Calls for urgent climate action and a shift to global sustainability are multiplying fast in the infosphere. While the most common argument made is for human survival there are others such as economic and aesthetic ones. This article presents the case for the ecological civilization based on the nature of sense experience which displays a fundamental desire for consistency, coherence and comfort. A philosophical examination of this desire leads directly to the vision of total global sustainability. Modern thinking takes sense experience to be the ultimate source of truth, dismissing the previously recognized spiritual and intuitive sources as superstitious or nonexistent. Despite the limitations of Anglo-American empiricism and Continental phenomenology I adhere to their methods as I explore sense experience, considering it strictly as experience.
I open my eyes and I see a panorama of colored shapes. At the near edge I see the images of my hands and my legs in front of me. I also have the sensation of my body touching my chair. Taking my experience as a whole I find that my experience isn’t in my body, but rather that my body is in my experience.
I can look at the whole scene or I can focus my gaze on one object in it – the hanging basket, for example. When I look at it specifically I see it distinctly, with objects around it appearing less distinctly as a background. I can look at a lamp in the same way, seeing it distinctly against a less distinct background. Then I look specifically at the shade. Now it is most distinct while the base is less so. In this way I see the shade as part of the lamp. While I can only see the hanging basket as a distinct whole object and not as a part of anything else, I cannot see the lamp shade in any other way but as part of the lamp unless it is removed and set apart from the base. My perception defines objects depending on where I focus my attention, with contents compelling me to see them as whole objects or parts of whole objects.
My experience also has a temporal dimension. Strictly speaking it is only in the present which is a brief interval rather than an instant. It is, however, continuous and reveals a desire for consistency. For as I sit in my room I feel comfortable that the image of it and everything in it will remain constant. I would feel sudden discomfort if there were an earthquake tremor or the power went out. At the same time I expect to experience certain changes. When I put my dough in the oven I expect to see a baked loaf an hour later. If then it’s still raw dough I’m uncomfortably surprised.
Experience includes the five senses plus emotions and non-sensory mental phenomena. An extremely important kind of experience is language which is heard or seen as written figures. What makes language meaningful? I see some words on a screen, and I hear myself saying, “Zebra.” “Pen.” “Drive.” Sky.” They are so many separate words. Then I see and say, “Today is Monday, March 22.” This is a sentence which I see as a continuous whole image and which I hear myself say as a continuous whole sound. It is meaningful in virtue of its sensory unity, while the first set of words is meaningless in virtue of its sensory disunity. That is to say, the sentence is coherent while the separate words are incoherent. The first satisfies my desire for coherence, and the second doesn’t. In addition words have definitions. If I see a round red object with the word “apple” beside it I feel comfortable. Seeing the word “orange” there makes me uncomfortable.
These basic observations could be expanded to apply to all experience: some contents are experienced separately and others as parts of unitary wholes. Moreover experience is loaded, so to speak, with expectations for contemporaneous and sequential contents, reflecting desire for consistency and coherence. This explains why custom, culture and technology exist in human life.
I don’t feel the desire for consistency and coherence. It is only revealed in feelings of fulfilled or frustrated expectations. Other kinds of desire are experienced as feelings. These include hunger and thirst, which are felt as sensations in the body and are satisfied by consuming food and drink. Some feelings are painful or pleasurable, and not all, like hunger and thirst, are desires. Excessive cold and heat are painful, while warming and cooling relief are pleasurable. The feelings I have mentioned relate to survival, and although personal death is not an object of experience for anyone, the painful fear of death is a salient emotion. Experience as a whole tends to revolve around experiences related to survival.
Certain experiences involve exceptional degrees of coherence. A sentence is a whole with a certain meaning, and it is composed of words which have separate individual meanings. A true work of art is not such a collection of parts, not even a poem. The parts are indivisible with the whole, and it inspires a sense of beauty. A landscape may be seen as a beautiful composition and further inspire a sense of awe or wonder. Having a lesser degree of coherence, beautiful or wondrous organisms may be seen as wholes and their parts specifically as parts of their wholes but never as separate and distinct objects. This is also true for organic communities formed by schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds of mammals and intact ecosystems. Organic parts can only be perceived as separate and distinct insofar as they are viewed in some other respect. Examples are a tree branch viewed as a prong on which to hang a bird feeder or as the support for a bird’s nest. Beauty, wonder and awe have opposites – the feelings of repulsion, horror and shock inspired by things such as corpses and scenes of catastrophe as well as marked discord.
An incredible amount of experience at present consists of information. Instead of tackling its overwhelming volume and complexity I reduce it all to the matter of coherence. A sentence I comprehend is read or heard as a whole. One I don’t understand is not experienced as a whole, but rather as separate bits. I see the words on the page; I understand some of them, but I don’t see them all fitting together. In addition, there is the matter of truth and falsity. Either I see the round red image fitting with the word beside it, making the label true, or I don’t, making it false. All of understanding boils down to comprehending linguistic objects rather than being boggled by them and finding that they fit with their correlated nonlinguistic and linguistic objects.
The totality of sense experience consists of perceptions, emotions and linguistic phenomena, all underlain by desire for consistency and coherence. A total experience may be concentrated on content related to bodily survival. It may also be “low-information” or laden with nonfactual or false information. The former kind is impoverished, for there can be so much more that enriches it and brings pleasure. The latter kinds are dangers to themselves, setting the stage for painful reality checks, because resistance to cognitive dissonance only goes so far. Catastrophic impacts from climate change, zoonotic pandemic and global economic non-sustainability are perfectly realistic expectations now.
Experience’s desires for consistency, coherence and comfort are satisfied by the global plan for degrowth and establishing largely self-reliant and sustainable local economies that conserve the environment to which I referred in Change the Dominant Idea. One of its principal virtues is that it creates human communities – living wholes of which each person is an organic part. Today human “communities” are commonly no more unities than random words on a sheet of paper. Virtually all that the separate items share are places – in the case of the town a geographic space and in that of the words the page. Further, participatory democracy in living communities enhances not only everyone’s life and freedom but also their experience. If my experience were set in the ideal community I would perceive my body performing maximum service to myself, my community and the earth.
Another emotion that belongs to experience is moral satisfaction or pleasure, of which the proposed experience would provide plenty. Like other varieties of pleasure, it has some opposites – the painful feelings of shame and guilt. Achieving the ideal experience with its pleasures would prevent these painful feelings and many others that are expected to accompany its non achievement.
According to strict empiricism and phenomenology experience is all there is. It follows that a person should want theirs to be the best possible. Everyone in fact does, regardless of their philosophy. I will add that the two interpretations reduce language to nothing but sounds and figures on paper that have correlations with images of objects and other such sounds and figures. This makes beauty, harmony and joy supreme, an insight which Beethoven acknowledged in the words “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
Much environmental action is motivated by threats of destruction to natural beauty. I have been active in several preservation campaigns, notably for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Images of it are magnificent, inspiring love and wonder. Still, my desire to save ANWR was nothing compared to the passion I felt in my battle to prevent a beautiful tree-covered bluff directly behind my home from being replaced by a massive three story-high condo development. The view of the bluff was beautiful, and I loved it, even had a sense of possession of it. I felt it belonged to me, was part of me, which, if it were destroyed, would constitute a violation of me. This sense was fascinating and mysterious, so I undertook to understand it. What follows is the product of that effort which is a phenomenological psychology of perception that reveals a fundamental human desire for an ecologically sound world.
The way in which I have just expressed my conception of the view initially seems unusual, but it actually captures the common attitude. Of course our visual images belong to us, are part of us. We just don’t normally think of them as possessions which might disappear in, say a natural catastrophe, or be taken away from us. But put yourself in the place of people whose surroundings have been suddenly destroyed. Spirit Lake in Washington state had been an extremely attractive site for vacation homes and camping. However it was virtually destroyed by the eruption of Mount St. Helens which replaced the beautiful view with the scene of a nuclear explosion. Around me emerald ash borers are causing the woods to become defiled with innumerable dead trees. Japanese beetles strip my grape vines and fruit trees. Lovely scenes are now unsightly – the source of my pleasant experience, indeed the experience itself, has been taken away from me. This is a loss from which I suffer and feel pain.
This way of thinking about cherished views reifies them, that is, gives them a reality distinct from the material things of which they are views and the things we commonly regard views as, which is neurological events in our brains. We’re told that our visual images are inside our heads, not out in the space beyond our heads. Odd as it sounds to say that visual images have an existence outside of our bodies and are possessed, so to speak, by us, this is exactly how I regarded my view in the neighborhood affair. It is, however, ultimately the very position of strict empiricist and phenomenological philosophies which interpret everything in the universe in terms of outer and inner perceptions. I follow these traditions to build an account of all experience starting from its basic elements.
The experience that I describe is my own. I cannot share anyone else’s sense perception or thoughts. In fact I can never know if your experience is similar to mine or even if you are a conscious being at all.
Sensory Objects Defined by Focused Perception
So to begin, I open my eyes and I see a panorama of colors and shapes. The image of my room and the things in it is about a 160-degree view with the image of parts of my body being at the center of the base of the arc. I do not see the images of things around me in my body; rather I see my body as an image occupying a particular location in the total picture. That is to say, my experience is not in my body, but my body is in my experience.
My sense experience is an immediately given fact which consists of so many sensory images that include the image of my body. I have no experience of a “self” apart from these images, nor does my experience present a “self” which has the experiences or performs actions. Looking strictly at my experiences, I conclude that my self is my experience and nothing else. As my experience reveals no self apart from the experience, neither does it reveal a material world existing apart from it. From the strict standpoint of my experience, nothing else beside it exists.
While my description of experience that follows is written largely in the first person and active voice, it could equally have been written in the passive voice, omitting myself as the subject. I have made this choice for the sake of stylistic ease but advise the reader that my doing so in no way alters the basic truth of the empirical method. That it is what I have stated is the standard view in the tradition of Western philosophy: outer and inner sense perception present neither a subject which has such perceptions nor actual external things.
My visual picture is not fixed like a photograph. While the whole panorama of my visual field is always in view, my attention and gaze are focused on certain parts of it. Such selection makes a given part the center of my attention, and it appears distinct and in focus, while the rest is seen somewhat indistinctly and out of focus. I see the window across the room and I focus my gaze on the latch. My image of it is a dark metal-colored, sharply outlined shape surrounded by less distinct images of the window frame, reflection on the glass and objects outside the window. Beyond these objects the rest of the room appears very indistinctly in my peripheral vision. This particular visual experience is temporally extended, being a continuous part of my conscious experience since I woke up this morning. If I shift my focus to the top of the frame of the lower pane to which the latch is attached, that horizontal white shape is in sharp focus and the latch is less so. Looking again particularly at the latch, I see as the background in my image a rather indistinct mass in shades of green. When I shift my focus, it becomes a more distinct image of the tree outside the window, as the latch becomes an indistinct dark shape in the middle of the tree image. Regarding all of these strictly as visual images, I find that they are two-dimensional.
Vision is not passive reception of an immutable tableau of colors and fixed distinct shapes, much less external material objects. I look at a potted geranium, focusing on the whole plant which consists of the leaves, stems and flowers. The most salient features of this image are the shape of the plant and the colors. Then I focus on one leaf, and I see its veins. These veins were not present in my image of the whole plant. In the image focused on the single leaf, the rest of the plant appears as a somewhat out-of-focus background for it. Moreover this image of a part is taken to be a perception of the part, with the whole object appearing indistinctly in the background of that image.
Seeing as an active process that literally defines its objects with specific acts of focused attention explains camouflage. I first see my defoliating columbine, then, looking closely at a particular leaf, I see the cabbage butterfly larvae whose color exactly matches the leaf. My view of the forest is by no means the collected views of each individual tree. A graphic illustration of the phenomenon I am discussing is the “duck-rabbit.” Looking squarely at it, I see an odd figure. Shifting my gaze more to the right, I see a rabbit facing right. Shifting it more to the left, I see a duck facing left.
An important aspect of all these examples is that seeing is always focused on some particular whole or part of an object which it defines and outlines, so to speak. I look at the table, focusing on the whole thing, or as much of it as is visible to me. I may look specifically at one of its parts such as the surface or a leg, but I am uncomfortable trying to focus on some random portion of it.
The way in which I have described how visual objects are distinguished as wholes or parts applies to the other senses as well. I focus my attention on some sound that I hear, for example, the music of a symphony. Or, I can focus specifically on the sound of particular instruments. In a noisy place I focus on the sound of someone’s speech and “tune out” in some degree background noise. With tastes I can focus alternately on the flavor of the apples, the cinnamon, the crust or the ice cream as I eat a pie á la mode. Wine-tasting is the art of discerning the various perceptible components of wine which include its smell. We also distinguish different smells when they occur in combination, most commonly when we seek the source of some particular smell. As I move my fingers around some object I can focus my attention specifically on different qualities such as heat, cold, smoothness, texture and shape.
The examples I have given so far involve images that are experienced simultaneously. All experience however has a temporal aspect, so my images are perceived in continuous whole acts of perception and in temporal segments. The walls of my room are perceived as remaining continually the same in my ongoing perception of them. A process such as beating eggs is perceived as a succession of parts of the process – cracking the eggs, seeing the whole eggs in the bowl, then the beaten eggs. All temporal experiences involve expectations. I expect the walls of my room to continue to appear the same but would be startled if there were an earthquake tremor and a crack suddenly appeared. Similarly, when I break an egg I expect to next see a normal egg not a green one, which would cause me to feel shock. The expectation of consistency in my experience reflects desire for it.
I have stated that where the objects of attention are perceived as simultaneously existing parts of wholes, the whole object is present in the perception of the part, but in the background and rather indistinctly. The present of experience is not an instant but an interval which recedes into the past and advances into the future. These fringes constitute the background of both whole continuous perceptions and parts of processes experienced as parts. Each focused perception, meanwhile, is also experienced as part of my total experience which includes my visual field plus the sounds, smells, feelings and tastes which I might be concurrently experiencing. Compared to the sensory object in focus, all the others are relatively indistinct.
Past experience plays a role in how I see things. After I first moved to a certain town, I walked down the main street, looking especially at each building individually. Having lived there for a while, I walked down it looking primarily at the streetscape rather than the individual buildings. Looking at a thing properly requires knowing what the thing is. Thus, when I initially saw a metal plate on the outside brick wall of my neighbor’s house, I struggled to get a good look at it, even though it was about a foot square and no more than ten feet away. It looked like a patch on the wall, but such a thing didn’t make sense. One day it lifted out and I saw that it was the cover for an exhaust fan. At that point I saw that it was not flat, but a shallow box with ridges and the manufacturer’s name embossed on it.
Visual objects therefore appear not only in spatial, but in temporal contexts. What I see is not brand new every time I open my eyes. I recognize kinds of things and individual objects, and my recognition consists in comfortably looking at them. Familiarity in fact breeds oblivion. When I see someone for the first time I notice their clothes. Who can say what they saw their spouse last wearing? I have described my expectation for consistency in present experience, but it also exists in non-sequential experience. I go to bed and wake up expecting to still find my body in bed, the room the same as it was last night and the rest of the world generally the same as in the past.
Constructing the Enduring Three-Dimensional World
In addition to seeing, I have tactile sensations associated with images of things in contact with my body. I also have sensations under the skin that I see. So my body is a three-dimensional extended space within and on the surface of which I have sensations.
While sight presents me with two-dimensional visual images, my combined visual and tactile images present a three-dimensional world. The sensations I feel in my hands as I move them around a ball, for instance, constitute the experience of a three-dimensional sphere. I have the sensations of my feet alternately pressing against a horizontal surface as I hold my body in a vertical position. This is the experience of my body walking about, and it is accompanied by changes in the images I see. So, for example, as I walk, I continuously see first one end of a table, a side, the other end, the other side then the first end. This is the visual experience of a solid, three-dimensional table. As I look at any ordinary scene, what I literally see are things like “the end of the table,” which is part of the total visual experience I would have of the table if my body moved all around it. That this is how visual experience works is demonstrated by trompe l’oeil.
The consistent recognition of visual images and their associated tactile sensations is the empirical ground for the belief in enduring solid objects existing outside my body and apart from my experience. I see the door, and I also feel its hardness as I see my hand pushing it open. The “material world” is a construct of ongoing sense experience. This experience is not static or a series of discrete instants, but rather a becoming making my experience of an enduring object a continuous whole. Starting from the time I walk into my room I have a continuous experience of the walls which ends when I leave the room. While I perceive the walls I expect the perception to continue. However if it is night and a light is on, I am jolted if the power suddenly goes off, bringing that experience to an unexpected abrupt end. The case is analogous with certain processes. Looking at a car passing by I see it as a continuous segment of a whole process – the car moving down the street.
The Five Senses
In the course of normal experience my attention is on visual images, so I don’t feel the contact of my body with the chair in which I sit. Nor do I feel the contact of the ground or floor on which I walk. I can watch as my feet move across a surface, but what I mostly see is change in my visual images. While sitting, I look down and see my upper legs in a horizontal position. Then I have certain sensations I correlate with the images of my legs as my body assumes a standing position. As I sat, I had seen the window across the room. Now the image of the window literally grows; I have an image of my arm reaching out, coming into visual contact with the window and I have a sensation of smooth hardness in my fingers.
My visual and tactile perceptions are coordinated, with the position of my body in visual space determining its perspectival quality. I see a mountain on the horizon. Holding up my hand, the image of it and the mountain appear about the same size. When I see my body at the base of the mountain, the image of latter is relatively much larger. The apparent navigation of my body around in my visual space is also such that my visual hand reaches out and grasps the pen, and my body avoids painful collisions with hard vertical surfaces.
I have auditory perceptions in an indefinitely extended auditory space outside my tactile body. I identify sources of sounds with visual images of, say, my alarm clock. Many sounds seem to fill my auditory space which I associate with my visual and tactile spaces. Birds singing, for example, seem to fill the sensory space of my yard.
While tastes are perceived inside my body, smells are also perceived in an indefinite olfactory space outside my body. I may hold a rose to my nose or smell the baking apple pie throughout the house. The apple pie seems to smell and taste about the same, and as I eat the pie, I feel it in my mouth.
My external perceptions have a consistency which makes them representative of an enduring and orderly world. However some of my perceptions are separate from the apparently external material world. I perceive my body lying down on my bed in my dark bedroom. Next my body seems to be back in my high school, where I am feeling anxiety because my homework isn’t done. Then I perceive my body in my bed and the room is filled with daylight. Dreams are a quasi-visual experience that are distinctive for being discontinuous with waking experience, always occurring in between experiences of lying in bed or some other sleeping position.
I can have the experience of memory images, in which I seem to project a different image into the visual space and its contents that I am presently and vividly seeing. I can also have images of imagination, which seem to be novel compositions of memory images. The principal difference between memory images and images of imagination is the ease with which the former appear and are held in the mind. Images of imagination are constructed, requiring effort to create and retain. Both memory images and images of imagination display a broad range of vividness and detail, with the two kinds actually merging into each other. So we can form images of generic objects, and recollection notoriously drifts into imagination. Unlike photographs with dates stamped on them, related memories can get mixed up.
Experience has a consistent pattern. Certain images persist and regularly reappear, so I consider them images of enduring material objects. Experience is also a continuous temporal process, always becoming new, and it entails the expectation that past patterns will persist. So I am comfortable that my room will remain the same over time. On the other hand, when I see the clock reading 5:59, I brace myself to hear the alarm at 6 am. Very unexpected experiences tend to barely register – a car crash, for example. I might be riding along, expecting to continue doing so, when the scenery suddenly stops moving, there is a big jolt and a crashing sound. It would take a few moments to readjust my senses to the new situation.
