Was Lenin Actually For Democracy?

Among Marxist circles In recent years, there has been a re-evaluation of Lenin as wanting to construct a democratic party organization but because of war-time circumstances, had to create a top-down hierarchical organization. Of course, this points to something positive, since the radical left is advocating for democracy instead of the short flirtation with authoritarianism after the collapse of Occupy. But this rehabilitation is itself troubling because it simply is not true: for all of Lenin’s libertarian writings before the revolution, none of the proposals were actually carried out and instead a regression happened.

It’s Not Democracy If We Lose: The 1917 Election

If there was an obvious point where the Bolsheviks could have implemented full democracy, it was after the 1917 Russian elections. In the first free and fair elections since taking power, the Bolsheviks overwhelmingly lost the vote to other left parties. Instead of stepping down, they threw out the results and justified it on the grounds that the true power was with the worker’s councils. Unfortunately, that power was quickly broken apart as well.

Lenin and Worker’s Control

It is worth remembering that, independent of the Bolsheviks, worker takeovers were spreading throughout Russia. In a detailed history by Maurice Brinton, it shows how Lenin attempted to suppress much of what was happening right from the beginning.

While political maneuvering to break self-management were occurring earlier, the first full attempt at repression occurred in early November 1917, when Lenin published the “Draft Decree on Workers’ Control.” In it he outlined that if enterprises were designated “of importance to the State” they would then be “answerable to the State for the maintenance of the strictest order and discipline and for the protection of property.

To be considered such an enterprise it would either be involved in defense or “in any way connected with the production of articles necessary for the existence of the masses of the population.” That is, almost any workplace could be taken over.

In fact, the decree was so odious it was resisted by the workers: the decree failed to pass because of resistance. After a two week stalemate, the Bolsheviks had agreed to a “compromise” where the workplaces could be given orders by a “Regional Council of Workers’ Control,” which-surprise!-was appointed by the Bolsheviks. This occurred on Novemebr 14th, all but ending worker’s control in Russia.

But, the Civil War!

The biggest defense for all this is the Russian Civil War, which, as an existential threat, necessitated brutal repression. Between the war and Lenin’s death then is the tragic rise of Stalin, who supposedly ruined everything. Let’s leave aside whether secret police, torture and forced labor are justified in war-time conditions, what this history shows is that workers control in Russia was ended a month before any signs of war (December being when the Volunteer Whites were formed).

Even later pre-Stalin propaganda justified the November repression for efficiency’s sake, it’s impossible to argue that these were done for the war when no signs of war were even close to present.

We need to accept that there is no rehabilitating Lenin or Leninism, he set out to subordinate the workers as soon as he could.

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New Atheism Can’t Tell Where Religion Ends And Power Begins

Looking back, Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, was almost written to offend New Atheists. In it, he not only defends religious tolerance and co-existence but also absurdly advocates for repressing atheists since, by his logic, its impossible for someone to be moral without believing in some higher power.

While he was definitively wrong about the lock-up-all-the-atheists part, he was right when he wrote that the problem isn’t religion per se; it’s power-struggles between religious institutions, at that time between the Catholic and Anglican Church. This was pointed out close to 400 years ago but still has not occurred to the so called New Atheism movement.

One example is he contentious topic of Islam and terror: major studies carried out by the University of Chicago found that “[m]ore than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation” and that it is carried out by other religions and secularists alike. The problem then is military occupation, not that any particular religion exists. Had the US invaded Mexico and Brazil instead of Iraq and Afghanistan; we might be talking about Christian extremism and “Christian terror” today.

But this is even more problematic when dealing with something virtually no one thinks were caused by religion, like the Troubles in Northern Ireland. No one that is, except for proponents of New Atheism.

For instance, Sam Harris posted on twitter that the “only salient difference between the groups is religious” and that “calling the divide “political” just confuses matters.” Even Dawkins, who is generally less strident then the rest, made some ham-fisted point that:

Yes, of course the troubles in Northern Ireland are political. There really has been economic and political oppression of one group by another, and it goes back centuries. There really are genuine grievances and injustices, and these seem to have little to do with religion; except that…without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge.

