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Diagnosing Sickness of the Healthy, Futures of Socialism.
Released my latest podcast conversation with Peter Frase. We discussed the futures of socialism in the 21st century, universal basic income, and what the social contract of a post-work society might be.
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Adorno & the Forced Swim Test
Theodor Adorno (1903 - 1969) was a German philosopher, part of the influential Marxist group known as The Frankfurt School. This quote of his stuck in my head:
“The only objective way of diagnosing the sickness of the healthy is by the incongruity between their rational existence and the possible course their lives might be given by reason.”
(Adorno, Minima Moralia)
I’ll tweak this a bit: The best way to diagnose the sickness of the healthy is by demonstrating the incongruity between their present lives and the present possibilities.
This is the frame I’d like to take towards all the discourse on capitalism, neoliberalism, post-capitalism - towards the past, present, and future. We don’t need to agree on whether the past 50 years have been fantastic or abysmal. We don’t need to agree on whether things are the best they’ve ever been or the worst they’ll ever be.
But where we can all agree, I think, is that the present situation of living doesn’t reach the potential ways of living available to us. Whether things have been great or terrible, we can do better than the present arrangement.
Now, the “forced swim test”.
Put simply, they drop a rat into a tall glass full of water from which there’s no escape. The longer the rat swims to keep alive, the better said anti-depressants work. Conversely, the quicker the rat gives up swimming (inside a glass from which there’s no escape, that’s causing significant stress and fear), the more depressed it is.
So…let’s examine the thinking here. If I dropped you into a 10-ft deep pool with infinitely high walls from which you couldn’t escape, I’d assess your mental health by how long you continue to frightfully tread water. The quicker you drown, the more depressed you are.
Further, this setup treats your depression as something purely internal to your brain chemistry, rather than, say, a recognition that you’re trapped in an environment of torture. There’s a profound neglect of structural environments in mental dynamics (this sort of research was influential in making the case for antidepressant SSRI’s).
Now, recall Adorno. The rat that continues treading water in an oppressive environment is considered healthy, but this doesn’t feel right. How do we diagnose the sickness of this health? By demonstrating the incongruity between the rat’s situation, and the broader possibilities. For example, there is no need for the rat to be trapped in a water tank. The tank is made of glass, the rat can imagine itself scurrying about on any surface it sees. It is a peculiar form of sickness to adapt to one’s oppressive circumstances.
Consider Krishnamurti’s infamous quote:
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Or consider the difference in behavior between an intelligent rat and a depressed one. A depressed rat will be dropped into the water, kick around briefly, and then give up.
How would an intelligent rat act? If the rat understands its situation, that there’s no escape, and struggling will bring no relief, it will also quickly give up. What’s the point? There’s no difference in behavior between an intelligent rat and a depressed rat.
In fact, this is exactly what started happening! One of the reasons the experiment is being called into question is because rats are realizing that if they just stop swimming, the researchers will scoop them out of the water.
Anyway. Criticism is important, but there’s something more powerful, inclusive, and mobilizing about demonstrating possibilities as a motivating force.
Rather than pointing to the gap between what is and what should’ve been, we can point to the gap between what is and what can be. Just because we devise ways to keep people treading water longer, this doesn’t mean we’re becoming healthier. Making an uncomfortable situation more tolerable is not the kind of progress I’m after. We need more holistic reevaluations of our overall situation. Before we improve our models of health, we’ll need better strategies for diagnosis.
Work With the Hands
I’ve spent a few days buried in redesigning our living room. I staggered a few 5-foot wood planks on some L-brackets to get some more shelving on our big blank white wall (right side of image). After so much writing & podcast work recently, it was invigorating to actually use my hands and build something (the bookcase on the left was quite the fun project).
If any readers are skilled with interior design, we keep moving our couch/chairs around looking for the right setup. All thoughts welcomed!
Society Is a Psychedelic
Set & setting are axiomatic insights into what kinds of conscious experiences we have when taking psychedelics. Why not apply the same logic in a sociological way, to ‘ordinary’ consciousness? Society and the institutions of modern life are the set and setting for the trip of normalcy, the ordinary state of consciousness we’re so accustomed to we forget it’s as dependent upon conditions as an acid trip.
