YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

July 18, 2016

Materialists v. organic conservatives

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 7:20 pm
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Thinkstock digital image

Thinkstock digital image

The most common question I get from readers is “what do you mean by ‘organic conservative’ versus ‘materialism’? I tried to explain here and elsewhere (https://clarespark.com/2015/01/23/what-is-an-organic-conservative/ and https://clarespark.com/2012/09/08/what-is-a-materialist/.

These antitheses may be associated with some as “science” versus “religion” or Democrat versus Republican, but these terms are not necessarily opposites (e.g., “moderates” may be New Dealers/Big Government advocates).

For instance, a materialist may be someone who focuses on the reliability of our senses with implications for eventually finding objective truth.

Put simply, a materialist is not necessarily a revolutionary socialist, for “dialectical materialism” is a Hegelian mystical conception, not to be confused with the empiricism of John Locke. And materialists may be religious, in the sense that they do not await for realistic contact with the world only as a heavenly reward for good behavior in this life.

Whereas organic conservatives may found in the Red-Green movement, or, perhaps surprisingly, among ‘traditionalist’ Burkeans: they do similarly rely on mystical bonds in order to achieve social cohesion. In many cases, mystics are on the lam from the machine, finding solace in idealized Nature.


Materialists like this writer find social cohesion/social peace, if at all, among individuals who share the same interests. A historian must look at all irreconcilable conflicts within the individuals, groups and/or institutions under study, whether these exist among sibling rivals, parents and children, men and women, economic groups, or nationalities. Few of us live long enough to master a ‘holistic’ view of the past, while part of that quandary is owing to the secrecy of those who wield power over others.

Unresolved is the existence of “race” as an objective division. Frantz Fanon and Ashley Montagu continue to confront one other, with “diversity” intended to validate [socially constructed] “race.” Cultural nationalists are convinced that all histories, including warfare, can be explained in terms of race and exploitation, while other [organic conservatives], like supporters of the United Nations, embrace unity in diversity, once known as e pluribus unum. I prefer the physical anthropologist Montagu who agrees with my dissertation adviser, Alex Saxton, that while physical variations are obvious, mental characteristics vary from individual to individual. This does not sit well with the propaganda disseminated by both political parties.

Racism is real, but “race” is a social construction; if you are a proud materialist, put those commas back!


June 25, 2015

Surviving in the age of judicial activism

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 8:21 pm
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[For a medical professional’s view of alternatives to ACA, see https://clarespark.com/2015/06/26/another-missed-opportunity-james-pagano-m-d-on-scotuss-bad-decision/.%5D

Like all aging persons I am obsessed with maintaining my youthful vigor and mental alertness. It is not easy, partly because there is no agreement among physicians or other health care professionals about, to give one example, the sources of anxiety and depression, with the latter mental states ostensibly the causes of inflammation and preventable early death, not to speak of disabilities.

When I started graduate school in the early 1980s at UCLA, I remember that Student Health told us (through all their handouts) that we were responsible for managing our health. But what does that mean, exactly? Besides the obvious preventive measures of diet and exercise, what were we supposed to do, say, about constant typing or sitting or the hazing inflicted by faculty members (I am not mentioning sports that stress the skull and joints)?

This personal problem is now made more acute by the Supreme Court decision today, that supports Obamacare as written, despite widespread opposition, much of it from doctors!

Such libertarian measures as eliminating any Big Government control entirely do not solve some of the basic problems, and I do not refer just to doctor shortages or rationing. I will suggest some unresolved issues that even the most well-meaning measures for expanding health care do not take into account. 1. Not all doctors are equally competent, though with increasingly standardized protocols of treatment, it may be possible for less quackery. 2. The nation is divided over contentious issues such as vaccination, abortion, “normal” sexuality in general, and the role of government in regulating the food industry. 3. Many parents do not want their children to learn hygiene and physiology at an early age, some out of prudery, others in fear that schools will usurp their proper role in controlling the education of their children.

