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Friday, June 13, 2008

The Pragmatist Fascist vs. the Principled Fascist

"There is no doubt that any policies I implement will be based on the economic situation I inherit from George Bush - ...as a manager of the economy you should base your decisions on facts not ideology - so even if I am predisposed to a certain set of policies I will want to see what's going on at the moment and ask a wide range of viewpoints from business leaders...some of these [tax increases] you could possibly defer..." - Barack Obama

"Will we enact the single biggest tax increase since the second world war or will we keep taxes low for families and employers?" John McCain

(McCain thinks taxes are currently "low"? Wow.)

The quotes in these links capture the essence of modern philosophy and therefore represent everything that is wrong with American politics.

In a previous post, Modern Politics as Modern Art I characterized Obama's call for "consensus" in American politics as a fundamental rejection of principle in favor of the idea that there are no principles and one must simply act, i.e., the modern philosophical idea of pragmatism. Well, he has shown his stripes once again, and if you were to create a gross caricature of a pragmatist thinker you could not have written a better quote than the one above from Obama.

The dictionary definition of pragmatism is: "guided by practical experience and observation rather than theory". On the surface, this might seem reasonable. For most Americans, it connotes the idea of being practical and able to get something "done" versus the idea of some egg headed professor mired in an ivory tower unable to function in the real world. Of course, this concept begs the question: what does one want to get "done"? For example, would if you want to murder or enslave people? Certainly, one could be pragmatic and be good at getting this "done". The philosophical concept of pragmatism (which has been widely influential in America) is rooted in the works of Pierce, James and Dewey and can be characterized in the following two quotes. Quoting Ayn Rand from For the New Intellectual:

[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate,” that there is no such thing as a distinction between an external world and a consciousness (between the perceived and the perceiver), there is only an undifferentiated package-deal labeled “experience,” and whatever one wishes to be true, is true, whatever one wishes to exist, does exist, provided it works or makes one feel better.

A later school of more Kantian Pragmatists amended this philosophy as follows. If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call “reality,” therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism—that knowledge is to be gained by means of public polls among special elites of “competent investigators” who can “predict and control” reality—that whatever people wish to be true, is true, whatever people wish to exist, does exist, and anyone who holds any firm convictions of his own is an arbitrary, mystic dogmatist, since reality is indeterminate and people determine its actual nature.

And quoting Dr. Leonard Peikoff in The Ominous Parallels:

In the whirling Heraclitean flux which is the pragmatist’s universe, there are no absolutes. There are no facts, no fixed laws of logic, no certainty, no objectivity.

There are no facts, only provisional “hypotheses” which for the moment facilitate human action. There are no fixed laws of logic, only mutable “conventions,” without any basis in reality. (Aristotle’s logic, Dewey remarks, worked so well for earlier cultures that it is now overdue for a replacement.) There is no certainty—the very quest for it, says Dewey, is a fundamental aberration, a “perversion.” There is no objectivity—the object is created by the thought and action of the subject.

In this sense, Obama's philosophy is textbook pragmatism. He literally calls for "facts" not "ideology". An ideology is a set of interrelated principles and principles are essential to rational thought. Without principles (abstract concepts), our minds would be reduced to the level of an animal consciousness reacting on the range of the moment to every sensation. Note that Obama does not reject a particular ideology - he rejects the concept of ideology as such. He does not want to hear about individual rights or the law of supply and demand. When the time comes, he will assess the "facts" or "want to see what is going on at the moment" and take a poll of experts or "ask a wide range of viewpoints from business leaders." Is the forced expropriation of one's earnings for the unearned benefit of others right, i.e., are taxes immoral? Is the confiscation of a producer's wealth and capital "practical"? He doesn't know. In fact, he might "possibly defer" tax increases depending on the situation.

So, if Obama does not have an ideology then what course of action will the so-called "facts" lead him to take? Again quoting Dr. Peikoff:

By itself, as a distinctive theory, the pragmatist ethics is contentless. It urges men to pursue “practicality,” but refrains from specifying any “rigid” set of values that could serve to define the concept. As a result, pragmatists—despite their repudiation of all systems of morality—are compelled, if they are to implement their ethical approach at all, to rely on value codes formulated by other, non-pragmatist moralists. As a rule the pragmatist appropriates these codes without acknowledging them; he accepts them by a process of osmosis, eclectically absorbing the cultural deposits left by the moral theories of his predecessors—and protesting all the while the futility of these theories.