Society itself is then a psychedelic environment - a set and setting - that manifests the mind (the etymological meaning of “psychedelic” is “mind manifesting) in tune with the tapestry of its social, political, economic, and cultural institutions.
As readers of this newsletter will know, I tend to focus on economics as a leverage point that changes the conditions of daily life, thereby changing the kind of trip we’re having.
Psychedelics are not unique in their responsiveness to set & setting. Societal evolution is also the evolution of ordinary consciousness’ set and setting, and through that, consciousness itself. ‘Progress’ is the evolution of conditions that give rise to our states of mind.
I think policies like universal healthcare are important, not because health is itself an end, but because of the way it redesigns the set and setting for our trips of ordinary consciousness. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but poverty buys misery, and misery buys a bad trip.
In K-Punk, Mark Fisher writes:
"The crucial defining feature of the psychedelic is the question of consciousness...If the very fundamentals of our experience, such as our sense of space and time, can be altered, does that not mean that the [economic] categories by which we live are plastic, mutable?”
The Original Podcasts
I recently watched this 1977 interview between Bryan Magee (philosopher and BBC broadcaster who brought philosophy to a wide audience) and Herbert Marcuse (critical theorist of The Frankfurt School).
Interviews in the old days were so good. These are the original podcasts. On a mainstream media outlet, one philosopher trying to popularize the work of another. Long, warm, precise conversations.
Thanks to the infinite variety of Youtube’s recommendation algorithms, I was led from this to a series of lectures by American philosopher Rick Roderick. Roderick has a Southern drawl that makes his voice intoxicating, and turns out, he was one of the most popular philosophy lecturers of the 20th century.
I’m listening to his 8 video series, The Self Under Siege. This lecture on Marcuse is really fantastic:
Podcast with Peter Frase
Speaking with Peter was an absolute delight. He’s the author of Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, and sits on the editorial board of Jacobin Magazine, a leading voice in radical leftist politics. Here are a few of my favorite Jacobin essays:
How to Be an Anticapitalist Today - by Erik Olin Wright
Should We Care About Inequality - by Daniel Zamora
Peter & I explored the present and futures of socialism, in distinction from socialisms of the past. We spoke about how economics creates the social conditions inside which human development occurs, which makes economics a primary educational force in society.
Peter is an expert on UBI, being involved in the debate for over 15 years, so we also spent a lot of time on the nuances of UBI, post-work society, and the policies that might get us there.
If you’re interested, you can listen to the podcast from the show notes page, where there’s all kinds of relevant information as well.
How to Change Capitalism
On the subject of Erik Olin Wright’s essay in Jacobin Magazine linked above, here’s the ending, which changed the course of my life. It’s this sentiment that brought me back from India with a focus on economic policy.
In the 21st century, where capitalist cultural conditions and the internet are coalescing to form an omnipresent world-system, ‘dropping out’ is either an illusion, or luxury of privilege. For most, society is not an optional game. If you’re interested in the well-being of others, you have to, as Erik writes, “deal with capitalist structures and institutions”:
“So, how to be an anticapitalist in the twenty-first century?
Give up the fantasy of smashing capitalism. Capitalism is not smashable, at least if you really want to construct an emancipatory future. You may personally be able to escape capitalism by moving off the grid and minimizing your involvement with the money economy and the market, but this is hardly an attractive option for most people, especially those with children, and certainly has little potential to foster a broader process of social emancipation.
If you are concerned about the lives of others, in one way or another you have to deal with capitalist structures and institutions. Taming and eroding capitalism are the only viable options. You need to participate both in political movements for taming capitalism through public policies and in socioeconomic projects of eroding capitalism through the expansion of emancipatory forms of economic activity.
We must renew an energetic progressive social democracy that not only neutralizes the harms of capitalism but also facilitates initiatives to build real utopias with the potential to erode the dominance of capitalism.”
Alright! I still have 2 unreleased podcasts that I’m editing, including a conversation with Glen Weyl. Excited to release these in the coming weeks.
As always, you can respond directly to this email with thoughts or suggestions. Let’s start a conversation.
If you have a friend who might enjoy this newsletter, consider sharing the link. The more people on this network, the more possibilities we can cook up.
Until next time,