Seeking Sources of Progress

In the 19th century Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) developed a theory to explain historical development as a dynamic process. This not only enforces the concept that conflicts are not bad, but good for generating understanding. Hegel introduced a system to study history called ‘a dialectic’ – a progression in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement with the development of freedom and the consciousness of freedom. The Hegelian dialectic consists of a thesis in which someone wants more control over a group of people. This activity would cause an antithesis or reaction from the people, such as, panic, anger or fear. The final stage would be the synthesis in which a group seeks sources of progress – a process that results in the synthesis or solution to the problem – that is very close to what that person or organization wanted to begin with.

Initially the Enlightenment was a world of alienated culture. It was a society completely lacking in honesty and sincerity, in which people survived by adopting artificial roles, making themselves agreeable to those with power and money, fawning on the rich, and using their intelligence only to be amusing and witty to each other. In such a world of razor-sharp wit and withering irony, anyone with serious beliefs and deeply held convictions will find themselves the butt of jokes and ridicule. Hegel noted both sides of the dispute emerged as a reaction against the materialistic world of culture, where social success meant more than any concern for the truth.

As a result, anyone dissatisfied with such frivolous and empty existence will tend to detach themselves from such a society and form a more serious community of their own. One such community would be those who seek in religious faith for those values and certainties, which are lacking in the social world. Those who seek to attain stable and certain truths through reason and rationality; science and logic would form another group. The philosophers of the French Enlightenment, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, would be such a group. Hence the philosopher and the pious believer have much in common. The dispute between them will review, even further, the extent of their similarity. A pious Christian and an apostle of the new ideas of the Enlightenment, a devotee of humanist reason, represent the two parties to this discussion.

The Enlightenment regards religion as composed of superstition, prejudice and error claims Peter Benson. It sees the Christian world as divided into three classes: (1) the mass of naïve people who believe everything they are told, (2) an intellectual group, the priesthood, who teach doctrines they themselves often know to be untrue in order to preserve their own social status, (3) despotic political rulers for whom religion is a useful opium to keep the people quiet. This is the basis of the virulent attacks on the Church by the French Enlightenment thinkers.

Enlightenment sees itself on the side of universality, both universal truths and the universal availability of those truths to everyone. It therefore does not enter into argument with the corrupt priests, but appeals to the common humanity of the mass of the people, attempting to show them the error of the beliefs that have been foisted upon them. Enlightenment therefore appeals to a common level of consciousness between itself and the pious believer. Communication between the two groups is direct and immediate. The ideas of the Enlightenment diffuse into the mass of society and become part of what everyone is talking about. What becomes widespread are the new attitudes toward truth, the new methods of seeking and determining truth (through rational inquiry and observation rather than through authority). When it is a question of the actual content of these truths, the pious believer will defend the claims of the Church, but now using the methods of the Enlightenment to defend religious faith. Hence, for example, there will be archeological research into evidence for the Biblical stories, and philosophical attempts to prove the rationality of biblical beliefs.1

Marx states: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”. By understanding the material conditions of man through history, Marx argues, man can come to understand his social and political conditions. Capitalism, and the competition it entailed, forced the members of society into two groups: workers (the proletariat) and capitalists (the bourgeoisie). The worker himself, valuable merely for his ability to earn wages, Marx writes, now sank “to the level of a commodity”. Marx claims that the political system reinforces such economic conditions, as the capitalists have the means to control government and construct power systems that favor this economic system. However, once members of a society become aware of its inadequacies, and the laws and institutions they had previously accepted unquestioningly were now experienced as fetters, they begin seeking sources of progress for change.2

In the 17th century the Church was the largest institution; while in the 21st century the corporation is the largest institution. Republicans love touting the benefits of trickle-down economics and are still doing it in the debate over tax cuts for the wealthy. The idea is simple: The more money the people on top make, the more the people below will benefit from the dripping down of that prosperity. The hidden agenda here, of course, is the rationalization of inequality. By linking the welfare of working-class Americans directly to the prosperity of the rich, the Republicans can protect the insulated interests of corporations and the wealthy without the fear of backlash. Neoliberal ideology dictates that essentially the best people to clean up the crisis are the same bankers and financiers who created it in the first place, since they clearly embody the best understanding of the shape of the crisis.

Trump installed the wealthiest cabinet ever, supposedly to meet the aspirations of his base – to serve the people instead of a political system that wants to serve itself. Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of Treasury, with his hands on the national tax policy, amassed a fortune during 17 years at Goldman Saks, is the consummate Wall Street insider. During his time running OneWest Bank his business oversaw thousands of home foreclosures in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis. Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, a long-time critic of ‘bad trade deals’ and the decline of manufacturing jobs in America, is from one of the top 300 richest families who run America. Trump’s advisers belong to economic elite who preach neoliberal doctrines which they know to be untrue in order to preserve their own social status.

Efforts are generally made to look at things objectively. Objectively means that which is independent of any particular point of view in order for assumptions or preconceived notions not interfere with our interpretation of events. On the modern rational scheme, both science and morality requires a strictly impartial perspective. Knowing that no individual is fully capable of such impartiality or objectivity, we construct political decision making systems designed to compensate for the inevitable bias. This pivot point of modern politics, science and ethics is responsible for nullifying the individual point of view. Through the influence of money the oligarchs have re-introduced bias into the system. The harshest costs of modern economic practices fall upon ecosystems and populations with little current economic power or value, including generations not yet born. Today many question the notion of the existence of the American dream – whether there is enough progress in their lives.

The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. Poverty is a key factor underlying whether these determinants of health can be obtained. However, the policy of minimal taxes and government continues to create a growing income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society – removing social mobility for most of society. Today’s dialectic would be the tension between those who believe minimal government and regulation provides the best opportunities for individuals to reach their full potential, and those who believe there should be a regulatory apparatus to provide the tools to be used to create greater equality.

To create a thesis it is necessary to bring two groups with essentially opposing views together. The thesis is economic and environment decisions should be made through the lens of the social determinants of health to counter inequity in the system. This activity will create anxiety with those who believe in neoliberal economics – if everyone works hard enough they will succeed, and failure is the result of character weakness. They seek to maintain the status quo. As a consequence of this conflict, a new and third view, the synthesis, arises. Most of the possibilities for a human economy already co-exist in our world; so the task is to build new combinations with a different emphasis, not to repudiate a caricature of the market in the name of a radical alternative. The synthesis or solution – seeking sources of progress – involves redistributive powers of the state to close the economic gap between the rich and the poor.

1 The Dialectics of Faith & Enlightenment (Dec 2016 / Jan 2017)

2 Selections From: The Marx-Engels Reader (1972)

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