7) EH Carr. The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin, 1917-1929. 1979.
Thursday, July 1, 2021
7) EH Carr. The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin, 1917-1929. 1979.
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Reform, Revolution, and the Inevitable Collapse (A Response to Franklin V.H.’s ‘An Inquiry into the Revolutionary Question’)
“It would be better to dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences.” – Ted Kaczynski
One immediate question that arises with this article is whether the issue of reform and revolution has historically split Marxists. As a whole, The Left has been burdened by a never-ending discussion of the topic. However, I would argue that most Marxists (in the strict sense of the term) espouse a Marxism that is of a revolutionary tendency. That is to say, Marxism as an ideology includes, a priori, the necessity of revolution to cast aside capitalism. Even some modern parties such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which promotes a parliamentary road to socialism at the ballot box, admit that the “vote” is for revolution and is not in itself reformist2. Franklin eloquently writes that “despite common misconception, it is not the will or power of the party that determines socialism” and yet this is precisely what reformism does. It hands over the reins of power to a party, thus diluting active socialism into meagre political socialism. Such parties are at risk of rapidly weakening their original goal and tend to instead become obsessed with retaining parliamentary power and relevance. Rudolf Rocker once expounded this point most clearly when he wrote in 1938 that “political socialism has lost itself so completely on the dry channels of bourgeois politics” and “never rises above the advocacy of petty reforms”, thus dooming the entire venture to failure3.
Franklin refers to a “tipping point” whereby “the contradictions of capitalism grow in quantity to the point where they are untenable and as such launch society into a new revolutionary phase”. Indeed! The intrinsic contradictions and paradoxes of capitalism doom it to collapse. One could describe the spectre of breakdown as being baked into the very system. However, and this is where I break from orthodox Marxism, this does not mean that socialism follows as an inevitability. Instead, the dissolution of capitalism could be so destructive that it leaves behind no discernible human society whatsoever. If the whole techno-industrial system (of which capitalism is the mode of production and prime mover) was to collapse and extinguish all or most conscious life with it, then how would socialism ever come to fruition? The “tipping point” described by orthodox Marxism does indeed exist. Be that as it may, the true nature of this societal climax was established by Ted Kaczynski: it is in actuality a point of no-return of runaway, self-propagating technology which, once reached, leads to catastrophe4. As a self-propagating system, techno-capitalism acts according to the laws of natural selection which operate in all environments containing multiple competing systems, be they living organisms or modes of production. It possesses short-term survival advantages that increase its likelihood of continuation without heed for the long-term detrimental side effects of said advantages. This, when combined with the might of modern global capitalism (mass communication and transportation) necessitates its eventual disintegration. This is because, unlike biological organisms or natural habitats, the scale of the techno-capitalist system is massive. As such, any change or fluctuation is likely to have massive, exponential and globally consequent effects – just observe how a blockage in the Suez canal caused world trade pandemonium5 or how the mutation of a bat coronavirus in one locality of China rapidly brought society to its knees6.
It is worth exploring these concepts further. Firstly, techno-capitalism is a complex system with a multiplicity of interconnected, interdependent parts. Due to this cascading, disseminating, networked complexity, it is impossible to accurately predict the exact effects of a change in one facet of the system with respect to other facets. Secondly, self-propagating systems such as techno-capitalism are arranged in such a manner whereby there are smaller subsystems dependent on larger super-systems. When the super-system collapses, its diminutive subsystems also perish. This is exemplified when an organism dies; its cells also die. Non-biological complex systems also act in the same manner. We can surmise, therefore, with the collapse of techno-capitalism, we would also observe the collapse of a multiplicity of other subsystems which depend on it for survival. Thirdly, there is abundant empirical evidence that the emergent properties which result from major disruptions to a complex system are unpredictable and overwhelmingly likely to be harmful, as is the case with genetic mutations7 and nuclear accidents8. Following from these three premises, and the fact that techno-capitalism is a gargantuan global system, we can deduce that an alteration in any key component, on which multiple other components are dependent, could cause an unforeseen exponential domino effect, the sum of which could be a sufficient disturbance in totality to bring the whole system crashing down, with devastating consequences.
