by Joan Harvey
If you can get the old voting against state-subsidized healthcare, and the poor voting in favor of cuts to inheritance tax, then democratic capitalism really is workable after all. —Malcolm Bull
As the objective view of the world recedes, it is replaced by intuition as to which way things are heading now. —William Davies
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine /in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,/a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways —Maggie Smith “Good Bones”
Mark Twain, in his wonderful Letters from the Earth, nails the essence of human unreason. It’s not just the creation story with a talking snake, but how man has conceived of heaven, at least in Christianity.
[H]e has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race—and of ours—sexual intercourse!
It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!
A singing, harp-playing heaven is, as Twain points out, like the most boring church service ever, and for eternity. Yet this was the creative fantasy the main religion of the West landed on, and people for years somehow bought it. (The Islamic version is perhaps closer to what Twain had in mind, but still an extraordinarily shabby version of the imagined possible). If people are going to imagine an afterlife, not only could they be having sexual intercourse as much as they want with whoever they want with no negative consequences, but they could easily take it farther, giving themselves many more sex organs and erogenous zones and pleasures that put orgasms to shame. (I’m sure science fiction writers have gone there with no problem). Throw in some great powder skiing for me between bouts in the sack, and no knee pain. And for those who don’t like sex or don’t want it all the time, let heaven be whatever they like, endless gourmet meals with no weight gain, fantastic chess matches in Turkish baths, conversation with their philosopher heroes, horseback riding on perfect steeds.
Meanwhile, on Facebook (is there anything rational about looking at Facebook?) everyone is, with good reason, upset about the fires in the Amazon rain forest. The increased heating of the planet and doom of much of humanity, daily seems even more certain. But of course we’re posting and answering with angry emojis, not out fighting all this. I do know people who work full time to fight climate change and try to stop the destruction of the planet. Rationally, all of us who can should be doing this, but… I justify, I don’t have the brain, skills, temperament, inclination for that sort of work. Is it rational or irrational to do things that please me more?
David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends, has proposed lowering the voting age to age six, because young people are massively outnumbered by the old, and someone 75 who will die soon won’t have as much at stake in the future as someone just starting out in life. At the same time he realizes this is not going to fly in our current system, so he advocates putting more energy into citizens’ assemblies and civil disobedience. In our broken system, or a system that works for capital but not for democracy, this may be the only way, but I have my doubts about its effectiveness. A general strike that shuts down corporate profits for a week might well change things, but organizing such a strike in America seems nigh on impossible. Millions of people marched in the women’s marches and while it did increase visibility and solidarity among women, it changed nothing in the government. Recently, in a somewhat out-of-the-way ICE detention center in Aurora, Colorado, 2000 people showed up to protest (and thousands more protested all over the country) and it got almost no press and changed nothing.
In his complex and thought provoking review of William Davies’s Nervous States, Malcolm Bull writes, “[P]eople are not the rational, utility-maximizers of neoclassical economics, but loss-averse sentimentalists who, faced with even the simplest cognitive problem, prefer dodgy short cuts to careful analysis.” The poor have been shown to be less rational at decision making than the wealthy, and the old have been shown to be less rational than the young. “Both Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote were primarily the work of affluent old people in coalition with poorer white voters.” The wonderful What’s the Matter with Kansas maps it in clear terms: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about…Here, after all, is a rebellion against ‘the establishment’ that has wound up cutting the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.”[i]
Some have proposed an epistocracy, a system in which the votes of people who can prove their political knowledge count more than the votes of people who can’t. But, as Bull points out, “it is possible for experts to be completely wrong about matters of real importance: the presence of WMD in Iraq before the Second Gulf War; the stability of the world economy before the 2008 crash; the probability of Trump’s winning the US election.” Economists have divided people into Econs versus Humans, Econs being the rational people who consider the long-term consequences of decisions, whereas humans are impulsive and intuitive. Unfortunately this brings to mind the Theranos scandal in which George Shultz, former US secretary of state; Gary Roughead, a retired US Navy admiral; William Perry, former US secretary of defense; Sam Nunn, a former US senator; James Mattis, who served as President Donald Trump’s secretary of defense; Richard Kovacevich, the former CEO of Wells Fargo; Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state; and other dignitaries were all seduced by a pretty young woman into believing and investing in bogus science. If these people aren’t Econs, who are? Science itself has led to irrational conclusions. In discussing the work of Franz Boas, Louis Menand writes, “Often science was invoked as a justification for colonization, segregation, discrimination, exclusion, sterilization, or extermination.”
