Marx and Morals

Sometimes I feel I’m constantly coming across people who either confuse Marxism with a moral stand on how evil capitalism is, or they do the opposite and claim that Marxists have no morals. This even happens with people who have read at least some of his writings. They either point to the parts where he attacks the capitalists and their evil system at length or to parts of his writings that appear to be a cold, distanced analysis of the nature of capitalism.

It is actually quite easy to clear up this issue. Engels expressed the solution in a clear manner in his introduction to Marx’s “Poverty of Philosophy.” Many socialists at the time emphasised the evils and immorality of capitalism. For Marx (and Engels) this muddied the waters. The objective fact of the matter was that the capitalist economic framework, by its very nature, meant the exploitation of a large section of society by a smaller section. This type of exploitation always led to an increasing exploitation of the mass of society to maintain the profits of the minority. Without these profits this minority could not exist. In a very real, material way they were totally dependent on it. So under capitalism circumstances would always force these two sections (or classes) to clash. The ruling class needed to increasingly exploit the larger, working class. Conversely this would mean the working class having to constantly fight off being pauperised and fight for a decent standard of living. This will happen irrespective of whether the capitalists are ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ There may even be some with good intentions who try to alleviate the conditions of the working class but ultimately the economic framework will force them down the road of exploitation. These are the objective facts for Marx and all Marxists since that time.

Irrespective of an individual’s moral position this clash of classes will always happen under capitalism. Having identified the nature of capitalism the next obvious question to ask is, “what, if anything, should we do about it?” The capitalists’ response is a shrug of the shoulders, “that’s just the way the world is.” For Marx and others the answer to this question is, “if left to itself capitalism will destroy the human race, so we need to replace it with something else.” This obviously leads to the further question of what to replace it with and how to do it. At this point a morality comes in — a revolutionary morality based on necessity. For Marxists morality is a practical issue. Our morals are based on what is necessary in the class struggle to achieve socialism. It’s not a case of ‘anything goes.’ Our morality in our personal and public lives is defined by our aims. For example, our attitudes towards sexual equality are determined by the struggle for socialism. Without this type of equality socialism will be impossible. So we must promote it and encourage it as much as we can — not just as a policy but in our personal lives as well. Full equality is not possible until socialism is achieved but we should lay the ground work for this as much as possible now.

This is not a cynical, coldly calculated position. It comes from recognising that, for the masses, solidarity is not just a tactic to win concessions from the capitalists. This solidarity requires not only treating all as equal in the struggle but is also a natural part of how the class lives in its day to day existence. Its natural position is more about co-operation than competition, i.e. in the final analysis its members have to pull together in order to survive. Although people lose sight of this at times it is deeply ingrained social conditioning. So when people become more aware of the need for equality it is not just seen as a shirt to put on temporarily — it is seen as something that makes you a fuller person. So the call for sexual equality is both a political demand and a heartfelt plea.

Now we can return to the beginning of this piece. We can now understand how some parts of Marx’s writings can appear ‘cold’ analysis whilst in other parts he fumed and raged against the oppressors. The ‘cold’ writings are a careful analysis of the nature of capitalism. The ‘emotional’ writings are those that have moved on to answering the question, “what shall we do about it?”

Dr Seuss and the marsupial.

The poor thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian Tiger, went extinct by the 1930s. Recent claims to have found them again are almost certainly, and sadly, untrue. Anyway, it got me thinking about this beautiful animal.  So here is my tribute to the thylacine, and to the great Dr Seuss who should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. (FYI thylacine is pronounced thigh-la-seen).

 

Dr Seuss and the marsupial.

 

“Have you seen a thylacine?”

 

I have not seen a thylacine.

 

“What do you mean?

You have not seen a thylacine!”

 

I do not mean to be so mean.

I have not seen a thylacine.

 

Is it green, this thylacine?

I do not know.

I have not seen a thylacine.

Is it lean, this thylacine?

I do not know.

I have not seen a thylacine.

Is it keen, this thylacine?

I do not know.

I have not seen a thylacine.

 

Is it clean, this thylacine?

Does it preen, this thylacine?

I do not know.

I have not seen a thylacine.

 

Have you seen a thylacine?

Is it green or is it clean?

Does it preen to be serene?