Furthermore, due to the way in which natural selection ignores long-term ramifications in favour of short-term survival, techno-capitalism accumulates a build-up of long-term detrimental effects which eventually come to fruition. One just has to observe the rapidity of species extinction, ecological collapse and the pandemic of mental illness sweeping the globe to accept this truth. What we have described over the last three paragraphs, I propose, is the actual “tipping point” and its consequences: not some 19th century dialectical transmogrification from a collapsing, detrimental, malign system to utopian socialism. Instead it is a probability threshold which, once reached, whether by a critical mass of technology or a single fatal trigger, would lead to dissolution of the system and immense suffering for all life on Earth. Consequently, there is a strong argument that the inevitable collapse had better occur sooner rather than later, before techno-industrial society has bloated to an unimaginable, diffusely-connected size, whereby its expiration takes the entire planet with it. As such, Ted Kaczynski himself posits that revolutionaries must act to bring the downfall of the system as soon as possible, through a revolution against technological society, to reduce the total harm caused9. There is much more to say on this idea of revolutionary collapse, especially from a Kaczynskian standpoint, but this would require an entire separate essay in itself.
Franklin is right, of course, when he admits that “no reform will be sufficiently emancipatory, or be able to launch us into a new productive phase” and thus we need revolution. However, he then misses the point when he claims that reform itself “increases proletarian power”. Any energy directed towards reformist ends is ultimately wasted energy, akin to the energy lost as heat during a chemical reaction, as the final driver of emancipation is the revolutionary factor, and any energy spent on reform is energy not spent on system-change. As such, revolution requires the totality of proletarian fervour, without dilution through reformism, no matter how well-meaning. We can of course agree that cooperatives and democratised workplaces, even within capitalism, are intrinsic goods. We should not chastise nor bemoan these outcomes, despite their establishment not contributing to the end of capitalism. Franklin goes on to explain that “the overarching ideology of the Soviet Union eventually became a servant to power as its own end, rather than to the proletariat in general” – a concise and accurate analysis. However, Franklin goes on to miscalculate the cause of this failure. He argues that it was a lack of embracing reformist tendencies, those which cause “maturation” of class struggle, which led to Bakunin’s predicted “red bureaucracy”10. There is no such need for lip service to reform here. Such a described activity which promotes, “matures” class struggle and helps to secure system-change in production or society, is revolutionary by definition. Franklin is therefore actually lamenting the lack of sufficient revolutionary class consciousness and forethought as the downfall of the USSR. It was not due to a lack of tit-for-tat political reform.
Throughout the piece, Franklin notes that “reform strengthens revolution” but goes on to outline various activities which can only be described as, well, revolutionary. Highlighting this is important as spreading such a misclassification ignores the fact that, throughout history, political reformism has been an armament of capital, liberalism and conservatism, all of which occasionally permitted small oscillations in power and policy without bringing the system closer to an end. This is key, as it exposes how Franklin’s praise of various proletarian activity as “reform” blinds the reader from the fact that reform is a powerful bourgeois tool to ensure that nothing important ultimately changes. Such words are dangerous as they could persuade individuals to accept, and be distracted by, liberal reform: a loss of revolutionary potential. Therefore, one can conclude that no, it is not clear that “reform strengthens revolution”, rather that proletarian deeds promote revolution, and reform is utilised as a distractive, dilutional bulwark of capital against such activity. Class consciousness and revolution are interwoven but reform and revolution are diametrically opposed. Reform is, by definition, an adjustment of the existing system: a remodelling, a meddling. It is not a driver of system-change itself and should not be praised as such. Franklin writes that “the revolutionists are more correct according to Marxist theory” and it is revolution which is the final blow necessary to abrogate our malady. This is of course a self-evident a priori truth, and one can reach this conclusion without pandering to the idea of a mythical, synergistic reformism.
When all is said and done, I believe Franklin V.H. and I have a similar conception and understanding of revolution, system-change, contributing factors and prerequisites, yet we approach the question from different angles of analysis. Despite this, one cannot help but muse that this pandering to and romanticisation of reform just fuels the pervasive sense of Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism”11. That is to say, we have experienced hundreds of years of capitalism with innumerable reforms throughout a multitude of facets of the system in various nations be it Cuba, the USSR or the USA. And yet, our capitalist malady remains. It shrugs off reform and thunders on: a persistent, self-propagating, malignant survival-machine. The end of the world, therefore, as espoused so eloquently by Fisher, is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. Flirting with reformism will not save us from this sober realisation. Ted Kaczynski once wrote that in a sea of reformist goals “the one truly revolutionary goal—namely, the destruction of the techno-industrial system itself—tends to get lost in the shuffle”. As such, the goal of the revolutionary must be “dedicated solely to eliminating the technosystem”12. It is this point which must be understood with a deep clarity: system-change is the final objective. It will be brought about by either collapse or revolution and anything else is a distraction.