Yes, because if we used the names Group 1 and Group 2 instead of Protestants and Catholics it would have really made a difference over the distribution of power.

The point is, contrary to what New Atheists claim, very rarely is there true conflict between religious groups independent of other conflicts. The problem is powers using religion to legitimize themselves, not religion itself.

Dread Techlord: Why to Worry about the Dark Enlightenment

Erasmuslijn

Summary:

The “Dark Enlightenment” or Neo-Reactionary movement (“NRx”) has been the object of curiosity and condescension as its most high profile writers and adherents in the tech industry attract more mainstream coverage. The perils of the NRx’s sexist, racist, and hyper-capitalistic techno-utopian thought are evident to most observers. Rather than write off the movement as a nerdy non-entity that is beneath one’s concern, it is important to see how this reactionary strain is uniquely positioned to cause severe damage in the event of a social crisis that leaves people open to anti-liberal beliefs. This is a situation which has been made possible by the persistent libertarian ideology of elitist tech sector employees, whose material advantages leave them uniquely positioned to spread reactionary thought and practice. As remote as the possibility may seem, the potential explosion in popularity of NRx ideas gives a strong incentive to begin laying down frameworks of opposition against them today in the form of labor organization and…

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What’s Wrong With Irony? (Or: Why David Foster Wallace Was Wrong)

Since the rise of New Sincerity, people have debated whether it’s irony or sincerity that has defined our recent age (as seen by this exchange between The New York Times and The Atlantic), or maybe the two merged to make something else entirely?

At any rate, much of the resurgence of sincerity is often credited to David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram, (PDF) which, like most of Wallace’s work is well written and decently argued. It also had the famous line predicting (or perhaps helping to cause?) the rise of the rise in sincerity:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval.

So what’s the problem? Ironically, that’s the question I would have wanted to ask Wallace. In his novella-sized essay, he does very little to show why irony was such a bad thing in the first place. And given that the essay is over two decades old, and we’re living in its legacy, it’s strange that few people have directly responded to it.

Weaponized Irony

The essay argues not that irony and cynicism have failed, but that they have been too successful (which, of course, is itself ironic). As Wallace says, “I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair…in U.S. culture…”

The basic premise is that popular commercial culture has weaponized (read: co-opted) irony to sustain itself: people are avid TV watchers because TV mocks itself, making it palatable to watch, and attempts by rebels like David Cronenberg who use irony to fight irony are futile.

There are some worthwhile complaints here: the essay was written in the 90s which were arguably one of the worst times in television history: a time of game shows, late night talk shows, boring sit-coms, after-school specials, soap operas etc. many of which are ignored by the mainstream today.

But is it irony or bad quality that’s the problem here? As Noam Chomsky pointed out with critiques of “science,” it’s not inherently science that’s the problem, it’s power’s misuse of it. By the critiques own logic we would have to eliminate all art and literature because that has been used for terrible purposes as well. The problem isn’t so much the irony itself, it’s bad TV using it to keep its viewers watching.

A few years after the essay, television went through (and still is in) a golden age, something accomplished by increasing the quality, not by jettisoning irony. Shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective etc. are extremely dark and often follow the spirit of (and sometimes outright use) postmodern irony. To try to connect the success of these shows with New Sincerity is a huge leap. If anything, 70s-90s “ironic” television looks extremely tame by comparison (especially with the influence of constant internet parodies).

The closest thing we get to sincerity in television is Parks and Recreation (which even overtly makes DFW references) and don’t get me wrong, Parks and Rec is good, but it pales in comparison to anything mentioned previously, or even the multitude of ironic comedies.

