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Community Organizer’s Toolkit, an Adjunct to Mao’s Little Red Book (Part III)

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Altruism is a touchy-feely kind of term, I have always had misgivings about it. Just like philanthropy, it suggests a certain disconnect from the business called life. One never knows what’s in the heart of an altruist or a philanthropist, a sense of guilt, perhaps, for things they might have done otherwise, a symbolic repayment of debt, who knows? Not that it matters, but the image which comes to mind is that of a do-gooder, an eccentric, a Daddy Warbucks type of person. It’s good if you’re can get it, but then again, it’s not very informative either.

If evolutionary science is to posit altruism as a viable alternative, an effective counterbalance to competition as the all-defining principle, or mechanism, which drives human progress, it must do better than that. It must endow it with real-life meaning. It must make it count. To posit selfishness vs. unselfishness won’t do. These are but character traits, nothing more. My suggestion is, endow it with functionality.

There’s nothing wrong with functionality or a functional type of explanation even though, granted, some of it verges on being circular. Take morality, for instance. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the origins, as the term “mores” clearly implies, had more to do with the functional or the practical than the idealistic. The fact that morality had evolved in time, just as art once did, from their originally puerile and innocuous origins, grounded in practicality, to approximate a standard of human behavior, or the canon, as the case may be, doesn’t negate their genesis. As the science of evolution would have it, things do evolve given time.

It’s no different with altruism, although here we experience a regression of sorts, a retardation. What was originally conceived as having been grounded in functional relationships, based on need and mutual assistance, (see Prince Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, for instance), has deteriorated into something that’s altogether divorced from the original intention and meaning. It became divorced from its source, the practical need for cooperation in dire situations; in short, a kind of quid prod quo. I suspect that ideological considerations played no small part in effectively reducing concern for the other, grounded as it may have been in mere practicality, to what surely comes across as an idiosyncratic character trait.

That’s the force of ideology for you and the effects of doublespeak, and the motivation is obvious: since mutual aid and cooperaton fly in the face of competition and self-concern, by far the predominant mode of social interactions, the idea is to discredit alternative approaches by relegating them to the area of the idiosyncratic, if not bizarre. Indeed, even charity, in its modern rendition, suffers by association: it connotes by and large a passive rather than a pro-active stance. The object is to restore altruism and similar such terms to their original intention and meaning.

What might that meaning be? Concern for the other is as good a start as any, but I’m getting ahead of myself, I’m afraid. We’re still at the level of functional relationships, relationships whereby mutual aid & cooperation are more or less necessary practical responses to situations in which the pulling together of resources is precisely the right thing to do. Notice that self-interest merges here with communal interest, the interest of all. Also notice that the notion of what’s right in this case doesn’t come down to any moral kind of right but is defined instead in terms of strictly practical considerations, the common good in this instance (which happens to coincide with individual self-interests).

Nothing wrong with that, I say. Practice is as good a ground for concept formation as any, especially if it’s sound practice. Besides, there’s no stronger endorsement, or reinforcement for that matter, of a desired course of action, or practice, other than by appeal to self-interest, Saul Alinsky’s standard M.O. And when self-interest, as I stated, happens to coincide with communal interest, you have the best of all possible words. We’re stil a long ways, of course, from other-centeredness, our ultimate destination, since the outlined practice, or the habit of action, stem from practical, not ideational concerns. How we get there and acquire the requisite kind of concern, apart now from whether the circumstances at hand warrant a cooperative type of response (especially if they’re no longer dire!), is a story in its own right, and it deserves to be told.

Consider the following narrative, and I’ll be guided here by the same line of thinking which, to my mind, accounts for a kind of transition (transcendence may be a better term!) from what are essentially ground-level, rudimentary concepts anchored in the practical, to their sublime, ideational form. Just as morality evolved from what was once mere custom or habit governing social intereractions with a mind to the practical into something finer, and art has evolved from what was predominantly a practical activity called craft, so it was with concern for the other; it, too, had humble beginnings. In each and every instance, form came to be divorced from its former function. Divorced from the practical activity which was geared to, and governed by its utility or use, to coalesce into an ideational type of concept, a kind of understanding whose only resemblance to the initial impulse bears the relationship of an object to its former shadow.

In morality’s case, what used to be a social custom, or simply rules for practically-minded behavior, has transcended the idea of mere practicality to become (or evolve into) absolute rules of conduct, as it were, downright contradictory at times to what’s merely practical. In art, the selfsame process had gone through stages. First through ornamentation, the idea of improving upon an object made strictly for use by endowing it with superfluous, extraneous, mainly decorative qualities, has progressed to the point whereby decoration had become the sole purpose, its raison d’etre, an aim all its own, overriding and transcending the idea of mere use. It was thus that the aesthetic impulse was born and, along with it, our appreciation for beauty and for objets d’art.

