashes emerged a financial system that continuously catalyzed the development of US capitalism. By the 1840s, the US had grown into both an empire and a world economic power–the second greatest industrial economy, in fact, in the world–all built on the back of cotton” (413).

Baptist’s historical research can serve an emancipatory role in the present. Along with reminding us of the collective need to address the historical trauma of slavery, Baptist’s book returns our attention to the inherent contradictions of the still expanding global capitalist market. Capitalism is an economic model predicated upon the exploitation of labor and land so as to “generate” (that is, steal) a monetary profit. In reality, capitalism generates nothing but (unequally distributed and thus sociopolitically powerful) symbols. All real physical generation is done by Gaia and her organisms. Despite neoliberal fantasies, the soul’s salvation cannot be achieved by transforming all bodies into commodities, by giving everything on earth a price tag and reducing it through one innovative financial instrument or another into a universal quantitative value so that it can be traded on the global market to the highest bidder. The generativity of earth and her creatures is inversely proportional to the productivity of the global marketplace. As GDP goes up, Gaia’s carrying capacity goes down. This contradiction in capitalism is referred to by ecomarxists as a “metabolic rift.”

That capitalism is inherently exploitative is clear. It was not the inherent logic of the market that ended slavery, but the agonizingly slow evolution of the American conscience. If anything, the capitalist profit-motive was the primary engine driving the intensification of slavery during the 19th century.

What is not clear is where we are to go from here. The first step must be refusing the nihilistic justification of capitalism offered by neoliberalism (that it is the best we can hope for given the greed and selfishness inherent to “human nature”). We have not always been capitalists. We need to fight against the inertia of the present and continue struggling to unleash the latent potentials of our species, such as our capacity for justice. “Never forget,” Cornel West reminds us, “that justice is what love looks like in public.”

With ecological catastrophe looming, economic instability as the new norm, and the political sphere reaching a boiling point, the path forward is fraught with difficulty. References to “love” are apt to feel sentimental. Yet it may be that only a miracle can save us now. “Miracles do happen,” Whitehead acknowledged; “but it is unwise to expect them.”