The Failure of New Sincerity

Even if we go with the argument that irony was once a powerful force for good but then “went wrong” in the 80s and 90s, its track record is pretty impeccable. Everything from Vonnegut to Heller to Pynchon to Roth to Palahniuk (yes even to Ellis, who has a notorious feud with Wallace) has been undeniable good. If we retroactively include ironic satires by Voltaire and the masterpiece Don Quixote, voted by literary scholars as the greatest novel in history, then we’re basically arguing against breathing (but in fairness let’s not include them).

When we look at films, things like Network (1976) Brazil (1985) Fight Club (1999) and American Psycho (2000) are all staples of recent cinema. If we include Kubrick films like Dr Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) then it becomes even harder to avoid its accomplishments.

So what has New Sincerity produced in response? We get in ascending quality: Wes Anderson, Lars von Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson. Books are harder to find but people who have been listed include the godawful Safran Foer, the well-written but not seemingly purposeless Franzen and perhaps David Foster Wallace himself, who’s Infinite Jest is easily the best out of the bunch.

Cult-like devotion to the sincerity of Wallace and Anderson aside, are we really going to pretend that they outdo Vonnegut and Kubrick?  The fact is, it’s been around 20-30 years and New Sincerity, in terms of quality, has very little to show for it. Especially when compared with what came before.

If anything we can even see a direct degradation: compare Terry Gilliam’s early ironic/cynical films (12 Monkeys, Brazil) with his later “sincere” films like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) and it’s clear which is better.

The Emptiness of Irony?

Perhaps the biggest critique is not so much the quality, but the end goal of irony. Irony is negative, it only mocks itself and does not envision an alternative. Well sure, but in that line of argument what does come with an alternative? Aside from a few utopian and political novels, how often do great works of art actually give a definitive solution to the malaise of the times?

And even the friction with other writers illustrate this point. Sure, American Psycho and Fight Club (or going further back to Pynchon and Vonnegut) don’t offer solutions; but they do, in macabre detail, identify and attack the problems. Even Wallace’s own Infinite Jest‘s gives a vague ending for the reader to interpret, let alone offers a solution.

These critiques are based on the assumption that irony was supposed to solve the malaise that began in the 60s. This is absurd, art and culture are a reaction to the societal conditions, very rarely (if ever) does a cultural movement, be it postmodernism or New Sincerity, actually solve the problems people face; it reflects them.

Irony was/is a reaction to political and economic turmoil, sincerity is a reaction to that irony. Of course neither is going to change the system, it’s up to people to do that.

Does Culture Determine Psychology?

One of the recent trends in psychology (especially since the 90s) has been to emphasize culture over any kind of universals. As a recent article put it:

The job, experimental psychologists often assumed, was to push past the content of people’s thoughts and see the underlying universal hardware at work. “This is a deeply flawed way of studying human nature,” Norenzayan told me, “because the content of our thoughts and their process are intertwined.” In other words, if human cognition is shaped by cultural ideas and behavior, it can’t be studied without taking into account what those ideas and behaviors are and how they are different from place to place.

The problem is none of the research in this field even comes close to proving that. That cultural differences can effect psychology has been well known for decades but it does not disprove that there are underlying mental structures that virtually every human shares.

To give a good example: the supposedly groundbreaking paper by Markus and Kitayama (PDF)  only showed that perceptions of the self differed, not that people’s literal selves were different across cultures. In this case that individualistic cultures viewed the self as autonomous while collectivistic cultures saw themselves as an extension of a group.

Of course, regardless of their perceptions, someone’s “self” (as defined by the paper) is by definition individual to the person. Barring a mental illness, people don’t experience themselves as multiple people at once, or as someone else. Likewise, if someone from a collectivistic culture were alienated from the group, they might become depressed but they wouldn’t stop existing mentally as a person.

This is like research on facial expressions, while there are some cultural differences in how people view others’ expressions, facial expressions are universal regardless of the culture.

There is even a vast literature on things like autonomy across cultures; studies of of collectivist cultures ranging from Russian and Chinese college students (PDF) all the way to rural Chinese children (PDF) show that, regardless of the culture, people perform better when they can direct their own activities.