What transpired when it came to a similar, but no less radical, transition from a mutual aid and assistance mode of being, grounded as it originally was in the strictly practical, earthly concerns whose prime object was to benefit oneself first and only secondarily, and almost as if by afterthought, the community as well, to result in a general concern for the other type of credo, now with no notion of personal gain, advantage, or practicality? It’s the same old idea, I maintain, of transcending mere use to attain finer and better things. The way of human spirit is another way of putting it. Why do we do it? Evolution is as good a term as any.

What of course comes part and parcel with the general concern for the other is a kind of tacit understanding that our personal well-being is inextricable from the well-being of the community, that you can’t have one without the other, that the weakest link in the chain is, at the same time, your Achilles heel, that we’re all intertwined and interconnected, and no person is an island. The general concern for the other falls thus within the general rubric of moral concern. We know all that, and yet–

In his recent book, The Neighborhood Project, David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, speaks of “prosociality,” a scientific term I’m told, signifying other-oriented attitude or behavior. Though it falls short of the the ultimate understanding, for we’re still at the level of mere impulse, nothing more than a predisposition; I won’t quarrel with that, however. Who am I to argue with science, or with the kind of conclusiveness that comes with scientific measurements, or with operational definitions for that matter?

Suffice it to say, it’s as good a start as any. Who knows, perhaps evolution is all about impulse, the right kind of impulse, an acquired and learned impulse, an impulse we’ve learned to cultivate and stay true to.

I will conclude in part IV.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • pablo

    Please forgive me for not commenting directly on your article Roger. I will say however that I find your commenting on articles to be of more personal interest to me than your article writing. Perhaps I get a bit intimidated by your verbiage, and quite frankly some of it goes over my head.

    I did however wander over to your blog, and nosed around for a bit. I see that you link to Solari.com Catherine Austin Fitts’ website. I am a big fan of hers. She has also appeared on the Alex Jones show at least ten times over the last few years, and it is always a very interesting interview. I just thought that I would bring this to your attention Roger, if you did not know this. I am sure you could youtube search for Catherine Austin Fitts and Alex Jones to find one or more of the interviews should you have the interest.
    take care
    pablo

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Yes, Pablo, I’m well familiar with Ms Fitts who is also a frequent guest on Coast-to-Coast AM with George Noory (as well as her Solari website.

    In fact, a number of my BC articles on HUD corruption were selected for the pick of the week and were featured there.

  • Igor

    ¨Altruism is a touchy-feely kind of term, I have always had misgivings about it.¨

    What a dreadful confession to make. How cynical!

    The human is a gregarious animal, and the race would have disappeared long ago if not for cooperation entered into freely and willingly to advance the interests of others as well as oneself. Ventures that individual humans could have had NO assurance that they individually would profit from but they could be certain others would profit from immediately.

    Have you, Roger, been turned cynical by this greedy age of self-seeking pinheads grubbing after their personal gains from enterprises created by better men, men working to advance the welfare of their fellows?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    You haven’t read the article, Igor? or if you have, apparently you haven’t followed the train of thought.

    In any case, you missed the whole point.

  • jamminsue

    I thought you’d conclude in III parts. I’ll wait some more

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I was gonna to, but the topic demanded additional treatment.

  • pablo

    Roger,
    Never mind.

  • Maurice

    Fun reading. Not sure what your conclusions will be but I am anxious for IV.

    At the risk of being premature, a lot of page 2 reminded me of the invisible hand quote from ‘Wealth of Nations’. Also I think I may have detected some influence of ‘Objectivism’ but I could be wrong.

    At any rate fun to read and should stimulate some interesting comments.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Thank you, Maurice. I tried to get to the knitty-gritty but I realized it was important to set the stage.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    @ 8

    “Invisible hand”?

    As a matter of fact, yes. A great deal of what passed for “mutual aid & assistance” in some societies was anything but calculated but, rather, a natural way of conducting “business” and relating one to another, without so much as forethought.

  • Maurice

    “Every individual…generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”
    Adam Smith quote

  • Glenn Contrarian

    I, for one, do not like the ‘invisible hand’ quote. There are those of us who do strive to promote the public interest with little or no thought towards our own self-interests.

    For instance, it is not in my interest to give money to strangers in need. I got nothing back out of nearly two decades’ worth of donations to the Pearl S. Buck Fund via the Combined Federal Campaign. If I can spare the money and I can see that someone’s need is greater than mine (and that he or she doesn’t seem to be trying to run a scam), then I’m usually happy to give. It could be argued that I’m only doing it to feel better, but I do not think that it would be splitting hairs to say that no, I’m not doing it to feel better, but to stay true to what I feel is right and good and honorable.