The images I refer to as “things” in the world display a variety of relations. Many of these are spatial relations. So I see the broken egg, focusing first on the whole egg, then on the yolk. I say that the yolk is inside the egg. I look at two people first together, then separately and say that one is beside the other. I see one person come into a room followed by another and I say that the second one entered later than the other. Again with the broken egg, I look first at the whole egg, then particularly at the yolk, finally particularly at the white and I say the white and the yolk are parts of the whole egg. If I put a pot of water on the stove and let it boil away, I see the cold, then boiling water and finally steam as stages in its vaporization.
Focused perception presents either invariability or change in their objects. As I focus on an image of a person the position of their legs and background may be seen as changing. This is the perception of the person walking. Or, I just see my surroundings changing, look down and see my legs moving. This is the experience of my own body walking. Observation of motion therefore is relative.
The moving thing I focus on continually is the subject, within which I distinguish attributes. I first see the person standing still, then they begin to walk. I can focus on the relative change in the position of their legs, that is, their act of walking, and this is an attribute of the person. I can also focus particularly on their color or their relative size. These are qualities of the image of the person, whom I take to be identical as I focus first on their whole body, then the motion of their legs, their color and size. As with my example of the distinct images of the whole geranium and its parts, images of attributes are taken to be such with the focus on a particular attribute and the rest of the object appearing indistinctly in the background in the image. All the attributes of objects of perception are distinguished in this way. Thus, I visually focus first on the color, then the shape, then the sheen of an apple. These several images of the attributes are separate from the image of the whole apple and present those attributes as literally somewhat different from how they appear in the image of the whole. In the images focused on a single attribute, the rest of the apple and the other attributes appear out of focus, in the background of the attribute in focus.
An important relation among perceptions is that of causality. I drop the egg on the floor and it breaks. I see this sequence every time I drop an egg, so I come to expect to see the egg break whenever I see one dropped. This is the basic model of the experience of cause and effect – repetition of the same sequence.
Erroneously Seeing, Hearing What I Expect
Experience accumulates and compounds, so images become instances of kinds. I come into a town for the first time. I’ve never seen it before, but I recognize it as a town, the houses and trees as these kinds of things. Very unusual objects evoke the same kind of puzzlement as the plate on the wall. For example, I once saw a strange thing under construction on a roadside in South Carolina. It looked rather like a water tower, but the tank was the wrong shape. The object being constructed was the Gaffney Peachoid – a water tower whose tank is shaped as and painted like a peach.
When I expect to see a certain image, I sometimes seem to see it, and then afterwards see the image of the thing I say is really there. Driving about on country roads in the dark, I’m looking for a sign directing me to Kutztown. I see a sign and read “Kutztown” and drive off in the wrong direction. Seeing the sign later in daylight I see “Mertztown” on it. Misreading is a very common form of seeing what I expect and not what is actually on the page. I can also similarly mis-hear spoken words.
The context of an image, that is, images in the visual or auditory space around the one in question and temporally preceding it, set up expectations that produce the misreading or mishearing. Context can also cause me to fail to recognize something familiar. For example, I always saw a certain woman in her office. Then, when I saw her at a ball game, I took her for a stranger, as in my experience her face was always associated with the surrounding images of her office.
An extremely important category of sense perceptions is that of language – the visual experience of written language and the auditory experience of language that is heard. One of the primary functions of language is to name objects and processes. Names are initially learned when I have the auditory experience of someone saying the name and, simultaneously having a visual image of someone pointing to an object. The name and the object become linked in my experience. Not only do I hear other people’s voices saying the name, I have the sensation of my own mouth moving and hear my own voice saying the it. In experience names and objects quickly become universalized: countless different voices are heard saying the same name and countless different individual objects are regarded as the same kind of thing with that name. Proper names are also heard as the same as they are spoken by different voices, and their objects are regarded as the same in countless different views, visual angles, lighting conditions and throughout changes over time.
I have spoken of images of imagination and memory, which seem to be nascent visual images that I attempt to project onto the actual visual scene before me. Much of what we call thinking is of this nature, largely consisting of images of imagination and memory as well as silent speech. When I say I talk to myself in my head, I am referring to something that is like the sound of myself speaking, except it is silent. I am not hearing a voice; neither is the experience in my ears or my brain. It’s in my mouth. Such verbal thinking is what Henri Bergson called “nascent speech” – subtle movements of the mouth which would become audible speech if they were augmented by the appropriate and more forceful movements of the mouth, throat and lungs.1
Either aloud or silently, when I have the visual image of something, I often spontaneously say its name. Sometimes I see something and the name doesn’t come spontaneously. For example, I see a person, and I don’t immediately remember their name, so I cast about for it in my mind. Sometimes I go through the alphabet, seeking the first letter of their name. Usually in this effort a name comes to mind, and I have a sense of fit between it and the face I am seeing. So I call the person that name. Sometimes I’m not fully comfortable with the match I have made, and the person tells me their name isn’t Bob but Bill. Or, I may tell someone a woman’s name is Mary, then some time later “Betty” will come to me and I will realize that is her correct name. I say it’s correct, because I have a strong sense of fit between the name and my memory image of the woman.
Just as I usually recognize and feel comfortable with the visual images of things I see but am puzzled or disturbed those that are out of the ordinary, so is the sense of consistency in my experience of language. When I hear speech in a language I know, I distinguish parts that I recognize. Audible speech is continuous like the continuous visual scene that is always before my eyes and from which I pick out individual objects. Speech that includes jargon that I don’t know can puzzle me as I fixate on the strange words. Highly ungrammatical speech also puts me at a loss. Speech in an unknown language is heard as a continuous stream of sounds in which I distinguish neither individual words nor sentences.
The primary units in linguistic communication are in not words but sentences, even incomplete ones. The experience of understanding a sentence consists in hearing or seeing it as a unit. When comprehension fails, I hear or see the sentence as disconnected words or groups of words. Grasping the meaning of larger linguistic objects such as paragraphs, even books, is likewise a matter of experiencing them as wholes which contain sentences or larger other units as parts. Single words are used in imperative sentences such as “Stop!” but otherwise sentences include multiple words, specifically subjects and predicates. Communication attributes something to an object, for example, “The apple is red.”
As there is a link between the visual image of a kind of thing and the name, so there are links between these images and sentences associated with them. Seeing a red apple, I am comfortable with the sentence, “The apple is red,” and uncomfortable with the sentence, “The apple is green.” Once a language is learned, normal correspondence between descriptions and images establishes truth and its absence falsity.
The grammar of language is correlated with how my acts of focusing define subjects and their attributes. I can focus on the image of the apple, say “apple” then focus specifically on its color and say “red.” Saying “the apple is red” establishes that the apple is the subject and red is an attribute. Similarly, I can attach any number of predicates to the subject “apple” such as “round,” “green,” “ripe,” “rotten,” and so forth. Other possible predicates include “is on the tree,” “was baked in a pie,” “was shipped from Washington state.” Meanwhile, the phrase “apples are round” is a generic statement correlated with a series of experiences of apples.
Part of the experience of language is the definition of words. In the case of common nouns definitions state the essential attributes of their objects, and these figure in my identification of images in my experience. Essential attributes may include a temporal element. So, for example, an apple is defined as a fruit that grows on a tree, and this is one of the ways in which it is distinguished from a tomato, which grows on a vine. A car is defined as a certain kind of moving object, thus a model of a car that didn’t move would not be a car. To correctly identify something as a car, I need to see it move. Taxonomy, or the naming of things and the definitions of those names, can be esoteric. Thus, organisms are ultimately defined by features of their DNA, and these are determined by laboratory observations.
In addition to essential ones there are unessential or accidental attributes. An apple with black blotches on it is essentially an apple accidentally afflicted by a fungal disease. I therefore call the thing an “apple with black spots,” and focus alternately on the apple and the spots.
Language can not only relate to actual experiences, but also appear to generate imaginary images. News and history represent present and past events, while fiction represents imaginary ones. Language is based on unambiguous sensory images, but it also represents many subtle, complex and abstract objects of sense and imagination. For example, in a mystery the murderer has a motive such as jealousy, revenge or avarice. There is no single sensory image of these mental states, so the author describes the actions of the perpetrator and the events in their life that collectively represent a person motivated by these emotions. Similarly, in accounts of actual events, writers explain the “aggression” of a country’s leaders by describing, for example, the Cuban missile build-up or “peacemaking” by describing truces, border adjustments and diplomatic discussions. The abstract words I have mentioned are correlated with not just a few veridical images of my own experience, but bodies of past and imaginary experience, much of which is itself linguistic.
Language in fact has a huge life of its own. Natural language involves rules of grammar and logic, the principal one among the latter being the law of non-contradiction. In addition, I have learned history, geography, science, current affairs and fiction. New linguistic experience is read or heard in light of past experience. If the new information fits with my past experience, it seems familiar like my experience of recognizing individual things and kinds of things. The new experience seems to become comfortably integrated with my past experience. If the new experience does not fit, I don’t comprehend it; I puzzle over it or reject it. So evolution apparently does not fit into the understanding of creationists: it doesn’t make sense to them, and they can’t accept it as true.
Thinking as well as education, consist in inserting new information into the body of one’s total experience. New language and images are admitted, so to speak, if they are not resisted. Children are fed all kinds of information which they readily swallow and digest to the extent that it is repeated to them and they repeat it back. Like the experience I described of moving to a new town – first focusing on individual buildings, then later the whole streetscape – new information tends to be received initially as separate pieces. Over time, these pieces seem to become integrated with each other and the rest of my understanding. I can create new understanding as well. Thinking about some matter, different words and images come to me in a process known as the association of ideas. The thought process is like finding the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and assembling them to form the complete picture. At first the final product is like the completed puzzle with the edges of all the pieces clearly visible. This is subsequently replaced with the experience of imaginary or linguistic contents that represent the picture as a seamless whole and integrated into my total experience.
Mathematics is a distinct part of language as a whole which is ultimately correlated with visual images. I look at a single person, focusing just on them and say, “One.” Then I focus on them and a person beside them together and say, “Two.” I go through the process of counting to ten touching each of my fingers in turn. I extend a tape measure from a person’s feet to the top of their head, look at the top number and say “Five feet eight inches.” This measurement defines the person’s height. Another person stands beside the first one and the tops of their heads are level, so I say “Their heights are equal.” Once the things I see are counted and measured, endless mathematical calculations can be performed with the numbers.
Measurement of things involves a whole realm of quantitative definitions. I hold an apple in my hand and feel a certain pressure. A scale gives the apple’s weight. Placing the apple on a triple-beam balance gives the value of its mass, which is defined as the quantity of matter in the apple. I can throw an apple and measure its velocity, defined as distance divided by time. Falling from a tree, its acceleration is defined by the time of the fall multiplied by 9.81 m/s². Science redefines everything in the world in terms of technical definitions based primarily on specialized measurements.
Science also asserts that the universe is governed by natural laws, which are the observed patterns reported by scientists and technicians. Ordinary people observe pressure in their hands and the weight of objects on scales, while scientists deal with qualities specially defined and observed. What is “force”? It is the quantity of mass times acceleration, which is conserved in the collisions of bodies. If I drop a brick on my toe I don’t perceive force, but rather a certain tactile sensation and pain. I watch a wrecking ball strike a building, and I say that the force of the swinging ball caused the building to collapse. So “force” is the name of the cause of the building’s collapse, a name I attach to my image which is literally only of the swinging ball striking the building. Science translates accounts of experiences in common language into its own scientific language.
I understand the world in terms of scientific explanations, much of which is without direct representation in my experience. While my body is experienced by me as so many internal and superficial sensations as well as visual and auditory images, the science of anatomy presents my body as consisting of so many parts that I do not see or never will see. If I am cut, I see blood running from the wound; otherwise I do not see my own blood, organs, cells and the rest. Anatomy for my experience is a picture of my body provided in books and in spoken language presumably derived from observations of other people.
According to neurophysiology experience itself is an affair of cells, light, chemicals and so forth that takes place inside the physical body depicted by anatomy, and especially inside my head, in my brain. I personally observe none of this. What I see is not my experience in my body, but my body in my experience. Indeed, no scientific investigator has ever gained access to my experience, or anyone else’s, and they certainly have never found it inside someone’s head.
Science therefore trades in phenomena that I never observe, and plenty of entities that it admits that no one ever has or ever will observe. These include other minds. Another such mystery object is the quantum, which is said to be an identical object that presents contradictory properties, depending on the means used to indirectly observe it. While I see plenty of fossils, no one claims to have seen a living dinosaur. In fact, geologic history is a scientific hypothesis, for who is to say that the universe didn’t come into being ten thousand years ago, even ten minutes ago, when all the fossils as well as my memories were suddenly created?
Science has a practical purpose, so the truth of the quantum, other minds, geologic history and so forth really have no impact on its applications. The hypothetical and even prescriptive aspect of science is especially critical when it affects public affairs. Thus, while climate history cannot be conclusively verified, present observations demand that the precautionary principle be applied. On the other hand, social Darwinism and neoliberal economic theory with its mythical God-almighty, supreme information-processing market are scientific models that are currently doing much harm in the world.
While the principal unit of language is the sentence, there are countless other kinds of linguistic units – titles, poems, articles, oral presentations, plays, dialogues, chapters, fiction and non-fiction books. These are experienced as units, just like other sensory objects. Obviously I can read just parts of written works or listen to just parts of spoken presentations, but I am aware of their incompleteness. The question and answer forms a notable pair or group of sentences. I ask someone a question, and I expect to hear them say an answer. “What time is it?” I ask, and they normally say such-and-such o’clock. If they don’t answer, my expectation is unfulfilled. Or, they may give an answer that doesn’t sound right to me. They say, “5 am,” but I say, “It’s broad day.” So I look at the clock, either see a different time on it or find that the clock has stopped.
This is the basic model of understanding verbal experience. I may be comfortable with what I hear, reject it as wrong or find it inadequate. What I expect is a complete answer or explanation. Much of the completeness of such objects is furnished by my past experience – the accumulation of verbal and non-verbal images plus a huge mass of past information. Some of this is consistent, and some is rather compartmentalized. For example, personal life is fairly separate from public affairs. Certain information may be experienced as conflicting with other information, giving me discomfort that is removed when a satisfactory resolution of the conflict is provided. The theory of evolution, for example, gives a completely natural explanation of how humans came to be and what they are. Creationism is a rival explanation which accounts for evil, something that doesn’t exist in the evolutionist’s world. Finally, evolution is all about the survival of the fittest, while the current progressive model makes cooperation the primary natural instinct. Which is right? Post-modernism would have that neither are, insisting that there are no ultimate answers, which leaves me still wondering.
I say that that I believe information that I can verify with my own senses and that provided by authorities that I accept. I don’t believe things because they are true; rather, I say they are true because I believe them. I therefore have a vast conception of the world that has been communicated to me through language. Much of this is supplemented with photographic images, which I believe are images that I would see if I were in the location in which they are or were taken and at the time they are or were taken.
Our understanding of the world is not so many immediate observations or reports of such observations. There is always some underlying narrative that casts bare facts in a certain light. As this narrative or “spin” is consistently applied, it reinforces the total picture of the world according to that narrative.
I have spoken of images that are confusing, which I am unable to comfortably see. There are also experiences of things, events and situations that I deem wrong. My accumulated experience thus imposes standards on present experience. A word is misspelled: “her’s” appears in place of “hers.” One driver cutting off another on the highway is seen as wrong, as I normally expect drivers to observe safe practices. I view the whole Trump political era is as a corruption of the American political tradition, although plenty of people appear delighted with it.
Perceptions are often accompanied by feelings which include immediate sensations and emotions. All of these may be classified as so many varieties of pleasure or pain, and these distinctions are the criteria for judging feelings to be good or bad.
I have the image of accidentally hitting my thumb with a hammer, and I feel pain in the thumb. I feel countless kinds of pain on the surface and inside my body, and they are all bad. There are also repellent tastes, odors and sounds which are bad as well. Meanwhile, there are all the well-known varieties of immediate sensory pleasure which we recognize as good.
In addition to these bodily perceptions, there is the whole host of more diffuse states known as emotions. I call these states various emotional colorings of sense experience, for they tend to saturate all the rest of the experience I am having at a particular time. The qualities of emotions are, like those of sense perception, immediate. That is, as red is the quality of a visual image, so joy or any other emotion is the quality of an emotional state. These things are objects of direct experience and cannot be explained apart from it. In discussing the emotions I take their quality as given and focus on the kinds of inner and outer perceptions ordinarily associated with them.
Thus, perceiving my body sitting in a cushioned chair, surrounded by images of the interior of my house, I feel comfortable. If I had an image of my home destroyed by a tornado, I would feel horrified and distraught. While my experience is private to me, meaning that I have only sensory images of the bodies of other people with no access to their perceptions or feelings, my image of a family by the remains of their home destroyed by a tornado is also accompanied by feelings of distress.
As my body is subject to painful feelings of hunger, cold and injury, so my images of people who are malnourished, without shelter from cold and rain as well as victims of injury are also accompanied by feelings of distress. If I experience someone acting rudely toward me, I feel offended and feel the same when I witness rudeness toward other people. If I perceive another person abusing me, I feel moral indignation and also if I observe abuse of other people.
Especially through media, my experience is loaded with images of death, destruction and injustice, and this does produce a degree of numbness. Still, there is a persistent sense that “the times are out of joint,” that something is radically wrong with the whole picture. While the things I have described are objects of distress for me, I perceive images of certain other people who appear either not distressed or pleased by such things. I observe that there is a breed of people who appear to take pleasure in knowing that police are murdering unarmed African Americans, young children are being seized from their parents at the border and countless civilians are being killed in war. These people are rightly called sadistic and immoral. Still, feelings occur in personal and historical contexts. We understand that some of the injustice and cruelty which are normally abhorrent today has historically been accepted. One need only look at the record of genocide of Native Americans, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and black slavery.
Six emotions that are prevalent today are fear, dread, anxiety, depression, anger, and hate. These are associated with specific other kinds of experiences. I may fear something specific or be in a generalized state of fear. Thus I specifically felt fear in connection with the thought that Trump would fill another Supreme Court seat and I generally felt fear when I thought about the actions of his administration and its support from Congress. Fear is of things that may or may not happen, while dread is felt in regard to certainties. So, I dreaded seeing the morning news reports of Trump’s latest actions. Anxiety is a generalized uncomfortable anticipation of painful experience. For example I felt anxious as I thought of the country moving toward authoritarianism. Depression is a feeling of hopelessness and despair. Anger is an attitude associated with images of a particular target or category of targets as well as the experience of strong speech and aggressive actions aimed at removing the offending actions or actors. Hate is a feeling of hostility correlated with images of particular persons or things and experiences aimed at removing them, at least from my experience. I feel hatred in connection with thoughts about several public figures and feel pain with visual or auditory images of them but not, however with the experience of reading printed information about them. I also hate television, will not have one in my house and feel pain whenever I am in a place where I experience one playing.
Another kind of painful emotion that appears widespread today is that of dashed hope. The feeling of hope is a sense of desire directed at an imaginary image of a future state of affairs while one also experiences the body acting to realize it. Thus I feel hope as I experience my body planting biennial flower seeds in pots in the spring, caring for them all summer and finally putting them in the ground in the fall, all the while imagining the beautiful flowers they will produce the following spring. Then I perceive them gone, with evidence that a groundhog has destroyed the lot. My feeling of hope is replaced by feelings of horror and intense disappointment, while my beautiful image is obliterated. This is a trivial example, but my experience is filled with representations of people suffering serious dashed hopes: college graduates with crushing student debt are underemployed; individuals and segments of entire generations suffer downward mobility.
