Sunday, 22 July 2018

On Berdyaev's "Slavery and Freedom"

What should the power relation between man and society be? Should society crush and use the individual for a "common good," like in totalitarian regimes, or should the individual be enabled to rise above all societal pressures?

These are the basic questions that Nikolay Berdyaev tackles in his book "Slavery and Freedom." His answer is personalist socialism. His view of personality is central to his account. According to Berdyaev, personality is an existential, spiritual center of freedom and creativity. In this way, he echoes Romanian philosopher Lucian Blaga who stated that humans, as opposed to animals, are beings who live "into mystery and for revelation." Personality is a mystery, a question with no set answer. Human beings are not part of the natural world, they're not objects in the world, but subjects. They exist in the realm of freedom, not in the realm of nature and necessity. As occupant of this realm of freedom, the individual is engaged in a creative dialogue with nature, other individuals and God. God as well is a personality, a subject who can experience joy and suffering alongside his creation. It is as a personality that man was created in the image of God, which means that man is engaged in a perpetual existential dialogue with God. So, on Berdyaev's view, personality is not egotistically closed off to the world, but engaged with other personalities (alive or dead) in a quest for self-discovery and authenticity. On this point, Berdyaev's view resembles narrative views of the self championed by Martin Heidegger and Charles Taylor.

Now, this spiritual quest is something that each personality must take up on his own, it is the individual's freedom and responsibility. However, Berdyaev argues, many people are overwhelmed by this burden of responsibility and decide, consciously or unconsciously, to become objects or slaves, that it, to repress their own humanity and let their personality dissolve in the external world: "Personality is not only capable of experiencing suffering, but in a certain sense personality is suffering. The struggle to achieve personality and its consolidation are a painful process. The self-realization of personality presupposes resistance, it demands a conflict with the enslaving power of the world, a refusal to conform to the world. Refusal of personality, acquiescence in dissolution in the surrounding world can lessen the suffering, and man easily goes that way. Acquiescence in slavery diminishes suffering, refusal increases it. Pain in the human world is the birth of personality, its fight for its own nature." [p. 28] Thus, man is always tempted to surrender his freedom and become a slave. That is the Fall of Man. Possessed by his instinct to obey, man invents a host of false Gods, like the state, the nation, the economy, civilization, technology and so on. But, Berdyaev argues, human personality should always be the supreme value. Nothing should stand above personality.

Now, the question becomes: what social, political and economic system respects the absolute value of personality?

A capitalist system is to be immediately rejected. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the workers or proletarians. In this system, people are used as things or commodities, not as personalities or free beings. Even the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, is not really free in capitalism. They are also slaves to the system of power that they created. Following Hegel's discussion of the master/slave dialectic, Berdyaev argues that the master himself is a slave to his slave. The master understands himself only in opposition to the slave, and this power relation narrows his consciousness and his freedom.

Turning toward socialism, Berdyaev distinguishes between its metaphysical side and its social and economic side. "The metaphysics of socialism in its prevalent forms are entirely false. They are founded upon the supremacy of society over personality. This is a collectivist metaphysics, it is the lure and temptation of collectivism. Socialists on all hands profess monism and deny the distinction between Caesar's things and God's, between what is natural and social and what is spiritual. Socialist metaphysics regard the common as more real than the individual, class as more real than man; they see the social class behind the man instead of seeing the man behind the social class. Totalitarian, integral socialism is a false outlook upon the world; it denies the spiritual principle, it generalizes man down to the very depth of him.

But the social and economic side of socialism is right and just, it is elementary justice. In this sense socialism is the social projection of Christian personalism. Socialism is not necessarily collectivism, it may be personalistic and anti-collectivist. Only personalist socialism is the liberation of man; collectivist socialism is enslavement." [p. 209]

In personalist socialism the basic necessities of life are covered for all people, but this economic equality does not erase the important differences and inequalities between individuals. There are no classes in personalist socialism, but that doesn't mean that all people are spiritually equal. On the contrary, the socialization of economics should give rise to the individualization of men and women:

Personalist socialism which is founded on the absolute supremacy of personality, of each personality over society, over the state, the supremacy of freedom over equality, offers "bread" to all men while preserving their freedom for them, and without alienating their conscience from them. [p.210]
There will always be an arrangement of qualitatively distinct groups in a society, which are connected with professions, vocations, gifts, or a high degree of culture, but there is no element of class in all this. Classes should, in the first place, be replaced by professions. Society cannot be a homogeneous mass devoid of qualitative distinctions. In every society which has arrived at a definite form, there is a tendency towards inequality and it is not permissible to demand a leveling down to the lowest grade. The domination of a rabble might be organized in that way, but that is not a people. But personalism does not allow the class debasement of man. The advancement of man is above all a spiritual advancement; materially, on the other hand, man ought not so much to be raised as to be leveled. [p. 217]
Following Marx, Berdyaev argues that in Capitalism, man's natural disposition to work is distorted and labour becomes alienated, being turned into a commodity. In personalist socialism labour would regain the natural place it has in human life.

Daily bread ought to be guaranteed for all men and for every man. There ought not to be any proletariat; there ought not to be people who have been made into a proletariat, who have been dehumanized and depersonalized; labor ought not to be exploited, it ought not to be turned into an article of commerce; and the meaning and dignity of labour ought to be discovered. It is not to be borne that there are people who are outcasts and deprived of any guarantee of existence. It is nothing but a deep-rooted lie which affirms that these elementary problems of human existence are insoluble. There exists no such things as economic laws which require the destitution and unhappiness of the greater part of mankind. These laws are an invention of bourgeois political economy. [p. 218]
The emancipation of the workers from the enslaving power of labor, and emancipation which is entirely just and right, raises the problem of the leisure which they do not know how to occupy. The rationalization and technization of economics in the capitalist structure of society create unemployment, which is a most terrible condemnation of that structure. Other forms of social organization, more just and more humane, can give release from too long and too arduous labour, and create leisure, which will be occupied by 'innocent games and amusements.' Can it be said that complete emancipation from the burden of labour and the conversion of human life into unbroken leisure is the goal of social life? That is a wrong way of looking at human life; it is a denial of the seriousness and hardship of human life upon earth. Labour ought to be freed from slavery and oppression, but complete release from labour is not a possibility. Labour is the greatest reality of human life in this world, it is a primary reality. Neither politics, nor yet money is a primary reality, they represent the power of fictions. And the primacy of the reality of labour ought to be an accepted maximum. In labour there is both a truth of redemption ("in the sweat of thy face shalt thou gain thy bread") and a truth of the creative and constructive power of men. Both elements are present in labour. Human labour humanizes nature; it bears witness to the great mission of man in nature. But sin and evil have perverted the mission of labour. A reverse process has taken place in the dehumanization of labour, an alienation of human nature has taken place in the workers. This is an evil and injustice which belongs both to the old slavery and to the new capitalist slavery. Man has been seized with the desire to be not only the master of nature, but also the master of his brother man, and he has enslaved labour. This represents an extreme form of the objectivization of human existence. [...]
But if labour ought to be emancipated, it ought not to be deified and turned into an idol. Human life is not only labour, not only working activity, it is also contemplation. Activity is exchanged from time to time for contemplation, and that cannot be driven out of human life. The exclusive power of working activity over human life may enslave man to the flow of time, while contemplation may be a way out from the sway of time into eternity. Contemplation also is creativeness but of another kind than labour. [SAF, p. 220-221]
While I agree with Berdyaev's personalist socialism in principle, there's a lot of work to be done regarding how such a social system could be applied in practice. One of these problematic areas concerns the notions of labour, personal freedom and creativity, leisure and contemplation. Berdyaev points out that, "There will always be an arrangement of qualitatively distinct groups in a society, which are connected with professions, vocations, gifts, or a high degree of culture, but there is no element of class in all this. Classes should, in the first place, be replaced by professions." Now, a personality might be related in different ways to his profession, vocation or gift. Let's say someone likes to make shoes, and is thus considered by his group to be a shoemaker. If he becomes tired of making shoes though, it would be oppressive for the community to force him to make shoes anyway, no matter how talented he is. That goes against the spirit of personalism, in which personality is always the highest value and can never be used as a mere means.