I should state my own biases. I do believe in self-management and personal responsibility (and more, I remain worried about worker health and safety), but some problems intrinsic to health are contested or ambiguous. As I grow older, I realize that we are not rational creatures, but more pushed around by our emotional conflicts. Until we face up to the public and academic resistance to depth psychology (except insofar as it serves “the ethical state”) no amount of legislation or federalism will improve the health and life chances of the American people. Nor will a retreat into mysticism.

We need to rehabilitate “materialism” so that it applies to science and economics, not to consumerism.



August 29, 2014


KOLsealLabor Day was a counter-revolutionary exercise in its very foundation during the administration of Grover Cleveland. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day. Revolutionary socialism was the last thing that the AFL or the less well-known and long defunct Knights of Labor desired.

This blog will focus on those aspects of our dominant sociology that seek to defang the labor movement. [For a blog that shows resistance to New Deal labor codes as dished out by the State by one black radical, see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/02/labor-day-2013/.%5D  But since I, unlike Sam Dorsey,  am not writing from the revolutionary Left (see https://clarespark.com/2014/05/10/why-i-left-the-left/), I will focus on those features that deter workers from acting in their own interest, for instance in their mindless capitulation to union bosses (a bureaucracy that is rarely mentioned these days).

  1. Populism versus revolutionary socialism. As I have written before, populism is a petit-bourgeois radical movement that seems to offer upward mobility to ambitious persons from humble backgrounds. Populism deploys such phrases as “the masses” or “the people” as if all but ruling elites formed a compact entity with identical economic and social interests. I don’t see why class analysis should be the monopoly of the Left. Clearly, small business and big business have different structures and problems; the same applies to male and female workers, especially with respect to child rearing and housework. (As to whether or not “class collaboration” between “business” and “labor” is a good thing or not, I leave to economists and other historians. The labor movement made its peace with capitalism during the 1930s and 1940s, and “big labor” has no revolutionary aspirations, to the disappointment of Leninists. The “labor movement” as it once existed, no longer exists in this “post-industrial” service-oriented economy.)

But even worse, populist politics, early on co-opted by “progressives” pervade popular culture, and are promiscuous in their antagonism toward “elites”. In its original form, populism was heavily antisemitic (i.e., bankers, like “Wall Street” were generically a Jewish cabal with ambitions to control the world), a fact brushed out by its New Left defenders. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/02/the-legitimate-aspirations-of-the-___-people/.)

I noted during the art world upheavals of the 1970s that protesters defined themselves as “populists”, not as “socialists,” for  the term “populism” however tainted by its initial anti-Semitism, was acceptable (for such intellectual celebrities as Hannah Arendt, “the people” was the opposite of a mob, implying that individuals believed in their particular individual rights; hence “the people’s” critique could apply to the supposed crimes of any elite suspected of taking away such rights, no matter how competent the elite’s members might be in their particular field). A particularly grotesque example is found in the Chomsky-ite attack on Walter Lippmann (again an antisemitic gesture) that spread the canard that Lippmann’s influential book Public Opinion (1922) called for the “manufacture of consent” in the newly developing mass media, in order to hornswoggle the gullible people-becoming-mobs. ( See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.) A similar condemnation of mass culture can be found in Hannah Arendt’s “must-read” tome The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950, 1958). And yet Arendt is worshipped by many academic radicals, as are other “critical theorists.”

A similar outrage was found in the counter-culture that continues to delight in technophobia and representations of mad scientists (see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/25/penny-dreadfuls-sinister-significance/.)

Indeed, when I defended the Enlightenment on a Pacifica radio popular morning show in the 1990s, I was accused of being a CIA agent, hence the lowest form of animal life—this from listeners who believed themselves to be anticapitalist and pro-labor.



Cultural pessimism. What could be more detrimental to working people than the current mood of doom and gloom? Is it any wonder that they seek refuge in sports and other forms of mass entertainment, that are predictably primitivist and (stylishly) loud?