    The same could be said for anyone who stands up and admits guilt or fault or wrong when he doesn’t have to. I’ve admitted wrong many times on BC, and oftentimes I didn’t have to since I was the only one who knew that I was wrong. Call it altruism or objectivity if you like, or call it sheer naivete, a Pollyanna’s dream of a better world. I call it honor and courage and my own personal variant of noblesse oblige. There are some who cynically scoff at such terms – but I feel that such are crucial not only to the life of the one, but more especially to the lives of the many.

    We all have feet of clay…but that should never stop us from striving to make the world a better place not out of self-interest, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.

  • Maurice

    Glenn, no doubt there is much good done on purpose. All the quote is saying is that we do a lot of good just by pursuing our own interests.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    That’s the “greed is good” line…and while there is some truth to the concept that we accomplish some good by pursuing our own interests, a little something called “The Great Recession” shows the danger of such greed unbound by judicious regulation.

  • Baronius

    There are a lot of ungrounded or unexplained assertions in this article. Some of it is personal: you dismiss terms like altruism or charity based on personal discomfort. Some of it may be grounded in theories that you don’t explain: your theory of the development of art, for example. But it seems like your whole underlying schema is built on assertions about human nature that you haven’t really examined. I think you’ve distanced yourself from them by claiming that your argument is functional, but that’s not really an explanation. It’s more of a “just-so” story.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    @12

    I think you’re giving yourself far less credit, Glenn, than you ought to. Of course people do, as you and Maurice have suggested, do things which go beyond what normally passes as “self-interest.” No doubt about it. What then is your source of discomfort when engaged in these “charitable” — notice the scare quotes – acts? Isn’t is precisely because terms such as altruism, philanthropy and charity somehow strike us as coming from the left field that, disconnected from your real sentiment, that you have to resort to explanation of your kindly acts in such terms as “it was the right or moral thing to do?? It’s the discomfort due to the predominant culture of “me first” that you’re experiencing, a culture which places premium on selfishness, greed and narrowly-conceived self-interest while at the same time declares alternative viewpoints and modes of action as somehow abnormal, eccentric and idiosyncratic.

    My suggestion — perhaps you should stop positing “self-interest” and “other-centeredness” as contradictories and start conceiving of “self-interest” as embracing or entailing the interest of others, a view whereby they’re inseparable!

    As to Adam Smith, another source of your discomfort, at least he was brutally honest. Most people are self-concerned, and yet … the unintended consequences follow, which is a good thing rather than bad (which is the force of the “invisible hand” type of explanation). Give him credit, though, for supplementing his theory of the invisible hand with that of “moral sentiment.”

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    @15

    For your edification, Baronius:

    (1) I don’t feel any personal discomfort about terms of language, be it altruism, philanthropy or charity. My expression in terms of having any “misgivings” was just a polite way of saying that some people have an ear for language (just like some people have ear for music) and some people don’t, an expression which I used by way of offering a hint, a word to the wise, nothing more. Furthermore, I believe I provided an ideologically-based reason as to why the terms in question sound queer. I apologize for the fact the expression led you astray; but on the second thought, it looks like the sense of discomfort is more your rather than mine and that you’re merely projecting.

    (2) You speak of my offering theories I don’t explain. This is muddled, because to offer a theory is to offer an explanation. You may not agree with the explanation, think of it as being off base, or provide an alternative one, but as it stands, your criticism on this score amounts to nothing more than saying that you disagree, so let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?

    (3) As to my theory on the development of art, it sounds quite reasonable to me. The primitive conditions which we humans once faced made it imperative that “use” was the primary objective of any activity and that anything unconnected with use was a waste of energy and resources. Of course, once the humans freed themselves from fending to their immediate and material needs, other objectives suggested themselves, no longer connected with mere use. Ornamentation was an intermediary stage. And then, once a life of leisure rather than mere necessity became available to some, art was born out of craft, by abstraction. It was a process.

    I believe I’ve said that much, if only in between the lines, and it is a kind of explanation. Thus far, you haven’t punched any holes in it, other than saying I haven’t explained anything at all.

    (4) What assertions about human nature have I made, let alone assertions which are “unexamined”? What has this got to do with the structure or content of my argument?

    (5) My “distancing myself from them — the human beings, you mean? How so?

    (6) My argument, theory is a better term, is a functional type of theory, and it is a type of explanation in that the function of an activity is the reason why we engage in it in the first place. I granted there’s an element of circularity, but that doesn’t disqualify it as a theory or an explanation. We are purposeful and purpose-driven animals, are we not. But that’s not really the thrust of the argument. The thrust is that what may start as a function-guided activity or behavior may progress, again by abstraction, to a type of activity which is no longer related to the original purpose, and this progress is gradual. In time, the original purpose may be superseded by another one, again unrelated except by genesis to the original.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    That’s the kind of post of yours that I miss – thoughtful and courteous, yet objective. Please keep it up.