The same applies to the notions of vocation or gifts. Berdyaev seems to assume that if someone finds their gift or vocation then they'll automatically decide to do that with their lives. But that's not the case. Someone may be a great pianist but not care much about music, about using that specific gift. In reply, it might be argued that such gifts come from God and man has an obligation to follow God's will. However, that would be in contradiction to Berdyaev's personalism, where God is not a despotic deity but another personality and his supreme gift to man is that of freedom. In addition, there's people who are multi-talented and it would be up to them to decide which talent, if any, they want to cultivate more. 

Berdyaev opposes the idea that personalist socialism should do away with labour altogether and replace it with unbroken leisure: "Other forms of social organization, more just and more humane, can give release from too long and too arduous labour, and create leisure, which will be occupied by 'innocent games and amusements.' Can it be said that complete emancipation from the burden of labour and the conversion of human life into unbroken leisure is the goal of social life?" Berdyaev rejects this idea but his argument hinges on a narrow view of leisure. Leisure is actually the basis of culture and civilization. Plato and Aristotle, medieval philosophers, the great artists of the Renaissance period, they didn't have to sell their labour, their creations came mostly from free contemplation and leisure. Bertrand Russell makes this point forcefully: "In the past there was a small leisure class and a large working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice; this necessarily made it oppressive, limited its sympathies, and caused it to invent theories by which to justify its privileges. These facts greatly diminished its excellence, but in spite of this drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class mankind would never have emerged from barbarism." [Russell, In Praise of Idleness] 

Now, there's a number of problems that Berdyaev doesn't address explicitly: what's the relationship between personalism and authentic labour? Is emancipated labour something that is paid for or just results in recognition from other community members? What's the relation between God and authentic labour? And, more generally, do money play a role in personalist socialism? Let's take a concrete example: creative intellectual labour. Being a writer, let's say. A lot of work goes into becoming a good writer. Malcolm Gladwell famously and controversially argued that 10.000 hours go into mastery of a skill, and writing is a complicated skill. That's roughly 3 hours a day for 10 years. But this is time in which you practice writing. Someone like Stephen King indeed writes almost every day for 3 or 4 hours. But, in order to be a good writer, one should also read a lot. And that takes tons of time. Put that in a personalist socialist framework where everyone does what they want and you may get a society of starving artists. So, there should be time that everyone sets aside for the manual labour of providing the necessities of life for everyone. Now, with the technological progress humanity has achieved, as Russell points out, this volunteered time should be minimum. My suggestion is that man can use workdays for leisure and weekends for community, economic work. So, the opposite of what we have now. From my personal experience I know that intellectual labour cannot be sustained for more than five days in a row. The brain needs a break ("All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy") Manual labour can actually provide that break as it stimulates different brain centers and keeps the person physically active. In the long run, I think new discoveries in brain science and the neuroscience of different types of labour will make a big contribution toward deciding how much time one can productively spend in different types of activities. Naturally, such information will not take the form of law but more of a guideline of the amount of mental energy different types of labour involve.

There's also the case in which one chooses freely to do some work that benefits the community greatly; let's say she decides to become a doctor or nurse or work on a new technology that would speed up food production or the building of houses. In that case, I think there will be a collective agreement that that person is exempt from other duties toward the community. They will have the weekend off to focus on family life or just relax. However, no matter how central one's work is to the welfare of the community, the community cannot force the individual to continue doing that work no matter how talented he is. If someone has existential anxiety and needs time off to figure things out about what they want to do with their lives then the others need to give him the peace and quiet necessary for introspection. This is a way of showing respect for their personality and not treating them as a mere means. 

All in all, I've found Bedyaev's book very inspirational in the fact that he's able to forge a middle way between egotistic individualism and collectivism. A personality is naturally open to the social and natural world and is engaged in a spiritual conversation with others and with God. Putting yourself first, doesn't mean being selfish, because your self is but a web of narrative spun from your interactions with others, with your social traditions and physical environment. You and others were all created as personalities by God and God is there with you engaged in the same free activity of creative self-knowledge. As personalities, we're all entitled to autonomy and respect as we're all part of the Kingdom of God. Plus, we're all entitled to our daily bread and the basic necessities of life. Personality is the unity of body, soul and spirit. Starvation is an affront to personality. The practical task ahead of us is working out the details of an economic system that centers around the absolute value of personality.

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