I wish I had seen a thylacine,

Then I too could feel serene.

What is an individual?

The question “what is an individual?” seems like an easy one to answer, but as will be seen the answer is more involved than would first appear to be the case. Other ways of putting the question include “what is an entity?” and “what makes an object a recognisable something?” The obvious answer is that an individual (or entity or thing) is distinct from other things, i.e. it must be isolated from other things, it must have boundaries that make it distinct from other things. Without these boundaries it would simply merge into everything around it. This is just as true of the chair I am sitting in as it is of my own body.

But nothing can be totally cut off from everything around it. This is much more obvious with our own bodies than it is with, say, a rock. For us to survive we have to take in food and excrete waste products. So we ‘merge’ with our external world in the form of our food intake and our waste products. During summer we sweat as a means to cool down. We have several layers of skin with the outer ones being constantly shed into our environment and the inner layers being constantly built up to replace those lost. These are further examples of how we are not totally separated from the world around us. Yet we can recognise each person is a distinct entity or being. We are distinct yet not distinct at the same time. We are all living contradictions!

Having looked at our whole bodies as individuals we can go further and look inside at our organs and cells. Each organ can be recognised as an individual. The heart, kidneys, lungs etc are all distinct from each other. But it is obvious that when isolated a heart, as with any other organ, cannot survive. So in one way it is an individual — it has properties and a structure that we can recognise make it a heart (it pumps blood round the body, it has special valves that other organs do not have, etc). In another way it is not an individual — it is most definitely not isolated from the world around it, it is a part that belongs to a bigger whole (i.e. our whole body).

Moving further down the scale of size we come to our cells. Again, these are obviously individuals. In fact there are many different types of individuals amongst them. Give an expert a human cell and they can tell you which part of the body it comes from. Our digestive system, for example, has many different types of cell that depend on what they are used for. Another example is our blood which contains cells for transporting oxygen around our bodies and several types of cell that help us combat diseases. Even our skin has several different types of cell. But we can still see that these cells, whilst being individuals, are parts of our whole body which is another individual. So they are distinct entities (or wholes) in one sense but in another way they are parts of another individual (or whole).

Cells are also distinct yet not distinct from the surrounding world in the way discussed with our bodies as a whole. With cells it is easier to see that there is a lot of exchange with the surrounding environment. A typical cell has a surrounding wall that keeps it separate from the world around it but at the same time allows certain molecules to come into or leave the cell. These exchanges are necessary for the cell to live. Furthermore, because the individual cell is so small it is less buffered from changes in the world around it that could harm it. For a single celled animal or bacterium in water even a slight change in, for example, salt concentration around it can cause a lot of damage to it, or even death. Compare this with a multi-celled animal such as a human in which billions of cells make up the individual. Our skin has many layers of cells with the outermost layers being dead cells and this skin acts as a buffer against some of the potentially damaging effects of our environment. Now if a human sits in a bath of salty water for quite some time the only thing noticeable is wrinkly skin. The person in the bath doesn’t even feel ill, and certainly does not die!

So far I have only used examples from animals but the argument works just as well for other living things/individuals. Plants also take in substances and excrete others. They photosynthesise, which means they absorb light from their surroundings and use the energy from it to make chemicals that help to keep them alive. This brings us to another way that living individuals merge with their surroundings. Every living thing absorbs energy in some form and also ‘leaks’ energy into its surroundings. In the example of photosynthesis plants absorb light energy. Mammals, including ourselves, ‘leak’ heat to our surroundings.

This idea that the individual is both separate and not separate from its surroundings also applies to non-living individuals. A rock would appear at first to be completely separate from its surroundings. But quite quickly we can show that it is not. Rocks will often absorb different chemicals (exactly which chemicals and to what degree depends on the type of rock). It is not uncommon for a rock to absorb water or to be worn down over time by dripping water, rain, or waves.

On a topic related to rocks, consider a mountain as an individual/entity. The same arguments for leaking into and out of a rock apply to mountains. Of more interest with mountains-as-individuals and the question of how separate they are from their surroundings is the question, where does a mountain begin? The top of a mountain is easy to find but where does the base of the mountain begin? The largest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, has such gentle slopes at its base that it is difficult to tell exactly where the actual mountain begins. So at its base this mountain has a fuzzy boundary with the world around it. So even something as big as Mount Everest is distinct but not distinct from its surroundings!