Related to the emotion of dashed hope is dissatisfaction. This is the feeling that what I experience isn’t right. I have the experience of going to a fundraising dinner, eat a decent amount of the food and leave hungry. I observe the primary in a crucial midterm election being held with the turnout being only 12%. In these cases what appears wrong is not specific, such as the food tasting too salty or noting that a blizzard depressed turnout. I don’t analyze the situation, I just feel that it’s not right.
Another feeling of the times is frustration, which can be defined as repeated disappointment. I experience my body repeatedly cleaning the carpet, yet the appearance of dirt remains. I have the experience of persisting in asking people to do things; I hear them say they will but I then I often do not see them doing it. I have the experience of calling through a list of a hundred voters with only a couple picking up their phones.
Antipathy and alienation are other common contemporary feelings. As an activist, I have had the experience of being in situations where most, if not all, of the people in the room seem to be hostile toward me, and the feeling is mutual. Perceiving my body handing out Bernie flyers at a fair attended by a significant number of Trump supporters, I feel antipathy toward the crowd that I see. When I experience someone I call in a phonebank for a candidate aggressively complaining about me calling them, there is also antipathy. Alienation is the feeling that I don’t fit in, maybe in a social group, maybe in the world at this time. Walter Mosley captures the pervasive feeling of alienation among African Americans in the title of his book Life Out of Context.2
Other emotions that are all too common today are those of feeling disrespected and resentment. When I have the experience of speaking and being ignored, interrupted or dismissed, I also have the feeling of being disrespected. This emotion may be correlated with a projection of my feeling of hostility onto the people I view as causing my pain. In other words, I consider their conduct as intended to hurt me. Inequality of opportunity and wealth in a system of economic privilege appears to have generated widespread resentment by the unprivileged against the privileged. Indeed, in our neoliberal culture, the principal social relation is competition. In Babbitt Paul Riesling exposes the truth about competition: it’s goal is not to achieve something, but to defeat the opponent.3 So social relations tend to be fraught with antagonism, often consisting of subtle or overt bullying. Targets of offensive conduct apparently also feel indignation while defensive conduct is correlated with feelings of persecution and victimization.
Our system that revolves around competition promotes false hopes and rewards unfairness. Vast numbers of people are underemployed relative to their education and experience, and many people get ahead of others in virtue of inherited privilege and bootlicking. Those who lose out are seen to regard this as injustice, consider the system rigged, and consequently feel anger.
There is a large array of unpleasant emotions or attitudes which are reflected in bodily sensations. These include disgust, depression, resignation, powerlessness and despair, which are all correlated with reduced mental and physical activity. Pity is pain that I feel as I perceive someone else’s suffering. Self-pity is the painful condition of dwelling on my own misfortune. In our time confusion and the feeling of being overwhelmed by events and information are common. The response to these feelings can be escapism – blocking on the experiences linked to negative feelings.
Lack of experience related to the world is commonly associated with boredom, while blocking on certain parts of it may be correlated with indifference, apathy and thoughtlessness. Perceiving the evidence of these attitudes in other people involves painful feelings for me. Pervasive hostility and indifference is seen as correlated with loneliness, isolation and balkanization of people. The effort to avoid antagonism, meanwhile, appears to be linked with groupthink and tribalism.
In contrast with this range of bad feelings and emotions, numerous others are recognized as good. Pleasure is generally considered good, but it is also judged in context. Thus while enjoying food and drink is good, the sequence of overindulging, then feeling pain afterwards is considered bad.
The absence of bodily pain is well-being, which is not a feeling. However, positive attitudes such as cheerfulness, hopefulness, joie de vivre and simple comfort may be counted as emotions as they color sense perception. In these states of mind I experience enjoyment of particular things such as ordinary food, the scenery and other people’s company.
There is an array of pleasant feelings or states of mind associated with perceiving my body in the company of other people. These include affection, conviviality, camaraderie and solidarity. Friendliness is a feeling of warmth among people, and neighborliness is the same feeling between neighbors. These last two are accompanied by perception of relevant actions, as are the rest of the positive social emotions which include kindness, graciousness, charity, gratitude and respect.
Love refers to two distinct emotions. A feeling of love for a lover, spouse, parents and children is a certain pleasure associated with the experience of my body coexisting with the beloved. There can be feelings of love for a pet, a place or an inanimate thing as well. Love is also desire, which is a pleasant feeling accompanying the experience of an initial or intermediate part of a kind of continuous process that reaches some kind of satisfying or pleasurable fulfillment. In such cases I say that I “desire” the outcome of the process that I expect. Thus, when I desire some coffee, I perceive my body performing the actions of making it. My expectations are not always fulfilled, and when this happens, I feel some degree of pain in the form of shock, disappointment, grief and so on.
I have mentioned pleasures such as enjoying food and drink that, in excess, lead to pain. Excessive love of food and drink are gluttony and intemperance, which are bad forms of love. Excess in fact renders all forms of love bad. Greed or excessive love of material wealth, indeed all obsessive loves, are accompanied by pain, or at least loss of other kinds of pleasure. Sadism is such a bad form of pleasure that it must be deemed pathological.
Caring is a blend of the two forms of love, and it is consistently correlated with perceptions of my body acting in certain ways. The desire involved in caring is the desire to perceive the object cared for in a state of well-being. Caring for my family means that I desire to experience them as healthy and comfortable and entails perceiving certain actions of my body. These include providing good food for them and making repairs to the house when they are needed. My desire to experience the well-being of my family and house is fulfilled when I perceive my body performing these actions and the positive effects of good nutrition and home maintenance. I can say I care about my family, but seeing my body feeding them junk food and the effects of such a diet can’t properly be called caring. Such “caring” may be a warm feeling, but is otherwise neglect. Weak or strong, the pleasant feeling of caring accompanies the experience of myself performing caring actions.
Feelings may be mixed and caring often is. If I perceive that someone I care for is in danger, I fear that they may be injured. So if I hear or read of some disaster in which they might have been a victim, I feel fear as I perceive my body proceeding to make contact to determine their condition. The experience of going to unusual lengths, even putting the body at risk to protect or save someone or something raises caring to the level of courage. As Eddie Rickenbacker said, “There can be no courage unless you are scared.” Self-sacrifice on a lesser scale for an object of care is nobility.
There are many varieties of caring defined in terms of their objects and duration. These include loyalty and patriotism. Caring to abide by the truth and laws is integrity. Self-care can refer to actions for maintaining the health of the body or one’s life record, which is one’s character. Caring for one’s character involves the experience of the body practicing of the classic virtues of courage, wisdom, temperance and justice and feeling the consequent moral satisfaction which outweighs the negative feelings related to the inevitable consequent bad treatment by other people.
Self-respect is a good emotion that, taken to an extreme is egotism, which is bad. As practicing the virtues is good, so grandiosity is bad. High-mindedness, which resists the bad emotions, maximizes the good. This attitude and pattern of behavior stresses courtesy and includes painful contrition when apology must be made.
My discussion of love and desire has highlighted the forms that are most familiar and vivid. Experience, meanwhile, is filled with more subtle forms. Determination can be described as a keen desire to perceive my body achieving a certain goal. I want to win the game, that is, I want to see my team as the winner, and I experience bodily activity to that end. I experience my body speaking with the intention of subsequently hearing a certain response from my listener. Again, I desire that outcome, and the actions of my body correspond to that intent. As I have stated, expecting to see something is also a desire to see it, and normal experience is filled with expectations of what comes next. If I suddenly fail to see what I expect, I feel stunned or shocked. Such failure may also be more mild. Thus, I expect to see darkness at night, and I would be disturbed if I didn’t, as would be the case if I were in the very far north in summertime.
I give the unease that I feel when my expectation fails the general name of “dissonance,” which I define as a combination of the word’s two standard definitions. The latter are: 1. a lack of agreement and 2. a mingling of sounds that strike the ear harshly. My definition is “a lack of agreement that is experienced as discomfort.”
As I desire certain experiences, so I am averse to their non-occurrence. Losing the game is painful; a “no” answer is disappointing when I sought a “yes,” and I feel uneasy when I do not see the sun go down at night. We are presently witnessing mass disappointment. Millions of people have believed that if they worked hard and played by the rules they would be rewarded with a secure middle-class life. Yet their hopes have been dashed. They appear both full of resentment and, like the Cargo Cult, to cling to faith in a magical deliverance.
It is obviously possible to adjust to failed expectations. I can become accustomed to experiences such as the midnight sun. Indeed, as my experience of moving to a new town shows, the newness of experiences wears away and they become normalized. Unfortunately at present the world is at risk of many initially outrageous things becoming normalized and ceasing to disturb people.
Desire is expectation for which a certain kind of subsequent experience represents fulfillment. Desire and fulfillment therefore form a single continuous experience. If the whole experience is completed, there is some positive feeling, at least of a fulfilled expectation. The whole experience may not achieve the desired completion as it may be interrupted by some unexpected experience or it may simply fail. A game may be interrupted by a rainstorm, or one’s team may just lose. The nonfulfillment of desire is experienced as shock, disappointment or unease. Of course there are pleasant surprises in which the shock is quickly succeeded by some pleasure at an unexpected turn of events. The shock may actually be pleasant. So, in seeing a game which has a last-minute reversal, there is an initial desire to win. However as it is about to end, resignation to loss sets in. Then, when the final points are scored, the feeling of loss is suddenly replaced by an especially intense positive feeling of triumph.
This last illustration involves expectation of some painful experience. Such expectations are accompanied by the emotions of fear, dread or anxiety that I have described above. So they are actually mixed insofar as they involve a desire for a predictable process to reach its usual fulfillment, which happens to be painful. Thus, I dread how I will feel when I go outside in a heavy snow storm, but I also expect this experience to be consistent with my past experience in such conditions.
As the focus of my gaze defines what the enduring objects of my experience are, so my expectations define the processes that I experience. The feeling of desire is pleasant, and hope springs eternal, so life is full of more and less realistic expectations. These are more and less realistic interpretations of events which are often accompanied by imaginary images of the fulfilled hope. I have stated that experience doesn’t present a material world with an unequivocal nature, and the range of such interpretations infused with desires is further confirmation of this. Still, one usually gets “reality checks” on their wishes and expectations. There may, however be delusion of varying degrees, extreme examples being Trump consistently spinning his defeats as wins.
There is obviously order in the world that I experience, and this represents the general fulfillment of my expectations for it, which is my desire for my experience to be orderly, consistent and harmonious. When this desire is fulfilled I feel some degree of pleasure which, at a minimum, is satisfaction. Conversely, the nonfulfillment of this desire is accompanied by some degree of pain, the least forms of which are dissatisfaction and unease. While the fulfillment of an expectation can be painful, and the state of expectation is a state of fear or dread, it still involves a desire for order in experience. In practice, fear is typically mixed with an overriding desire or hope that one’s actions will overcome the threat.
Good and Bad Perceptions
Given that for experience pleasure and pain are the standards for good and bad respectively, these judgments may be extended to the rest of the kinds of experience. I have mentioned the desire to have the perceptions of people and things which are associated with my feelings of love and caring to be perceptions of them in good condition. As such perceptions are accompanied by feelings of pleasure, they are good perceptions. Earlier I spoke about recognizing images as being of specific things and unfamiliar or impaired images. A good experience of something is one in which there is comprehension, by which I mean an immediate and clear grasp of what the thing is. In a blizzard I can’t distinguish different things, so my images of the road, the street sign and so forth are bad. My experience of the blizzard, meanwhile is excellent. I also have a bad experience of some strange object: I don’t know how to look at it, as illustrated by my seeing the exhaust fan cover. I further expect what I see to be consistent. My husband has always worn a beard except for one time when he shaved it off for a photograph. His suddenly appearing without a beard gave me a turn.
The expectations I have for images are reflected in basic language. I have particular expectations for particular things and those named by proper nouns, while I have generic expectations for those things in my experience named by common nouns. My expectations are of experiences with all my senses. So, I see a man I have never met; to me he is just a man. When he opens his mouth to speak, I expect to hear a normal human voice. However, it sounds electronic! This initially shocks me, but I quickly realize that he has an artificial larynx.
So a good experience of something is an experience that fulfills my expectation for the experience. My generic image of a house, for example, conforms to the definition of a house: a structure with four walls, a roof, windows and door used as a human dwelling. Images that meet this definition are good experiences of houses. An image of a house with the roof blown off, or one gutted by fire are bad experiences of houses. If I am invited to a home and expect to find a house, but see instead a castle or a tent, I am taken aback. The images of the castle or the tent are bad experiences of a house, so I replace my expectation of seeing a house with one that matches what I now see.
I am not satisfied with the image of the house with the roof blown off or the one gutted by fire. I have a desire to see them repaired or replaced. Repeated experience, as I have stated, renders things more acceptable to sense. So, if I have repeatedly seen a roofless house, I am surprised when after a considerable time I see it with a new roof. Still, all my experiences of the roofless house were bad experiences of a house. Things have multiple identities and can be seen in different lights. If I were a roofer, the sight of the roofless house would be delightful, as I would see it as an opportunity for a roofing job.
These last examples illustrate the aspect of caring in experience. I want to see proper houses, not ruined ones, and if my business is to repair them, I want to experience myself restoring them. So, when I walk into my garden I expect to see all the plants thriving, or at least as much as they were the last time I looked. If I now see the tall flowers blown down by a wind storm, I am disturbed and perceive my body promptly fetching stakes and setting them upright. At this point I feel satisfaction not only with the appearance of the flowers, but also with that of my body’s successful work to restore them.
It is quite otherwise when I suddenly find my grapevines covered with nymphs of the exotic and invasive spotted lantern fly, against which there is no known safe and immediately lethal defense. I feel despair, but experience my body going out to buy a large supply of neem, which is a safe but slow-acting killer of the flies. Feeling optimism, I perceive my body start to spray, but after several days, I still see plenty of them. My optimism fades, as feelings of fear and despair arise. I perceive my body continuing to spray, feeling hope to still eradicate the pests, which, at a later stage in their life cycle threaten to kill most of the trees in my yard and whose species threatens to kill many kinds of trees and vines in a large area of my state.
My position with the lantern flies is a microcosm of the overall situation with good and bad experience. The sight of damaged grapevines or vines coated with lethal pests are bad perceptions of grapevines. On the other hand, vines and other plants with pollinators on and around them are good perceptions. Perception of a forest that has suffered extensive emerald ash borer damage is a bad experience of a forest, although it is a good perception of such insect damage. My experience of seeing the infested grapevines is additionally painful because seeing my garden is a considerable source of pleasure for me. Now my image is somewhat spoiled. Another important aspect of this matter is my past twenty-five years of experiencing my body working to make my garden the attractive sight that it is. The flies somewhat dash decades of expecting to see reward for my body’s effort in it. Enjoying my garden has become an important part of my life, my experience. Now my life and my experience are under attack and I feel violated.
If the spraying is perceived as successful, I will feel pleasure, indeed somewhat heroic, for seeing my body overcome the attack. However, my enjoyment is threatened and destroyed on an ever-growing scale. I drive into the country, and I see many trees damaged by the flies. I dread taking my usual hike on the Appalachian Trail, where so many trees have already been killed by emerald ash borers and the lantern flies are moving in.
So as I perceive my body try to kill them and defend my yard from being damaged by them, there are many other attacks on my enjoyment that I feel powerless or nearly powerless to resist. Most of these attacks ultimately consist of human activity. For example, at times it is unusually hot and dry; I’m uncomfortable; I see my garden stressed; a drought emergency has been declared and nonessential water use is banned. The tick population is seen as higher than normal because the winter was mild. My body can’t do much outside and it must avoid deer habitats that contain deer ticks. These are the immediate ways in which climate change is affecting me. My body acts to conserve energy and support climate action, but I witness the current government flagrantly escalating the climate crisis.
I have previously discussed perceiving whole objects and their parts. A geranium plant, for example, consists of three visible parts (the roots are buried in the soil and therefore not seen). The parts are the stems, the leaves and the flowers. Looking at the geranium as a whole, I see all the parts and their colors, with the outline of the whole plant being most distinct. If it’s in good condition, I have a good perception of the plant. When I focus on a particular leaf as a part of the whole plant I see its colors (mostly green with dark veins), and what is most distinct is the outline of the leaf. This is also a good perception of a leaf. If I look individually at the parts and find them good, I have good perceptions of both the whole and the parts of the plant. If a few of the leaves are yellow, they are bad, and the whole is no longer entirely good. If most of the leaves are yellow, then the plant is in bad condition, that is, the whole is bad.
Something that I can see as a whole has a perceptual unity. I see a nursery shelf of geraniums as a whole and also a yard with some geraniums in it. A geranium in a vase on a table does not constitute a whole, but dishes, silverware and centerpiece are a whole table setting. A yard that is a masterpiece of landscape architecture is beautiful, and so is an artistic table setting. The different parts of these images harmonize to give the whole a special unity. Looking at the whole yard, I feel aesthetic pleasure, which I don’t feel if I look at a particular geranium in the yard, or any other particular thing in it. The beauty is in the whole composition, as in a work of art each portion is indivisible with the whole. Thus, the beauty of Mona Lisa’s face is conditioned by the appearance of her body and the background in the painting.
I have concentrated on visual experience and beautiful visual images, but what I have said also applies to experiences with the other senses. Music is beautiful sounds, and a composition is an aesthetic temporal unity. I have mentioned the case of the combined qualities of wine, and cuisine aims to create pleasing combinations of food, from the simple sandwich to the gourmet meal. The taste of food and drink lingers and combines with subsequent flavors that are tasted. Some apparently simple smells are considered beautiful, for example, the fragrance of a rose. Aesthetic combinations of smells are more associated with cooking, for example, the smell of the apple pie, and perfumes. Bodily sensations that are judged to be aesthetic include the dancer’s experience of dancing.
Objects arouse aesthetic pleasure not only in virtue of their unity and harmonization of elements. They must also have some degree of complexity. A solid white canvas certainly has unity, but could only be counted as art if it were making a statement such as, “This is anti-art.” In this case its context in space (such as an exhibition) or in the experience of the viewers supplies the complex material to be harmonized in the viewers’ experience of the painting. Otherwise the harmonized substance is principally in the work. This goes for visual and auditory art. Among works of art we distinguish between the simple, complex and baroque. The art of Lascaux and the Sistine Chapel are both beautiful, as are both folk music and symphonies.
Cultural context is part of the experience of art. Much historical and prehistoric art has religious significance. This includes temples, shrines, icons, idols and sacred music. Religious rituals may include singing and dancing by all the participants. Religious art requires the viewer to recognize who and what is represented, and literature contains references to historical events, characters and culture. Much of the appeal of rituals is precisely their ritual nature.
On the other hand, variety and novelty play a role in aesthetic experience. Art is always special, a break from the mundane, whether the experience is regular, like attending service in a magnificent cathedral, or unique, like viewing the King Tut exhibition. Seeing original Mona Lisas everywhere would destroy their magic. Even fantastic houses and gardens are intended more to impress outsiders than the residents, who may continue to enjoy their homes but no longer have the particular aesthetic experience felt by visitors.
Art is the model for aesthetic experience, but there is also immense natural beauty, figuratively attributed to divine artistry. Natural beauty possesses the attributes of the artistic kind, that is, harmony, complexity and rarity. In addition, intense experience of natural beauty includes the sense of wonder. Experiences of living organisms feature remarkable unity, with whole ones always perceived as wholes and their parts as parts. This contrasts with experience of nonliving objects or artifacts. I can look at a pile of rocks or one rock separately, a brick wall or a single brick. This is also true for organic communities formed by schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds of mammals and intact ecosystems. Organic parts can only be perceived as separate and distinct insofar as they are viewed in some other respect. Examples are a tree branch viewed as a prong on which to hang a bird feeder or as the support for a bird’s nest. In our world of mostly disturbed nature and man-made objects, the organic unity in experiences of natural objects increasingly provides aesthetic pleasure. Conversely its absence arouses degrees of discomfort, even grief, which may figure in feelings of fear of natural destruction.
