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Debating: A Lost Art?

The volume of correspondence in the world is greater now than ever. The internet provides us with the ability to contribute to many debates on an infinite variety of subjects on various platforms: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter etc. One can’t fail to notice that many of these ‘debates’ are characterised by anger and insult. Resolution or a ‘meeting of minds’ seems to be very rare. Anonymity allows people to vent their frustration and anger on complete strangers. Such diatribes do not, of course, represent any attempt at communication. Instead they are a record of people’s alienation and despair which is focused on the ‘other’.

I was once accused of calling someone stupid because I believed them to be wrong. The possibility of being wrong and intelligent simultaneously is something the ego finds difficult to accept. A disagreement (inherent in any debate) is interpreted as a conflict of egos. This represents the end of communication. Is there a way to ameliorate this phenomena? For a socialist this is a vital question since communication is the only way forward and always being ‘right’ will tend to alienate the opponent. If a debate focuses only on determining who is right and who is wrong then a dialectical resolution is impossible. What is meant by dialectical is a specific form of rhetoric that seeks to create a ‘synthesis’ between opposing views. In this way the polemic can be moved forward productively instead of stalling in egoism. All such disagreementsrepresent the dialectical forces inherent within the cultural context of the debate. What’s more –this historical context allows only one real politicaldebate that always lies beneath what ever is being discussed! I will now attempt to defend such a seemingly incredible position.

Superficially the multiplicity of debates on Facebook appear unconnected with an endless variation of subject matter. Everything from musical taste to politics and religion is hotly contested. Someone has said that there is a certain inevitability of the mention of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis terminating many emotionally charged political debates. The reason for this is not just the desire to demonise the opponent and their perspective but it also reflects an underlying fundamental confrontation between those who want and need authoritarian social structures and those who cannot stomach them. The latter see all kinds of conspiracies by the ‘establishment’ to keep their power while reactionaries long for a leader with simple political answers.

And so the debate rages on impotently, sometimes even provoking an online petition with thousands of signatures. Of course nothing changes and another ‘single issue’ takes up the energies of liberals and reactionaries inspired, usually, by the latest disaster created by capitalism. Some years ago when the infamous tsunami hit Sri Lanka I thought, at least this time, we could not blame capitalism for this ‘natural’ disaster. As it happens the early warning system had been abandoned because of ‘cost’ concerns so yet again the system was at the root of destruction. Another example is that of the hypotheses of global warming. Given the title of the theory one would expect it to be the ultimate debate of our time. But again it is the economic imperative of profit that underlies this catastrophe – no worker (indigenous or otherwise) would willingly destroy the environment if they could get other employment to feed themselves and their families. It is the height of hypocrisy for ‘middle-class’ environmentalists in advanced industrial societies to criticise just this one element of capitalism while they enjoy a comfortable life style which is dependent on the system. Economics, or at least, market economics has become a godhead for reactionaries in that it must be worshipped and cannot be denied.

It is a different story when those indulging in this religion of Mammon are directly affected adversely – then it’s the fault of rogue bankers, etc. In debates people congratulate themselves for being realistic in contrast to their opponents – when, in reality, they are both being equally idealistic. One ideology in all its permutations reflects the economic needs of the ruling class and the other, debased and confused with the single issue problematic, represents the needs of the immense majority of humanity. A true dialectic can only be achieved when this is recognised –a result of the historical forces that have left just two social classes.

I’m aware that this perspective sounds suspiciously dualistic – not unlike Christianity’s Armageddon (last battle between good and evil) and the Viking Ragnarok, etc. It may be that it’s the other way around and that these mythologies represent a deep social need to return to the communism of pre private property societies – as Rastafarians believe: I and I becomes the One again in Zion. So what constitutes the socialist synthesis? Revolution, my comrade. As long as capitalism lasts with all its travails then so does the same solution. The coalition of Whigs and Tories seem intent on taking us back to the 1800s. No re-branding can change capitalism and we call upon all those well-intentioned people obsessed with single issue politics to join us in dealing with the disease and not just the symptoms. It is purely self-indulgence to involve yourself in reformism because you ‘can’t wait for the revolution’. It is you that keeps the rest of us waiting. As to what Facebook will be debating after the revolution there’s always: ‘who was the most authentic roots reggae artist – Bob Marley or Burning Spear?’ But don’t get me started, that’s a whole other debate – the synthesis of which still eludes me.