I could use further examples but my major point has been made. Throughout these examples I have shown how something can be both separate and not separate from its surroundings at the same time. It is an example of what Marxists call a dialectical contradiction. It is not that there is something wrong with the way we are interpreting the world that leads us into this contradiction. It is simply that the world/universe actually is contradictory in certain special ways, and the nature of the individual being both separate and not separate from its surroundings is one of those contradictions.

Ideas are ‘forced’ into existence

Any idea is, in the final analysis, ‘forced’ into existence by material circumstances. Take, for example, the idea/concept of the industrial (or workplace) accident. It appears that this concept was not around before the 1800s. As industrial capitalism grew in England during this century, the idea of accidents at work and who was responsible for them became hotly disputed. You could say that two concepts concerning industrial/workplace accidents arose:

  • The bourgeois concept — the injured worker must take responsibility for the accident since s/he had agreed to work under those conditions and had accepted the risks.
  • The workers’ concept — the employer must take responsibility for the accident since it’s his workplace and he must be responsible for the workplace conditions.

 

Both concepts were being forced into existence by material circumstances. This was not just the material circumstance of the accident itself. The bourgeois were driven by the material circumstance of the capitalist need to maximise profit in order to maintain their existence. So they would oppose extra investment in safer equipment etc. Obviously they would not blame themselves for the injuries to their workers — that would lead to compensation and a dent in their profits. So they blamed the workers —- who else could they blame?

 

The workers were driven by a different material circumstance. They saw others doing the same job get maimed, crippled or even killed. Material circumstances with a vengeance! How could all these accidents be the workers’ fault? Without a job they would starve. So ‘agreeing’ to the conditions was a farce. The boss set up the conditions and so should be responsible.

 

So both concepts of the accident were forced into existence. Neither side could ignore the phenomenon. Under capitalism this battle will always be fought since the capitalists will always need to maximise profit and therefore cut down on safety at work, so the workers will always need to push against their employers to maintain or improve safety at work.

Free will

We all think free will is a good idea, and so it is. But it has limits, and those limits are good. The idea of free will becomes confusing if it’s thought of as “I can do whatever I want.” This is just not true… of anyone. Let’s start with the fact that every society has some rules that are good not just for society as a whole, but for the individuals who make up that society. In England we have a rule that everyone drives on the left hand side of the road. It’s pretty obvious what will happen to someone who decides, “I don’t care about that rule so I’m gonna drive on the right hand side of the road.” Not a healthy version of free will!

So that’s one aspect of the limits of free will. Another concerns our own bodies. Imagine what it would be like to have to constantly make conscious decisions about how and when to breathe, whether to keep your heart beating at a certain rate or speed it up or slow it down, whether to sweat or not (and how much). How about if you had to constantly decide whether and how to digest your food? This gets even more complicated when you consider all the reactions going on in each cell of your body. There are thousands of reactions taking place in each cell every SECOND. It gets more complicated. The molecules in these reactions are not simply floating around in a soup and bumping into each other. For many of these molecules there are structures within the cell that move or guide them to specific sites where they react. This happens in most cells of your body… and an adult body has TRILLIONS of cells! Personally I’m glad I don’t have the sort of free will where I have to consciously make decisions about all of these activities!

Free will is defined in different ways. In my examples it means the same as making conscious decisions. Furthermore my examples suggest that only a small part of our lives can be truly influenced by our conscious decision making abilities.  Even then, we can’t simply say “I can do whatever I want.” As Karl Marx once said, the possible alternatives in any given situation are not necessarily of our choosing — even so, there are choices.

Perhaps this is starting to look bleak. But it’s not. Conscious decisions are qualitatively different. The myriad of activities in our lives that we have little or no control over are in an important sense of a lower quality. Essential though all these activities are, in the limited occasions where we can use our free will we can have a profound impact on our own lives and of others. I’m sure Marx would agree.

