Celebrating Modern Cervantes at the G-20


10-08-09, 10:06 am

Last Tuesday is believed to be the birthday of the writer Miguel Cervantes, born 1537 near Madrid, Spain. The Writers Almanac credits the author with the first novel, Don Quixote, 'in which a middle aged farmer  sets off on a skinny horse to begin performing heroic and gentlemanly feats. He recites poetry for prostitutes, believing they are princesses. He starts a fight with some merchants who accidentally insult his beloved lady (who does not know that she is beloved by him). The merchants beat him up, break his sword, and leave him lying in the dirt. He is noble but foolish. He's quixotic, an adjective – in many languages – to which his character gave rise.'

I am more and more persuaded a holiday should be declared on the US Left honoring Quixote – since he has many admirers there, some of whom came to Pittsburgh during the G-20 meeting to 'joust' 'global capitalism.' 

Asked to comment on the demonstrations, Barack Obama, quoted in a Pittsburgh press interview, explained that he was always a believer that 'focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people's lives is what really makes a difference; and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally is not really going to make much of a difference.'

Things that do not exist at any particular place and time are often considered abstract. This certainly describes the vast jumble of diverse conceptions incorporated in the meaning of 'down with global capitalism', or 'capitalism is evil'. And rather like the meeting of  merchants and prostitutes in Cervantes' novel, the G-20 appears to some quixotic friends as an opportunity to Confront Global Capitalism!

More then One Left writer took chivalrous umbrage at the temerity of Obama 'disrespecting' the demonstrations and compared it to a betrayal of social movements against Iraq, or for Civil Rights,, etc. While it may stun the general public, some 'anti-global-capitlist' trends indeed treat certain phrases like 'global capitalism,''state monopoly capitalism,' 'neo-liberalism,' 'capitalist globalization' as no less concrete than demands for voting rights or ending the war in Iraq. Some even believe that the 'real purpose' of reforms is to prove that every reform fails until capitalism is overthrown, preferably in a revolutionary Bolshevik style transition, where all the institutions of the State are smashed and rebuilt from the ground up. It happened that way in Russia in World War I, and China in World War II, so why not in the US?! Why not 'everywhere,' universally!

Of course, taking Russia for example, it 'happened that way' there because Russia already was a failed state in 1917 – in complete disarray bearing the weight of WWI and a bankrupt autocracy. There was barely a functioning Postal system, never mind, Education system, Financial system, credible legislature, tax collection system, public works, safety, security systems, etc., etc., etc. Everything indeed had to be built from scratch. Even in Russia, I believe there is a strong case can be made in hindsight that the dire poverty of institutions in Russia ultimately placed an intolerable burden on all Soviet development.

But some are determined to raise a holy or universal truth from a particular one, a fallacy known as the Fallacy of Composition. Others walk unassisted into Karl Poppers falsifiability trap posed to Marxists pretending to be scientists by saying things like: 'Marxism even explains its own lack of popularity.' Poppers's later attempts to obtain celebrity as a critic of Marx himself were always absurd and easily refuted; but some modern 'marxists' seem hell-bent to become Popper's caricature. Other writers stretch circular and idealistic reasoning to solipsism where only a question of 'consciousness' separates them from the goal of 'revolutionary socialism,' whose objective foundations have 'obviously' been mature for decades.

Or not. Most workers would agree, correctly I think, with Obama. Be wary of planting your feet firmly in mid-air.

There are many very important, vital, far-reaching and necessary changes and reforms in global economic governance – some (like increased global representation of emerging nations at the highest levels) already on the table at the G-20. Reforms where working people and their interests gain a larger seat at the table of the major international institutions – WTO, IMF, World Bank, trade, environmental, labor and human rights bodies, etc. – are indeed the most critical reforms for workers of the world. But none will entail overthrowing 'global capitalism' anytime soon.  Many of these changes are well-summarized in Joseph Stiglitz book Making Globalization Work. Governments, including international governmental institutions, legislate, carry out executive actions, and render final interpretation on constitutions. Would not protests that focus on these domains of the real world, and on well considered reforms be more effective than rants about abstract existential entities?

None of the states attending the G-20 are failed states. Every economy is a mixture of public, non-profit and private ('socialist' and 'capitalist') dimensions, reflecting more than a century of class struggles and the most rapid era of economic and technological growth in history. But discussions of the right proportions of these dimensions that most benefit working people of the world might be substantially improved if we used the former terms, which can be readily translated, and quantified, into programs, rather than the '-isms' and instrumentalities.

The Left could do well to consider a sharp turn on many fronts away from fetishes for abstractions, data-free analysis, context-free references and expressions from long gone socialists and communists. Deng Chou Peng famously demanded 'FACTS! FACTS! FACTS! Not Dogma' from the sea of irrelevant Marx and Lenin quotations cum rants that were regularly presented by advisors. I hear him now!  

I favor rekindling the Enlightenment spirit that defined free thought as scientific thought. One of Marx's favorite passages from his favorite writer – the opening of 'Freedom of Thought' composed for the 1765 French Encyclopedie from his favorite writer, Denis Diderot equates the emergence of the scientific spirit with the emergence of freedom of thought itself. Freedom from what? From ignorance, dogma, unreason, religion – humankind is liberated by an attitude of disbelief.

This term, freedom of thought...signifies that generous strength of spirit that binds our beliefs solely to truth. ...

True freedom of thought maintains the spirit on the alert against prejudices and precipitation. Guided by that wise Minerva it only gives the dogmas proposed to it a degree of adherence proportional to their degree of certainty. It firmly believes those that are evident and it classifies as probabilities those that aren’t. There are some about which it holds its belief in a state of equilibrium, but if the marvelous is added to them it believes in them less; it begins to have its doubts and distrusts the charms of the illusion. In a word, it only surrenders to the marvelous after fully protecting itself against the rapid slope that that leads us to it. Above all, it gathers all its strength against the prejudices concerning religion that our childhood education leads us to, because these are the ones we undo with the most difficulty.

Well said, in this writers view, and one can with justice add that addiction to 'Leftist' unfalsifiable abstractions differs little, if at all, from the enslaving addiction of thought to religion in Diderot's time.