Aesthetic experience can engage multiple senses. Dining always involves taste, smell and the feel of the food and drink in the mouth and throat. I also hear my teeth crunching crisp foods. The presentation of the food, the table and the place can be beautiful as well. There can be beautiful music, beautifully dressed guests, dancing and beautiful speech. Wedding parties aim to combine all of these to make for totally beautiful weddings. A play consists of an aesthetic combination of scenery, costumes, acting, dialogue and possibly music.
Literature is aesthetic composition with words which may be read or spoken. In addition to their aesthetic aspect, literary works have meanings. They often present a particular story or sequence of particular images that communicate a certain general sense to the reader. Through the story of Raskolnikov Crime and Punishment conveys the message that conscience compels confession and atonement. The reader enters, so to speak, this message in their file of experience, cast in the character and plot of the novel. That filed experience illuminates subsequent experience of people who are judged to act guilty of some offense. From the novel the reader has learned that guilty people tend to feel uncomfortable about their action and have an urge to be absolved of it. This knowledge is manifested not as memory images of the novel nor recital of the lesson, but as an attitude or belief in the guilt of a particular person before them.
The representations made in literature are not necessary and universal, so I can’t assume that the person in front of me is driven by the same impulses as Raskolnikov. The novel is fiction, not factual history, much less science. I have previously raised the matter of information expressed in language and I shall now distinguish the good and bad forms of it.
If someone speaks to me in a language I don’t know, this is a bad experience of language. Likewise, if I pick up a newspaper, and it is in some language I don’t know, this is also a bad experience. Even overhearing people speak in an unknown language is a bad experience for me because understanding is essential to the experience of language.
Obviously if the volume is too low or background noise is too high, I won’t properly hear and understand speech. Similarly with written language, if the ink has run or it is too faint, my experience is bad. A person can express themselves poorly, so I don’t understand what they are getting at, or they can use unknown jargon, make unfamiliar allusions, and so forth. They can also have a foreign accent which makes their speech hard to understand. In all of these cases, understanding fails because of some issue with my hearing or reading it. As I have previously explained, some speech or writing may be perceived perfectly but not understood. It is experienced as so many disconnected words or phrases rather than a whole sentence, paragraph or larger unit, making it a bad experience of such a unit.
Otherwise, I can sometimes hear or read language perfectly well, but still have a bad experience. If I see a red apple and hear “the apple is green,” this is a bad experience of that statement: it doesn’t match my visual experience. On a more complex level, I may perceive my body as the victim of a car accident and perceive it describing the experience one way, and the guilty driver describing it very differently. My experience of his description is bad because it doesn’t match my recollection. Conflicting interpretations of people’s shared experiences are well known.
The matter moves to another level in the absence of eyewitnesses. So, I read that Trump said that Canadians burned the White House in the War of 1812. This is a bad experience, because for much of my life the information I have held is that it was the British who burned the White House in that war. I count my information as a fact reported in my grade school textbook. As with the message of Crime and Punishment, I don’t recall the image of the text or even recite the fact: it surfaces solely in the dissonance I feel with Trump’s statement.
Language figures enormously in my experience as today, life is dominated by information. The critical experience is understanding, which combines present and past direct sensory experience of things, events and information. The experience of understanding is good if the present direct experience or information is accompanied by a feeling of comfort or pleasure. That is, it is good if it fits with my present and past experience. There is also the “aha” experience, in which a new connection is made. New insight can further come as a revelation that reconfigures past understanding, bringing a profound sense of harmony to one’s experience of some matter.
Conversely, such experiences are bad if I feel dissonance. The opposite of the “aha” experience is cognitive dissonance, in which new information is experienced as so alien, indeed threatening to established understanding, that it strengthens belief in the latter. An extremely bad experience of understanding is shattered illusion in which new experience destroys the fit or harmony within significant portions of past experience. This can leave people feeling themselves shattered, or they can be left simply disillusioned. Alternatively, they can experience conversion with the kind of revelation I described above.
As I have new experiences of understanding, I feel either comfort or dissonance because my whole experience reflects a desire for coherence, indeed produces coherence as it actively organizes its contents. Coherence is fit and minimal harmonization of components, yet there is evidently also desire for coherence of an aesthetic order. All of my past experience bears on new experience at every moment, as my total experience snowballs over time. It is an organic unity in which organic parts may be identified.
Like books and topics, my understanding consists of so many parts that together make the whole of my understanding. A total good understanding is one in which both all the parts and the whole are good. These parts include all of my direct sensory experience and the information related to them.
I have already described the most basic level of good experience. These include proper naming, as in “this is an apple” while I see an apple as opposed to “this is an orange.” It also includes distinct perception such as in broad daylight, not a blizzard. Beyond this is good experience of the attributes and relations of things correlated with statements such as “the apple is red,” and “the apple is growing on the tree.”
There is then information representing things that I don’t directly experience, which is generally the substance of basic education – geography, history and science. I can’t verify any of this information with my own direct experience. Indeed, apart from eyewitness reporting of current events, historians rely on records. For me, therefore, good understanding of such information is understanding based on good records, ideally created by eyewitnesses.
So the material of good understanding counts, as far as possible, as factually true as opposed to false. It is also coherent. Geography doesn’t describe so many places in isolation. Rather, the discipline presents a total picture of the earth. Similarly, history and science strive to present total pictures of human events and nature. The latter disciplines are not themselves totally consistent, and my own experience of them is limited and fragmented. Good understanding for me of historical and scientific matters could certainly not be complete, but it must be, as far as possible, consistent.
Past experience generates the expectation that the present and the future will be like the past, so this is the value of good understanding. The purpose of science is control, so its application directs action with predictable outcomes. Accurate historical understanding has the same value. If tax cuts for the rich have historically failed to lift the 99%, the rational expectation is that repeating the move will have the same effect. Much science is actually ongoing experiments, for example, pharmaceutical science and genetic engineering. Social science cannot experimentally verify its theories, so it remains so many models imposed on its human subjects. These models assert without proof that certain patterns exist now and will remain in the future. Significantly, social scientists are always hatching out new models or at least tweaks to their conventional wisdom. Events sometimes conclusively falsify theories, the most notable example being the demolition of neoliberal economic theory by the 2008 financial crisis. The experts claimed that the God-almighty market could never fail, but it did. Philip Mirowski has called the subsequent exoneration of neoliberalism an instance of “agnotology” – fraudulent science.4 Climate change denial is a prominent example of agnotology. It conflicts with empirical evidence, but it is being disseminated as propaganda. Apart from bare records and eyewitness experience, history is written from a point of view, and even one’s personal experience usually involves some spin. A glaring example of current interest is the history of the settlers and Native Americans. The genocide and expropriation have been buried. This situation illustrates the understanding of past conflicts driving, so to speak, present experience. What should be done? Restore all tribal territories? Honor treaties to keep out pipelines?
The Total Good Experience
My consideration of the experience of understanding reveals its total character, which is part of the totality of experience. As particular experiences are parts of the total experience, so the particular desires that they be good experiences are parts of the total desire for a total good experience. This total good experience includes total good understanding that satisfies the requirements of factual evidence and consistency. It further consists of good perceptions of individual objects as wholes and as parts of wholes. We are alert to propaganda, but overall, understanding of the world displays a decent degree of agreement with facts and consistency. Still, the world we see is increasingly a wreck. Good information isn’t enough, although far too many people limit their involvement in world affairs to being “well-informed.” Good experience of the whole world is essential to the total good experience.
There is inherent in my experience the desire to have good experiences of things, and this largely means things in good condition. I am comfortable, even feel pleasure at the sight of things in good condition and disturbed by the sight of things in bad condition. So the elements of the good perceptions that are parts of the total good experience are individual things in good condition.
Everything is ultimately seen or understood to be a part of multiple wholes in multiple spatial, temporal and logical dimensions. For example, I understand my body to be simultaneously part of the contents of my house, a figure in human history, a citizen of the U.S. and to have a countless number of different identities. The other things in my experience likewise have multiple identities as parts and wholes, and they are all experienced as good in the total good experience.
I now proceed to describe the total good experience which represents the fulfillment of my real inherent desire for it. I am not constructing a fantasy, but the ideal, that is, the goal to experience my body striving toward.
The total good experience obviously includes an abundance of good feelings and excludes or at least minimizes bad feelings. Aesthetic pleasure, especially enjoyment of natural beauty, figures among such good feelings, while its opposite, repugnance, is among the bad. Meanwhile, its principal components are perceptions of things in good condition, starting with my own body. In it I also perceive other people’s bodies in good condition – intact, healthy and functioning. Other people are thus perceived as having good nutrition, living in healthy conditions and leading healthy, productive lives. They are also properly educated. Humans are mortal, so they all eventually die and are subject to injury and disease. In my total good experience, life and death are dignified, while disease, injury and suffering are minimized. War, murder and all other kinds of criminal acts are absent from it.
I have good perceptions of every other kind of positive thing which include natural objects – plants, animals, geologic features. I also have good perceptions of man-made objects – homes, farms, workplaces, instruments, conveyances, leisure objects and all else that makes for healthy and fulfilling human life.
In the total good experience I perceive individuals as parts of whole families. In our time what constitutes a family is more varied than in the past. There are gay spouses, unmarried partners and blended families which are all now counted at least as households. Although its composition is now more diverse, the function of the family is unchanged: it is the primary unit of human affection and care giving. A good family is one which fulfills this function, and good family members are parts of good families. Family life is centered in the home, so another aspect of it caring for the dwelling – keeping it safe and comfortable. I perceive my body as an individual human being, so, in addition to observing other people functioning as good parts of good families, in my total good experience I perceive myself functioning as a good part of my own good family.
Families are parts of the next order of social whole, the community. Villages, small towns and city neighborhoods are no longer social units, and this is a major factor in the general alienation of our time. The current experience of my community is bad. People don’t know each other and don’t even want contact with one another. Consumer needs are met mostly by giant corporate outlets, usually located miles out of town. Then there is internet commerce, in which there is no human contact at all. The primary thing that people share in this bad community is the geographic place in which their homes are located and where they spend some amount of time, mostly in their own houses and on their own properties.
A good community is a whole of which the individual people and families are parts, and, as far as possible, meet their needs as interdependent social beings. Human survival is a collective endeavor, so, again, as far as possible, basic needs are satisfied by and within the community. It further includes division of labor with everyone performing meaningful and satisfying work. The community is like an expanded family in that all the members serve one another in a spirit of goodwill.
An extremely important aspect of the good community is its governance. For the community is also a geographic place with its own resources. It has neighbors on its borders and shares the earth with all other communities. Things come into and pass out of the community, carried by wind, waters and means of transportation. The community generates waste: sewage, garbage and atmospheric emissions. In a good community the people engage in governance to keep it safe and comfortable. As with the family, my total good experience includes good perceptions of all community members functioning as participants in the economic, social and political activities of a good community, which is to say, as citizens of it.
Multiple communities share larger geographic spaces, ultimately the earth, and they are connected. So keeping each community safe and comfortable involves interaction with people inhabiting other communities. Each individual, family and community has a stake in this interaction, and this unites them into larger geographic and political units – states and nations. My total good experience therefore includes experience of my state and nation functioning to keep myself, my family, my community and everyone else safe and comfortable. As with the community, the governance is by and for the people, and I perceive myself participating in these governing activities which I share with all other constituents as citizens of the higher jurisdictions.
The most comprehensive social whole of which my body is a part is humanity or the global human community. Nations perform both internal and external functions, so serving the global community is a part of national governance. My good total experience further includes experience of the well-being and engagement of people everywhere on the earth specifically as citizens of their communities, nations and the world.
The ultimate whole of which my body forms a part is nature, so the total good experience contains good perceptions of the parts and wholes of natural objects. Wholes of which natural objects are parts include populations of species in their habitats. Good perceptions of these are perceptions of intact ecosystems. Nearly every natural setting that I presently see has been disturbed, so it is a collection of natural objects which often includes exotic and invasive species. In any case it is not a unity. Much of my experience of nature as a whole further consists of information, so the total good experience includes information to the effect that all natural objects, parts and wholes alike, are in good condition.
Humans are a part of nature, so this good experience includes awareness that humans are functioning in harmony with the rest of nature. This goes for individual and collective human action. Starting with my own body, I experience it as acting in an environmentally sound manner; I see other people doing the same, and my community governing accordingly. Each successive level of geopolitical organization is understood to operate in a corresponding manner.
I have demonstrated that the desire for good experience is inherent in experience. I want to see, hear, feel, taste, smell and understand good things consistently. The total good experience that I have just described is the object of all my desires together – the total object of my desire. Paramount in this total good experience is harmony between earlier and later experiences, between the parts and wholes of things and between items of understanding. The ancient Pythagoreans identified the harmony between things as justice – the justice between the parts of a healthy body, the justice between the notes of the musical scale, the justice between the citizens of a state.5 Looking at my personal experience, current events and history I can confidently say that, overall, nothing is more offensive to people than injustice and nothing motivates people to act more than desire for justice.
The final piece of the total good experience is total good understanding of experience. As I have stated, the total good experience is the ideal to which desire in experience aspires. Being the ideal, its attainment may be limited, though the desire for perfection persists. So one finds degrees of perfection in actual experience. My account of experience provides a good understanding of it with a high degree of perfection insofar as it develops a complete understanding based on the self-evident truth of immediate experience through a perfectly logical process of reasoning. In this it displays a very high degree of harmony among its parts and the total universe of human understanding. Furthermore, it satisfies the wish for special aesthetic harmony in experience insofar as it provides revelation of an aesthetic and morally satisfying new world view.
At this point I must repeat that spoken language is sounds, and written language is figures on a page or screen. As the meaning of language is more language that explains the first language, sense is nothing other than the coherence of language and non-linguistic experience, in other words, the harmony between them. Beethoven captured this truth in his statement “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
The total good experience is the fulfillment of my total desire, and my actual imperfect experience is aimed at achieving it. My realistic total good experience must be an historical process in which I experience my body and the world moving toward total perfection. In this process I enjoy the pleasure of good total understanding and moral satisfaction with the perception of my body’s activity, especially when my intentions are fulfilled.
My present experience is of my body subject to the human condition at this historical moment. Attainment of my perfect total experience involves a sequence of perceptions of other people joining me to bring about extraordinary change in the world. My wish to see this is radical, as I view other people as mostly in the grip of propaganda, consumer culture and groupthink. They appear to pursue sensory gratification and believe in TINA (there is no alternative). I, however, believe that the current direction of history is disastrous and that it can change. Unless it changes, I expect profound climate disruption, “the end of nature,” major loss of clean fresh water, massive human migration and much more conflict. Prominent progressive thinkers insist that decentralization, environmental stewardship and human cooperation such as that outlined in my total good experience are necessary to avert catastrophe. To block on bold expectations for human action as well as the current widespread destruction and damage is to reduce experience, moral desire – one’s very life – in favor of brute survival which, as it is progressively endangered, must be accompanied by growing anxiety and fear.
Such implosion of history would build over time, extending, I expect, beyond the lifetime of my body. So the question arises, “why should I care what happens after my experience ends with my death?” People commonly admit to not caring about the world after their death and wish only to maximize their sensuous enjoyment while they are alive. From the strict standpoint of experience, this position is in error. First, the death of one’s own body is understood to be not an item of experience but the end of experience. While my body is alive, experience goes on, and it includes normal expectations of future experience. This expectation is so strong that historically there has been very widespread belief in some kind of afterlife. For the most part people believe that experience does continue after death, although they admit that it undergoes great change. In any case, the desire for good experience, indeed total good experience continues until the point of death.
This essay presents a total rational explanation of the world derived from the self-evident truth of immediate sense experience. As such, it compels assent. It answers the questions what am I, what can I know and what should I do by examining this experience solely as experience. Its conclusion agrees with common sense: I want my experience to be pleasant and coherent.
My examination of experience reveals the presence of a fundamental desire for thorough-going harmony among its contents of inner and outer images plus understanding. This amounts to an elemental wish to see justice among all the parts of experience. Insofar as my explanation satisfies this wish it is an object of conviction.
Altogether it is a world view which defines me as an experiencing subject constituted by my experiences. The latter – my visual images, my thoughts and all the rest are me, are what I am. This basic position is not new; it has been seen before in the history of philosophy in the forms of strict empiricism and phenomenology. Like these however, it contains some inconvenient features.
As described, outer and inner sense include no experience of myself as an agent. It renders me a mere spectator of external and internal images plus their emotional coloring. It also leaves me in the dark as to whether external objects or any other experiencing beings even exist.
While I want my world to be pleasing and just, the world that I have just described is quite flat and fails to provide real connection between me, other people and things. Being all about perceptions and feelings, it omits the sense of real unity and action. The principal thing missing from the foregoing picture is precisely life. What life is and how it is known is the subject of my next essay Ecomysticism.
1. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer, (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1911).
2. Walter Mosley, Life Out of Context, (New York: Nation Books, 2005).
Green journals spotlight projects around the country with stories showing people doing good things. But what are most Americans thinking? I’m an issue and electoral campaign organizer who does endless door knocking, phonebanking and event coordination. Through this activity I know the outlook of the people I deal with in several communities in eastern Pennsylvania. Liberals and conservatives alike basically believe in the classical liberal doctrine upon which the country was founded. This is centered on the idea of freedom.
Our big idea of freedom belongs to a series in Western history. That history shows that one after another such ideas become dominant, determine the zeitgeist for a certain period, break down into contradiction and then a replacement big idea arises. In our time the destruction of resources, people’s health and lives is due to industry and individuals pushing the limits of liberal freedom. The present crisis is the material expression of the big idea of freedom hitting the wall.
Because it has defined the zeitgeist, people have taken the idea of freedom for granted. Yet it was conceived by Enlightenment thinkers who presented it through the myth of the social contract. According to that story God created humans in a state of nature in which each one exercised virtually unlimited God-given freedom to seek their own self interest. A moment came when they formed the social contract and established a government which placed some limits on that freedom to protect everyone’s rights to life, health and property. At the same time it protected their right to exercise their remaining unlimited natural freedom.
The social contract story reflected the science of the time. That was classical mechanics which depicted the universe as composed of discrete elementary particles and collections of them, all having internal inertial states of motion and operating strictly in accordance with Newton’s Laws. Applied to humans this model defined people as discrete individuals whose nature it was to serve their own self interest, thus validating individual freedom as the supreme value of liberal political theory.
Claims for individual freedom today that include refusing to follow COVID public health rules, rejecting regulation and defying criminal laws now threaten life on every level. Freedom has become slavery to the global power elite and to leaders who, in Orwellian fashion, represent slavish allegiance to themselves as freedom.
The next big idea is fast emerging. “Water is Life” and “Black Lives Matter” are literal expressions of the new supreme value of our time. That life is the current priority is underscored by the urgent attention now demanded by the pandemic and climate change. These two issues have ascended to the top of a long list of abiding threats to people and the planet.
As the previous big idea of freedom rested on the foundation of Enlightenment physical science, so the new big idea of Life is backed by today’s life science. No longer are organisms understood as discrete entities whose sole purpose is their individual survival. Now the world is defined as so many whole living systems and living parts of those wholes. According to this view each organism functions to sustain itself while it sustains the whole systems of which it constitutes various parts.
