On February 22, 2021, US President Biden gave a speech announcing that in the US alone 500,071 people had died as a consequence of the coronavirus. “The magnitude of it is just horrifying,” a professor at Columbia University said, according to the New York Times. There are more horrifying numbers: since 2015, the Washington Post has logged every fatal shooting by on-duty police officers in the United States; there have been more than 5,000 to date. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the number of Americans struggling with hunger has risen to more than 50 million, including 17 million children. A coronavirus-induced economic disaster is only just on the horizon.
Quite a few Americans think some other matters are more important than these facts: Biden did not win the elections; COVID-19 is just a flu of some sort; there is a horrendous conspiracy of the elite aiming at suppressing the American people, etc. This is not just an American phenomenon; in Europe, including Holland, where I live, the QAnon-movement is growing, mostly among people on the right wing of the political spectrum, claiming, for instance, that the COVID-19 vaccine causes autism.
While obviously it is important to strive for correct information, there is no point in calling those who disagree with you names—“wacky” or producers of “fake news.” Above all, it is necessary to try and understand where alternative opinions and “alternative facts” come from. The sharpening debate over information, like increasing violence generally, are all phenomena of a deepening crisis in the social fabric of modern Western societies.
Opinions don’t emerge from nowhere. How we think about events in life and social conditions depends greatly on who we are—on the place we occupy in social life. Thus workers all across the globe experience life in modern society differently from the one percent that owns most of society’s wealth. And it’s not just the money that you have, or don’t; first of all, it is the position you have in the production process: being a CEO is a whole lot more satisfying, I assume, than having to collect stuff in a warehouse so it can be shipped someplace, to give just one example. Landowners, in John Steinbeck’s day as well as today (for instance, in Brazil or Argentina), have a different outlook on social life than farmworkers, or the bankers to whom they owe mortgages.
This observation, while not stressed as often as it should be, is hardly a novel one. The most famous version of it is this legendary 19th-century passage by Karl Marx, explaining the view that came to be called “historical materialism”:
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.1
Marx was trying to explain why people think as they do about their social experience—why, for example, enslaved people might seem to their masters as so different from non-slaves as to be members of a distinct “race” of humans; or why it seems normal to most people in the United States today that some people should have more access than others to the pleasures and necessities of life.
Marx was not the last to ponder this question. The Dutch astronomer Anton Pannekoek (1873–1960), renowned both as a scientist and as a socialist, has left us brilliant insights on how the experiences in our daily life are translated and stored in our brains. In one of his most famous articles2 Pannekoek started by explaining that the place of the human mind in historical materialism is not well understood. Historical materialism is first and foremost a way of explaining events that occur in society, especially the great movements of nations, the great reversals of society. These events are undertaken by people, by human beings. What was it that made them act the way they did, and still do? “Often it was immediate need,” Pannekoek writes,
The iron grip of hunger, the urge for self-preservation inherent in all living beings. How many times in history has it happened that the masses revolted by hunger and thus thrust the revolutions! But there are also other motives that drive the classes to action and determine their actions: more general, abstract, so-called ideal motives, which often go against direct self-preservation and self-interest and enable enthusiastic self-sacrifice. … These motives are given all kinds of general names: sense of freedom, patriotism, conservatism, discontent, servitude, revolutionary spirit, etc. But it is clear that these names do not provide an explanation in themselves. … The materialism of Marx's explanation of history is not to deny these spiritual motives, but to retrace these motives to material causes, to the real relationships of the human world. We call these real relationships material in the sense of objectively ascertaining, observable, as opposed to subjective representations, not in the sense of material versus spiritual.
It is obvious that the actions of individuals stem from their will, from what they have thought beforehand. Groups of people, on the other hand, not seldom do not really realize why they do what they are doing, they act “on instinct.” What is necessary in order to understand their actions is to see what is behind them. These actions that people undertake are not undertaken by accident. First of all, we have to live and so, above all, the economic organism that ensures our life reigns supreme. Pannekoek says:
The relations in which this organism places people together are as compelling a reality as the physical existence of man himself; they fill their lives and define their thoughts with irresistible violence. To think that one can independently place oneself outside it is the same as to think that a particle cut off from the body can live independently.3
One should not forget that throughout history and also in modern society the means of sustaining life are not assured. Worries about getting enough to eat, having decent shelter (or even shelter at all) still are on many people’s minds, day in and day out.