- Mustapha Mond
1) V.H. Franklin. An Inquiry into the Revolutionary Question [Internet]. Franklinvh2.substack.com. 2021 [cited 26 May 2021]. Available from: https://franklinvh2.substack.com/p/an-inquiry-into-the-revolutionary
2) SPGB. – Part of the World Socialist Movement [Internet]. Worldsocialism.org. 2021 [cited 26 May 2021]. Available from: https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/
3) Rocker R. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. 1938.
4) Kaczynski T. Why the Technological System Will Destroy Itself. 2011.
5) Nasr J. Suez Canal Blockage Could Cost Global Trade $6B-$10B per Week: Allianz [Internet]. Insurance Journal. 2021 [cited 26 May 2021]. Available from: https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/international/2021/03/26/607307.htm
6) Ibn-Mohammed T et al. A critical analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on the global economy and ecosystems and opportunities for circular economy strategies. Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 2021;164:105169.
7) Apperley J. Chronic myeloid leukaemia. The Lancet. 2015;385(9976):1447-1459.
8) Högberg L. Root Causes and Impacts of Severe Accidents at Large Nuclear Power Plants. AMBIO. 2013;42(3):267-284.
9) Kaczynski T. Industrial Society and Its Future. 1995.
10) Bakunin M. God and the State. 1882.
11) Fisher M. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. 2009.
12) Kaczynski T. The Road to Revolution. 2008.
Thursday, February 11, 2021
Monday, January 18, 2021
“For the machine, because of the way it is built, can work only in a given direction, no matter who pulls its levers.” – Rudolf Rocker
Marxist and early socialist literature informed the modern labour movement and gave it a revolutionary consciousness and purpose as opposed to earlier goals, such as that of Chartism, which simply aimed at political reform rather than the cessation of capitalism (6). The result of this synthesis, syndicalism, has had varying definitions throughout history but can be summarised thusly: the establishment of worker-owned and worker-controlled organisations or unions, proletarian ownership of the workplace, advancement of workers’ demands through strikes or other direct action and use of the general strike as the ultimate revolutionary armament, through which capitalism would be overthrown. Victor Griffuelhes described this final, ultimate, revolutionary general strike as “the curtain drop on a tired old scene of several centuries, and the curtain raising on another” (7). The most popular form that this revolutionary labour movement took was that of anarcho-syndicalism, with the writings of Mikhail Bakunin, Rudolf Rocker, and Georges Sorel forming an informal theoretical framework for it. It thus became commonly assumed that syndicalism was intrinsically linked to anarchism: that state and corporation were two sides of the same oppressive bourgeoisie coin, and both had to be done away with, in order for co-operative, worker-controlled, democratic systems to arise. However, the concept of syndicalism is not dependent on the absence of a state; this was simply the most popular historical form the philosophy took.
Here is where I would like to posit the inevitable question: could syndicalism have been the cure for our malady? Could we have abrogated this absurd and deeply malevolent capitalist world in which we now live, which appears to be edging ever closer to collapse, had we listened to Bakunin during the First International and followed a path of syndicalism? I believe this question is worth exploring. Perhaps a syndicalist society is the one which most truly conforms to the original conceptualisation of socialism by Marx, as it would necessarily entail the means of production being directly in the hands of the working classes, the proletarians, through worker co-operatives, unions, boards and committees rather than in the hands of the state through bureaucrats, autocrats, politicians and dictators. History’s “socialist” experiments have too often resulted in the exaltation of authoritarianism and a lack of direct democracy, handing the means of production to the state as so-called “public ownership” rather than directly to the people (8). This was one of the most successful deceptions in history and spawned a multiplicity of “socialist” nations founded on the principles of “Marxism-Leninism” (9). This, Stalin’s bastardisation of Marxism, lacked almost any resemblance to the original formulation.