The dominant, virtually the only, moral code advocated by modern intellectuals in Europe and in America is some variant of altruism. This, accordingly, is what most American pragmatists routinely preach . . .

In politics, also, pragmatism presents itself as opposed to “rigidity,” to “dogma,” to “extremes” of any kind (whether capitalist or socialist); it avows that it is relativist, “moderate,” “experimental.” As in ethics, however, so here: the pragmatist is compelled to employ some kind of standard to evaluate the results of his social experiments, a standard which, given his own self-imposed default, he necessarily absorbs from other, non-pragmatist trend-setters . . . When Dewey wrote, the political principle imported from Germany and proliferating in all directions, was collectivism.

In other words, since the pragmatist rejects principle on principle, he must accept the prevailing views of others. And what is the prevailing view? It is altruism, collectivism and America's current system: the mixed economy. This is what accounts for Obama's unoriginality politically and why he says that he is "predisposed to a certain set of policies." He literally has nothing to new to offer accept the same worn out platitudes and policies of the Left. The political system necessitated by such a philosophy is fascism. If one upholds self-sacrifice ethically, he must desire a dictator or in Obama's words a "manager" to enforce these sacrifices to be made as most will not voluntarily give up their life, liberty and property.

I believe the danger of Obama lies more in his charisma, but why is he charismatic? His articulately altruistic message resonates with the prevailing culture's acceptance of sacrifice as a virtue. In this sense, America is like Wiemar Germany during the rise of the Nazi's. It is a philosophically bankrupt culture begging for a dictator to come and tell it what to do.

And what about McCain? McCain too seeks unlimited government power. However, he believes he is right. In that sense, he is a principled fascist. Of course, since his philosophy is mixed, all he can do is react to his opponent rather than offer anything new. So when Obama calls for raising taxes from 39% to 52% - McCain's response is let's keep taxes "low" at 39%! This is yet another example of why the Republican party is impotent to change anything as I argued in my previous post Ethics, Politics and the Impotence of the Republican Party

Let me end with one more quote from Ayn Rand which captures the essence of pragmatism and in turn represents the fundamental explanation of what is wrong with American politics:

The two points central to the pragmatist ethics are: a formal rejection of all fixed standards—and an unquestioning absorption of the prevailing standards. The same two points constitute the pragmatist approach to politics, which, developed most influentially by Dewey, became the philosophy of the Progressive movement in this country (and of most of its liberal descendants down to the present day).

Epistemologically, their dogmatic agnosticism holds, as an absolute, that a principle is false because it is a principle—that conceptual integration (i.e., thinking) is impractical or “simplistic”—that an idea which is clear and simple is necessarily “extreme and unworkable.” Along with Kant, their philosophic forefather, the pragmatists claim, in effect: “If you perceive it, it cannot be real,” and: “If you conceive of it, it cannot be true.”

What, then, is left to man? The sensation, the wish, the whim, the range and the concrete of the moment. Since no solution to any problem is possible, anyone’s suggestion, guess or edict is as valid as anyone else’s—provided it is narrow enough.

To give you an example: if a building were threatened with collapse and you declared that the crumbling foundation has to be rebuilt, a pragmatist would answer that your solution is too abstract, extreme, unprovable, and that immediate priority must be given to the need of putting ornaments on the balcony railings, because it would make the tenants feel better.

There was a time when a man would not utter arguments of this sort, for fear of being rightly considered a fool. Today, Pragmatism has not merely given him permission to do it and liberated him from the necessity of thought, but has elevated his mental default into an intellectual virtue, has given him the right to dismiss thinkers (or construction engineers) as naive, and has endowed him with that typically modern quality: the arrogance of the concrete-bound, who takes pride in not seeing the forest fire, or the forest, or the trees, while he is studying one inch of bark on a rotted tree stump.

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