Evolutionary psychology and the nature-nurture debate

Recently I went to a talk on Mary Wollstonecroft (writer of “Vindications of the rights of women” (1790… ish). The speaker showed how Mary’s book was influenced by the books on Natural History she was reviewing around that time for a radical journal. During contributions from the floor someone insisted that evolutionary psychology was now proven beyond reasonable doubt, was therefore the scientific consensus, and he implied that there were therefore fundamental biological differences between men and women leading to inequality (not just the obvious differences such as who gets to have babies). Afterwards I spoke to the speaker and offered to send her some suggestions for readings on the issue as I knew the contributor from the floor did not tell the whole story. Instead what developed was a short account on the issue of evolutionary psychology and its scientific status, so I decided to put it on the web for anyone who might be interested. Here it is…

 

Evolutionary psychology and the nature-nurture debate

 

At your talk a contributor mentioned Helena Cronin, William Hamilton and evolutionary psychology as if there is a consensus in the scientific community that these views have been proven beyond doubt. As I mentioned at the time, this is a very one-sided account to a debate that has been ongoing since the 1960s and has never been resolved in terms of a scientific consensus. The other significant figures in evolutionary psychology that the contributor did not mention are the biologist E.O.Wilson and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene). Also he did not mention that evolutionary psychology was formerly known as sociobiology (during the time E.O.Wilson played an important role in promoting these ideas). The name change came about as the term ‘sociobiology’ became increasingly unpalatable politically.

 

The counterparts to these evolutionary psychologists are, for example, evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, psychologist Leon Kamin, biochemist and brain researcher Steven Rose, ecologist Richard Levins and palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. I mention these figures because firstly, historically they were prominent in opposing the above mentioned evolutionary psychologists and secondly, they were important in their own fields of biology/science, i.e. they were not lone outsiders/mavericks on the biological sciences.

 

All names mentioned above are getting on in years or sadly deceased. But the basic positions of both sides remain intact and related issues still pop up at times without a firm resolution leading to outright victory for either side. In the public eye in the 1980s it was seen as ‘Dawkins versus Gould,’ not just on this narrower issue but also on broader issues of philosophy of biology. With the untimely death of Gould the public platform (especially TV) was left wide open for Dawkins to make his claims without counter arguments being given. Hence for a layer of the public it increasingly looked like Dawkins was the view in biology.

 

OK, having set the scene, a few basics about the debate as such. Essentially evolutionary psychologists are genetic reductionists. This means that behaviour can be reduced to ‘a gene for X.’ (Obviously , for the sake of brevity, I have to simplify all arguments in this exposition but the advantage is that I can simply state the essence of each argument — needless to say, both sides produce more sophisticated versions than I can give here.) Dawkins claims we are just ‘gene machines’ — lumbering automatons under control of our genes. This is because natural selection is said to target the genes, thereby perpetuating the fittest genes. Organisms are just the genes’ way of producing more genes. The upshot for behaviour is that it is strongly based in our genes — almost, if not totally, to the exclusion of culture as an important factor in determining our behaviour.

 

The anti-evolutionary psychologists tend to be biologists who still think the organism is important in evolutionary terms. But it is not the only thing important in evolution (and in behaviour). The easiest way to explain this view is to give an example. For Lewontin there is a ‘triple helix’ of gene, organism and environment. These all interact with each other and in some ways act as a ‘unit.’ If the organism evolves then this can impact on its environment, causing significant changes on its environment. These environmental changes in turn put pressure on the organism to evolve more to fit this new environment. There are other combinations of interaction between these three elements that can also influence the organism’s evolution, including changes in the gene and its impact on the organism. So behaviour is not simply ‘from the gene.’ Environment, for example, plays an important part as well. For humans this environment includes human cultures influencing the way we behave.

 

As I stated earlier, these arguments still spring up at various times and have not been resolved within the scientific community. They will inevitably flare up again at some point and the scientific community will not be able to resolve the issue. This is because the debate also has a strongly political component.

 

By its very nature Capitalism causes inequalities, wars, unemployment and poverty. Inevitably the capitalists/ruling class are always trying to find scapegoats to blame for these things. What causes war? — ‘Human nature.’ Why are women unequal in our society? — ‘Because it’s in their nature.’ The basis of evolutionary psychology, ‘a gene for behaviour X,’ fits in with this need for scapegoating. By way of contrast, for the opposition, the insistence that important aspects of our behaviour are culturally/environmentally based means that many inequalities can be overcome by changing the cultural/environmental factor, and so that’s where we should place the emphasis. But by doing so this means constantly challenging the capitalist system (i.e. the environmental factor). It’s no surprise that, generally speaking, those who favour evolutionary psychology are politically on the right (i.e. pro-capitalist in some sense) whilst those in opposition to it are on the left (i.e. socialists). So as long as we have capitalism this argument will continue.