Why The Cultural Bandwagon? 

In the tradition of psychology throwing out the baby with the bathwater (remember radical behaviorism was once a reaction against Freudian psychology), this seems to be an extreme reaction to decades of Western assumptions on how other people thought. While there were mistaken assumptions and skewed sample sizes for many psychological tests, it does not negate one of the most basic findings in psychology.

Einstein’s Brain and Schizotypal Personality Disorder

In addition to constantly being cited as an example of someone on the autistic spectrum, it turns out that Einstein definitely had schizotypal traits (confirmed further by his son having full blown schizophrenia, usually found in first relatives with SPD). This is similar to Bertrand Russell, who also had many first relatives with schizophrenia and himself displayed schizotypal traits.

Unlike Russell and others however, we’ve had Einstien’s actual brain preserved for many decades, and we have a vast literature of brain imaging of schizotypal patients. What I thought to do is to compare this group with studies of Einstein’s brain to see if there were any significant connections.

What is SPD?

Unlike Schizrophrenia, Schizotypal Personality Disorder (SPD) tends to be much more manageable. Based on various descriptions, including by DSM-V, it is typically characterized by:

  • Odd beliefs/appearance or magical thinking different from cultural norms
  • An inappropriate belief that situations are strange
  • Paranoia
  • Unusual bodily perceptions such as derealization or depersonalization and
  • Social isolation

Extraordinary parts of Einstein’s and Schizotypals’ brains

This brings us to the brains, both Einstein¹ and Schizotypals² clearly had/have extraordinary brains and unusual shapes to go with them. The parts that were flagged for being different from the norm were:

  • Corpus callosum (both) – Connects left (detail) and right (whole-oriented) brain hemispheres.
  • Prefrontal cortex (both) –  Decision making and impulse control.
  • Parietal lobe (both) – Helps with sense of space and other functions.
  • Temporal lobe (both) – Involved with visual memories, new memories, understanding language, emotion and deriving meaning.
  • Somatosensory cortex (Einstein) – Creates the sense of touch.
  • Primary motor cortex (Einstein) – Helps with movement (probably larger because of Violin playing).
  • Occipital lobe (Einstein) – Sight and visual processing.
  • Amygdala (SPDs) – memory and decision making
  • Thalamus (SPDs) – Relays different parts of brain, regulates sleep and alertness.
  • Parahippocampus gyrus (SPDs) – Recognizing the enviromental and social context.
  • Superior temporal gyrus (SPDs) – Perception of emotion and facial expressions.

How these parts of brain are special in both

Using only the extraordinary brain parts that overlap for both (and which we can get the same measure) we have these three comparisons and one similarity:

Brain Part                                                        Einstein                        SPD

Corpus callosum Larger Larger
Prefrontal cortex Larger Left is Smaller
Parietal lobe Larger Smaller

Something about the corpus callosum? 

The only direct similarity was that schizotypals and Einstein had significantly larger than average corpus callosums(callosie?). This could show that both have especially well connected brain hemispheres, that is, they’re better at connecting abstract and detailed data.

This is also especially interesting since, in general, corpus callosum size has had a negative correlation with IQ (although for males the relation seems become more positive the older they get)³ and Einstien was estimated to have an IQ of 205 which is absurdly large by any measure.

From all this It’s possible that Einstein had the “good” parts of schizotypals (like abstract reasoning) without any of the downsides.

Footnotes

1. For all extraordinary parts of Einstien’s brain see “The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs” (PDF file) For the corpus callosum see “The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein‘s brain: another clue to his high intelligence?

2. For all parts of schizotypals brains see “The brain in schizotypal personality disorder: a review of structural MRI and CT findings.” (PDF).

3. See “Negative Associations between Corpus Callosum Midsagittal Area and IQ in a Representative Sample of Healthy Children and Adolescents