Friday, January 25, 2013

John Shook & the banality of humanism's dead liberalism

“Humanism at its core, at the heart of its ethical project, is the statement of a difficult problem, and not an elitist ideology offering simple platitudes.”

— John Shook, “With Liberty & Justice for All,” Humanist, January / February 2013

But actually, humanism in the USA intellectually really is little more than a collection of platitudes, and John Shook's essay demonstrates this.

When the first Humanist Manifesto was issued in 1933, capitalism was awash in its worst crisis, fascism menaced the world, Stalinism was the major alternative as a global political force, and Roosevelt's New Deal was about to be born to rescue American capitalism from the other two alternatives. In this context, the left-liberal and soft socialist declarations of humanism in the USA meant something, even without a political force to back it up. The 14th principle reads:
The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.
The actual political force bringing about whatever possibilities of this being realized in the USA came from the burgeoning American industrial labor movement, with the major participation of its Communist and other left contingents. Social liberalism in the USA, more or less corresponding to what is known as social democracy in more civilized countries, became a reality for the first time.

Some of the leading humanist intellectuals were players in various reform movements. Philosophically, the works of such people as Corliss Lamont are not terribly sophisticated or interesting, though Lamont himself was active in peace and justice movements. John Dewey is the closest thing American humanists have as a philosophical patron saint. Nevertheless, one has to pursue his philosophical works beyond A Common Faith and beyond the literature proper to the humanist movement itself. The second most (undeservedly) honored philosophical personage in American humanism is Sidney Hook, but the anti-communist Hook, not the Hook who was one of the foremost among the few Marxist philosophers in the English-speaking world in the 1930s. The principle author of the draft of the 1933 Manifesto was Roy Wood Sellars, my favorite among the classic (pre-World War II) American philosophers and a man of the left, but his philosophical works are not really counted in the literature of American humanism.

All of these people were products of a different era from the generations that produced the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s. In addition to class-based agitation, this period foregrounded the new social movements--black civil rights & black power (along with other mushrooming ethnic movements), feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, etc.  What survives of all this, however, is predicated on the destruction of the old social liberalism that was undergirded by the labor movement.  Hence what passes for liberalism now is not class-based social equality, but the equal right of members of marginalized groups to participate at all levels of class exploitation. Our black president is the logical outcome of this historical trend.

Of course, many people attached to this new liberalism in a neoliberal (i.e. the new era of unregulated capitalism) era also have an interest in class-based justice, but generational turnover combined with historical amnesia have obscured how far to the right the political order, including the empty liberal gesturing of the Democratic Party, has been pulled.

This is the social environment in which the "new atheism" and the surge of activity overall in the atheist/humanist/skeptics is functioning. What do the ideologues of "humanism," who promise to offer more than mere "atheism," have to offer to explain world developments over the past 60 years or so and what concepts do they put forward to point the way out of the current political impasse, if impasse they even see?

John Shook's vacuous essay gives us a demonstration of the overall ideological backwardness of the atheist/humanist/skeptics movements. Shook enunciates the principles of the now-dead social liberalism:
As an ethical stance, humanism focuses on the individual and at the same time concerns itself with society; both commitments must remain bonded in mutual support, otherwise humanism makes no sense. History attests to the dangers of pursuing one to the detriment of the other, producing anti-humanist results. Societies that prioritize private liberty to excess, that let individuals accumulate all the powers they can, find that vast inequalities emerge. Those inequalities congeal into hierarchical social classes and rigid castes and severely restrict freedom of opportunity for all but the privileged and wealthy. On the other hand, societies that prioritize social justice too heavily, trying to equalize everyone’s wealth and status, find that vital initiative gets crushed beyond consolation. Where bureaucracy dictates investment and commerce, creativity goes unrewarded and opportunity is wasted.
Had Shook been more forthcoming, he would have stated this as a contest between capitalism and socialism. However, characterizing the problem with self-proclaimed socialist countries as those who "prioritize social justice too heavily" is not saying much about the provenance, history, and organization of such societies and to what extent the intent of their leaders is anymore geared toward social equality than ours is to democracy and the dignity of the individual. A simple balancing act between the abstractions of liberty and equality tells us nothing about the actual basis on which the class structure of any society is based. Bourgeois liberals and conservatives alike justify their positions on the basis of the same abstractions.  And in this fake balancing act, the actual mechanisms of capitalist exploitation are safely hidden.

Furthermore, there is no accounting for the extent to which any balance towards social justice was actually achieved and why it is being taken away now. Social liberalism has been politically dead in the USA for three decades at least. Not only does Shook regurgitate platitudes, but platitudes that are utterly useless given the irreversible shift to the right of the entire American political system.

Let us continue:
Balancing liberty and justice in healthy proportions is wiser than naively supposing that both can be maximized simultaneously. Human potential is too fragile and precious to abandon it to the caprice of private liberty or to entrust it to the rules of social justice. The individual needs freedoms within a supportive society, while society needs individuals to support the whole.
The first sentence is drivel. The principled enunciated in the rest of the passage were those of the Marxist humanists of the Yugoslav Praxis School with whom Paul Kurtz once dialogued and from whom he learned nothing. And while that school went down with Yugoslavia, Shook has nothing to say to compare to what these philosophers strove for.

Shook enunciates three general principles of the interdependency of individuality and sociality and then launches into a precis of the evolution of moral habits and responsibilities from primitive tribal organization on and the emergence of humanism within various civilizations. However, the master concepts of "culture" and "ethics" do not constitute a remotely usable basis for social theory.

Shook continues:
The only reasonable humanism trying to gradually improve people’s lives is one that starts with actual people as they really are, culture and all. Humanism opposes tribalism in any form, but it can’t stand aloof from culture itself, especially because many cultures are helpful repositories of humanistic wisdom with proven practical value.
This is worse than useless as social analysis. And not the word "gradually." An utterly useless liberalism that has no teeth in confronting the world in which we actually live. A reincarnated Dewey a century on is worthless, whereas the original Dewey performed at least some function for a burgeoning progressive liberalism. With Shook the keyword is "reform" repeated over and over against utopian schemes, i.e. a code word for "revolution" or "radicalism" or "socialism," which are in essence ruled out of court as anti-humanist. Shook wants to be a good liberal, but he has nothing to offer in the fashion of the good liberals of yesteryear.

The intellectual basis of humanism was always fairly thin, but as a strategic rallying point around a complex of issues it served a purpose. It still does as long as the participants in such a movement understand that it represents an alliance rather than a unity of social principles and that such a skeletal set of principles cannot serve as the basis for a complete social philosophy or world view.  Bourgeois liberals pride themselves on being the very embodiment of reason, but they are no such a thing. They are intellectually and ideologically underdeveloped, and thus the identity they claim in the end is just one more ideology to be overcome.

1 comment:

lucette said...

I can only add one thing. It is a warning: We must stay away from the emptiness of John Shook's worldview. It kills.
I feel a great deal of pity for him.