Contemporary populism, explained in Marxist terms by the idea of false consciousness, can also be, Bull points out, explained in terms of “overconfidence, loss aversion and status quo preference, combined with an availability heuristic that attributes negative outcomes to visible local changes like immigration.” The classic Thinking, Fast and Slow parses this out for us. I’m certainly guilty of operating most of the time by quick intuition rather than deep research. Locally, I’m more likely to favor a candidate I’ve known most of her life, rather than one who might be as good or better, but whom I’m unfamiliar with. Research has proved again and again that our first impressions influence us far more than they rationally should, and that once we’ve formed them we hold onto them in spite of evidence that they’re wrong. Freud said it first, though slightly differently: “[P]eople never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them.” Researchers concluded from studies that included behavioral experiments and brain imaging of diverse populations of radicalized young men that “people who are most willing to make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying, to defend or advance a sacred cause avoid deliberative reasoning in harnessing moral outrage. The results show diminished use of utilitarian calculations of costs and benefits in favor of rapid, duty-bound actions to ‘set things right,’ regardless of apparent risks or likely consequences.” Power, too, has been shown to increase people’s trust their own intuition more than is rational. Our least qualified president says “my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”
Short-cut thinking and sloppy science are on full display in the reactions to our own burning forests, where the notion that forest overgrowth is the main cause of wildfire has become popular. In response to the idea that all forests, everywhere, are too dense and have become “tinderboxes” due to fire suppression, the obvious and intuitive solution is to remove the excess trees. The current rage in forest management is to “thin” the forests, supposedly to make them less susceptible to fire. Thinning (also called “fuels reduction” or “restoration”) is a euphemism for a form of logging in which many or most of the trees are removed, generally leaving larger widely-spaced trees standing and the forest floor shorn of vegetation and scattered with dead limbs and slash piles.
The flaws in this model are many. It’s a vast oversimplification of forest ecology and fire behavior. Research has shown that logging and thinning may themselves cause increased flammability of forests over the long term. and that often, in fact, previously thinned areas and “managed” forests burn more readily than old, undisturbed forest, in part because the intact forest is cooler and not as susceptible to wind as the open canopy of thinned forest. The model also ignores the factors that really drive wildfire: not fuels, but drought and wind. One has only to look at recent wildfires to see that strong winds drive fires right through thinned forests, old clearcuts, tree plantations, recently burned forest, and open treeless fields. Another problem is that whatever efficacy fuels treatments might have is short lived—within a decade or two post-thinning, brush and small trees grow up, often making the forest more flammable than it was before the treatment and requiring repeated manipulation over subsequent decades. Research shows that most treatments will never be encountered by a wildfire during the time they might have some efficacy. Despite the lack of evidence that thinning will effectively address the problem of wildfires, millions of acres of national forest land are being “treated,” at a cost of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, in a giant landscape-level experiment that turns native forests into ecological wastelands and will probably do little to solve the problem of climate-driven wildfires.
A recent eye-opener for me was a piece about sloths being burned alive in Bolivia. This may be because I identify more with the slow sleepy sloth than with, say, an agile deer, but what was striking about the piece was that the fires have been started to clear land for ethanol and biofuel, supposedly good alternatives to fossil fuels. “This is Bolivia. The country where Mother Earth has rights. Where there is a law that says forests, rivers and sloths have the right to life and to ‘maintain the integrity of the life systems and natural processes which sustain them.’” And yet the sloths, and of course other wild animals, are being burned alive.
When the future of human life on earth is at stake it’s not much of a jump from this to thinking that all the so-called “rationality” of Western man is far less rational than that of indigenous people who lived on such a different scale. At the other end of the spectrum is Thomas Metzinger’s point about the dangers of rational AI. In a discussion with Sam Harris Metzinger points out that a truly rational AI, with the best interests of human beings at heart, could evaluate the whole of human existence, its pleasures and sufferings, and decide the cost of suffering was not worth the rest, and very rationally do away with human life in order to get rid of all suffering. Clearly this is not the rationality we look for.
Metzinger spells out our current understanding, in part through neuroscience, of our doomed future:
I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings. We will experience ourselves as beings who collectively and stubbornly act against better knowledge, who even under great time-pressure are unable, for psychological reasons, to act jointly and efficiently and to put the necessary formation of political will into effect. The collective self-image of the species Homo sapiens will increasingly be one of a being caught in evolved mechanisms of self-deception to the point of becoming a victim of its own actions. It will be an image of a class of naturally evolved cognitive systems that, because of their own cognitive structure, are unable to react adequately to certain challenges—even when they are able to intellectually grasp the expected consequences, and even when, in addition, they consciously experience this very fact about themselves clearly and distinctly.
Franco Berardi in And: Phenomenology of the End writes “[T]he automaton can never be assimilated to the human because the specificity of the human lies in the relation between conscious rationality and the unconscious.” Malcolm Bull notes how capitalism has created a huge class of the ill, “illness defined by a ‘life that contradicts itself’ because it is both unable to adapt to the rationality of capital and prevented from manifesting that protest as anything other than a symptom.” Bull refers back to a manifesto of the Heidelberg Socialist Patients’ Collective published in 1972: “[T]his cohort of the less rational thought they would take their humanness and use it to change the system so that utility maximization no longer defined what it is to be rational.” Perhaps the increased acceptance of the idea of Medicare for All is a good sign. Or that many young people don’t drive and are vegans. That the leaders of other countries don’t dismiss the climate crisis. That Greta Thunberg has a voice heard round the world. Whether or not attachment to the idea of a good future is rational, it’s better than despair.
When I contemplate the future I’m reasonably quite pessimistic, and increasingly so, with much of the world literally on fire. But deep down I’m aware of a built-in optimism that doesn’t match what I know. It’s that old “existence bias.” I haven’t even begun to address feelings versus reason here, though I’m sure they’re deeply connected, both for good and for ill. If only we could somehow use our feelings more rationally, the way Greta Thunberg suggests: “Adults keep saying, ’We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.”
[i] Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas? (pp. 7-8). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.