Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Phil Gasper and Socialist Utopianism

Last summer, I wrote a post responding to an article by Phil Gasper in the International Socialist Review. Now, my post has been reprinted in that journal along with a response from Mr. Gasper, which can be found here.

Gasper's response is reasonable, and it clarifies the points at issue. He seems to agree with me that human nature does put limits on what we can do, but he stresses the malleablility of human behavior within those limits. I agree that cultural evolution and individual judgment allows for great variability in human behavior. But I would stress that cultural evolution and individual judgment are constrained by human nature.

So, for example, I say that the drive for power and status is so natural to human beings that we can assume that power-seeking or the desire to dominate others will be a problem in any society. Some societies are more hierarchical than others, but none are completely egalitarian in the sense that no one has more power or status than any other. Primitive hunting-gathering or foraging societies are probably the least hierarchical of any societies, and yet they still show a striving for power that has to be constantly checked. The anthropologist Richard Lee was a Marxist, and so he looked for completely egalitarian relationships in the !Kung San communities. And yet he had to admit that they did show patterns of leadership, and that the !Kung had to be constantly vigilant against informal leaders who might become too arrogant.

By contrast, Gasper insists--like Marx--that foraging societies show a completely egalitarian society where no one has more power than anyone else, and this shows what a socialist society could achieve today by reviving primitive communism. To me this illustrates the utopianism of the Left based on the myth of the Noble Savage in a Golden Age.

When someone like Hugo Chavez arises to lead Venezuela to a "21st century socialism," I see a glory-seeking politician with Napoleonic ambitions, and I predict that he will strive to concentrate dispotic power in his hands. But socialists like Gasper are excited by the prospect for finally achieving socialist utopia. Gasper remarks: "Arnhart's characterization of what is taking place as no more than a power trip by Chavez is hardly a serious analysis." But isn't the history of socialism--from Marx, Lenin, and Stalin to Mao, Castro, and Pol Pot a history of power trips?

Roger Cohen has just written a similar assessment of Chavez for the New York Times, which can be found here. But viewed through the utopian vision of the Left, this will will be easily dismissed as "hardly a serious analysis."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Prof. Arnhart, you are wasting too much of your time debating with intellectual lightweights (the dwindling band of Marxists and some of the Disovery Institute gang) rather than focusing on some of the more difficult philosophical questions as you did in your Darwinian Natural Right book.

By the way, I wonder if you have some comments on this recent book comparing the "Machiavellianism" of macaque and human societies: