The varieties of right-wing authoritarianism

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

“Fascist” has long been a go-to pejorative to describe political enemies, especially for leftists like myself – I recall using it as a youth against hard libertarians like Mike Harris, even though they bore basically no similarity to fascism beyond the bare fact of being right-wing. But in those days there were very few politicians who had the authoritarianism or nativism characteristic of historical fascism. Today there are more – but it’s still rare for them to call themselves fascists. The word isn’t going to go away, and, it appears, neither are the new more-fascist-like breed of politicians and voters. So it’s probably helpful to think on what historical fascism actually was – the people who once actually called themselves fascists.

I got an education on historical fascism in Lisbon a few years ago, when I visited the Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom. The museum was devoted to the dark years 1932-1968 when Antonio de Oliveira Salazar ruled the country, and to the heroic struggles of citizens to fight against his rule – a difficult task when his authoritarianism went as far as the confiscation of typewriters. Salazar had everything I would have considered the hallmarks of fascism: he took dictatorial power over the government with no checks and balances; his não discutimos speech proclaimed there would be no debate over any ideas guiding the country; he had secret police spying on the people to stamp out dissent. None of this surprised me as I read it, until I read one additional thing:

The Fascists opposed Salazar.

Continue reading

Mystics, Marx, and negating the negation

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

The phrase negation of the negation is best known from Karl Marx’s work, as when he uses it to describe capitalist production in Capital. It’s an odd phrase that seems simply redundant in the formal logic taught to analytic philosophers and computer scientists. There, the principle of double negation elimination tells you ¬¬P -> P: that is, the negative of the negative is the positive, and nothing more. Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica say simply: “a proposition is equivalent of the falsehood of its negation.” On that account, to “negate the negation” of something just leaves you with its affirmation, the original thing you were negating: all you’re doing is being unnecessarily wordy, by saying not-not-P when you could have just said P.

But in Marx’s inspiration Hegel, there is much more to the phrase than this redundancy. A great deal of Hegel’s thought proceeds in the kind of three-part progression that introductions to Hegel often call thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (though Hegel never used those terms in that way). When thinking through a particular idea we begin in a first, unquestioned or immediate, position – a prejudice. This idea gets challenged by its opposite, the negation or negative moment. The third and final step is in some ways closer to the first than to the second, but it is crucially different: it takes up the truth of the second within it, transcends and includes it. This is negating the negation: negating here is a process, not a simple inversion or opposite but a rational movement forward. That movement is at the heart of Hegel’s thought.

I was startled recently to encounter the phrase “negation of negation” in a rather different place: the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. At first, Eckhart’s only obvious commonality with Hegel and Marx is that they are all German. But the commonalities go deeper, at least with Hegel. Hegel isn’t obviously a mystic: his logocentrism leaves little room for ineffability or mystery, and leaves him to be disdainful of mystical experience. Yet depending on how one defines mysticism, there is a mystical dimension at least in Hegel’s nondualism, where everything comes back to a spirit or mind (Geist) that is both subject and object, both God and self. And Hegel traces that nondualism directly back to Eckhart himself. In the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel describes Eckhart as having “a thorough grasp of the divine depth” in this passage from Eckhart’s sermons:

Continue reading

Mysticism vs. magic

Tags

, , , , , ,

While lecturing at Stonehill I made a comment about some traditional practice, I don’t remember which, that it was “less mystical and more magical.” Or maybe it was the reverse. What I remember clearly is that, as I was about to move on, one brave and perceptive student raised her hand to ask “Could you maybe explain the difference between magical and mystical?”

I paused for a moment, a little stunned by the reminder that I hadn’t explained that distinction. I was very grateful for the question: of course I should have explained the distinction, how could I have expected them to know it? The question reminded me that the distinction between magic and mysticism is something I tend to take for granted – even though it is not at all obvious to a layperson. It’s also quite important – for the key reason that the claims of mysticism are more likely to be true than those of magic. Or at the least, they are less unscientific – likely to conflict with the evidence of natural science. So it’s a key distinction I keep in mind when I read works like Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip, which argue for viewing the world in ways that go beyond the natural-sceintific.

Continue reading

Introducing Love of All Wisdom on Substack

Tags

, ,

Starting now, for reasons explained below, Love of All Wisdom will be both a blog (as it has always been) and a free Substack newsletter. I will be posting Love of All Wisdom simultaneously on both; this blog site will remain its primary home. If you’re already on Substack, feel free to subscribe. I’d also be happy to have you stay here: I intend all of my post content to be the same on both sites, so you won’t miss anything if you’re subscribed to one or the other (except for comments and possible cross-posts). This week I will kickstart the Substack by copying over a few of my favourite blog posts from the past couple years. After that, the posts will go up at the same time on both. What follows here is the first Substack post, aimed at introducing Love of All Wisdom to a new audience. I post it here for its summing up of what LoAW is and has been about.

Continue reading

Power in anarchism and project management

Tags

, , , , ,

In everyday communities and institutions – families, universities, businesses, clubs – we cannot help but engage in politics, in the sense of influencing or making collective decisions. I think political philosophy does better when it turns its attention to those communities and institutions smaller than the state, where most of our political actions take place: political philosophy should be a philosophy not just of the state but of office politics, of academic politics.

In that regard, I’ve noticed an interesting commonality between two works whose authors likely wouldn’t see themselves as having anything in common: Graeber and Wengrow’s anarchist anthropology The Dawn of Everything, and the standards set out by the Project Management Institute. Graeber and Wengrow look at a wide range of anthropological and archaeological sources on how humans organize their societies; the Project Management Institute examines how an individual (a project manager) can get a group of people to succeed at a collective institutional goal.