Where does this doom and gloom originate? Surely not in the aspirations of the Founders, most of whom were avid followers of the various European enlightenments, and who were guardedly optimistic about the future of the republic. I locate the apocalyptic, technophobic, and anti-intellectual mood to the regnant populism and 1960s counter-culture that arguably never had the welfare of working people as their goal, but rather emancipation from their parents—stand-ins for the evil “jewified” bourgeoisie. Enter “youth culture” as revolt against “suburban sadness.”

Materialism and the working class. American reactionaries (among whom I count the populists and faux “liberals”) come out of German (philosophical) Idealism, which was always antidemocratic and protofascist. “Materialism” is now widely understood as an addiction to consumerism and similarly shallow values, whereas materialism used to signify a retreat from mysticism to the power of the individual to use her or his senses, to reason, and thus to defend her and his interests through making sense of the world and its institutions.  This older view of “materialism” is now blamed by culture warriors of the Right on “secular progressives”—meaning persons like me who praise cultural pluralism and stand up for education in the sciences, economics, and history, putting children ahead of teachers unions and their narrow interests.

I will end this Labor Day blog by observing that teachers are petit-bourgeois and definitely NOT working class, despite their enthusiasm for their “unions” in which they ape the organization of real laborers. When I trained to be a science teacher in the 1950s, we were constantly asked “is teaching a profession? And if so, should they strike for higher wages?” It is our teachers who are preparing their students for real life as mature adults. The least they could do is not succumb to those administrators who joyfully participate in the Democratic Party urban machines and the collectivist ideologies that these mobsters dispense to kids and their parents who could and should know better.

Postscript: I got this comment from a Facebook friend Stuart Creque this morning after I asked what was interesting about Labor Day: “ My dad was a trade unionist, which is funny because he was a high school teacher, not a laborer. Teachers unionizing is rather like Hollywood writers unionizing: it has nothing to do with collective bargaining power and everything to do with self-image as “working men and women.”

But what really fascinates me about labor today is the death of solidarity. My dad exposed me to what labor solidarity was. And the interesting thing is that nowadays it seems almost nonexistent. Each union seems out for its own interests, and more likely to focus on poaching from other unions than coordinating with them or even honoring their picket lines.

In the Writers Guild of America strike a few years ago, the union actually counseled its members to write and earn as much as possible in the days leading up to the strike deadline. They had no concept that they were giving management inventory to work on during the strike, reducing pressure for a settlement. They had no concept of collecting a strike fund over time and then ordering a work-to-rule slowdown leading into the strike. They also had no stomach to hold out for synchronizing contract deadlines with other Hollywood guilds and unions.” I can only add to Stuart Creque’s comment that writers are competing with each other and thus have little motivation for solidarity in protecting the quality of their work. They form a guild, not a union.


June 21, 2013

Apocalyptic landscapes and the escape artist

Pierre Massine's Apocalypse

Pierre Massine’s Apocalypse

Here is a sampling of prior blogs on the subject of apocalypse as irrationalist insistence on inevitable decadence.





https://clarespark.com/2011/04/03/progressives-the-luxury-debate-and-decadence/ (read this first)




Commentary: All parents are aware that toddlers go through years of fearing “monsters.”  Many sleep problems are associated with such imagos (images instigated by angry parents of either gender, or fighting in front of children, or images gleaned from mass media and some religions).

Counter-Enlightenment publicists mobilize such childhood fears (reinforced in popular culture and political propaganda) to influence public opinion in directions that are statist, even protofascist.  For instance, “progressive” schools introduce such terrifying subjects as the monstrosities of the Holocaust or of slavery before students have the emotional equipment to deal with them as events in the past, or to evaluate the claims that their effects linger in the present. Is it any wonder that teen-agers lap up horror movies featuring vampires and zombies, movies that may trivialize real life horrors or in the knowable past and predictable future? These kids are easy marks for movie and television producers who would have them live in a world populated by monsters–monsters who disappear when the lights go on; these and other propagandists denigrate the science and technology that will enable youngsters to navigate, with realism, all grown-up controversies.

