Is socialism counter-intuitive?
There is a TV quiz called ‘QI’ which depends on the fact that correct answers to seemingly mundane and easy questions are almost always counter-intuitive. We live in a world that is not ‘what it seems’. There is nothing intuitive about the foundations of physics (quantum mechanics and special/general relativity) and any rational individual who was entirely ignorant of modern science would suspect the sanity of anyone who tried to explain and maintain these theories as an explanation of natural phenomena. From the time we open our eyes on the world we learn to question what we see and hear. Our senses provide us with basic tools for survival but the images, sound, smell and tactile qualities we perceive can be easily fooled. It would seem that intuition or ‘common sense’ can be very unreliable – and yet we cling to it! There are very few mistakes which we make that deserve a higher degree of self-criticism than those made as a result of going against our ‘instincts’. Social skills rely on our ability to detect deceit, insincerity and danger in others. What significance does this seeming contradiction have for political activity? Is socialism a result of common sense or of embracing the counter-intuitive?
As children we are told, despite all appearances, that the sun does not move across the sky but that we circle it; that we labour under the weight of air pressure and are pulled by gravity; that your immune system can kill you; that what tastes good is usually bad for us (in the long run); that a cannonball and a feather fall at an equal rate within a vacuum; that making some stimulants illegal does not eradicate them; that capital punishment is not a deterrent to murder and that life depends on death. To test your own ability to tell the difference between common sense and the counter-intuitive try answering the question: why is north always on top? Having thought about it you begin to realise that it is ‘merely’ a cultural convention and that the planet, solar system, galaxy and universe have no up or down. The poles of a magnet are not defined by the concepts of top and bottom or up and down but by the simple requirement of opposition. Even the concept of field lines emerging from the north pole of a magnet and re-entering at the south pole is a matter of ‘convention’. Education is an act of unlearning as well as learning.
It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that many of those who seek to defend right-wing forms of capitalism rely on ‘common-sense’ answers whereas those on the left more often use intellectual and counter-intuitive arguments. Both of these attempts to defend the indefensible have resolved themselves into ideological cul-de-sacs that rely either on over simplification or over intellectualising. The belief that legitimate political answers are often obscured by the deliberate activities of the leftist intelligentsia is continually countered by the accusation that those on the right over simplify and overlook the nuances and complexities of political reality. To the left the right-wingers seem dull witted and stupid whilst their adversaries despise their seeming elitist intellectualism. Many on the left do seem to think that politics is an intellectual puzzle that can be solved by one pseudo-scientific theory or another. The political right see this merely as a series of high-brow excuses for the manifest failure of leftist policies. Of course, there are many other components of ideological belief systems including tribalism, prejudice, conformism, conditioning etc, but for the moment we are just considering the dialectical relationship between the intuitive and the counter-intuitive which always seems to be present in polemics and to which we return.
Mainstream political debate is directed by the mainstream media. Those who own and control the media are dedicated to ‘normalizing’ the capitalist systems of both right and left-wing regimes respectively. One of the most powerful ways of achieving this is to make production for profit and everything that goes with it like wealth and poverty, rampant consumerism and economic/political inequality seem inevitable and perfectly intuitive given the agreed concept of what constitutes ‘human nature’. The very construct of a political ‘human nature’ is one of the greatest triumphs of both types of capitalist ideologies. To deny its existence is to incur universal disbelief and derision. The existence of human nature is just ‘common sense’. But socialists do deny this (at least in the terms of which it is understood within reactionary ideology where humanity is reduced to an eternal state of acquisitive individualism and the selfish behaviour that this generates) and point to historical evidence which undermines such a malevolent future for our species. Is this just one example which exemplifies the counter-intuitive nature of the case for socialism as a whole?
Two elements are at play here and it is important to differentiate between them. One is the cultural manipulation and subversion of both intuition (common sense) and counter-intuition (reliance on nuance and complexity thus inhibiting action) and the other is the true nature of reality. To non-socialists just about every element of our case is counter-intuitive and seems to defy common sense – and to us the reverse is true. Can the concept of the counter-intuitive help us distinguish between ideology and knowledge? Certainly the practice of subjecting everything that you think you know to a continual critique (Marxism) helps to keep the seduction of certainty at bay. Many of the postmodernist persuasion will tell you that everything is ideological and that any attempt to reinstate materialism is naïve and even reactionary. But it is impossible to ignore the paradigmatic shift potential that accompanies the discovery of a truth that runs counter to our deepest intuition about reality and so subverts the possibility of an initial ideological commitment to it.
There was once a comedy sketch that took place in an imaginary post- revolutionary socialist context where an individual was trying to sell capitalism as an alternative. It was funny because of the intuitive absurdity of such an endeavour within socialism and served as a reminder that perhaps ‘common sense’ within a community of the future would represent the political truth. As ever it is history that, hopefully, will transform the two perspectives into an experience comfortably embracing both when stripped of their present sectarian ideological inertia.