Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Clarity from the Left

Epistemological rifts, far from the domain of those who make it their business to study how we know, are significant once their implications in the real world become apparent. I do not claim to have any intimate knowledge of these rifts among leftists in the Philippines. Given this caveat, let me explain the utility of asking questions such as those I have asked Kapirasong Kritika.

Like any student, we often frame reality through the lenses of our discipline. The existence of disciplinary myopia is a human limitation we cannot possibly overcome. We are not omniscient. Neither are we omnipresent. The postmodern intervention is useful in this aspect. Let us acknowledge that the things we know and believe are a sum of our own limited human experience.

Now, science is a human endeavor that aims to build knowledge. Scientists have their theories and hypotheses and aim to test them through experiments. Through rigorous methodologies scientists have proven many things we now know to be true. It is absolute truth that gravity exists. It is absolute truth that once we throw a rock up in the air it will fall back to earth. This is true back in Isaac Newton’s time. It was true a thousand years before that. It will be true a thousand years from now, given that the Earth continues to exist.

Now, what is the difference between a piece of rock and Aling Juana, proprietor of a sari-sari store? Well, while Aling Juana’s physical components may not significantly alter in the course of her lifetime, given she does not meet an accident that will deprive her of limbs or any one of her senses, will her attitudes and beliefs remain the same? It is true today that Aling Juana hates mangoes. This is her attitude. There are many reasons why she hates mangoes – all uniquely her own. The consequence of her belief will drive her not to ever purchase mangoes. Theory translated into action. Will she continue to hate mangoes tomorrow? Who knows? In twenty-four hours a thousand things could happen that might change her mind. That is the difference between a rock and Aling Juana. It is the difference between the study of inert, non-sentient objects and the study of human subjects.

I am reticent to accept willy-nilly any body of knowledge claiming to have the answers to problems besetting the human condition. Largely, this comes from my own positioned study of critical political economy. There are many theories to explain why the Philippines is poor compared to, say, the United States. Can any one theory or any one body of knowledge claim to have the absolute truth as an answer? A RESOUNDING YES animated the ideology of a whole generation of decision-makers among the powerful who sought to shape the world. Theirs was the fool-proof answer to the developing world’s poverty. This failed ideology, as Kapirasong Kritika will probably be familiar with, comes from the discipline of economics – a science of human beings that pretended to have the exactness of the most numeral of sciences – physics. Their claim to absolute truth led to the immiseration of millions around the world. The ill effects of this ideology’s prescriptions, KK will agree, can still be felt today.

I think KK will also agree that there are many ways to interpret the unfolding of politics at any level. He will agree that the dominance of one interpretation over one is necessarily a political struggle. A useful postmodern intervention is this acknowledgment. “Theory is always for someone and some purpose” writes political economist Robert Cox. The science of his vaunted predecessor, to which he and a whole generation of other scholars including this one owe much, is bound by its historical specificity. Karl Marx is not omniscient and omnipresent. He sought to uncover ‘laws’ of Capitalism much in the same manner that his contemporaries sought to uncover ‘laws’ explaining the natural world. As I said, a rock is not a human being. A collection of human beings – in a societal unit such as a country for example – will not be forever cemented in one mold. “Classes” in the specific historical context of nineteenth century Britain cannot be made to function as concept in twenty-first century Philippines. It is testament to Marx’s brilliance that much of his contribution to the body of human knowledge has withstood the test of time. A century and half since the publication of his oeuvre Das Kapital, millions upon millions of events have transpired to change the conditions in which Capitalism, his object of study, functions. For this reason, and as good historical materialists, we need to be critical of these changes.

I have written countless times about the depoliticizing tendencies of biting the postmodern apple hook line and sinker. If everything is relative, as postmodernists say, then what can we believe in? And if we believe in nothing, what do we fight for? I believe that there are certain absolute truths pertaining to the human condition that will apply to all human beings regardless of hue, gender or creed. For example, I hold true that all human beings deserve to live in dignity. My politics will stem from a belief in this truth claim. Now this relates to a value system to which Kapirasong Kritika and I can inter-subjectively agree.

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