My argument: it is impossible to have rational political debate on controversial subjects such as environmentalism or immigration reform in this infantilized atmosphere. What is increasingly clear to me is that the forces of reaction have the upper hand in popular culture. Have we turned into a nation of escape artists—escaping the responsibilities of citizenship through socially-induced regression? How convenient it is for the morally and politically lazy to pronounce that we are doomed.  Both liberals and conservatives should think through their own views on progress before they inflict their possible pessimism and depression on the young.

Here is an example of how a liberal publication criticizes apocalyptic thinking in order to argue for political action to halt man-made climate change. We need a more comprehensive critique of apocalyptic thinking than The Atlantic  offers us here: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/how-apocalyptic-thinking-prevents-us-from-taking-political-action/255758/.

Oil refinery as The End

Oil refinery as The End

September 8, 2012

What is a materialist?

What is a materialist? This question cannot be answered without asking what is an organic conservative.  See https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, in which I give examples taken from my book on the Melville Revival. That essay takes patience and time, so I will attempt a more accessible account below.

This blog focuses entirely on what we mean by materialists and materialism, since the meanings of this term have proliferated, and are frequently deployed in partisan propaganda, but rarely with a definition of what the term signifies.

As a term of abuse, materialism refers to the excessive consumption promoted by free market capitalism, often viewed as a self-serving innovation of “the International Jew.” Leftists, whether of the Democratic Party or of the hard Left, believe that the desire for Things has taken precedence over Love thy Neighbor, and produced a loathsome narcissism, and worse, “bourgeoisifying” what should have been a revolutionary working class. Such love of material comfort, it is alleged, has only served to place the “rootless” individual into the iron cage of materialism (Max Weber), for such a one has emptied herself of “spirituality”.

Minimalist architecture and design addressed the froufrou of excessive ornamentation with a return to simplicity, even austerity. And neoclassical austerity is the preferred style of communism and related ideologies interested in high quality mass production that would re-spiritualize the irreligious urban masses. (One branch of feminist art addressed such austerity as typical of the male sensibility, and produced in reaction, pattern painting. Some of its leading artists have been Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, notwithstanding their liberal or leftist sympathies. I could have added Judy Chicago to this group, in her rehabilitation of painting on china or embroidery, once considered to be crafts practiced by women, and demeaned accordingly.)

Joyce Kozloff image

Materialism as empiricism, as a route to knowledge known to some Greek philosophers, was mostly a product of the Reformation and then the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, but even a materialist like Hobbes warned against the untrammeled search for truth as a dangerous “passion.” (Catholic scholars have pointed out that much science was developed by medieval monks, and they are right.)

The German Enlightenment of the 18th century was reactionary as it undermined “materialism” with its mystical notion of national character and Zeitgeist or “the spirit of the age.” Society was held together by mystical bonds of blood and soil, but Herder, the chief proponent of “national character” arranged his different societies in a hierarchy that favored Germans and ancient Greeks. See https://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/.

To conclude this short blog, a materialist historian looks at the evidence of this world, although with a skeptical eye, for we understand that we are capable of misreading primary sources, and that primary source materials are themselves sometimes wrong or distorted by diarists, the records of courts, etc. (Or primary source materials may be hidden by secretive tyrants, an ongoing problem for historians and the better journalists.) We also tend to look to similar material interests as a route to social solidarity, not to mystical bonds that are posited by the organic conservatives (e.g. populists/progressives asserting “the public interest” over the ever-selfish “individual”). And the latter mystics are found all over the political spectrum.  To see “things as they are” is no easy matter, and beware of those experts who abuse “evidence” to please a client or an institution or a political party. For more on this point, see (https://clarespark.com/2013/12/13/culture-wars-religion-and-the-neurotic-historian/.)

Note: My use of the Bauhaus and its neoclassical underpinnings (mystical) are derived from Barbara Haskell’s essay in the catalog to the recent exhibition of Lyonel Feininger’s career in Germany and America. See  http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/LyonelFeininger. Haskell explains that the Bauhaus (Feininger was a member) attempted to revive the medieval unity of arts and crafts, i.e., as a restoration of spirituality. This was a powerful insight for me.

