Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Albert Einstein you (probably) Never Knew

Albert Einstein and David Ben Gurion, 1951
Albert Einstein was perhaps the most brilliant mind of his or any other generation.  His thinking on the nature and structure of the universe helped usher in a whole new way of thinking about matter and energy and, along with other notable physicists in the early 20th century, ushered in a new era of technological innovation.  Without his work and the work of his colleagues, the list of things we take for granted would never be possible.  These Quantum Magicians gave us solid-state physics which led to computers, networks, televisions, DVDs, and a million other things that make modern life... well... modern!

But Albert occasionally dabbled in social philosophy as well.  In 1949 he penned an article for the Monthly Review entitled Why Socialism?.  Yes, my friends, Albert Einstein, one of the most brilliant men to ever live was a socialist.

How did he arrive at the conclusion that socialism was the best course for humankind?  Simple.  He looked at the evidence.
The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.
Second, socialism is directed toward a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and -- if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous -- are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half-unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society. 
You see, Einstein was literally saying, "if you can imagine it, you can do it."  If you can imagine a more ethical world, you can plot a trajectory towards it and, ultimately get there.  You have to want to get beyond the so-called "predatory phase" of humanity.  That, of course, means upsetting the dominant social order: capitalism.

Man, Einstein argues, is of two natures: solitary and social. And our present system seeks to play one side off the other.  But both sides are necessary for us to be human.
It is evident, therefore, that the dependence of the individual upon society is a fact of nature which cannot be abolished.
If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as possible, we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. As mentioned before, the biological nature of man is, for all practical purposes, not subject to change. 
Society is the construct that needs to change to enhance the human experience.  Using the society of others, we can build a better world. But here then is the problem.
The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society. 
Meaning in life derives not from the selfish satisfaction of wants, but from the society of other human beings.  His words ring as true today as they must have in 1949.  Having made the point that society is the reason for living and that the so-called "natural rights" of the individual, a social construction, drives greater and greater alienation in our society, he tackles the root cause: capitalism.
The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor.
Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of the smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.
That, then, is the crux of the problem. This could have been written yesterday.  The unholy aggregation of capital wealth with political power produces an oligarchic system which alienates people from one another and from the means of production. The control of the media and educational systems by oligarchic interestes further drives us away from the social values which we all so desperately desire.

Albert Einstein was one smart guy.  But then we knew that, didn't we?

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