These regimes have often failed to keep up with social development and instead remained static, which is in direct contrast with the recognition of constant change supposedly underpinning the dialectical materialist ideology that guided their existence. This doomed them to failure. It has been evident in the USSR, Cuba, China and other nations, that once a new elite had established power, there was a lack of motivation to move beyond the dictatorship of the proletariat. This eventually resulted in the creation of, as Trotsky termed it, “degenerated workers’ states” (10). The unwillingness to lend more direct control to the workers, friction between development of the means of production and advancement of society led to paradoxically renewed class antagonisms: an irreconcilable friction between workers and bureaucrats. History has shown us that the inability to resolve these antagonisms leads to a disintegration of the “socialist” state. Thus, the unmovable power structure that is the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is one that cannot withstand the forces of social development and, in response to social change, the authoritarian leadership entrenches itself further, condemning the project to decay (11). In reality, these states were just autocratic, centrally-planned, state-capitalist nations which opposed Western imperialism: they did not achieve socialism.
A full analysis and interrogation of history’s previous “socialist” experiments goes beyond the scope of this piece, and there were indeed both noble and abhorrent outcomes as a result of their formation. I do, however, propose that these were great tragedies, with anti-capitalist revolutionary fervour diverted toward the incorrect solutions. Hence, we are still faced with our current worldwide malady of end-game capitalism. These failures of history were due to the fact that state-monopolised property is simply Bourgeoisie property in new clothing, whether it is controlled by autocrats or, in liberal democracies, indirectly by capital. Private property has never truly been abolished and entrusted to the proletarians directly, yet this is what syndicalism would achieve. Bakunin once authoritatively explained how the state is an extension of power and acts as an oppressor just as capital does, whilst the institution of authoritarian regimes in the name of communism simply replaces the Bourgeoisie with a new elite oppressor class (12). His prediction that Marxism would lead to a new despotic “red bureaucracy”, more dictatorial than a capitalist system, played out through history as if prophecy (13). The truth is that socialism has failed in most of its trials throughout world history because the “social” within “socialism” was forgotten: power was never truly socialised to be in the hands of the masses, only abstractly or on their behalf by the state, and this has led to great atrocities in the name of proletarian liberation.
Marx was profoundly prophetic and correct in his analysis of capitalism, its exploitation, and class struggle, with the dialectically inevitable remedy of socialism as strikingly obvious today just as it was in the 1800s (14). However, humanity has failed in its implementation of this antidote, and so our malady remains. Marx once wrote that the dictatorship of the proletariat “begins with the self-government of the commune” (15). That is to say such a dictatorship would be a bottom-up system of direct democracy, rather than top-down control. The contemporary theorist Richard Wolff often defines socialism as “the democratisation of the workplace” (16). I would argue that syndicalism on a national or international scale is the exact exposition of such an idea: the syndicalisation of society would put direct democracy in the hands of the working classes, would directly democratise the places in which they work, and would grant them the ownership of the means of production which has historically evaded them so heinously. It could be the very essence of socialism.
- Mustapha Mond
1. A short history of British Anarcho-syndicalism | Solidarity Federation [Internet]. Solfed.org.uk. 2021 [cited 16 January 2021]. Available from: http://www.solfed.org.uk/solfed/a-short-history-of-british-anarcho-syndicalism
2. Rocker R. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. 1938.
3. 1812: 52 George 3. c.16: The Frame-Breaking Act [Internet]. The Statutes Project. 2021 [cited 16 January 2021]. Available from: https://statutes.org.uk/site/the-statutes/nineteenth-century/1812-52-geo-3-c-16-the-frame-breaking-act/
4. Fourteen Malefactors [Internet]. English Crime and Execution Broadsides - CURIOSity Digital Collections. 2021 [cited 16 January 2021]. Available from: https://curiosity.lib.harvard.edu/crime-broadsides/catalog/46-990073455360203941
5. Poole R. 'By the Law or the Sword': Peterloo Revisited. History. 2006;91(302):254-276.
6. Rogers N, Epstein J, Thompson D, Thompson D, Wilks I, Jones D. Chartism and Class Struggle. Labour / Le Travail. 1987;19:143.