January 15, 2012

Prometheus Bound, but good

Rubens's Prometheus BoundThis blog responds to a heated interchange this last week over whether Republicans or Democrats were more “anti-science.” I complained bitterly about the foolish framing of the question, but since few non-scientists may understand my own indignation, I thought I had better explain.

There is no such thing as a “science” that encompasses all the worldly, materialist efforts to grasp the facts of life and death, thence to intervene to enhance life and forestall death. What the electorate is debating is the power of ultraconservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics to roll back the achievements (or, in their views, atrocities) of the modern world, a modernity that is held responsible for decadence and mass death, owing to the mistaken notions of progress and “enlightenment;” a secular wasteland that is gleefully responsible for “the death of God,” or, failing that, banishing Christian symbols from public space. Such a dive into the muck betrays “life” itself.  In other words, the question regarding “anti-science” serves culture warriors in both political parties and is intrinsic to the current polarization.

Scientism versus science.   In my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, I made a distinction between the Radical and Conservative Enlightenments. The Radical Enlightenment (a 16th century development that educated and raised the morale of “the lower orders”) was co-opted by anxious elites fearing the leveling tendencies of science and its alleged worship of the Goddess of Reason. These “moderate conservative” elites formed the progressive movement, and used “scientific management” to forestall servile revolts, arguing that free markets, left unregulated, would generate mobs who would abolish private property tout court. Similarly, social psychology was harnessed to the New Deal, using statistics and other scientistic (i.e., pretending to scientific method) strategies to get a consensus behind the ever more powerful federal government and the authority of the presidency.  I call this co-opting of “science” the Conservative Enlightenment. The social bonds it advocates are based on mystical bonds between leaders and the led, not upon the convergence of real interests within groups. Such are the methods espoused by the troops of the allegedly “pro-science” Democratic Party.

Science versus Magic. Scientific method, i.e., relying on material evidence and following facts wherever they lead, does not come naturally to a growing child. As an infant and toddler, and even into adolescence, magical thinking will dominate the psyche. Seeing “things as they are” may be fraught with fear, pain, and conflict. In my own examination of Herman Melville’s writing, I have seen the anguish with which the idealizations of childhood are relinquished. His kaleidoscopic imagination, that constantly reconfigures the world we think we see, so apparent to readers who have gone that route themselves, is generally suppressed in the scholarship, or dismissed as “incoherence,” or as a pre-Freudianism that is easily dismissed as bogus, carnal, and hence “Jewish.” Melville himself never resolved his inner war between science and religion, at times demonizing his “dark” Promethean characters, including “Margoth” an apostate secular Jew, who bears comparison with Twain’s Yankee.

Dialectical materialism versus materialism. Realism and naturalism in the arts have gotten a bad rap because of their association with the marxiste notion of dialectical materialism. The latter is a form of Hegelianism that banishes the real world in favor of an unalterable march toward communism/the reign of Spirit, a march supposedly led by the politically-conscious working class, but in practice, guided by intellectuals. These same intellectuals decry (undialectical) “materialism” as atomization and hyper-individualism of the most hateful “bourgeois” variety. I have been called that atomic bomb by more than one Leninist. As culture critics, they purportedly espouse “realism,” which for them consists of unveiling the mystifications of the bourgeoisie, pulling back the curtain to expose exploited masses and wily magicians in the urbanized land of Oz. Where these mystical anti-mystics go wrong is in their condemnation of the Promethean bourgeoisie, a class that relies on science and technology to improve the world and the life chances of its inhabitants.

Science is not dogma, and is constantly self-correcting in the collective criticism of the community of scientists (unless they are bought off by patronage). But that is not the view of those relativists who now study the history of science in order to discredit is as “essentially, a swindle.” (See https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/ or https://clarespark.com/2010/01/03/this-witch-is-not-for-burning-science-as-magic/.)

In the world of true science, quacks are driven out, and commonly held beliefs subject to alteration in the face of new evidence. Would that our political culture were as discriminating in extruding frauds.


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