 

What will happen to the debate when we no longer have capitalism, when it is replaced by socialism? We will still have a society that influences our behaviour so it will still be difficult (or maybe impossible) to separate this influence from that of any inbuilt tendencies that we have. But in a world of greater equality we will notice changes in behaviour that can be identified as due to the removal of capitalism’s influence. So we will have learnt something more about our behaviour. Perhaps the debate will no longer be seen as important and will simply fade away. After all, we already know how wonderfully flexible human behaviour is, and perhaps we’ll simply celebrate the diversity we get when this flexibility is allowed to flourish under greater equality.

 

Brrm bbrrm… Fazer 600 vs Bandit GSF650

Brrm bbrrm… Fazer 600 vs Bandit GSF650 (both bikes being standard road models)

Recently I got shunted from behind on my Fazer 600 whilst sitting at a red traffic light. The silver lining to this dark cloud is that I got the chance to try out a Suzuki Bandit GSF650 (courtesy of the insurance company) while my beloved bike was being repaired. I’ve had the Fazer for three years now and am very happy with it, so I suppose it was inevitable I would compare my early experiences on the Bandit to my beloved Fazer. So here goes…

On first moving away from a standing start it was instantly noticeable how much livelier the throttle was on the Bandit than on my Fazer. I’ve always thought the Fazer’s throttle is a bit mushy. This is particularly noticeable when opening the throttle from completely closed when working through traffic. But it’s not a big problem. On the open road with the revs up it responds well to sudden shutting down to use the engine as a break before going into a bend (though the Bandit breaks slightly quicker under these conditions). In the Fazer’s favour it does mean you can generally use less pressure on the throttle grip. I only realised this after opening up some speed on the Bandit and felt a very slight juddering/faltering from the bike. At first I wondered if the timing was slightly out but quickly dismissed this possibility because I had been riding it for an hour and not noticed anything wrong with the power. Then it came to me. The road surface was slightly uneven and the bike was bouncing off the surface just a touch. Since I was holding the throttle loosely (as I would on the Fazer) the slight bounce from the bike was shaking my arm just enough to cause minute changes in my grip on the throttle. So I was almost imperceptibly closing and opening the throttle, hence the juddering. A slightly firmer grip on the throttle cured this. On long journeys a looser grip might be an advantage as it would be less tiring — a point in the Fazer’s favour though I would still like the Fazer throttle to be slightly quicker than it is. Having said that, the grip needed on the Bandit’s throttle when cruising for a couple of hours is as comfortable as that on the Fazer’s (though you might notice the difference when riding all day).

On a related issue I was surprised to find the Bandit’s clutch lever was as stiff as on the Fazer (which is known for this characteristic). With both bikes I find it tiring to keep the lever pulled in when sitting at the front of a queue at red traffic lights waiting for them to change. Consequently I always keep the bike in neutral even at the head of a traffic queue (probably not a bad thing anyway). It’s a bit more of a problem when working through slow moving traffic and clutch control becomes more important than at other times — the clutch on both bikes is smooth but my wrist can start to ache a bit if having to work the clutch a lot under those conditions.

Ok, so that’s the throttle and the clutch. What about the gear shift lever (operated by the left foot for anyone not in the know about bikes)? I’ve always thought the Fazer gear shifter to be a bit stiff (unless you get very conscientious with lubricating ALL the associated moving parts). But the Bandit shifter is a lot stiffer! At first I kept missing gears because I wasn’t pushing/pulling the lever hard enough. This was especially noticeable trying to get first gear, either from neutral or second gear. Quite a few times I got a false neutral trying to move down from second to first gear. Even after getting used to the bike this still occasionally happened.

