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The Dialectics of Liberty: Some Nontrivial Thoughts About Its Meaning

I've written on quite a few threads throughout Facebook, and am collecting on Notablog, as I go along, all the random (though not unrelated) points I've made in response to those who question (again) the very meaning of "dialectical method", which is the basis of the new anthology, coedited by Ed Younkins and Roger Bissell: The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom. Check this link periodically, if you're not following the multiple threads on which I've commented, with regard to this work:

o In my use of the term "dialectics", it is a prism through which to understand social problems. It is the "art of context-keeping", which asks the social theorist to grasp the larger systemic and historical context within which social problems arise. No social problem is to be looked at as if it were an atomistic, isolated unit, separable from the context in which it is embedded. So in "exploring the context of human freedom" (our subtitle), we're asking libertarians to show a profound regard for that larger context, which includes personal, cultural, and structural (political-economic) elements especially if their aim is to change society. It's not simply: Get rid of (or minimize) the state and everything will be fine. There are other, deeper issues that must be addressed in understanding social problems and attempting to resolve them. This way of looking at the world may have been taken up by the left, but it originated with Aristotle, who wrote the first treatise on dialectical method ("Topics"), even though his discussion of viewing issues from multiple "points of view" is peppered throughout the entire Aristotelian canon. Hegel himself called Aristotle "the fountainhead" of this dialectical method. I'm not going to deny that I learned much about dialectical method from a very high profile Marxist scholar, my mentor Bertell Ollman---and it was through him that I learned to use the method as one of social analysis. My "Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy" (which consists of Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism) was geared toward taking back the method for use by libertarians to bolster their approach to the study of freedom---and of the forces that constrain it.
o Even logic can be abused if it is based on false premises; some philosophers have deduced whole systems of philosophy from a single faulty premise. Dialectics is the handmaiden of logic, and can be undermined by false premises, faulty induction, incorrect identification or interpretation of historical facts, etc. And each "art" can be used as a rationalization for any kind of lunacy. All the more reason to fight against its ties to lunacy. One of the guiding purposes throughout my entire intellectual life has been to take back dialectical method and to build a paradigm by which to strengthen libertarian thinking, which itself can succumb to nondialectical, utopian lapses. And if implemented would lead to dystopian consequences.
o The Soviets---and the Nazis---were masters of distortion and propaganda; it was one of the elements that they used to defend their authority and maintain their power over their own populations. Whether it was the claims to being based on "scientific socialism" in the case of the Stalinists or of admiring the eugenics work of U.S. scientists in the case of Hitler and his genocidal tyranny, each regime had a propaganda machine that allegedly used "science" as the basis for their claims to power. The irony is that not even Marx would have approved of the "Soviet" application of "scientific socialism"---given that he believed genuine socialism could only emerge out of a very advanced stage of capitalism that had basically solved the problem of scarcity (to the point where the society could afford to give 'from each according to his ability to each according to his needs'). Of course, as I argue in two of the books of my trilogy, scarcity is never resolved (because, at the very least, we are all mortal and time for each agent is inherently scarce), and Marx's predictions of a post-scarcity society were a product of what Hayek called a "synoptic delusion." Not a very "dialectical" insight on the part of Marx; where he was so good at criticizing the "utopian socialists" for their contextless proposals, he, himself, succumbs to the very utopian pitfalls he criticized.
o I think that even if Marxists are not into post-scarcity as a goal, they can't have their cake and eat it too: they can't endorse the maxim "from each according to his ability to each according to his needs" if there is not enough ability---and not enough goods and services to go around. That's why Marx predicated the achievement of communism as an outgrowth of a very advanced stage of capitalism, which, in his view, would have essentially solved the problem of scarcity. If everything is abundant, no need to worry about expropriation, and the state will wither away. If you believe that, I have a nice bridge in Brooklyn I could sell you.
o I think that in the case of conservatism, for example, there is a very real understanding of what conservatives believe is essential to the sustenance of a free society. For them, it is typically tradition and the slow evolution of mores over time (at least in the Burkean and Hayekian sense) that serves as the context upon which a stable free society can be built. My disagreement with the approach of many conservatives on this issue is that though they understand the need for a larger cultural context that is supportive of free institutions, they don't recognize how free markets themselves often undermine traditions and challenge traditional mores. As I may have mentioned, Steve Horwitz's article on the family, in The Dialectics of Liberty (and in his own book on Hayek and the family) makes this case quite well. As for "dialectical objectivism"---I can think of one book in particular that reconstructs Rand's philosophy through that prism of interpretation, but the title escapes me at the moment. :)
o A postscript to my above comment, something I shared with my friend Ed Younkins: While it is true that we can use "dialectical" as an adjective to modify any "ism", it is also true that just about anybody can be "dialectical" and "logical", for as Aristotle said, dialectical thinking is like the "proverbial door, which no one can fail to hit" (or even a broken clock can be right twice a day). The point however is that we aim for it to be anchored to the facts of reality, which is why, even at their best, when conservatives try to be dialectical, they are missing something in their contextual arguments--namely, that the market itself challenges the very mores they claim to be the only basis upon which a stable market society can be built. Every person and virtually every school of thought can exhibit dialectical and logical thinking -- since these are constituents of thinking as such. That doesn't make them fully dialectical (or fully logical) by a long shot; hence--the need for a "dialectics of liberty." But even in our book... we don't settle on one vision of what that means. I would like to think that we're getting closer than anybody else toward hammering out a more context-sensitive, fact-based model for thinking more clearly about liberty and the context it requires for its sustenance.
o I agree that the Marxist appropriation did much to destroy what was a supremely important methodological approach. All the more reason to resurrect it with a throwback to its realist Aristotelian beginnings. The Marxists didn't own dialectical method, and in many ways, destroyed the enterprise altogether by falling into the pitfalls of nondialectical, utopian thinking. We hope not to make the same mistake---and suffer the same dystopian consequences.