7. Darlington R. Syndicalism and the transition to communism. 1st ed. 2008.
8. Petras J. Authoritarianism, democracy and the transition to socialism. Socialism and Democracy. 1985;1(1):5-27.
9. Black C. Marxism, Leninism, and Soviet Communism. World Politics. 1957;9(3):401-412.
10. Trotsky L. The revolution betrayed. New York: Pioneer Publishers; 1936.
11. Mayer R. The dictatorship of the proletariat from Plekhanov to Lenin. Studies in East European Thought. 1993;45(4):255-280.
12. Bakunin M. God and the State. 4th ed. 1882.
13. Guérin D. Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire. Paris: Marcel Rivière; 1959.
14. Marx K, Engels F. The communist manifesto. 4th ed. 1848.
15. Marx K. Conspectus of Bakunin's Statism and Anarchy [Internet]. Marxists.org. 1926 [cited 16 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1874/04/bakunin-notes.htm
16. Wolff R. Start With Worker Self-Directed Enterprises [Internet]. Thenextsystem.org. 2017 [cited 16 January 2021]. Available from: https://thenextsystem.org/sites/default/files/2017-08/RickWolff.pdf
Sunday, December 20, 2020
“Whether I'm broke or got fame, sunshine or rain, ain't a damn thing changed.” – Lord Finesse
With the passage of each day we observe the world becoming increasingly absurd and devoid of all rationality. Indeed, we find ourselves in the middle of a swirling, entropic, ever-expanding universe that is rampant with contradiction. We see this exemplified when we note the exponentially rising, staggering concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands whilst the rest flirt with poverty and are increasingly reliant on the state for subsistence. We witness how politicians grant lucrative contracts to shell companies owned by their close associates whilst working people die in their droves during a pandemic. Society is more polarised than ever, with people clinging dogmatically to their partisan views despite overwhelming evidence against them. The threat of climate catastrophe looms and civilisation teeters on the edge of extinction but humanity continues to extract every last drop of fossil fuel out of the earth. People wage war against eachother in the streets. Their behaviour and ideologies are moulded by subliminal, advertiser-funded, artificial intelligence techniques propagated through social media. As these opposing sides of citizens tear each other apart, banks continue to silently drive private debt to oppressive levels, threatening a deflationary collapse, and the same establishment politicians get elected. All the while, these theatrics are narrated by multi-millionaire celebrities who lecture the masses on their contemptibility.
Nations in the developing world continue to be plundered for natural resources to produce the latest technological gadget, leaving millions dead. As this chaos occurs in one part of the world, in another, people mindlessly post deceptive images of their best selves on social media whilst humanity’s collective mental health steadily worsens. The scientific method purports to enlighten us and lead to progress, yet we are closer than ever to extinction. Philosophers and scientists alike warn us of the dangers of artificial intelligence yet gargantuan sums of money continue to be funnelled into its development. Data is manipulated to support pre-ordained conclusions, science is politicised and fake news is rife: one can no longer discern what is true. Governments assassinate their enemies with remote-controlled drone strikes and the most bloodthirsty members of the elite are paradoxically rewarded with Nobel peace prizes. Monetarily-sovereign nations sit idly by and allow unemployment, poverty and depravity to rise amongst their citizenry and do not take action to abrogate these ills, instead preferring to espouse ideologically-driven lies. One crowning moment of insanity is watching Rudy Giuliani alleging some of the most serious election fraud in US history on an online broadcast, only to cut off halfway in order to promote “real cigars from a real cigar shop”. Reality blurs into the surreal.
As this maelstrom rages, it is becoming apparent that our lives are increasingly governed by forces outside of our control: social media, technology, propaganda, data-harvesting and the cruel vagaries of the market shape our actions. Our elites, such as those at the World Economic Forum, propose solutions to the madness, advocating a “great reset” and the International Monetary Fund discusses “digital cash” as the cure for our pathology. The current state of affairs is approaching such irrationality that humanity seems to be marching, flailing wildly, towards the precipice. Surrounded on all sides by absurdity and the decline of spirituality, man looks for meaning. He is baffled by the howling, cold universe into which he has been plunged. We begin to ask whether this could have been any different, had certain individuals in the past acted differently or if historical events had taken the opposite course, or were we always doomed to descend into this calamity? And thus, ancient questions of free will, existence and futility once more bubble up to the surface.