Applying this model to humans means that people are whole living beings who are at the same time living parts of multiple other whole living systems. By nature individuals function to sustain themselves while they sustain these larger systems. The latter include particular local ecosystems as well as the total biosphere. Among them are also human communities which exist at multiple levels ranging from villages to nations and finally the global population.
Human communities contain specific functional systems, similarly to the way that a body contains systems that perform the functions of circulation, digestion and so forth. One such structure in the community is its government whose function is to secure the well-being of all the members and the community as a whole. As the government is a vital part of the whole system, every person who is a part of the community plays a role in sustaining it. Also as every cell in the body participates in all its system’s processes, so every person participates in their government.
The new big idea of Life gives rise to a new conception of the social contract. It is every person’s commitment to function as a citizen of their community to secure its well-being and that of all of its members. People are parts of multiple communities, so this commitment applies to all the jurisdictions of which they are citizens. Meanwhile, communities are parts of many other living systems, so the social contract requires ecologically-sound practices on the part of individuals and the full hierarchy of political bodies. In this way the social contract secures for everyone the primary freedom to live as well as freedom to participate in robust democracy.
The perfect structure for actualizing the big idea of Life is created by the global plan for degrowth and establishing largely self-reliant and sustainable local economies that conserve the environment. This model centers people’s lives in their communities and thus provides for the local participatory democracy required for them to fully honor the new social contract. Far from reducing individual freedom, it liberates people from innumerable onerous constraints imposed by the current political economy.
As it defines each person as a vital part of multiple living systems constituted by communities and their political bodies the new big idea transforms people’s conceptions of themselves and others. For it means that someone else’s condition affects me and vice versa. This is actually a simple truth that is now becoming fully evident especially in regard to politics. People whose adverse economic or social situations causes them to not vote or oppose the public interest bring harm to me. Conversely, my support for the conditions that produce their misfortune injures them. It is always correlative. In a properly functioning living system different parts do not harm but rather support one another.
The old big idea of freedom for everyone to seek their own self-interest with minimal limits has brought us the triple crisis of pandemic, climate change and assault on democracy. A life-affirming economy that supports the most robust democracy will take time to achieve. It must however be the ultimate goal of progressive action. A major initial step is people consciously adopting the new big idea of Life. As they do this they must further recognize that big ideas whose time is past don’t go down quietly. Rather, they are displaced by people animated by the emerging zeitgeist determined to elevate the new idea to dominance.
My essay Freedom: A 21st Century Update – Phila Back expands the subject of this article. It elaborates how classical liberal freedom has devolved into slavery and ways in which the sustainable community model secures real freedom. It concludes with actions everyone can take now to put life first.
With Trump out of the White House America continues to face the triple crises of pandemic, climate change and assaults on democracy. His conduct as president made them especially severe because he set a standard of virtually unlimited personal freedom – whatever one can get away with by means of their fame, power, connections and money. The infamous remark “When you’re a star…you can do anything,”1 perfectly expressed his attitude. In myriad ways – refusing to wear masks, storming the capitol then expecting clemency, denying the election results and more – his followers seek similarly unlimited freedom. With or without the former president, the movement he led will continue, to be halted only by a stronger one that upholds limits on freedom for the common good, social justice and stewardship of the commons. Presently the Right has many tens of millions of supporters plus majorities in the U.S. Supreme Court as well as several state and local governments. It may win majorities in both houses of Congress in 2022. With the start of a new administration and congress advocates on all sides are now mobilizing to push their agendas. Yet piecemeal change will not conquer the crises of pandemic, climate change and democracy under siege. They require a unified approach based on a forward-looking conception of freedom.
Americans have long held a very broad notion of freedom. Now however the views of the Right and the Left are in mortal conflict, with both standing on the antiquated Enlightenment myth of the social contract. That there is no longer any social contract is well known and also that our government is now lacking in the legitimacy conferred by that contract. To restore its legitimacy, to protect both freedom and life, we need a new narrative that redefines freedom and democracy to meet the urgent needs of our time. In this essay I will first review classical liberal political theory then trace how that doctrine devolved into the neoliberal political economy that reached its climax in Trumpism. In this Orwellian world freedom indeed became slavery, and I explore some of its varieties. Using the Enlightenment’s own method I next offer a new social contract narrative that satisfies the requirements of reason as it enhances freedom, democracy and life. The present extreme threats to life that include climate change, pandemic and environmental destruction further demand a new political economy for which I present a basic model. This provides the optimal structure for democracy and, with it, legitimacy. My review of history, ideas and current conditions leads to a new conception of freedom which people can adopt now to embrace both liberty and life.
The Original Social Contract Story
America’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – are based on the classical liberal political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their views differed in some respects, but they agreed that the authority of government is derived from the consent of the governed which was originally granted by the social contract. The story of the social contract is a myth according to which humans initially lived in the “state of nature.” Hobbes identified this state with anarchy, “the war of all against all.”2 For Locke it was a mythical society in which people had unlimited freedom subject only to the law of nature which was basically the Golden Rule that everyone enforced for themselves.3 Rousseau depicted it as the original condition of humanity in which people all lived separately like Robinson Carusoe.4 They concurred that God created humans in the state of nature, granting them vast freedom to act within their physical and mental capacities. Hobbes considered humans to be savages by nature, while Locke and Rousseau ascribed to them kinder dispositions. In all versions humans by nature originally acted in accordance with their individual self-interest. People in the state of nature were however endowed with reason, by which they saw that they would all be better off with some cooperation among themselves. So they unanimously formed the social contract which established a commonwealth, political society or body politic, agreeing to limit some of their natural freedoms in exchange for collective protection of those now limited ones as well as their remaining unlimited freedoms. By this means they transformed, with some restriction, their God-given natural freedom into fundamental constitutional rights.
Establishing the social contract did not abolish the state of nature but rather created a new civic order which superimposed a civic identity upon the people who otherwise retained their natural character. As citizens people had a duty to abide by the laws, but as private individuals they were free to do anything which was not prohibited by law, with this freedom being protected by the law. Our philosophers stressed that the body politic was “artificial” to distinguish it from the underlying natural order.
The social contract story was embedded in the broader outlook of the Enlightenment. This included Newtonian science, natural law theory with its long history from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and natural history. Calling itself “the Age of Reason,” thinkers in this period employed rigorous methods of reasoning, believing that such techniques certified the material truth of their theories and assertions.
From the discovery of the same constant mathematical patterns in the motion of bodies ranging from pebbles to planets Enlightenment scientists conceived an entire world view. It represented the universe as composed of elementary material bodies and discrete collections of them acting at every level according to Newton’s laws. Being thoroughly quantitative it defined everything in terms of units which, according to the concept of partes extra partes exist alongside, beyond and exterior to each other with no interdependence, only external independent existence. All objects were understood to have internal inertial states of motion exemplified by the uniform rectilinear motion of planets whose paths were bent into ellipses by external forces of gravity. As the laws were verified with observations of innumerable kinds of macroscopic objects they were declared to be the universal laws of nature attributed to God the creator who imposed them on his creation rather as human lawmakers impose laws on citizens. Further, assuming the conceptual character of mathematics the laws were claimed to be absolutely true and necessary, indeed revealed by the light of reason. Hope for the new science took the form of a belief in inexorable and continual progress.
Nature and reason were the two sources of authority with which our political philosophers disputed monarchs’ claims to divine right based on religious grounds. Supported by the advance of science, they were inclined to identify the two, elevating the tradition of natural law to rational truth as well. Locke wrote, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that… no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”5
Reports of Indigenous Peoples newly discovered in America were seized upon as representations of the natural, original state of human beings and as evidence for the species’ progress. Our thinkers’ method of reasoning and intellectual heritage however led them to quite mischaracterize such “natural” men. Hobbes was a mechanistic determinist, believing that people were collections of physical particles behaving strictly in accordance with Newton’s laws. Locke and Rousseau meanwhile held to the traditional Christian notion of free will. Above all they adhered to the Enlightenment’s precept of partes extra partes. Humans were a priori conceived entirely as individuals, a viewpoint which was central to the Enlightenment overall.
Another critical feature of their method was Aristotelian syllogistic logic according to which the conclusion of a deductive inference is assumed in the major premise. This, paired with the principle of sufficient reason underlay their “self-evident truths.” An example is that all men are created equal, a conclusion they deduced by first defining humans as a natural species of animal, then asserting that there are no natural social rankings among animals of the same species which thus makes them equal in rank. This claim was reinforced by the principle of sufficient reason according to which there is nothing in the idea of man so defined which would indicate any difference in rank among them. Following this reasoning it is seen that “all men are created equal” simply means that insofar as they are all members of the human species, there are no differences in rank among people, making them in this respect sthe same as swine or sheep.
The total Enlightenment approach to ideas and method was reflected in the classical liberal political philosophers’ construction of the social contract narrative. It presumed historical progress and defined human beings as individuals in internal states of motion seeking their own self-interest. Claiming the authority of reason it further asserted that humans were all created equal. All this moreover was the work of God the creator and lawgiver of nature. Finally, the source that revealed natural and mathematical truths to humans – the light of reason – also led humans to establish the social contract. As this light was believed to continue to reveal the secrets of nature forever into the future, so it was expected to guide political conduct following the creation of the social contract. Like Newtonian science which combined the pure rationality of mathematics with much empirical content, our philosophers sought to justify their vision to the greatest possible extent by means of formal reasoning while also drawing on material representing the human condition past and present.
The story of the social contract established the fundamental rights and the origin of the sovereign which served to legitimize the government that it created. Our three philosophers presented different models of what that government should be: Hobbes was a theocratic monarchist, while Locke advocated representative democracy. Rousseau favored participatory democracy like that of his native Geneva and ancient Greece. The American Founders followed Locke, securing very broad fundamental rights and trusting that legislators and the sovereign people would always sustain the common good.
Supreme among the values guiding the Founders and which their successors were intended to uphold was personal liberty. They declared
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable
Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of
Happiness - That to secure these rights, Governments are
instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent
of the governed...
By liberty they meant the freedom to do anything that does not harm others. Moreover, they held that government must not impose any limits on this freedom except those which preserve the liberty of all and are specifically established by law.
From Liberalism to Neoliberalism
As the American political order was being constructed to implement classical liberal political theory, science continued to advance. Its method was extended to new areas of study including economics. In 1776 Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in which he asserted that the free market was governed by the law of supply and demand. Under this law buyers and sellers necessarily benefit fairly in every transaction because of the universal influence of the benevolent “invisible hand.” Smith’s subject of study was the specifically economic aspect of people’s lives which he called homo oeconomicus or “economic man.” Rooted in classical liberal philosophy and emphasizing national policy, his new science was what is known as classical liberal political economy.
America declined to adopt Smith’s pure laissez-faire approach and for several decades after the founding managed its economy according to the American System whose principal features were tariffs, a national bank and federal subsidies for infrastructure. Following the Civil War big business boomed, igniting first the populist then the progressive movements which gave birth to big government programs and regulations. Much reform came about from fear of communism and fascism which drove American policy makers to put the demands of working and poor people ahead of those of the wealthy and businesses. Once big government came into existence it became a magnet for all manner of interests. While the chief contenders for most of the twentieth century were business and its countervailing force labor, our government became consumed with responding to the multitude of competing claims placed upon it.
As New Deal policies were advancing in America in the 1930s reaction against socialism was building among some European economists. Neoliberalism, the Austrian School’s new model of political economy, gained traction after World War II when the Allies were constructing the post-war social democratic order. With the goal of replacing that system with his neoliberal vision Friedrich von Hayek enlisted a number of European and American economists and businesspeople. Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago was on board with von Hayek from the beginning, and the two made rapid progress at that institution with each winning Nobel Prizes. Their efforts were crowned with the elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in America, both of whom shifted their countries to the neoliberal model of political economy.
Neoliberalism is a radical revision of the core ideas of classical liberal political philosophy and political economy. Like them it affirms maximum individual freedom but asserts that this requires a free competitive market that embraces all aspects of life. Insisting that socialism, even the tiniest speck of it, necessarily leads to fascism, neoliberalism demands that government must be reduced to its barest functions of securing persons, property, contracts and the value of money as it promotes capital accumulation through the maintenance and expansion of the competitive market. For neoliberal capitalist enterprise harmful impacts to people and the environment are “externalities.” People are defined all-inclusively as homo oeconomicus, meaning that all facets of their lives are matters of market competition. Being “entrepreneurs of themselves,” they must competitively market themselves in any and every human relationship. As these are multiple, people are thus “bundles of enterprises” always employing or investing their natural, inherited and acquired “human capital” for personal gain. Though it exalts freedom neoliberalism asserts that people’s actions are determined by “rational choice.” That is, among possible alternatives, they choose the one that they judge best serves their individual self-interest and competitive advantage. Ultimately their fates are determined by the invisible hand of the market which ensures that the necessary and universal law of supply and demand always prevails and can never fail.
Classical liberal philosophers defended their model as being the way of God’s creation and reason. Neoliberals however swear by the God-almighty market and further insist that their system is the only means of avoiding the descent into fascism or the “road to serfdom.” Moreover, while liberal government is formed and maintained by popular consent, neoliberalism has been imposed on nations by force or leaders making deceptive promises of freedom and prosperity, never by the fully informed consent of the governed. Freedom within neoliberalism is, in Milton Friedman’s words, nothing but “freedom to choose” between competing market offerings within the system.6 They deny that the neoliberal system itself is an object of choice, insisting that “There is no alternative” (TINA).
This is what the freedom of the Founders has devolved into today. In violation of the core principle of competition in their ideology the Reagan administration early on virtually abandoned anti-trust policy. Corporate giants decimated smaller businesses, and wealth became highly concentrated, a consequence Hayek in fact foresaw. His vision for free enterprise also included free trade, so today the market is dominated by the global corporate elite which has established institutions of global governance that can override sovereign nations’ law-making authority. Competition between businesses is now waged globally as they all strain to increase profits, reduce expenses and raise stock values. This compels countries to compete against each other to attract global businesses by offering business-friendly conditions consisting of cheap labor, little regulation and low taxes. Domestically states and communities must compete for businesses to locate in them with an array of taxpayer-funded enticements. Four decades of neoliberal off-shoring, M&A, downsizing, union-busting, relentless quest for greater efficiency, deregulation, privatization and financial crises have exacted an immense toll on the American people.
The Culture of Neoliberalism
As our economy has been transformed, so has our culture. While Thatcher was declaring, “…there is no society. There are individual men and women and there are families,”7 Americans were shifting to what Christopher Lasch called the “culture of narcissism.”8 Change in the nature of work played a large role in this, as the previous model of long-term full-time employment with companies providing generous benefits was overturned. It was progressively replaced by an array of precarious arrangements – contract work, on-demand schedules, temps – plus continual market flux that requires people to often seek new jobs, update skills, reskill and work two or three jobs at a time. The fluid nature of work spread to social relations in general, making them particularly superficial and transient or “liquid” according to Zygmunt Bauman.9
Being centered on competition has given neoliberal culture certain distinctive features. Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook have named it “The Winner-Take-All Society”10 in which corporate boards of directors, universities, sports teams and television networks set the standard by elevating a few people to the status of stars for the purpose of successfully competing with their rivals. This has produced the overall cult of celebrity which trickles down to ordinary people who engage in more or less universal individual and group competition. The neoliberal imperative of maximizing the return on one’s human capital in a competitive market means that people will make the most of whatever advantages they have from their birth and upbringing, most notably white privilege. Competition, as Paul Riesling observed in Babbitt, isn’t aimed at achieving something but rather at defeating one’s opponent.11 Systemic racism is thus baked into neoliberalism, as is patriarchy. Individuals compete to get jobs, then to move up the ladder in their organization or industry, while even staying in the same position entails competitive effort. Being in an organization involves playing on its team in competition against rivals, and this requires team members to fit into its culture. The team model is reproduced across the spectrum of human associations, with each person having multiple identities as employees, members of families, churches, political parties and more.
Apart from the particular circumstances of one’s birth and upbringing, which it insists can always be surmounted, neoliberalism claims that an individual freely chooses the components of their identity – their job, hair style, religion, political affiliation and so on. This view pretends that a free individual with an original nature exists, but that is mostly a myth. Individuality is a creation of the free market. Offering Fords and Chevys, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, CNN and Fox, marketers exhort us to make the choice that expresses our “individuality.” In fact however our choices define our individuality. If there were only one kind of car, individuality in choosing one would have no meaning. As we proceed in life our identity builds with the choices we make among alternatives for education, jobs, cars, social groups, virtually everything.
By insisting that people make free rational choices solely to advance their individual self-interest neoliberalism denies the immense influence of marketing. Yet as it defines everything in terms of the market it construes all human behavior as basically consumer behavior. Under neoliberalism marketing as well as propaganda profoundly affect people as consumers. Although their identities are defined by their consumer choices and they are influenced by marketing, individual people remain the agents making the choices. Indeed, as Bauman says, “Consumption is a supremely solitary activity…”12 This fact explains how individuality and communality are conjoined in neoliberal culture and why the pendulum has swung from people touting their singularity to packing into its distinctive type of tribes.
Brands Take Over
In the early days of neoliberalism in America people were bent on escaping collective behavior and thinking, hence the culture of narcissism. Robert Bellah’s 1985 book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life described how people insisted on forming their own opinions, doing their own things and expecting others to do the same. They constructed their individual identities by collecting assorted bits from a vast smorgasbord of choices exemplified by “Sheilaism,” the personal patchwork religion of a woman named Sheila.13 People still insist on making their own choices, but market alternatives have now been considerably consolidated into a limited number of broadly inclusive packages. How this came about is the story of brands related by Naomi Klein in her 2000 book No Logo.14
At its most basic level marketing aims not to sell a product to a consumer but some personal, often intangible, reward from it, e.g., not some food, but the enjoyment of the food, not the Cadillac, but the status of the Cadillac. Klein explains that in the 1990s marketing was dramatically transformed through a shift of focus to brands. Nike led the pack by divesting from the production of sneakers and undertaking to market its name and logo to represent such ideals as athleticism, winning and freedom. By doing this it sought to satisfy people’s desire for meaning in their lives and the world. The brand represented by the logo was extended to a wide array of products, teams and events, achieving a degree of saturation. With advertisements featuring athletic stars, notably Michael Jordan who even got his name on one line, the brand defined a lifestyle. All the branded products, people and events together formed the Nike universe which consumers entered when they bought the goods and in which they were immersed when they attended the events. Live Michael Jordan games were particularly intense Nike universe experiences, while the televised games were lesser ones. As consuming something involves identifying oneself with it as well as with other consumers of the same brand, gatherings under a brand validate and reinforce each person’s identification with that brand and create a form of communality. With immersive events, videos and superstar role models Nike produced and marketed a broad and vibrant mindset by which consumers in some measure transcended their reality. This was especially illustrated by the passion with which impoverished inner city youth embraced the Nike and Jordan brands and their success with teenagers around the world.
The Nike marketing technique was carried to its ultimate extreme by Donald Trump. Early in his career he established an image as an icon of success, wealth, glamour, ruthless business practices and, above all, winning. Like Nike he diversified his business empire to include office buildings, hotels, resorts, golf courses, casinos, a university, book, steaks and even endorsement of Oreos. Further, like Nike, much of this consisted in selling licenses for the use of the Trump brand rather than actual ownership and operation. The brand not only spread the glow of Trump’s stardom over consumers’ experience of the branded products and services, it literally incorporated them into his world as tenants, guests, members and students. Starting with the Miss Universe pageant he progressively moved onto television, the optimal platform from which to promote himself and his brand. A 2018 New Yorker article explained how The Apprentice resurrected Trump’s then failing empire and paved the way to his presidency.15 The program was created specifically for Trump by Mark Burnett who had previously conceived and produced Survivor. As a youth Burnett was fascinated by Lord of the Flies, and his first series embodied that novel’s ethos. Depicting Trump as a business superstar The Apprentice vastly expanded the Trump universe and amplified its values.
