A women’s centre at my university hosted a talk called “Younger, Faster, Stronger”. The speaker’s book had the same title. I objected: “What about the older, slower, weaker?” We get older, slower, weaker almost from the beginning. It’s the way of the universe. Constant decay. Human beings are part of nature, subject to the same laws, in mind and body.
It’s how Marx saw it. He was a naturalist and a realist. We’re subject to cause and effect, including in our thinking. When we think about our lives, and what to do with them, we don’t start from a mythical spot called “individual”, somehow free to make “our own” choices. Lenin warned of confusion when we forget that our very thinking presupposes an entire social setting. We should know it, realistically.
I was bothered that a women’s centre was promoting this event. Feminist research values connections: We are relational beings. Recent work refers to Walt Whitman’s declaration, “I contain multitudes”. It is the idea that we’re not single. We are intensely interdependent. But Whitman knew the cost. It involves loss. It can’t be all about gain. He wanted connection to all sentient beings. It means giving up oneself.
Lenin saw the confusion about freedom – the idea, or ideology, of “powering through”, pursuing “dreams”, whatever they are, like “younger, faster, stronger”. Latin American philosophers have known this error for centuries. Simón Bolívar, who deeply respected European Enlightenment philosophers, saw the “power through” idea as naïve. But it made sense to those wanting to rule the world.
Or, it made sense to think it made sense. Europeans, Bolívar wrote, didn’t know the reality of being “even lower than servitude, lost or worse absent from the universe” – the reality of those made into “non-persons” by imperialism. They didn’t ask how to know other people as people. It’s done through human connection. But, as Whitman explained, again and again, this means loss – to one’s self.
It’s a hard idea. It existed in North America back in the 70s, but disappeared. Ivan Illich, wildly popular in the 60s and 70s, and later forgotten, was among those who knew and wrote about renunciation. [i] It is the idea that we must give things up to live, and see, better. It is about freedom, dependent upon understanding. We must sometimes lose, or give up, in order to know, better.
Renunciation is in religions: we lose life to save it. But it is there in Marx. Dialectical materialism says knowing is dialectical. The world acts upon us and we receive back. It is a view consistent, by the way, with recent philosophy of science. We engage with the world and it changes us. Change is loss. Lenin described discovery as a passage through dark waters. It’s risky. There is loss, including to identity.
The idea that we must lose to gain better perspective existed in the 70s drop-out movement. Counter-cultural communities weren’t part of a “plan” for success. Members were transformed, losing who they were. It was in the drug culture. Mind-altering drugs were a way to give up yourself to see the world differently. Renunciation (of one’s mind), however one considers the results, was motivational.
The idea was even in popular culture. In the original Star Trek, often called an American icon, Spock represented reason. Spock’s distinctive skill is mind melds. He gives up his identity to become one with another being, often alien. The idea runs counter to assumptions about reason. Mind melds involve risk. You might not get your identity back. Spock loses and, as a result, time after time, discovers.
We don’t teach Marx now. This witty, intelligent 19th century philosopher disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed. Anyone who knows Marx knows his philosophy was not involved. Lenin knew before he died the USSR would not be Marxist. No one argued that Marx’s insights into human nature, knowledge and freedom are no longer applicable. Marx “died” because academics succumbed to popular opinion.
Marx didn’t die in Cuba. And his dialectical materialism was never dead there, as it was in North America and Europe.[ii] The intellectual author of the Cuban Revolution was José Martí whose philosophy of nature, including human nature, and how we know it, was Marxist. It explains why Cuba made the remarkable decision to send troops to Angola, for no gain and at much cost, to fight racism.
The facts are known, even to the CIA.[iii] But they are not much talked about, just as Marx is not much talked about, even by feminists, at least in North America, who value nature. When Illich said life had become a fetish in North America, he wasn’t understood. He said we don’t know it. God forbid. We think we know everything. Like Martí, Illich said we can’t know life without giving, without losing.
This brings me to Lenín Moreno, who is presidential candidate in Ecuador’s elections on Sunday. The election has been likened to the Battle of Stalingrad, which (arguably) turned around the Second World War. [iv] The right-wing candidate, Guillermo Lasso, promises “liberty” for Ecuador. It’s the old refrain, which Bolívar called misery in the name of liberty. It’s an idea of liberty: gain, getting what we want.
Ecuador has made gains in poverty reduction, wage growth, reduced inequality, and greater social inclusion.[v] These don’t count for the lovers of “liberty” in the sense above. This is because the people who gained don’t count. Moreno was shot in the back during a robbery. From a wheelchair, he has made Ecuador a leader in respect for rights of the disabled. He knows the people who don’t count.
As vice president, he launched a project called “Smile Ecuador”, intending to improve the “quality and warmth of human life… [to make Ecuadorans] better workers, better bureaucrats and better teachers.” Some criticised him: “How can we be happy if we lack so much?” Moreno’s response: “Maybe we lack a lot because we are not happy and not kind. We were putting the cart before the horse.”[vi]
When academics buy into the decrepit idea liberals call “negative freedom” (roughly, I’m free if no one gets in my way), they support imperialism. Moreno’s unusual message won’t register there. It’s hard to understand. But it’s part of a tradition of ideas. He should win for that reason. He should learn how it matters to those obsessed with being “younger, faster, stronger”, just because it’s what we want.
[i] See David Cayley, “Introduction”, Ivan Illich (Ed.), Rivers north of the future: The testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley (House of Anansi Press, 2005).
[ii] E.g. Armando Hart, Etica, cultura, política (Havana: Centro de Estudios Martianos, 2006)
[iii] Many of Piero Gleijeses’s sources are declassified CIA documents. See Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959– 1976; Visions of freedom: Havana. Washington, Pretoria and the struggle for southern Africa, 1976–1 991 (both from University of North Carolina Press, 2002, 2013).
[iv] Atilio Boron, http://www.atilioboron.com.ar/2017/02/la-batalla-de-stalingrado-se-librara-en.html