To the former (one of whom is the author of Bullshit Jobs), the latter probably looks like a deadening or sinister tool of The Man. To the latter, the former likely looks like a juvenile whining that refuses to sully its hands with getting anything done. Yet both concern themselves with the questions of how non-state institutions can be run: the latter in the day-to-day practice of making those institutions’ projects succeed, the former in imagining the functioning of a world without a state. And so both wind up exploring one core and inescapable concept: power.

Continue reading

Sudden and gradual together

Tags

, , , , , , ,

The past few years have taught me the wisdom in Daoist-influenced traditions of sudden liberation: in a certain way we can improve ourselves by not improving ourselves, through an acceptance of everything, including ourselves, in the present moment. Yet I had had good reason to be frustrated earlier with such traditions – for their rhetoric sometimes implies that that present-moment acceptance is easy, which it is not. It was a long and painful lesson for me learning how hard it is to be good. That made me a longtime advocate of what East Asian Buddhists would call the gradual path, but I increasingly also see the wisdom in its converse, the sudden. Can the two be reconciled?

Continue reading

In praise of the present moment

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

One of the things that helped me realize the need for self-improvement by not-self-improvement was regular practice with the excellent Headspace meditation app, created by a former Tibetan monk named Andy Puddicombe. Headspace is at the epicenter of “McMindfulness”: the app normally charges for access but I get it for free as a work wellness benefit, and this arrangement has made Puddicombe millions of dollars. In turn, the app is a big reason I defend McMindfulness – especially through John Dunne’s hugely helpful distinction between “classical” and “nondual” mindfulness.

That is to say: the core practice in Headspace is noticing your emotions, positive and negative, as they arise, and reacting to them with nonjudgemental acceptance. And you do so, yes, in the present moment. Critics like Ron Purser correctly note that that present-moment focus is not found in classical Indian texts like the Pali suttas or Śāntideva – but Dunne notes that it is found in other premodern Buddhist traditions, like the Tibetan writings of Wangchuk Dorje. And I dare say that that present-moment technique is an improvement: one that does a better job than the classical tradition’s techniques at their shared goal of reducing our suffering.

Continue reading

Self-improvement by not-self-improvement

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Years ago, in a difficult period of my life, I had looked for philosophical help and explicitly found it in Buddhism and not Daoism, rejecting Daoism and its sudden-liberation views in about the strongest possible terms. But that wasn’t the whole story.

I had already been trying to apply the four-stage model of skill development, taught to me by Nancy Houfek, in which one progresses from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence. Trying to find a peaceful mind in those difficult days, I was all too conscious of my own incompetence, and Daoism provided no guidance that I could discern on how one could make the all-important step to conscious competence. But it is eight years later now, eight years I have spent working on my mindfulness through a nightly prayer ritual and, increasingly, meditation. I’ve gotten better at stopping my harmful thoughts when I put my mind to it; I think I’ve acquired a certain degree of conscious competence. The next step seems to be making it a habit, making it unconscious competence. And when it comes to that, the Daoists might have a point.

Continue reading

On f***ing Daoism

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

In previous years I have aimed to provide what are now known as content warnings when my posts contained swear or curse words. But just in the years since LoAW began, English swear words have undergone a striking shift; the formerly shocking F-word has become relatively unremarkable, while a six-letter derogatory term for black people is now regarded with horror. In keeping with the likely shift in audience expectations, in future posts I will be warning only about the new crop of swear words rather than the old. I use this post as an occasion to make this transition because the F-word appears in it quite frequently, as the title indicates. That title is probably the last time I will mark that word with asterisks; the word is uncensored in the text.

My wife’s previous round of cancer treatment, in 2015, was one of the most difficult periods in my life. Near the beginning of it I started describing myself as a Buddhist, based on a mere passing question in her hospital survey. But by the end I had become a practising Buddhist, having derived a great deal of support and comfort from Buddhism and its practices.

In the middle, though, I was still experimenting with a variety of ideas and practices from different traditions. The Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi reminded me of the spiritual benefit of practising scriptural reading, and I turned to multiple traditions for help in that regard. Buddhism proved the most valuable by the end, after a long period of learning from other traditions. Among these, I had a particularly powerful reaction to Daoism – perhaps I should say, against Daoism.

Continue reading

Of races and other castes

Tags

, , , , ,

While studying development sociology at Cornell in my early twenties, I took a trip to see my Marathi family in India. I was pleasantly sipping tea with older relatives whom my father was making conversation with.

“One of Amod’s colleagues in his graduate program is Marathi,” he said. The family members nodded appreciatively and expressed their approval.

“And her name is Rukmini,” he added. The family nodded appreciatively again. “Ah! Rukmini! Very nice.”

Wanting to add to the conversation, I chimed in: “Yes, Rukmini Potdar.”

Suddenly the tone in the room took a dramatic shift. “Oh, Potdar,” one of them spat as they all rolled their eyes and shook their heads. I looked around in bewilderment – what was so wrong with being called Potdar? – but no further explanation came up. The conversation just moved on to different topics.

After we left, I turned to my father. “What happened there?” I asked him. Rukmini was a perfectly nice person and Potdar seemed to me a perfectly nice name. What did they have to object to?

“Well,” he said, “Rukmini is a nice old-fashioned Marathi name, so they appreciated that. But Potdar is a Bania name.”

I had stumbled into the world of modern Indian caste prejudice.

Continue reading