In response to those who think that "dialectical method" is a fancy phrase for a "trivial" mental process, I state:

o The point, however, is that as "trivial" as it sounds, there are not many folks who can think in a consistently logical or dialectical manner---look at the entire field of U.S. politicians for a lesson on how disintegrated their views are, and the effects that such views can have on the world at large. Indeed, right here in New York City, capital of the world, the DeBlasio administration is engaging in a systematic attack against education for the gifted and talented, those few schools that actually do teach children in a more enriched and systematic way.
o Ayn Rand herself talked about how modern education often put children on an unequal cognitive footing because pedagogical methods tended toward dis-integration and rote memorization, while also teaching a whole generation of kids about the nature of obedience to authority. That which seems "trivial" is, in fact, not trivial at all. Training children in the principles of efficient thinking, providing them the tools by which to think through an argument, follow it to its logical conclusions, understand its potential unintended consequences, and trace the interconnections between topics and problems within a larger system across time (in which those topics and problems often become preconditions and effects of one another) is a highly sophisticated art. It's not something that is typical of American education, whether in the early grades or in college. In fact, as "specialization" has proceeded, and as studies have become more and more compartmentalized, integrated, interdisciplinary work is put at a disadvantage. One of the best things about The Dialectics of Liberty and the series of which it is apart, edited by Ed Younkins ("Capitalist Thought: Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics") is its emphasis on the interconnectedness of the humanities and the social sciences. I'm delighted that our new book is part of that series, thanks to Ed and his monumental efforts. [And check out one of Ed's new entries in the series, Perspectives on Ayn Rand's Contributions to Economic and Business Thought]

I'll add to this entry, if and when I say anything more on this subject. Of course, it would really be nice if folks read the new collection before commenting on its themes, but I've been through this before and have been blessed with the patience of a saint---even if what I say sometimes does not sound too saintly. :)