A characteristic of the Fazer is that the power delivery suddenly increases above 7000rpm (the bike red lines at 14000rpm). The increase is easily noticeable but not a problem. Personally I quite like the way you quickly get more oomph as you get into the business end of the revs. (Yamaha cured this ‘problem’ on the next 600cc model, the Discovery. I tried the bike and it is very smooth. It probably makes a good first timer’s 600cc bike but I found that within an hour I was so used to it that there was nothing new to learn. For my tastes it was too smooth and there was definitely less power. My local Yamaha dealer had admitted the power curve had been smoothed out by accepting a loss of power/torque). The Bandit’s power curve is smooth and certainly has more pull at lower revs. To some extent this made traffic work easier as I could afford to leave it in lower gear for longer than the Fazer (avoiding the stiff clutch lever problem I mentioned earlier). But in general I found myself using the same gear as on the Fazer whether in traffic, cruising or keeping the revs high as I worked the bike hard around the bends of country roads.

While talking about revs and power curves, vibration through the foot pegs and the handlebar is more noticeable on the Bandit than on the Fazer. This is especially so at 6000 to 7000 rpm (the Bandit red lines at 12500 rpm) when the left hand and left foot get a lot of vibration. On the Fazer vibration is barely noticeable, if at all. I don’t think this is a big problem unless you end up staying at 6000 to 7000 rpm for some time. On the handlebars the problem could probably be cured by replacing the stops on the ends with heavier ones. (I don’t know how you would stop the foot peg vibrating so much — a heavier peg?)

Comparing the brakes between the Fazer and the Bandit is interesting. Although the Bandit’s brakes feel quite different a quick glance at them suggests they are the same basic set up as on my Fazer — namely, single disc on the back with double opposing pistons on two discs on the front wheel. So my braking technique is the same for both bikes. I know there has been a trend for people to talk about hit the front brake slightly before the back one but I don’t find this useful for the brakes as set up on my Fazer (and therefore for the Bandit as well). The crucial factor is the front brake on my Fazer has so much bite that if I hit that first I lock the front wheel and the back starts to slide sideways. I’ve not come off when this has happened (or hit anything) but I’ve gone back to Old Skool braking — hit the back brake just before the front one, pushing hard on the back one while smoothly increasing pressure on the front, if needs be pumping the front brake whilst maintaining constant pressure on the back one. The same technique applies on the Bandit.

On both bikes I find I have to push a long way down with my foot on the back brake. This made me wonder if this was a similar design fault. After some thought I decided it was more likely due to me having small feet for an adult male. My foot size is only 7 ½ to 8 whereas the average adult male’s is about 9. If, as a standard procedure, the brake lever on bikes is set up to be far enough forward from the foot peg for a size 9 foot to push it down comfortably, then with a smaller foot the lever is nearer the end of the foot and the foot has to push down at a greater angle to get the same braking effect.

People often tell me I over analyse things so maybe I should stop now. All the differences above are minor even though the riding experience is quite different for each bike. Both bikes are well balanced and respond well. Like speedy gazelles the Fazer and the Bandit lean quickly and easily into bends, responding quickly to any adjustments I make when negotiating a variety of bends. (Curiously, I rode a Honda CB600F a while back but never got the same confidence around bends as I get from the Fazer and Bandit. It was a typically smooth Honda but somehow didn’t feel as agile either in traffic or on the bends. Consequently I was not so relaxed when pushing it hard round the bends. I never worked out why this was the case. The Honda had the same dry weight as my Fazer. If its wheel base had been longer than my Fazer’s then that might have accounted for some of the difference, but it was the same.) A final point, COMFORT. This is very important to me as I have a bad back — bad enough for me to always be in some sort of pain. For this reason I can only ride with standard settings on a bike, no racing positions. Both the Fazer and the Bandit are very comfortable and I can ride constantly and intensely round larger country roads for nearly four hours nonstop with no complaints.

In short… I love both bikes and would not claim one is better than the other. They are quite different riding experiences but that is part of the fun of biking! I love my Fazer but if I owned the Bandit I would love that. My only word of warning concerns the maintenance costs. When I took my Fazer in for a scheduled major service at 24000 miles I was told that a Bandit would have already had the same service at 8000 and 16000 miles. That makes the major services three times as expensive on the Bandit! I’ve not bothered to check up on this claim so don’t take my word for it, but if you’re thinking of buying a Bandit you might want to check! That warning aside… if you buy a Fazer or a Bandit you’ll have many happy hours of riding!



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