Free will is dead; we have killed it
It seems to be the fashion in academic philosophy and neuroscience to regularly dig up the age-old debate of free will and give it another spin around the literature. Despite the fact that, every few years, new empirical evidence emerges against the very concept of a will that is “free”, irrelevant theorists and desperate professors routinely rally against the concept’s demise. The unpalatable data which condemns free will enrages both philosophers and scientists alike, who, somewhat embarrassingly, rush to defend the antiquated idea, terrified of a world without freedom. These so-call scholars are each so sure of their own free will and so eager to defend it, that they carry out impressive mental and semantic gymnastics in order to realise a half-baked, philosophically shaky definition of free will which, in their own minds, makes it out of the discussion unscathed.
It must of course be noted that for any regular person, the intuition that one is free to act as one pleases and has ownership of their own volition is obvious and seems to be common sense. There is discussion that this intuition, as well as consciousness, has an evolutionary benefit. This is likely part of the reason why we feel that our actions are our own so strongly, and why well-meaning intellectuals fight to preserve free will despite all the evidence against it. Yet it should also be emphasised that for those well-versed in the scientific and philosophical literature, thinkers who jump to defend free will in the face of damning evidence are foolish. They are acting religiously, like fideists, and even those with extremely valuable contributions to other fields of philosophy or science dissolve into baffling irrationality when it comes to the topic of determinism. Any intellectually honest individual should be at least sceptical about free will and be aware of the real-world implications of its nonexistence.
Before delving into debate, one must first accurately define exactly what is meant by “free will” as it has become popular in the literature to twist and mangle the meaning of the term. Despite this, there are a few commonly-used and prominent definitions in philosophy which can be broadly interchangeable for our purposes. One such definition is that free will is the ability to freely and actively choose between multiple options or futures. Another is that free will is the ability to have “done differently” or “done otherwise” in the past, regardless of whatever reality you face in the present. Some philosophers try to manipulate the definition in order to exclaim proudly that “we have free will!” despite the truth of determinism: they argue a will is “free” if one can act without hindrance or coercion. We will elucidate the foolishness of this line of reasoning later.
The traditional philosophical positions in the discussion surrounding free will are as follows: hard determinism, soft determinism (or compatibilism), libertarianism (not to be confused with the political philosophy) and indeterminism. I do not contend that this paragraph is an exhaustive interrogation of these ideas, merely a concise summary. Hard determinists hold that everything in the universe has a preceding cause, that all human action is causally determined and therefore we never act freely. This position also proposes that, as a point of logic, people cannot be held morally responsible for their actions, which have been predetermined by causes over which they have had no conscious influence. Soft determinists concede that the universe is indeed mechanistic and causal, thus determinism is true, however posit that free will is “compatible” with the truth of determinism. The usual argument these charlatans offer is simply to redefine free will as being the freedom to act according to your own motives without hindrance from other individuals or institutions, despite the fact that your motives are predetermined. Compatibilism asserts that as long as the individual is the cause of their own actions, or indeed as long as we “own” our actions, even if they are the result of prior unconscious causes, then we have free will. This, as Daniel Dennett puts it, is the free will “worth having”, despite being an obviously self-defeating paradox and a fallacious strawman. Libertarianism is the now extremely unpopular position of contending that determinism is false, humans are free and we are morally responsible for our actions: a delusional fantasy which is at odds with our scientific understanding of the universe. The libertarian model of free will is also logically impossible. To have libertarian free will, one must be able to control one’s own thoughts. These thoughts are either caused or uncaused. If they are caused, then one cannot be in control of them, yet if they are uncaused, then one also cannot be in control of them. It therefore follows that it is logically impossible to control your own thoughts, whether they are caused or uncaused, and thus libertarian free will is impossible. Indeterminism is a philosophical position popularised by the advent of modern quantum theory, which holds that actions are random and due to chance, as opposed to causally determined, yet free will is still impossible as our choices are grounded in randomness.
