[Marxism] American "political ignorance" ?

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Tue Jul 27 03:27:35 MDT 2004

Steve asks:

> I'm asking how you explain the widespread ignorance in America, for things
> even so simple as geography. The Left tends to say that people are
> because they are "made" to be ignorant by the school system and the
> propaganda apparatus. But how come some of us have good knowledge of
> objective facts, conditions, and events. And the phrase "willful
> suggests that, somehow, people want to be ignorant and that knowing too
> can only get you in trouble, not to mention that it does no good in the
> of getting ahead in life. If people feel helpless, will they seek out
> knowledge?
> I guess I've answered my own question, but I would like some feedback,
> anyhow.

Isaac Deutscher commented on this question once in the 1960s, noting the
paradoxical coexistence of enormous educational resources and political
backwardness in the United States (specifically in regard to the Vietnam
War). Your question is not easy to answer, because how for example would you
assess the cognitive capacity of a whole country ?

Any philosopher can tell you that human ignorance is very difficult to
assess and measure, beyond spectacular anecdotal evidence. Marx himself said
that the vice he excused most was human gullibility. Suppose I asked you to
write down everything you know and everything you don't know - you couldn't
do it. Suppose that you could, then it's still difficult to assess how, and
in what form, you know it or are unaware of it.

My father used to joke, "when I think I know, I don't know, and when I think
I don't know, I know" which refers to the contradictions of conscious and
subconscious awareness. Polanyi noted people have "tacit knowledge", i.e.
"we know more than we can tell" and you might also say we cannot really tell
how much we don't know. Studies have been done of national differences in IQ
scores. For example, http://www.geocities.com/race_articles/ but the
findings are controversial, and you might easily find yourself embroiled in
an argument about racism and ethnic prejudice. This is just to illustrate
the difficulty of the question.

The USA has a high quality educational system comparatively speaking which
is well resourced, again comparatively speaking. I know the Leftist argument
that "people are made ignorant by the school system and the propaganda
apparatus", Louis Althusser argued this, but that is not a very credible
explanation of the whole thing. Schools and media reflect, challenge,
respond and reinforce the totality of what is already there, they work on
what is already there, real social practices.

Okay, you can say they "filter" events and report selectively according to a
scheme of values, or according to what sells, but even there they can only
do that within certain limits. Beyond that they begin to strain credulity,
and people become inured to propaganda. At most you could say, that social
institutions are intrinsically conservative. I don't think Americans are
necessarily "ignorant" and if you look at overseas travel statistics a lot
of them also do travel, and have experience of other countries. A more
interesting question is, how they actually process that experience, and what
they do with it.

Another way to look at it, is in terms of what kinds of knowledge people
think is important to have, and what knowledge they functionally need to
make their lives. The USA is a very pragmatic kind of culture, and the
pragmatic world view rejects knowledge for its own sake, pragmatism cannot
reflect self-critically or self-reflectively on pragmatism itself, and thus
has recourse to a religious metaphysic (cf. William James) - it rejects
systematic abstraction or critical thought beyond what has practical
relevance or importance.

In pragmatic thought, knowledge is only as good as the practical results it
has, or the action to which it leads. Practical concerns validate
theoretical concerns. In which case, knowledge is pursued mainly for its
utility with regard to practical purposes. You might have a great factual
knowledge, but pragmatism asks, "so what ?" because the relevance of it only
exists in relation to some practical purpose.

At best, that provides great behavioural flexibility, which overcomes every
form of dogmatic or doctrinaire rigidity or fixed principle. At worst, it
creates an unreflected, shallow "philistinism" or utilitarianism if I may
use that word, which prevents consistency and systematic, cumulative
learning from experience in a more profound sense, because only those
questions and inquiries are valid which are of (immediate) practical
relevance. If the situation changes, you adapt to that, but there is no
unitary framework which can contain the old and new situations. People
change, situations change, and "different times are different". Apart from
that, there is only the concept of eternity that religion provides or a
philosophical Logos. Any theory which contains pragmatism as a special case
can only be ideology.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx comments on the dissolving effect of
capitalist market economy:"all that is solid melts into air". The expansion
of commercial trade, the ability to buy and sell everything, to take things
apart and put them back together again in a different way in order to sell
them as a product, has the revolutionary effect of overturning all fixed
boundaries of human life that previously existed. Joseph Schumpeter also
develops this idea, with the concept of "creative destruction".

In that sense, pragmatic individualism combined with a religion which
eternalises the human condition is the ideology (form of social
self-awareness) most suited to capitalist market expansion, because it means
thought flexibly adapts to whatever is required to do business, never mind
the why's and wherefore's or the ultimate justification of it. Any ultimate
justification in terms of ultimate values, lies outside pragmatic concerns
and by definition cannot be acted upon. We can dispute about that for ever
and a day, while business carries on.

As I have said often, rephrasing Marx's insight in my own way, "the market
has no morality of their own" beyond what is required to settle
transactions, and markets will select those personal values which currently
happen to be compatible with their functioning or promote it. They will
destroy or eliminate all other values. That doesn't mean that Americans
aren't profoundly concerned with human values, they are, it is just that
those human values are thought of as personal values, based on perceptions
of how people currently are, which are held within a social framework which
itself is largely unquestioned, and accepted as the only one possible.

If people feel helpless, will they seek out knowledge? In a pragmatic
culture, they will seek out knowledge if it makes them feel less helpless,
or if they think it will make them stop feeling helpless. But that knowledge
may not explain why they feel helpless, it may function only to stop the
helplessness. Political awareness begins to grow, as soon as there is a
popular perception that there is a problem, that something has gone wrong.
But pragmatism prescribes no particular way of framing the problem itself,
and no particular solution other than a solution which "works" or appears to
work. The approach adopted depends just on personal values and on practical

The positive side of that is, that it permits great creativity and freedom
in problem-solving. As against that, because pragmatic thinking abhors
historical consciousness (theorising and relating constants and variables in
social life systematically, in the framework of historical time), the
solutions chosen may just perpetuate the problem, because the "practical"
mode of thought prevents inquiry into the essence or deeper causes of the
problem. Because for pragmatism that is anyone's guess, a philosophical
matter, which has no practical relevance and cannot be acted upon.


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