Why are the economic relations as they are? The current mode of production is the result of a historical, human-made process. Two elements are decisive in determining the economic relations in any given period: the technical infrastructure and the law, informal (custom) or formal. The first involves such matters as whether work is done by hand, is carried out with the help of tools and/or machines, or is even (semi-)automated; the latter decides how the relations between people in the production process are organized: thus, free labor agreements, the free exchange of commodities, free competition, freedom of business made capitalism. During the Middle Ages in Europe rules were based on serfdom; in many regions of the world, they were, for thousands of years, founded on slavery. In Pannekoek’s words:
Precisely because law determines the economy, that is why people make every effort to regulate law and justice in such a way as is necessary for this particular economic construction of society. This adaptation of law to the needs of technology, for the realization of a particular economic system, is therefore not automatic and sudden, but is an arduous process of class struggle. It is the meaning and purpose of all political strife and of all great revolutions; socialism is no different from such a transformation of law and property as befits the most mature development of large industrial technology.
The technical infrastructure consists not only of machines and the like, but also of the skills and the natural sciences necessary to develop and operate them. In the course of history, the increasing division of labor has led to the separation of the mental, the intellectual aspects of work, leading to the formation of a separate group of workers, the intellectuals. The German socialist Willy Huhn (1909–70) wrote an interesting article on the social position of intellectuals, in particular left-wing intellectuals, calling them utopians.4 “The first characteristic of Utopian socialism” Huhn wrote,
resides in the superstition of the power of science. A rational system is supposed to change the social world in such a decisive way that something ethically better and socially sound will be effected. The practical consequence from this conviction is that the scholars have to take the fate of humanity into their hands, or rather onto their heads.
With the first Utopian of Western history, Plato, the philosophers are at the helm of the State, and the island “Utopia” of Thomas More is governed by a “class of scholars.” Do not the intellectuals raise a similar claim—once the juridical intelligentsia … and presently the technical or even the economical intelligentsia (technocracy and bureaucracy)? The Utopians are searching for a “social science” in order to create new social conditions with its help. This action departs from their intellectual initiative, relies on the insight and the power to act of the intelligentsia, whereas the proletariat “offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement,” as the Communist Manifesto states. … For Utopianism the proletariat only exists from the point of view of the suffering, and thereby passive, class who needs help from above and from the outside.
In the consciousness of the acting human beings themselves, their thoughts, their ideas, are the causes of their actions; they don't usually ask where the thoughts come from. Likewise, mainstream historiography explains events in history from the ideas of people and their specific actions.5 This is not necessarily incorrect, but it is always incomplete. “Historical materialism,” according to Pannekoek, “goes back to the causes from which these ideas arose: the social needs, which are the more complex forms of the human will to live, determined by the form of society.” He gives a clear example of this in writing that “idealistic” historians “explained the French Revolution from the sense of freedom of the emerging bourgeoisie, which threw off the yoke of absolutism and nobility.” From the perspective of historical materialism, however, the explanation should be based “on the need of emerging capitalism for a bourgeois state as the cause of the revolution.” The latter must be, he adds, “expressed more fully, be read in such a way that the emerging capitalism awakened in the bourgeois masses an awareness of the necessity of freedom in economic and political spheres, ignited a strong enthusiasm for these ideals, and thus drove them to the act of revolutionary action.”
In short, “the human mind is entirely determined by the surrounding world. Everything in the mind comes from the real world around, which acts on it through the senses.” This does not imply a subordination of the spiritual to the physical, but the unity of the spiritual with the entire world. The spiritual—what is in our brains—is real, exists, and therefore is material. Our brains, our minds, are constantly collecting impressions, experiences. Furthermore, the endlessly varied mass of impressions that penetrate the mind is processed into an abstract image, in which the generality of the concrete phenomena is summarized into concepts.
This last insight was developed by the 19-century German tanner Joseph Dietzgen,6 a thinker much respected by Pannekoek: to paraphrase his idea, you don’t carry a Ford Mustang in your head, but the abstraction of this particular brand, of all sorts of cars that you have experienced, seen, heard, driven. In this way you can think about cars. The same goes for tables, etc. Your brain works like a subject librarian applying an extremely sophisticated version of the Dewey Decimal Classification. In a continuous stream impressions and experiences from the outside world enter into your brain. “The infinite multiplicity and diversity of the world,” Pannekoek summarized Dietzgen’s view, “has no place in our heads; therefore, the mind must simplify them by forgoing differences and diversities that are incidental and accidental. The concepts are, of course, fixed, hard, sharply delineated, while the reality, which crystallizes in them, rushes by like a flowing stream ever different, endlessly diverse and varied.” These impressions and experiences from the external world enter our mind, are collected and processed, and most of them sink into our subconscious and oblivion.