In The Apprentice people came onto the program to compete for the favor of Trump in his stage persona to win jobs in his real organization. With his power over the contestants he rather played God by passing final judgement on them, treating losers with his signature cruelty. While the contestants were literally immersed in Trump’s universe as program apprentices viewers of it were immersed in it vicariously. As with any successful narrative the audience identified and connected with various characters. What was significant about the show was how it dramatized the neoliberal culture of competition by exalting winners and demeaning losers. Identifying with the Trump character, viewers shared the brutally competitive, even sadistic sentiments portrayed as emblems of spectacular success. The show added new elements to the Trump universe – the character which was a mythical version of the real person and the whole television audience which affirmed its values to varying degrees.
Emboldened by his increased celebrity, Trump went on to wage his birther campaign, adding a racist contingent to his universe. His presidential campaign may have been intended as only a marketing stunt for his brand, but with it he exploited white nationalist tendencies, absorbing another bloc into his base. Central to his campaign were the rallies that could be compared to Michael Jordan basketball games with the brand emblazoned all over, frenzied fans wearing the brand caps and shirts and a spectacular performance by the candidate who had assumed a rock star-like image.
With his entry into the presidential race and his campaign messaging, Trump magnified another aspect of that image – power. Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer said “…He’s very much like a cult leader. When you’re in his good grace, you believe that you have this enormous amount of power, which you do…”16 The candidate Trump projected an image of extraordinary power with fantastic campaign promises such as that he would make Mexico pay to build his wall, abolish all regulations and lock up Hillary Clinton. Like branded crowd events his rallies validated and reinforced the participants’ identification with his brand and further generated communality among them. Moreover, because a celebrity or popular candidate owes their status to their fan or supporter base, this dependence creates a bond between them and the star. Trump the candidate’s power was also very visibly augmented by his rally crowds’ electoral power. Once he was elected he proceeded to abuse the power of his office to enforce the loyalty of other officials, and on his way out he weaponized his command of his electoral base for the same purpose.
Trump expanded Nike’s brand saturation strategy to the nth degree. Impacts to matters great and small around the world essentially bore the “Trump” stamp. At the center of the Trump brand universe stood the man himself, a paragon of power, wealth and unrestrained freedom. As president he received immense media coverage, some of it fawning as from Fox, and the rest moderately to brutally critical. For Trump’s purpose however there was no such thing as bad publicity as he employed Twitter as a 24/7 personal media channel. The Trump universe was coextensive with the globe, but there were degrees of inclusion in it. Just as seeing the Nike logo on some object or ad places a person in the Nike universe in a minimal capacity, so merely reading or watching the news drew people into Trump’s, at least on the fringe. His fiercest opponents were in well into his realm, as he dominated their thinking. It had a fervent hard core, one medium for which was his campaign’s online alternate universe. Thomas Edsall described this website and app as “a self-contained, self-reinforcing arena where Trump reigns supreme” and which traps people “inside an ecosystem of dangerous misinformation, conspiracy theories and grievance politics.”17 Providing nightly live shows and training videos with surrogates and senior campaign staff it aimed to make the experience as fun and exciting as possible with the app serving to capture ever more people. For sharing it supporters won points redeemable for campaign merchandise discounts with the ultimate prize being a picture with the candidate.
Over his career Trump has become increasingly audacious with his defiance of normal standards of civilized, decent and moral conduct. Edsall goes on to relate how in politics he poses as a champion for people who believe that they are the victims of social control by the established political leadership. The more he lies, brazenly violates norms and antagonizes the establishment, the more credible is his claim to be the leader of those who feel disenfranchised by that establishment. As a model of uninhibited freedom Trump brandished his exercise of the ultimate freedom of a ruler – the power of life or death over particular individuals, the methodical use of which is known as “necropolitics.”
The supreme freedom that Trump finally has most consistently exercised is the freedom to create one’s own truth. At the center of his universe there is a realm of thought in which global warming and coronavirus are hoaxes and he won the 2020 election. Like the more devoted Nike brand enthusiasts, Trump supporters transcend their reality by believing his representation of the world and embedding themselves in his alternate universe. Relentless attempts by state and federal officials as well as unruly mobs to overturn Trump’s defeat in the election brought that alternate universe closer to reality.
I compare the Trump phenomenon to the Nike and Michael Jordan brands in order to demonstrate how individual freedom figures in each. Like Nike purchasers, every Trump supporter functions as a neoliberal free agent of rational choice, which means basically as a consumer. This is how they safeguard their foremost value of individual freedom, the more unrestrained the better. Solidarity, a fundamental feature of labor movements, is alien to Trumpism. Trump himself, with his everlasting antics, is not only the fountainhead but represents the very incarnation of uninhibited freedom along with the rest of the values of his universe. Advocates of unlimited freedom rally behind their idol, emulating him with acts of intimidation and violence against officials and citizens. He can’t admit that he lost the election because winning is absolutely essential to his image.
Trump and his universe did not come about in a vacuum; rather he rose as a marketing sensation within the total neoliberal culture. That culture glorifies material success and condemns failure with media feeding a winner-take-all spirit. Trump’s political success depends on his image as a billionaire businessman celebrity – the ideal fulfillment of popular aspiration. Neoliberal subjects are driven by competitive self-interest, so they naturally choose to ally or identify themselves with people and brands that promise to advance it. With brand marketing consumers are drawn into universes of products, activities, media, lifestyles, values, superstar idols and communality in which they transcend their realities and at the extreme abide in alternate ones. All these elements of neoliberal culture were brought together by Trump to create, grow, consolidate and tyrannically preserve his domain.
While his doing this is not news, I have sought to illuminate how it embodies standard features of our culture and shall now describe how these figure in group affiliations in general. Textbook neoliberal subjects freely choose their jobs, education, social groups and even association with family once they become adults. Of course this is nonsense, as, in addition to marketing, family influence and peer pressure, not to mention individual economic circumstances, play large roles. Still, these are individual choices, free or otherwise, that define people’s identities and can therefore be treated as consumer decisions.
Contrary to neoliberal doctrine, not all such choices are made for individual self-advancement. They do, however generally reflect neoliberal consumer culture in several ways. The consumer market is driven by novelty: people are constantly exhorted by advertising to buy the newest thing and discard the old. This impels people to seek immediate gratification and guaranteed satisfaction. Consumer offerings are designed to provide only short-term contentment, setting the consumer up for the next powerful marketing hit. With products quickly wearing out, breaking down, becoming obsolete or passé and novelty soon wearing off, the consumer outlook is short-term.
This is yet another component of the overall liquid character of culture rooted in transitory work described by Bauman which especially reduces and weakens social commitments. Within neoliberal culture group affiliations are frequently approached as short-term affairs, sometimes lasting only a matter of hours or minutes. Examples of the latter are many rallies and marches such as the 2014 People’s Climate March. Bauman has called this kind of gathering “swarms.”18 They are intended, above all, to get media coverage, so they prioritize crowd size, visuals and celebrity speakers. Longer term but still light commitments he calls “cloakroom communities” – regular actual or virtual gatherings of people who share a single narrow interest.19 Reflecting the domination of media and celebrity culture these tend to consist of followers of a single person who has successfully marketed the organization and themselves, delivering the “verdict of the market.” As with branded crowd events people joining swarms and cloakroom communities demonstrate mutual approval of each other’s participation which amounts to “validation by the market.” The least engaged form of group affiliation is that of membership in staff-run organizations. Robert Putnam has called this phenomenon “consuming a cause” or “citizenship by proxy.”20 In these different ways people adopt so many group identities in the manner of consumers, similarly to the way they acquire furniture for their homes or clothes for their wardrobes.
Although the phrase “identity group” commonly pertains to racial, ethnic and gender distinctions, people with the affiliations I have just described constitute identity groups as well. Early in the twentieth century sociologist Georg Simmel observed that, as a defense against anomie in mass society, people form groups with like-minded others. In assembling they automatically establish a distinction between insiders and outsiders. Over time enforced conformity within groups grows, producing their distinctive groupthink.21 Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm maintained that the purpose of identity groups is not to include but to exclude.22
I have given an account of group affiliation according to basic consumer behavior. It has been significantly modified by the advent of big group brands starting with Christian, which Reagan annexed to the Republican Party. That party brand has since devoured blocs of former Southern Democrats, union members and even People of Color. Like Hannah Arendt’s totalitarian onion, it has a hard right-wing core with increasingly moderate surrounding layers. Still it is a brand that commands its registrants’ votes. Americans are deeply polarized, with their positions defined more in negative than in positive terms. The Republican brand mostly represents anti-socialism, while the Democratic brand has no fixed meaning beyond being the anti-Republican brand. In the meantime, the Independent brand is the anti-Republican and anti-Democratic brand. These brands form parts, sometimes large parts, of people’s identities while, like at Nike, the brand universes are controlled by marketing pros for the organizations’ profit.
Much of neoliberal culture can therefore be understood in terms of brands, including neoliberalism itself which goes by the name “capitalism.” As brands such as Nike, Trump and the Republican Party form universes of meaning and action, so does capitalism, which is a total universe. And here is the contradiction at its heart: people freely choose to be a part of it, paradoxically meaning that they freely choose to be enslaved by it.
The reality of neoliberalism is that it is a contrived system dominated by the global elite which is ever increasing its own wealth and power but which disseminates a libertarian message. Thus we have masses of people who are libertarians at heart passionately serving the masters of global neoliberalism. Some support virtually unlimited personal freedom as exhibited in the resistance to wearing masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Trumpism is very much a personality cult to which its members surrender their personal autonomy. Strict loyalty to the Republican or Democratic Party are surrenders as well. Considering the group structure of neoliberalism with its identity groups and groupthink the overall truth about “freedom” in this system can be clearly seen.
When Freedom Becomes Slavery
The Western tradition since Antiquity has been to define freedom in such a way as to make it the opposite of slavery. So I now turn to bringing some historical perspective to current popular notions of freedom. A key text for this project is Albert Camus’ 1951 essay The Rebel, in which the author recounts several approaches to freedom that end in slavery. He traces the movement for total freedom, which he identifies with nihilism, from de Sade through nineteenth century Russian anarchists and twentieth century absurdists, concluding “that the negation of everything is a form of servitude.”23 Several figures he names were willing to die for unlimited freedom, the very claim made by some anti-maskers and insurrectionists today. One slave to his ideology was Saint-Just, the extremist leader in the French Revolution who was sent to the guillotine by his rivals. Camus cites the lesson on freedom in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov. In that tale Christ returns to establish heaven on earth, but, seized by the Grand Inquisitor, he is told that people don’t want freedom but rather to be controlled by the Church. This is not because they are cowardly, but because they are lazy. Ordered by the Inquisitor to leave and never return, Christ retreats to heaven in defeat. Another dramatic historical example he gives is that of Spartacus, leader of a famous Roman slave rebellion. The slave, Camus says, achieves a measure of freedom in the act of rebellion. To this insight I add Hegel’s analysis of the master-slave relation which reveals that the master is in bondage insofar as he is dependent on his slave and must continually act to keep him oppressed. In this respect the slave is independent of the master and thus his master. By destroying the relationship a slave rebellion liberates both masters and slaves. Camus’ final study is of twentieth century communism, relating how the Russian Revolution inevitably led to Stalinism. Addressing contemporary French communists he condemned their slavery to an ideology that promised perfect freedom in some distant future while presently sanctioning bloody repression.
Slavery to ideology is notoriously irrational or Orwellian. People today are not so much enslaved by ideologies as the types of brand universes that I have described. Trump’s alternative universe is one extreme example, but there are several other more or less comprehensive or immoderate such realms. For charismatic evangelicals God is the guiding force in their lives and the world, and they tend toward vehement anti-intellectualism. Otherwise the groupthink of all the kinds of associations I mentioned is at least limited in its scope and therefore lacks full rational justification. This ranges from blind loyalty to a party brand to people who exclusively follow some single political commentator. There are certainly some good ones among the latter, but it must be recognized that insofar as those are mere journalists they are not historians, political philosophers or activist movement leaders. None of them present full visions of how the world should be, much less roadmaps for how to make it so. Celebrities take a national perspective, never adapting their messaging to particular local audiences and their unique conditions. Finally, they are creatures of the media market in either its mainstream or niche form.
Freedom and Reason
Decades ago Herbert Marcuse explained that the structure of scientific understanding, advertising and propaganda has spawned a pervasive “one-dimensional” mode of communication and thought.24 Its basic constructions are absolute declarative sentences and standard heavily connotative adjectives attached to certain proper and common nouns. Examples of the former are “the universe began with the big bang,” “Healthcare is a right,” “Walmart. Always low prices,” while the latter are represented by “quality affordable healthcare” and “crooked Hillary.” One-dimensional speech, writing and thinking preempt further reflection which might negate or qualify it, rendering it simple dogma. The identity groups that I have described are formed around doctrines commonly expressed as slogans and labels that reflect the one-dimensional character of the groups’ positions. Examples include “Make America Great Again” and “Pro-Choice.”
For Enlightenment thinkers the exercise of reason was a vital component of human freedom, but they differed on what that meant. Our Founders believed that the laws of nature and the liberal political order were revealed by the light of reason which would continue to guide the leaders of the state. Rousseau was more pragmatic and democratic, respecting the ordinary rational faculties of individual citizens. In his native city-state of Geneva he had first-hand experience of its tradition of participatory democracy, regarding the social contract of every individual with every other one as the enduring ground of the body politic. Factions were therefore antithetical to his model. George Washington warned of “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party,”25 which promotes government corruption and inefficiency, divides society and fosters conflict, encourages political instability and weakness and exposes the state to foreign infiltration. Ironically, as Americans condemn our partisan politics, their resistance mostly consists of forming new factions – supporters of Trump, Bernie Sanders, Proud Boys, Democratic Socialists, and so on.
In our time group identity and groupthink are two sides of the same coin. Identifying with a group means thinking and speaking like them, at least in their company. Conversely, taking one’s thinking from a particular group means identifying with them for their specific purpose. People’s identity and thinking therefore mostly consist of a set of consumer choices like what they wear, e.g., Hanes T shirt, Levi’s jeans and Nike sneakers.
Light of reason notwithstanding, classical liberal political theory is an ideology, as are its successors neoliberalism, libertarianism, Christian nationalism and progressivism. Within the neoliberal system, which isn’t offered as an object of choice, the latter three creeds are consumer options. Obviously, apart from broad principles, many people mix and match positions on particular issues, refining their consumer choices in the same manner as they go to this or that supermarket and choose among their selections of identical or similar products. There are conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans whose views agree or differ issue-by-issue. Everyone is alike in making choices in political matters whether they are narrow or comprehensive, with no opinion being a choice as well.
Eschewing factions Rousseau envisioned all the people engaging as citizens with the full exercise of their powers of reason. Except for the principle of popular sovereignty, this view is devoid of ideology or some scientific model of public affairs. It amounts merely to people rationally working together to address concerns that affect their collective well-being. Eliminating slavery to factions, ideologies and brands, it represents the supreme freedom of the citizen. For it embodies the core concepts of the social contract – that people exercise freedom without harming each other and that they share equally and rationally in governing themselves.
A Twenty-First Century Social Contract
In so many ways America has drifted far, far away from its original ideals of freedom, democracy and legitimacy. It is now in the throes of three major crises – the pandemic, climate change and right-wing extremism. The election of Biden and Harris alone certainly won’t bring about the fundamental change that we need to survive these threats. I have traced the history of liberal democracy to reveal how it has degenerated into our current state. Now I propose to repair the damage with updated, improved understanding of freedom, democracy and legitimacy in a new political philosophy.
In all the systems of thought in the Western tradition methods of strict reasoning are paramount. The wide variation among these interpretations owes much to the difference in the first principles they postulate which are the premises upon which they rationally build their structures. Our Enlightenment political philosophers made human freedom their first principle. Relying on Aristotelian and medieval methods of reasoning they developed the rest. They chose freedom as their foundation because that was supreme political priority of their time.
Following that precedent, I ask, What is the most urgent concern of our time? Devastation from climate change and the pandemic, “Black Lives Matter,” “Water Is Life” – it’s obvious: our chief priority is life. Michael Tomasky wrote in the New York Times that in response to the anti-maskers’ defense of their freedom, liberals should say, “Freedom means the freedom not to get infected by the idiot who refuses to mask up.”26 This is a clever point, but it still subordinates life to freedom. I note that the Declaration of Independence lists the God-given inalienable rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in that order.
In identifying life as our premier value, I further ask, Why? How has this come about? Climate change and the zoonotic coronavirus have arisen precisely from people exercising their neoliberal freedom, dismissing environmental harm as an externality. As I have indicated, racial and wealth inequality are inevitable consequences of that freedom as well. Harm to the environment is abuse, and systemic racism is oppression, a version of the master/slave relation which the master must exert much effort to maintain. The classical liberal/neoliberal doctrine of freedom is the problem, which I propose to replace with one centered on life.
While classical liberal thinkers interpreted human life in terms of the partes extra partes concept fundamental to Newtonian mechanics, the exclusive reign of that scientific model was short-lived. Experimental researchers soon discovered a multitude of patterns in nature that were not directly reducible to the motion of elementary bodies. The study of organic nature – biology and medicine – proceeded on a different track, acknowledging their subjects as living systems. Over time Newtonian physics has been circumscribed by relativity and field theory as well as quantum mechanics, and life science now firmly embraces the study of systems. The physical science upon which the classical liberal conception of freedom was founded is obsolete for that purpose, as it is now understood to represent the mechanistic but not the living aspect of nature.
Although Enlightenment thinkers claimed that natural science and their political knowledge were revealed by the light of reason as absolute and necessary truth, science, which now includes social science, has long abandoned such pretension. Science is about theoretical models which have some measure of experimental or empirical support and of which competing ones exist within disciplines. I have stated that neoliberalism is a model that has been imposed by the power elite on the global economy. While it has self-fulfilled many of its prophesies, it was in fact decisively falsified by the 2008 financial crash and remains on life-support through ever-growing government and central bank interventions.
The perennial Western method of reasoning does not by itself find or establish truth but develops systems of inferences from axioms and definitions in mathematics, hypotheses in science and first principles in philosophy. Traditionally the latter have been claimed to be self-evident, so I now ask, Is not life also one of or even the first principle of human knowledge? Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am,” proceeding to “prove” that he was an immaterial ghost in a physical machine. An even more self-evident truth is I think, therefore I live, for there is no inference, not even a statement, unless I exist for the time it occupies, that is, unless I live as I make it. I could provide more arcane reasons for adopting life as the first principle for political philosophy, but in the end, the choice is somewhat arbitrary. The Enlightenment selected freedom because it was the burning priority of their time. Life, understood in the broadest sense as the biosphere, is now literally burning, making it the premier issue for humans in our time.
Classical liberal political thinkers fixed on the first principle of their theory then applied the knowledge and method of their day to develop it. Having selected my first principle I shall follow their precedent by next elaborating it in accordance with the basics of current life science. Far from the seventeenth century’s universal principle of partes extra partes living things today are understood in terms of systems – the interconnections between organisms, their inorganic environment and among themselves. Systems analysis involves defining things not as isolated and independent atoms but as parts of systematic wholes. Nature consists of infinitely numerous whole systems that intersect and form parts of yet larger wholes, encompassing organic and inorganic objects alike.