    I will say, however, that I don’t disagree with everything Adam Smith wrote. For instance, he also said that it is essential to capitalism that a working man should be paid enough to support a family – but today that would be termed ‘class warfare’ by the Right.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I always put my best foot forward, Glenn, when in comes to comment space appropriate to my own articles, you ought to know that. Common courtesy demands it.

    But all kidding aside, you also ought to know that I’ve never held any animosity towards you, that my arguments and occasional bad form were polemical in nature.

    As regards “class warfare,” as you term it, I happen to think is not just of figment of anyone’s imagination, whether from the Right, Left or Center. And if our economic circumstances don’t improve substantially and rapidly, and I don’t see how they could, we’re going to witness more of the same, except even more dire.

    #OccupyWallStreet is just a beginning, not a fad or a trend, and it would behoove you to pay closer attention. I’m about to publish on the subject, my gut reaction. I’m certain we can take it from there.

  • Baronius

    Roger – As for art, well, this could be a serious digression, and I’ve never really studied aesthetics, but it seems obvious that inserting time into your argument doesn’t make it more plausible. That is to say: if first there wasn’t art, then there was ornamentation, then there was pure art, there’s still a human decision to make art where there was none, no matter how long that decision took. Some of the earliest works of man are cave paintings, so it may be that art preceeded utility.

    In fact, now that I think about it, that seems to be the error in the rest of your article as well. You’re just assuming that things happened the way you’re describing them. G K Chesterton said that when the theoretician finds that reality differs from his theory, he denies reality. You haven’t gone that far, but I’d think it’s got to give you some pause to realize that you have yet to provide any evidence for anything you’ve said.

  • Igor

    Roger, you´re right, I didn´t read the article and I still haven´t. I´ve been unduly influenced by an ¨Onion¨ article that starts with the punchline then goes on to reveal the buildup.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    No sweat, my man. If you read “Onion,” you must be from California as I once was, thirty years in fact.

    Soon, I’ll be back.

  • zingzing

    the onion is national, roger. and actually from wisconsin, of all places.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I be damned, then Wisconsin of all places, just after they took a major hit from scumbag Walker and company?

    Read all about it in the next installment on Wall Street Occupation. I’m not kidding.

  • zingzing

    i’m getting the feeling one of us is missing something.

  • Maurice

    Roger – your comment #17 is awesome. Strike that. Awesome is an overused word. Thoughtful, judicious, patient explanation.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Thank you, Maurice, but there’s a reasonable explanation. Baronius is a Jesuit in a manner of speaking. He makes me work for my money. Consequently, I have no choice but to resort to Jesuit-like logic if I’m to hold the fort.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    What I’m hearing you say is, if we allow ourselves to evolve we will eventually become other-centered because this is what will guarantee the survival of the species.

    Roger, there are others who have believed, and do believe, that evolution favors the ruthless Ubermensch who has the guts to cull the weak. The master race he is helping to birth will not be other-centered. Its members will be motivated by the acquisition of power.

    I’m only seeing one Force in your article. I’m not seeing any reference to a struggle, except perhaps a struggle against ignorance or lack of “refinement.”

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    Part 4 maybe? Keep on thinkin’, it’s good for the brainz. :)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    The struggle part will be covered in my upcoming article on the New York Autumn.

    What this article really is about is making a case for ultimate concern for the other as the requisite kind of stance behind true revolutionary action.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    The “New York Autumn”. I like that. I wish I’d thought of it first….

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Wasn’t my coinage, Glenn, afraid I’m appropriating it from previous use.

  • Igor

    #28 Irene, looks like the old Eugenics argument to me.

    As it happens, an hour ago I heard Francis Collins (NIH head and reknowned genetics scientist) say, on Michael Krasny´s ¨Forum¨ program on NPR, that every one of us is walking around with 60 or 80 genetic defects and that it´s hopeless to think we can eliminate them by breeding.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    Yes, and it’s just as well, too, Igor.
    Yes, Roger, it would seem to be.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski
  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    One of the commenters asks on the Global Revolution tweet:

    “What the occupation is about?”

    Here is one of the MOD’s (FloridaMom) response:

    Ok, what the occupation is about.
    FloridaMom: right now 1%, or about 400 people hold more money than the bottom 50% or about 150 MILLION people. that is why we are the 99%.

    Ok, what the occupation is about.
    FloridaMom: right now 1%, or about 400 people hold more money than the bottom 50% or about 150 MILLION people. that is why we are the 99%.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    And here’s the site which handles donations and all kinds of help.

    If you want to contribute to the live-stream coverage, click here.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Nader, Ron Paul, Kucinich and Chomsky on what’s it all about — short and sweet.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Zizek addresses #occupywallstreet.