This not only holds true for an individual. Because we are part of society, we constantly exchange views and experiences, and these form a collective consciousness that is passed on to new generations. For instance, after growing up in a world structured into nation-states it’s difficult to avoid being (a bit) nationalistic. Many Americans agreed with Trump when, in his inaugural speech, he promised that from then on it would be “America first.” I couldn’t help but feel pleased that it was a Dutch comedian who suggested that The Netherlands should be second.7 Furthermore, simply look at the intensity with which many people are convinced that the Russians and the Chinese are “bad,” not just their leaders—as in every country—but also the millions of workers. This did not happen overnight. Year after year, the Cold War has brainwashed us.
Basically, this is also how a social media platform like Facebook works. When you post a message on Facebook, it indexes various aspects to determine whether your “friends” will find your post interesting or not. Obviously, the first standard is getting “likes” (👍), but the comments and sharing of your update are even more important. A constant stream of information flows through the platform, and because of the way the algorithms are built you mostly get information, when you swipe through Facebook, that is strongly connected with the information your friends and fans like and share. You become part of a bubble that forms a particular collective consciousness of the world, potentially a new reality of “alternative facts.” This expression is a clear characterization of many of the messages that circle on online media, because it is of no importance whether a message is true or false, to be determined after serious fact-checking: what’s important is that many people “like” it, thus making it a new fact in this particular bubble. Astronomers, like all other Facebook-users, form bubbles of their own,; so it happened that all of a sudden, from outer space, the Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb punctuated the bubble with the message of a new kind of UFO, named Oumuamua.8
But however great the power of “facts” generated within a bubble, people continue to live outside the bubble, unless they make strenuous efforts to ignore this. This is one reason many people’s ideas about the world are filled with contradictions and confusions. While you probably can’t convince an acquaintance that the alternative facts current in her bubble should be submitted to scrutiny and criticism, the continuing unfolding of events outside of the world of fake news can be expected to have some effect. Workers used to believe in parliamentary democracy, in the unions “making us strong,” that if we work hard our children will have a better, brighter future. None of this is true anymore. Since the crisis of the 1980s and especially since the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008 and the financial crisis that swept across the world in its aftermath, workers have been laid off, evicted from their houses when they can’t afford the rent or mortgage, and many families now need even more jobs to make ends meet than before. These experiences, no doubt, are having a profound effect on their state of mind.
The political, social, and medical crisis that the United States (the European countries are following in line) is going through is profound and increasing. What comes next depends on the developments in the years to come, not just in the USA and Europe, but in many other countries where people are realizing more and more that poverty, racism, lack of shelter, femicide, and environmental problems can only be solved by taking matters into their own hands. As the material circumstances people live in become ever more desperate, they will actually be forced to drain the social swamp themselves. As it has happened in the past, despite all the fake facts people believed in other times.
- Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Preface. (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm).
- Anton Pannekoek, Het historisch materialisme, in: De nieuwe Tijd, Vol. 14 (1919) no. 1 (Jan.) p. 15–22. In later years this article has been republished in various Dutch and German journals, indicating that Pannekoek still considered it a valuable contribution. As far as I know no English translation exists.
- According to Business Insider (April 23, 2020), “The wealthiest of Silicon Valley have become super doomsday preppers by buying remote New Zealand properties, getting eye surgeries, and stockpiling ammo and food.” It would be interesting to see how they should manage, without servants … etc. These people forget a very important aspect of human beings: we are social animals; we are not solitary creatures like sea-turtles, tigers or arctic-foxes. Only very few people have been known to survive on their own for a longer period of time. The most famous being Robinson Crusoe, and, less well known, Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese Army officer who remained at his jungle post on an island in the Philippines for 29 years, refusing to believe that World War II was over. He returned to Japan in 1974 and died in Tokyo at the age of 91. (https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/world/asia/hiroo-onoda-imperial-japanese-army-officer-dies-at-91.html).
- Willy Huhn, Lenin as a Utopian (1948) (https://www.aaap.be/Pages/Willy-Huhn.html).
- The German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) wrote a beautiful poem on the question whether it were the “great” men who shaped history: Questions From A Worker Who Reads (https://allpoetry.com/Questions-From-A-Worker-Who-Reads).
- Joseph Dietzgen, The nature of human brain work (1869) (https://www.marxists.org/archive/dietzgen/1869/brain-work/index.htm).
- See for yourself and enjoy. https://time.com/4645127/dutch-tv-donald-trump-video/.
- See e.g. Scientific American for some details on what he claims: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/astronomer-avi-loeb-says-aliens-have-visited-and-hes-not-kidding1/.