Living things act to sustain themselves within the manifold systems of which they form parts, and as parts sustaining themselves entails sustaining those systems. Individual organisms all have finite lifespans, but there is reproduction within their populations and species by which these endure indefinitely as they too sustain the systems of which they form parts. In fact, living is chiefly aimed at the continuation of life at every level. The simple act of eating serves to provide energy for an animal in the future, after its body has processed the food. Likewise throughout populations of species and across the biosphere life is directed at perpetuating itself indefinitely. At the same time natural history tells us that systems do undergo change, can suffer damage and recover or even be destroyed, especially by major short- or long-term geologic or meteorologic events.
Though death is inevitable, our priority is life. So as I proceed to recast the understanding of human life to align with current life science, I will focus on the characteristics of living systems that sustain their life. This endeavor requires first redefining the human individual as a whole organism which is also a part of larger whole living systems. As such their essential function is to sustain themselves while they sustain these other systems: this is the ecological imperative. It contrasts profoundly with the classical liberal conception by which an individual seeks their own self-interest by any means whatsoever as long as they do not injure other people. That basic right is at the bottom of every environmental and social justice conflict which all revolve around direct versus indirect harm. The fundamentalist approach confines it to immediate injury while the systems view has potentially unlimited reach.
Freedom in my story is freedom for the individual to live and to function as parts of the larger living systems that literally support their individual life. The first component is presently the standard progressive agenda expressed in the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Water Is Life” as well as demands for clean air, universal healthcare, basic income and so forth. The second component implies a far more ambitious program, as those kinds of systems are currently badly damaged or do not exist at all. To take air, for example, such freedom means living within a mode of production that does not poison the atmosphere and overheat the planet. This condition for freedom is an objective to be achieved along with many others including a thoroughly healthy biosphere in the place of the one that is now dying before our eyes.
A conception of individual freedom involving conditions for the realization of that freedom is not new. While the Founders accentuated their idea of freedom, most of their effort was directed at establishing the conditions in which it could exist. The Declaration of Independence is mostly a list of grievances against restraints and abuses inflicted upon the colonists as it asserts that government is instituted precisely to secure fundamental rights or freedoms. Following this precedent, my version of freedom is also to be secured by a government.
My first principle for political thought with its definition of the human creature leads to a new view of the social contract. It defines the political body or polity as a living system which is a living part of another living system that is the community with which it is coextensive. The parts of the polity are all the citizens who count as essential, with no one cast as worthless or disposable. People who, despite the best efforts of the polity, persist as threats to it are of course treated as criminals. The purpose of the polity is to secure the well-being of the community and all its members. Insofar as the polity is a part of the community and citizenship is a part of its members’ lives, it also functions to secure the well-being of itself and the members in their capacity as citizens. The social contract is precisely people’s continual commitment to perform the functions of citizens in the polity. While no kind of formal law itself, it serves as the moral foundation of the constitution, legislation, executive and judicial decisions. The government that is made legitimate by this social contract is most directly local participatory democracy that adheres to the rule of law. Legitimacy of higher levels of government is similarly established by the peoples’ commitment to perform the functions of citizens in the representative democracy of those levels to secure the well-being of their jurisdictions and residents under the rule of law.
Thus defined as a living system that includes all the citizens as essential parts, the polity accords with the systems model of nature. So my social contract does not represent the exit from the state of nature, but the return to it. It contrasts with the previous social contract story in certain vital respects.
First, the earlier philosophers asserted that the polity was an artificial creation of all the people who entered into the social contract. That narrative preserved a “natural” sphere of life, distinct from the polity, in which people retained their natural unlimited freedom. Within the political realm citizens were subject to the rule of institutions and laws, but otherwise they enjoyed freedom to do as they liked with such unconstrained freedom being protected by the polity. In a natural system, however, there is no distinction between natural and artificial components. The whole is indivisible with its parts which have multiple natural aspects, for example, people’s private, spiritual and political functions. Our thinkers’ master of logic Aristotle had in fact said, “Man is by nature a political animal.”27My social contract undergirds a polity modeled on nature which has no need to drive a wedge between the civic realm and others, as each person is a whole human individual and an organic part of the whole living community.
Another respect in which my view of the polity as a natural system differs from the classical one is in regard to the origin. The latter characterized people as being by nature unorganized individuals, but there is invariably not only order but systematic order in nature. Humans are social animals, and their groups, even mobs, always exhibit some organization. The primary questions are which system dominates and to what extent does it does it support and sustain human life. For a battlefield littered with dead and dying soldiers is something of a natural system teeming with vultures, flies and bacteria. Moreover, at a minimum everything in the biosphere is a part of that total system, so there is also the issue of boundaries for the polity.
To elaborate my conception of the polity as a natural living system, I offer an analogy with the human body, comparing individual persons to individual cells. In the body there are systems such as the circulatory system which has a certain structure but in whose function every cell participates. They all receive oxygen and nutrients while disposing of wastes via that structure which also provides the means to protect cells from disease and to heal them if they are harmed. Different cells primarily belong to different systems, but their functions are all integrated into the whole system, with all functioning to sustain themselves, each other and the whole. The system that correlates to government is the nervous system which is literally the nerve center of the body that coordinates diverse functions, is the repository of habits and makes decisions. In addition, it performs an enforcement function for the body which is pain. The feeling or threat of pain is a signal for the body to avoid certain actions which if committed would be punished with pain.
Comparing the government of a community to the nervous system of a body, it is seen that as long as the body lives, unless on artificial life-support, that system functions to some degree. So with government: it may be very corrupt or even so deranged that it amounts to virtual anarchy. Moreover, as long as a body or a community live, they are systems which also may be in very damaged, degraded or corrupted states. Impaired parts no longer function in support of other parts, but possibly in opposition to them. Failure to heal tends to produce a cascading effect among parts that causes more damage and ultimately death of the body.
For the body to live and perform all its functions its parts must properly function, that is, be healthy. Likewise with a community which is a living system. The community as a whole is in good condition insofar as its parts which consist of its members, are also in good condition. Government serves to coordinate the functioning of the parts to maintain their health and that of the whole, and it is good government insofar as it is successful in doing this. In my model the most immediate level of government is local participatory democracy which corresponds in a body to the ultimate participation of every cell in the functioning of the nervous system. With government the relationship is not totally reciprocal because it has distinct enforcement authority over the parts.
Although participatory democracy includes some officials in addition to all the actively engaged citizens, ultimately the government is the people who ideally have no need for heavy official regulation and policing of themselves. A formal structure of laws, justice and enforcement does exist, but the well-being of the community is sustained by what Rousseau called, after the three conventional kinds of laws – fundamental, civil and criminal, the fourth
…the most important of all. It is engraved in neither marble nor brass, but in the hearts of its citizens; it forms the true constitution of the state: it renews its vigor every day, and when other laws become obsolete or ineffective, it restores or replaces them; it keeps the people in the spirit of its institutions, and gradually substitutes the force of habit for that of authority. I am referring to morals, customs, and above all, public opinion. This category of laws is unknown to our political theorists, but it is essential to the success of all the others; the great lawgiver concerns himself with it in secret, while seeming to limit himself to specific regulations that are only the sides of the arch, whereas morals, slower to develop, eventually form its unshakable keystone.28
I have presented a picture of the ideal democracy in which all the people continuously uphold the social contract that I have described. In the original story the social contract was a once and done affair that established the government as a distinct entity with authority over the people. Compared with that model my version which focuses on individual citizens’ continuous responsibility initially appears rather loose and informal. I will therefore now fill in some details which make it firmer and address human imperfection. Returning to my analogy with the body I want to stress that while the whole is ultimately indivisible, its systems, the nervous system in particular, function in an orderly fashion. Likewise, there is structure and orderly process in government, that is, rule according to law. Meanwhile, humans are unlike cells in the body in that they can choose whether or not to act in the interest of the community and even in their own self-interest. In the Christian tradition this distinction has been attributed to man’s free will. Aristotle, who was fundamentally a biologist, saw natural variation among members of the same species, finding some imperfect in a multitude of different ways. His science reflected the general view of the Greeks who were notable for their great attention to education to not only remedy human deficiencies but to nurture excellence.
Like the original one-time social contract, my continuously renewed one is completely voluntary. It is people’s ongoing commitment to each other to support the proper operation of their government, which is a function of all the citizens some of whom are officials. This contrasts with a current misconception of the social contract – that it is a unilateral obligation of the government to the people. Although my ideal social contract is a commitment of each individual with every other individual, in reality it is likely to only be such a pledge between some individuals and some others. Hopefully this includes most of them and all of the officials. Their engagement does entail an obligation to seek to include all of the people in the commitment. While in my analogy the nervous system is the principal one coordinating all the others, this function is in fact somewhat shared by the others. Similarly, insofar as the people are the government, it is their adherence to the social contract that keeps the community functioning well overall.
Within living systems some parts inevitably fail. My social contract involves a responsibility to restore such parts to their proper function. Criminals, for example, must be rehabilitated. There will also be irreparable defects which may be congenital or acquired which living systems naturally deal with. If someone loses the use of their right hand, they will adapt by making new use of their left and other parts of their body. Assistance to disabled people is therefore an obligation under my social contract, along with effort to prevent people from not joining the contract, violating it or becoming unable to honor it.
In reality the effect of my social contract is a matter of degree – how many people commit to it and how thoroughly they do so. This commitment is also the measure of the legitimacy of the government of which it is the foundation. Indeed, this is the measure of the legitimacy of any democratic government. Turning again to my analogy with the body we know that the health of a body is a matter of degree and probably none can be judged to be in perfect health. Imperfection is obviously inevitable, but like a body, the polity must guard against threats to its deterioration, recognizing that the failure of any part threatens or impairs all the other parts and the whole. This fact is vividly illustrated in the spread of COVID-19 by people who refuse to follow public health safety practices.
So far my account of the new social contract has only defined it in terms of a natural system. Also included in the original story were declarations that all humans are equal and they possess certain fundamental freedoms. The systems model of nature establishes human equality on the ground that people are living units of a single kind that all together constitute the community. Being parts of that community involves them exercising their common rationality as officially equal citizens in the democratic government of the polity. Like cells in a body that all ultimately participate in systems, notably the nervous system, people are all parts of the polity whose function is to ensure the well-being of every part and the whole indivisible body. Regarding freedom, my model gives the highest priority to the freedom to live. In today’s neoliberal system, which is the wreckage of classical liberal democracy, people’s right to life is infringed upon in a multitude of ways. It wasn’t so long ago that broad environmental, labor and civil rights protections were in effect, and they now need to be not only restored but strengthened. My social contract significantly increases people’s freedom from what it is now. For one thing it secures the freedom for everyone to fully participate in collective self-government which ensures each citizen’s rational autonomy and freedom from factions. I will show in the next section that it ultimately provides everyone the freedom to realize the range of their potential and further that it frees people from injury and oppression by others as it simultaneously frees the perpetrators from the compulsion to commit such acts. Finally it frees people to affirm life, overcome alienation and to reject inauthenticity and banality.
Government isn’t the whole story because, as I have indicated in my historical review, particular models of political economy have furnished the conditions for the exercise of first liberal, then neoliberal freedom. Of course this last is not freedom at all but slavery in innumerable respects. The new social contract requires a new political economy which provides the material framework for people to live full lives as essential parts of so many living systems and thus enjoy maximum human freedom. I now turn to a description of that model, emphasizing that it embodies the ideal democracy. Initially presenting it as a utopia or vision to guide our action I then bring it down to earth by urging the implementation of several proposals on the table now. Preempting the likely objection that it is utopian, I remind the reader that all the models I have discussed – classical liberal political philosophy, classical liberal political economy, neoliberalism, not to mention the Founders’ vision – are all pictures of perfect systems that have never been fully realized and never will be. They serve, however the indispensable function of providing goals to strive toward, enabling people to map and follow routes to get as close as they can to the destination.
A New Political Economy
My method is reason in the service of life. Climate change and colossal environmental destruction are urgent existential threats underway now which demand an all-out global effort to reverse the trend. A plan for global sustainability created by David C. Korten, founder and editor of Yes! magazine, is presented in his Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. He asserts that significant degrowth is required to establish a new economic system consisting of “coherent, self-reliant local economies that function as subsystems of their local ecosystems.”29 A key element in his agenda is changing the way that money is created. Presently it originates as debt, compelling businesses to always be expanding, increasing their revenue and incurring more debt in order to pay off the principal and interest of the earlier debt. This process, he declares, creates an inexorable growth imperative. His book focuses on the economic aspects of the model, so my purpose now is to explain how his concept embodies the systematic character of life and therefore provides the economic structure for democracy and freedom in the future.
As the Founders were crafting a government for the nation Thomas Jefferson found in the town meeting democracy of New England “the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation.”30 Decades later de Toqueville observed democracy in America flourishing particularly in small towns. Where people live is their principal habitat, providing the real estate which they either own or rent, their water and air. It is also where they vote to elect local, state and national officials. Civic life for better or worse is rooted in the community, and for this reason should be its focal point.
Bowling Alone explores the array of ways in which community life in America has lost the cohesiveness that de Toqueville judged was essential for democracy. That consisted in vigorous civil society with a multitude of local organizations and amiable social relationships. Korten’s model is the means for restoring that. His local productive and sustainable economies serve local consumers and rely on small locally owned businesses which should also be mostly employee-owned. In them there is little wealth inequality. Overall, human interaction is community-centered and therefore diametrically opposed to the current state in which most people commute, sometimes far away, to work and likewise travel out of their communities for shopping and entertainment. Presently people know few, if any, other people who live around them; their lives are geographically scattered and, as neoliberal bundles of enterprises, fragmented and conflicted. One of the primary impacts of the competitive global neoliberal economy is the destruction of local economies as people are now mostly employed by entities in the system that contribute to growing global business consolidation, inequality, deterioration of public services and infrastructure. This system has immediate negative environmental effects on everyone. Whether they commute to work, are employed in a fossil fuel-related industry, sell imported or plastic-packaged goods or do any other kind of work, everyone is a part of the climate change and environmental problems. In the sustainable community, people cease to harm themselves and their families as they earn their livings.
Not only does work in the neoliberal system serve to maintain and grow that system, it has scant meaning and provides little or no satisfaction for people. Mostly people work to earn the money which they then spend in the consumer economy for necessities plus goods and services to gratify desires created by marketing. This highly artificial system with its extreme division of labor contrasts with the character of living systems in which every function directly serves life and virtually all potential functions are actualized. In the life-centered economy I am describing people’s work is diversified. Marx envisioned an economy in which one might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner . . . without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic.”31 My model further promotes craftsmanship, in which a worker creates their product from start to finish and, as Marx also said, “sees himself” in the result.32 Finally it includes much meaningful, indeed essential, non-work activity for everyone.
In our time extreme division of labor is defended as providing for the fulfillment of individual potential epitomized by Mozart or Shakespeare. Frank and Cooke point out that the best-selling authors of our time are the likes of Danielle Steele who owes her success to promoters in a rigged market. Shakespeare, whose literary genius has never since been surpassed, lived long before culture became dominated by big business and institutions. It has been noted that the Bard, who had only seven years of formal education, would today be hopelessly lacking the credentials required to teach high school or college English. Historically many of the greatest people excelled in diverse fields. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.
One of the chief human potentialities to be more fully actualized in the new order is everyone’s faculty of reason. Currently people’s minds are occupied with micro-specialized work and consumer activity, especially forms involving media. The followers of Locke’s brand of liberalism reserved the light of reason mostly for the republic’s officials, assuming that it would break forth among the citizenry should it fail those leaders. In Rousseau’s model state citizens governed themselves with the exercise of universal rationality. Under my proposed social contract citizens make rational decisions with reference to themselves as private individuals and as parts of their community. At the same time these decisions reflect their interests as citizens who are parts of the polity. Finally, vital consideration is given to the larger living wholes of which their community and polity form parts.
My understanding of the way of nature that puts life first draws very different conclusions than those of classical liberalism. While they agree on human equality, mine asserts that people’s essential functions are to serve themselves and their community, ultimately the world. Further, in virtue of the human faculty of reason, nature points to government chiefly by participatory democracy. Korten’s sustainable community model, which is now necessary for human survival, is the perfect structure for it.
Participatory democracy is in fact alive and well today in Vermont town halls. By state law all municipalities hold them one day each year. All registered voters may attend, elect local officials and vote on municipal and school policies and budgets. Drawing on data collected over decades at hundreds of town meetings Frank M. Bryan concludes that real democracy requires small jurisdictions and in-person assemblies. He notes that town halls have passed resolutions supporting the ERA and a nuclear weapons freeze, and majorities in many of the rural communities vote for Bernie Sanders. In them there is real debate over matters, which may become heated, but after the town hall people return to their normal and usually close interaction where civility prevails.33
For the same reason that each individual has a role as a citizen in their community, they also have roles as citizens of larger political units. The sustainable communities in the model are not isolated and closed but rather have economic and political interconnections. Larger jurisdictions cannot practically operate by participatory democracy and thus require representative democracy which still provides for a high level of citizen engagement. Not only to restore the environment but also for human well-being this model must be implemented globally, the product of an international people’s movement which establishes some measure of global governance as well.
Up to this point I have mostly described the world as so many three-dimensional systems. Yet as I indicated earlier, the fourth dimension, time, is perhaps the most important one for life. To live is to continue to live, both for individuals and systems. Sustainability does not simply mean enduring over some time, it means persisting within nature’s scale of time – very many generations and ultimately eons. Sustainable communities therefore operate with an indefinitely long-term outlook that also applies to their governance. Our classical liberal political philosophers and the Founders devoted particular attention to the means by which their models of government would persist. As nature is trans-generational, so are polities, thus as each generation must conserve natural resources for future ones, so must they act to preserve their democracy.
Much of our present trouble can be traced to the current attitude toward time. As he has decried the liquid quality of human relationships, Bauman has highlighted how the modern short-term perspective now approaches instantaneity, an orientation he calls “pointillist time.”34 This is certainly a product of consumer culture and its premier marketing instrument media. The infosphere disseminates items to be consumed now which will be displaced by new ones later today, possibly only seconds later, or certainly by tomorrow. Brands continually push short-lived hot products as well. All of this is marketed especially by the biggest players with the objective of maintaining consumers in a state of intense stimulation and craving the next new sensation.
Ideas are no exception to this regime with a simple example being the Bush to Obama voters in 2008 and the Obama to Trump voters in 2016. In our time ideas are consumer fads mostly pitched in winner-take-all or at least rigged markets. Ever-shrinking turnaround time reduces the content of communication, which is increasingly measured in mere numbers of characters. Much material is therefore just ephemeral bytes hurled against the backdrop of the neoliberal system. Insofar as they arise at all, big elaborate ideas are pulverized into dust and rapidly blown away.
The model of sustainability that I advocate is a comprehensive vision that calls for people to grasp it fully and make a long-term commitment to bringing it about. This places me outside the neoliberal marketplace of ideas and denies me the validation of the market which the agents who manage it attribute to the “wisdom of the crowd.” Absence of their blessing is actually proof that my model liberates people from the tyranny of neoliberalism’s idea market and restores their rational autonomy.
As they enjoy independence of thought the considerable self-sufficiency of local communities in my proposal also makes their members interdependent in a multitude of respects. Such range and diversity of community interaction is the very thing that de Toqueville identified as the crucial ingredient in America’s democracy and the feature whose absence Putnam claimed had virtually destroyed it by the year 2000. Now, as in 2021 the threat of fascism is high, we urgently need to create inclusive multi-dimensional human bonds within a system of green participatory democracy.