The standard argument against free will
The most formidable argument against free will, fuelled by modern discoveries in both neuroscience and physics, is what I will term the “standard argument”. It has been espoused by renowned, or perhaps now infamous, intellectuals such as Sam Harris, John Searle and Peter Van Inwagen, amongst others. The “standard” line of reasoning propounds that the universe is governed according to the laws of physics, which are either causal and deterministic in the Newtonian sense or random and indeterministic in the quantum sense. If they are deterministic, then the will cannot be free, however if they are indeterministic then the will also cannot be free, but is simply a result of the vagaries of chance, luck or randomness. This position is championed beautifully and succinctly by Owen Flanagan in ‘The Problem of the Soul’ when he writes that “free actions, if there are any, are not deterministically caused nor are they caused by random processes of the sort countenanced by quantum physicists or complexity theorists” and that “free actions need to be caused by me, in a nondetermined and nonrandom manner”. When laid out in these plain terms, one would think that even the most indoctrinated academic or disinterested layperson could see that there is no combination of randomness and non-randomness that is compatible with free will. Just as we cannot consciously control the preceding deterministic causes which dictate our actions, likewise we cannot control random events which may somehow culminate in human activity. As Harris puts it, “however you turn this dial between the iron law of determinism and mere randomness, free will makes no more sense”. Interestingly, Harris goes further than the usual proponents of the “standard argument” and condemns the very notion of “free will” as incoherent. He argues that thoughts and intentions emerge from a background chain of causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. That is to say, an infinite chain of prior causes predetermines one’s actions, therefore they cannot possible be “free” nor does one really “will” anything and thus the term is defunct. We are simply conscious passengers enjoying the ride on a chain of causes over which we exert no authority. The “standard argument” is worth breaking down further, as follows: the conscious mind and “choices” are the result of prior chemical causes, governed by natural physical laws, over which the conscious mind had no influence. To put it bluntly: your actions are the product of unconscious particles. Whatever feeling of “choice” you have is an illusion, evolutionarily useful, but an illusion nonetheless. Consciousness simply allows one to bear witness; we are not in control.
The “standard argument” has been under scathing attack throughout modern philosophical history. One of the most notable and persistent opponents is Daniel Dennett, who clings to his beliefs on free will with admirable stoicism for understandable reasons: namely that his career is partly built on them. Dennett is a modern compatibilist and argues that the truths of both determinism and indeterminism are compatible with free will, or at least his bastardised version of the concept. His main point is that, despite the neuro-scientific picture of the brain being empirically true, human beings still remain free in the ways they act and think in all the ways “that actually matter”. In his version of “free will”, thoughts and actions are the products of unconscious causes but are still “ours” as we own them and embody them. Consequently, he holds that anything that your own brain does or decides to do is still something that you have done as an organism, as a person, and it is you that has decided to do it, regardless of the fact whether you exerted conscious influence or control over the process. He eloquently explains that our conscious and unconscious selves interact and work in conjunction to produce out actions, and this is the foundation of his “free will”, and through the interaction of consciousness and unconsciousness, we are free to shape our own world. This line of reasoning continues to descend into absurdity when Dennett essentially argues that just because one cannot influence the unconscious machinery that determines what you choose to do, it doesn’t necessarily mean that what your actions are involuntary or outside your direct control. It is important to note he offers no evidence for these rambunctious claims, only very intelligent-sounding philosophical gibberish. He even goes as far as to posit that the notion of free will that proponents of the “standard argument” defend is a “popular” layperson version of the concept, is “a mess”, philosophically unsound and, ultimately, the wrong type of free will to be interrogating. He also contends that the negation of moral responsibility is so utterly intolerable, that free will must exist, for the alternative is “blind to the chilling lessons of the not so distant past”. Finally, Dennett bizarrely allocates a substantial portion of an essay in response to Sam Harris with commentary on how most philosophers are compatibilists and subscribe to a similar view to him, therefore he must be right.