Presently there are two basic views of government: those on the Left say, “Government works for you,” while those on the Right say, “Government suppresses our freedom.” Both define government as separate from the people who, in the first case, constitute consumers of services provided by the government and in the second represent victims of government abuse. In my view both are wrong, for I maintain that government is the people. Participatory democracy is all the people together making public decisions. This means every person participating as an independent citizen and not as a member of an interest group or faction. For as each citizen is a constituent part of the governing body their citizenship is an aspect of the unitary living person who has multiple functions and, in their capacity as a citizen, serve their several interests. This further means being parts of other living systems and therefore serving the interests of those as well. The community itself is one such system which includes organic parts, intersects with other systems and forms parts of larger ones. As citizens individuals therefore serve all of those in addition to themselves. With their diverse functions and particular positions in space and time they all have unique, though intersecting and interdependent perspectives which they express in the exercise of participatory democracy. They also privately function as organic parts of the community and larger living systems, observing the morality of which Rousseau spoke as they act to sustain themselves, the community, the polity and the world.
One of the defects of interest group politics and citizenship by proxy is that they reduce people to uniform numbers, which they are in their capacity as members of particular identity groups. Such depersonalization, indeed profiling, has spurred two forms of reaction. Groups now often spotlight personal stories in which members relate their individual experiences relative to the groups’ specific purposes. Meanwhile, Blacks involved in the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter have argued that women’s experience differs significantly for Blacks and whites and that there are many other issues intertwined with the single one of police murdering Blacks. They have laid bare the system of racism that affects every person through education, employment, healthcare, housing and more. All these different strands of the whole fabric intersect in every individual, oppressing Blacks and conferring privilege on whites. As they affect each person they are at the same time public issues for each citizen who should therefore participate in regard to all the individual, shared, simple and complex issues in their personal and public lives.
The sustainable world I am describing is an ideal in which citizens resolve issues through formal democratic processes. Yet as Rousseau, de Toqueville and Putnam stress, much of the practice of democracy is informal – social interaction in a variety of contexts. Having immediate vital stakes in the community, people naturally talk about matters among themselves. This is a necessarily universal activity not only to realize people’s full citizenship but to reduce division. John Stuart Mill believed that liberty required conversation between people who disagreed.35 Vance Packard’s 1958 The Status Seekers describes how patterns of socialization at that time divided people. In regard to Jews he observed that the best mixed relationships were between people who visited each other in their homes as friends. He wrote, “Personal friendship appears to be a more powerful motive than any abstract sense of justice in getting barriers removed. And friendship can take root only where there is informal intermingling.”36 Democracy makes citizens equal, and green democracy under my social contract ensures economic security for all while eliminating significant wealth inequality. At the same time racial, ethnic and cultural variety is essential in communities, just as resilience of natural systems requires rich diversity of species. Packard lamented the dull sameness of American social groupings which tends toward insularity and intolerance.
How people talk to each other in the informal and formal practice of my green democracy is quite different from the present one-dimensional manner. Apart from dogmatic sound bytes, public discourse is woefully fragmented. To give one example, consideration of transportation tends to be just about roads and the current modes, so highway expansion continues unabated. Regard for climate isn’t part of that conversation except insofar as it includes electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles, both of which would ultimately require a vast supply of energy, only a fraction of which could be produced from renewable sources. Marcuse contrasted the one-dimensional form with dialectical discourse à la Hegel and Marx that seeks out contradictions in understanding as well as Plato’s more eclectic style. He took particular issue with Aristotelian logic which has dominated Western thought for millennia and profoundly shaped Enlightenment thought. Rational discourse in green democracy must be thoroughly logical, but its chief distinction is its very broad scope. It doesn’t isolate topics, but looks far, wide and deep to find the connections between them. In our current system the vehicles of public policy are legislative bills, executive orders and judicial decisions, the vast majority of which are very narrowly focused. Multi-purpose actions mostly aim to balance the gains and losses of opposing interest groups. Rarely, if ever, do we see officials advancing creative and unitary solutions that satisfy everyone. Our adversarial politics has the effect of making the condition that created the conflict continually worse. That condition is precisely the total system’s thoroughgoing non-sustainability, which multidimensional rationality that puts life first overcomes.
In addition to being extremely limited in range, conversation today has a disagreeably impersonal character. We find that, as Henry Miller said, “We do not talk – we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.”37 Then there is the conceit of “critical discourse,” that detached, disembodied style standard in the academy and professions which has a particularly universal and authoritarian tone. The discourse of green democracy is dialogue, which is the respectful exchange of information and ideas. In dialogue, Nietzsche said, everything that one says is “…in strict consideration of the other person to whom he is speaking…” It sharply contrasts with the common performative style in which “…it is as if the ground bass of all speech were: ‘That is who I am; that is what I say; now you think what you will about it!’”38
Rational discourse and decision-making in green democracy further depends on true information. Our current vast universe of information is a product of the total neoliberal system, and though a great deal of it is superfluous or harmful, much of it would be valuable, even vital to the green democracy. Shifting to the new order requires that we discard the unsustainable apparatus while retaining and improving upon what serves us. From the start of the Industrial Revolution humans have allowed technology to become the master which enslaves them. The very idea of rationality however demands that people can and must control technology for the good of man and now all of life. Managing information is but one area in which people must determine what is the optimum scale of human activity in the future.
Apart from physiological impairment all humans possess the faculty of reason, but how they use it depends on education. The current state of the world, America in particular, is a miserable commentary on our educational practices. Alongside our public education there is a good amount of private education that includes evangelical religious instruction which promotes zealotry àla Betsy DeVos and Amy Coney Barrett. K-12 and higher education in general are, as Henry Giroux has maintained, quintessential neoliberal structures whose primary function is to program people to participate in the competitive neoliberal economy, selecting some and eliminating others. The abysmal level of civic awareness and involvement among young people speaks volumes about the system’s priorities. Such disengagement is also reinforced by the segregation of formal education from the rest of society.
In the green community there is much integration of functions such as that advocated by Grace Lee Boggs who led the effort to establish a neighborhood economy in Detroit following the 1967 riots. She urged including students in the community’s productive and civic activities, indeed enlisting “the tremendous energies and creativity of schoolchildren in rebuilding and respirating our communities and our cities now, in the present.”39 Although Rousseau the romantic believed in inherent human virtue and wisdom, giving Émile the subtitle On Education, there is certainly a substantial place for academic instruction in skills, content and values that prepares students for full participation in green participatory democracy. I have outlined this new order, which I confess is an ideal, but which must be our guiding vision as we strive to save human life, democracy and the planet. Obviously change will take time, so, having defined our destination, the next step is to decide how to approach it. The number one priority must be to forever keep the goal in view. Presently there are innumerable limited projects aiming at greater democracy and sustainability, but they don’t add up to a single vision, much less the one that I have presented as necessary. Many of these conflict and further involve major concessions, reflecting the persistence of one-dimensional thinking. A prime example is the objective of 100% renewable energy that omits the fact that solar equipment manufacture currently relies on scarce natural materials and generates much toxic waste. Its scenario also leaves everything else untouched, that is, the rest of the planet-killing human environmental footprint. Declaring that the climate crisis “changes everything,” Naomi Klein is one of a growing number of thinkers who insist that we must remake the whole system.
With our destination always in mind, we may proceed to lay out the pathway to it. Urgent climate action is imperative, and the most sensible immediate course of action is the Green New Deal. One of its many virtues is that it employs Modern Monetary Theory for its funding, thus meeting Korten’s objection to borrowing money into existence. MMT has the federal government create money to invest in such things as infrastructure, healthcare and education. Although the 2020 election has somewhat dimmed the prospects of the GND and disclosed a fairly benighted electorate, the bright spots are some cities and towns, especially those that have embarked on local initiatives for clean energy such as Ready for 100.
As the federal government remains relatively conservative, that reality continues to shape citizens’ attitudes toward it. Gridlock or regression at the national level impel local action, and this is the premier advantage of green participatory democracy. When it comes to their water, their land and their air, people of all political persuasions tend to support conservation and their local government’s protection of these resources. Grassroots activists now firmly understand that there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations between community members who share their individual difficulties and can organize for collective resolution.
This brings us to the practical first step: people talking to each other rationally and multi-dimensionally. Changing the culture to make this widespread and routine requires getting the next generation on the right track with innovation in education. The other major challenge to this plan is the identity group and formal organization mentality. Racial and ethnic groups are more trusting of their own, and organizations are often narrowly-focused cloakroom communities. Thankfully there is a now a surge of leaders of color moving to elevate their followers to full and permanent civic engagement. Insofar as groups have limited objectives, they must advance to coordinating with each other for unitary changes that benefit all.
Issues that communities can unite on are water, air, land and energy. In his 2015 documentary Time to Choose Charles Ferguson declared that the number one global threat of climate change is the loss of clean fresh water. From widespread lead pollution exposed following the Flint disaster to persistent extreme drought in western states, oil pipelines, fracking, PFAS and more, local water supplies need citizens’ attention now. Meanwhile the pandemic lockdown revealed how much business as usual pollutes our air and damages our health. There are many things that communities can do to reduce their air pollution, which has the worst impacts on poor people of color. The issue of land relates to land use and housing, with concern for the last starting to explode as an eviction crisis unfurls. Land is earth, which is the source of our food. To address growing food insecurity people must boost local food production which may include community gardens and urban farms. With the recent massive Russian hack we are reminded of the extreme vulnerability of our electrical grid and the urgent need to decentralize generation and transmission, therefore making now the perfect time to shift to local green energy. The foregoing are issues for which citizens can come together immediately to move toward green participatory democracy.
Another high priority is electing enlightened people to office, starting at the lowest level and moving them up the ladder to higher positions. Republicans have long surpassed Democrats in recruiting candidates. Since 2016 Democrats have become better but still need improvement in the way of cultivating the right values in them as well as the voters. As we see with Trump, Bernie Sanders and Biden, leadership is worth a lot as people are inclined to uncritically follow the person in the spotlight. It is vital to elect candidates committed to green democracy while building support for it among voters through grassroots activity.
Ours is an extremely challenging time, for as we progress toward our vision there is enormous defensive work to do as well. Following the record voter turnout of 2020 Republicans are determined to heavily suppress the vote in future elections. Also on their agenda are rigging the next redistricting and obtaining extreme right-wing Supreme Court decisions. To achieve progressive goals we must defeat these attempts, fighting on several fronts at once. This is yet another reason why people should understand separate issues as parts of one big picture.
Until we get beyond adversarial democracy with warring interest groups dominated by lobbyists and big campaign donors we must unite on the urgent priorities. This does not mean abandoning the agenda I have set out but paying attention to the details to ensure that we keep on track. Thus, for example, while unions require solidarity vis-à-vis management in the short term, their ultimate goal should be worker-owned enterprise. This is an objective that can be pursued by workers at every level now. So much responsibility and power have been given to the federal government, and as media consolidation and loss of local coverage have magnified its stature, people mostly look to it for answers. At present we do need major action by the federal government, but we must also recognize that it is like the figure in the book of Daniel which has a head of gold and feet of clay. One man nearly caused it to topple! Real progress requires transforming the culture, and this involves changing citizens’ fundamental understanding of freedom. Margaret Thatcher knew this well, saying of her neoliberal program, “the object is to change the heart and soul.”40
The federal government – the creation of the Founders – needs serious repair. My critique of their efforts does not imply that that we should ditch the Constitution. On the contrary, we mostly need to restore some implicit original limits and expand others. Too many fundamental rights have been stretched beyond recognition, for example, money is speech, corporate personhood, restricting the use of property is “taking” property, owning AK-47s is protected by the Second Amendment and so forth. These are just a few prominent examples of how the original understanding of freedom has come to undermine true freedom. The local participatory democracy that I have advocated would obviously depend on federal and state laws as well as international agreements reciprocally conditioned by robust democracy across the country and the world. There is much fundamental law-making potential, for example green amendments to state constitutions and community bills of rights. In our country there is a tradition of protecting the government from the people to the point of aggressively excluding them from it. Our predecessors were doubtful that civic virtue might prevail within the population and went to considerable lengths to establish institutional safeguards. Yet their basic conception of freedom was the genie they released from the bottle that has lately almost destroyed the whole shebang. With widespread corruption among leaders, especially those who enslave their followers with Orwellian representations of freedom, it is up to the people to mount a full-spectrum mobilization to secure real freedom now.
The triple crisis of our time – climate change, pandemic and subversion of democracy – is the long-term consequence of basing our political order on the classical liberal view of freedom. Persistent and growing assault on people’s lives and rights as citizens amounts to anything but liberty. I have shown that at present people are further enslaved by their identification with branded identity groups, which ultimately includes the total neoliberal system. As a guarantor of freedom the Founders’ approach is obsolete. I have offered an updated view of freedom that entails a particular model of economic and political organization. The economic structure provides a response to climate change and urgent environmental threats overall including zoonotic disease. It is a model for long-term sustainability, assuring people the most essential freedom to live. This structure further supports the maximum freedom of citizens to govern themselves through robust democracy.
For Locke the social contract was formed in the dim and distant mythical past, granting citizens the right to overthrow a government that violated it. Rousseau, in contrast, saw it as enduring but requiring people to continually honor it in the day-to-day practice of democracy. Waiting to repair a system until it is utterly broken is no way to operate a government. In reality people expect the social contract to be continuously upheld, and the way to make this happen is for the people to themselves actively be the government.
The fatal flaw of the original social contract story was its claim that the human animal possesses virtually unlimited God-given natural freedom or rights over which the contract imposed only slight specific legal restrictions. It was the product of an historical period that was rapidly expanding individual opportunities on a vast scale. That trend has continued up to our time, culminating in today’s nihilistic demands for personal freedom. Inflamed by Trump, slaves to right-wing extremist ideology have become militant in their determination to share the unbounded freedom that he flaunts which now infamously includes freedom from retribution for his crimes.
In my account of freedom there are no individual natural rights of any kind given by God, existing in a pre-civilized state or acquired at birth. Rather, there is the fact of life which imposes certain conditions on human existence. Freedom consists in living with these conditions being fulfilled, for example, breathing clean air and drinking clean water, plus creating and maintaining the conditions for life by engaging in sustainable economic activity and robust democracy. The historic social contract version makes the private exercise of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness primary. This has led many people to profoundly neglect or totally ignore their responsibility as citizens to ensure that their government represents and serves them, having instead, in Gibbon’s words, “insensibly sunk into the languid indifference of private life.”41 My approach makes it absolutely clear that freedom necessarily entails full civic engagement.
The recent Supreme Court decisions that prioritize religious freedom over public health in the pandemic are stunning illustrations of the inverted values of our time. For me the purpose of political freedom is to secure life. I have mentioned slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Water Is Life,” but who can doubt that life is the highest consideration for most people? The premier issue in the 2000 presidential election was Medicare coverage for prescription drugs, and Obama won in 2008 with “quality affordable healthcare for all.” Trump promised a healthcare plan to replace Obamacare in 2016, then Biden won by focusing attention on the pandemic. With the economic damage from the disease the necessities of life, specifically food and housing, are also now major issues.
That life should be the objective of freedom goes without question. I have explained that we are not to view life as bare individual survival, but rather as broad and full, that is, also involving sustaining the environment and actualizing the range of human potentiality. The latter especially means rational thinking and robust civic engagement. One lives freely to the extent that they are an active citizen applying their rational faculties to the affairs of a sustainable and democratic polity. Still, citizenship is not possible as a solo act but requires numbers of citizens finding or establishing agreement plus dialogue with the rest. One-dimensional speech and thought must be set aside to achieve comprehensive and creative public policies. The highest freedom consists precisely in citizens first talking, then working together in the interest of all of their lives and all of life.
I have sketched the ideal political economic structure for restoring democracy and freedom, addressing climate change and the present environmental devastation, concluding with some specific steps to take toward it. As I write, defenders of the status quo and slaves to the Trump brand remain resolute, even emboldened, making our situation both complicated and dire. Attention to our local communities is critical in this time of near iron-clad loyalty to political brands. People on opposing sides do unite over an array of local issues, and such association provides opportunity to establish human connections and broader dialogue. An increasingly valuable tool in electoral campaigns is friend to friend communication. With the 2021 election cycle beginning and 2022 approaching this technique will be vital for penetrating brand barriers in individuals’ networks. There remains the obstacle of people’s availability, as their time is taken up with work, commuting, attention to family and recovery from the grind that crushes their spirit. This is no accident but rather a core strategy for keeping people in bondage to the masters of global neoliberalism. It also divides us and keeps our attention on ourselves, the present and immediate gratification. But people must mind the warning that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. They must break free from all the branded mindsets and recognize the extreme urgency of stepping forward in their communities, reaching out to their neighbors and asserting themselves as citizens, collectively as the sovereign, to secure the future of their children, their homes, humanity, the planet, our democracy and freedom.
1. David A. Fahrenthold, “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005,” Washington Post, October 8, 2016.
2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.
3. John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government.
4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality; The Social Contract.
5. Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, §6.
6. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
7. Douglas Keay, “Interview with Margaret Thatcher,” Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987.
8. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, (New York: Norton, 1979).
9. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2000).
10. Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society, (New York: The Free Press, 1995).
12. Bauman, Consuming Life (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007), 78.
13. Robert N. Bellah, Steven M. Tipton, Ann Swidler, Richard Madsen and William M. Sullivan, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 221.
14. Naomi Klein, No Logo: 10TH Anniversary Edition, (New York: Picador, 2009).
15. Patrick Radden Keefe, “How Michael Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success,” The New Yorker, December 27, 2018.
16. Josephine Harvey, “Michael Cohen on Why Republicans Support Trump: ‘We’re Stupid,’” Huffington Post, September 17, 2020.
17. Thomas B. Edsall, “Trump is Staking Out His Own Universe of ‘Alternate Facts,’” New York Times, May 13, 2020.
18. Bauman, Consuming Life, 76.
19. Bauman, Consuming Life, 111.
20. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 158-60.
21. Georg Simmel “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1976).
22. Eric Hobsbawm, “Identity Politics and the Left,” New Left Review, May-June, 1996.
23. Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1956), 94.
24. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 14.
25. George Washington, “Farewell Address.”
26. Michael Tomasky, “There’s a Word for Why We Wear Masks, and Liberals Should Say It,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 2020.
27. Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Section 1253a.
28. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book II, Chapter XII.
29. David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2010), 169.
30. Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.
31. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society Translated and Edited by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1967),425.
32. Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in Easton and Guddat, 295.
33. Frank M. Bryan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
34. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 114.
35. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II.
36. Vance Packard, The Status Seekers: An Exploration of Class Behavior in America and the Hidden Barriers that Affect You, Your Community, Your Future, (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1958), 281-2.
37. Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, (New York:New Directions, 1945), 109.
38. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Section Six, Aphorism # 374.
39. Grace Lee Boggs, “Paradigm Shift in our Concept of Education,” Speech, State Theatre, Detroit, MI, August 20, 2002.
40. Ronald Butt, “Interview with Margaret Thatcher,” Sunday Times, May 1, 1981.
41. Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 2.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phila Back is an issue and electoral campaign organizer and independent philosopher. Issues that she has worked on include land use and preservation, water, air, energy, mining, endangered species, public lands, climate, education, fair trade, healthcare, campaign finance reform and voting rights. She has participated in an anti-poverty commission, revitalization plan committee and community garden project in Reading, Pennsylvania.
In 2015 and 2016 Back published a series of articles on neoliberalism in The Lehigh Valley Vanguard.
This work is the product of decades of training, experience and thought about how to get large numbers of people engaged in the democratic process. She was a candidate for delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention pledged to Bernie Sanders.
Back has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Reed College.