It is worth dedicating a paragraph to dismantle Dennett’s line of attack. Through his contorted mental gymnastics and clever word games, Dennett contends “free will” to mean something which is not defeated by the “standard argument”. However, this is simply a strawman. He does not address any of the underlying issues that are exposed by the “standard” line of reasoning, and instead works extremely hard to redefine the meaning of free will, freedom and blurs the idea of agency, and at the same time is able to claim victory. One could easily use Dennett’s method and reinvent free will ad infinitum in the face of any opposition so as to never concede the argument: this is intellectually dishonest. Furthermore, his position that the inability to control what controls you does not mean you are not in control is ludicrous and a contradiction in terms: it is self-defeating and logically incoherent. Dennett’s overall criticism of the “standard argument” can be summarised as follows: it seems like we make choices and our physical bodies act them out, therefore we do make choices. This is quite clearly a weak and illogical line of thought, which does nothing to abrogate the key points of the “standard argument”. His contention that a world without moral responsibility is too unpalatable and therefore cannot be true is simply an appeal to consequences fallacy. Dennett does not think a world without moral responsibility is desirable and therefore concludes that it cannot be true, which is logically fallacious. Perhaps the most entertaining fallacy Dennett commits is the appeal to popularity. He furiously delves into the academic literature to fish out statistics that show how popular his position of compatibilism is amongst the philosophical elite. For example, he states that “just over 59%” of philosophers are compatibilists and “between 60 and 80%” of “experimental” philosophers are in agreement with compatibilism. Dennett’s arrogance here is overt, and his position is essentially “most philosophers agree with me, so I am probably right”. Needless to say, this is not only a childish assertion, but also not a legitimate intellectual perspective. Overall, Dennett’s approach initially appears scholarly, impressive and dazzling, but is a failure.
The case against free will from neuroscience
In addition to, and supportive of, the “standard argument”, there is now a large and robust body of work from neuroscience which provides evidence against the concept of free will. One of the progenitors of this movement was Benjamin Libet, a neuroscientist who discovered the link between the “bereitschaftspotential” or “readiness potential” and volitional activity. His landmark experiment involved subjects being asked to flex their wrist whenever they wished to and to note the time on a clock when they had decided to carry out the movement. An EEG with electrodes attached to the motor regions of the brain measured electrophysiological activity. In short, he showed that voluntary acts are preceded by a specific electrical change in the motor cortex and supplementary motor area which begins 550ms before the motor act, and 350ms before subjects even had a conscious awareness of willing the act. It is important to note that no such readiness potential appears before involuntary acts such as in Tourette’s syndrome. We can therefore make the tentative conclusion that unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiators of voluntary acts, not free will. However, this conclusion, and the methodology of Libet’s study, are the subject of criticism which is worth dissecting. Even Libet himself argued that his work left room for an arbitrator-type free will, which can modulate and veto unconsciously-generated activity after the readiness potential. This has been echoed by recent work, which proposes that such actions are vetoable up until a “point of no return” 200ms before the movement. However, Kuhn and Brass have shown that even such a veto would be the result of unconscious processes.
There were clearly methodological issues with Libet’s study. For one, “the awareness of the intention to move” is ambiguous and could be interpreted differently by different subjects, introducing bias. The requirement of the same subjects to then accurately report the time on the clock at which they felt said intention further introduces subjective recall bias. Furthermore, the very use of a clock could be deemed a distraction to subjects, and a limitation of the experiment. Daniel Dennett also couldn’t resist wading into the discussion. He furiously wrote that neuroscientists “have been on a rampage – writing ill-considered public pronouncements about free will” and condemned them as socially irresponsible for doing so. Putting aside Dennett’s emotional outburst, his critique of Libet was lucid: that there is the potential for temporal mismatch during the shift of attention from one’s intention to the clock and discerning the time. He further argued that Libet’s reliance on accurate reporting by subjects of the experiment is flawed, as the report may simply be where it seems to the subject that things come together, as opposed to when they actually occur. Banks and Isham replicated Libet’s study but they used a delayed tone following when participants pressed a button to indicate the time of their intention to act. They found that the time reported by these individuals shifted to correlate with the time of when the tone sounded, implying that this report is retrospectively constructed rather than pre-determined by a readiness potential. Miller and Trevena built on this critique and posited that the readiness potential doesn’t represent a decision to move, rather it is EEG evidence of the brain paying attention. They used an audio tone in an experiment to indicate to volunteers to decide whether to tap a key or not, and the potential was the same in both cases, suggesting that it isn’t evidence that a decision is made to move. However, Libet’s colleague Patrick Haggard has explained that there are separate stimulus-response and voluntary circuits in the brain, and therefore these researchers applying external stimuli such as noises were not testing voluntary neurophysiology.
An important blow to Libet’s work on the readiness potential occurred in 2012 with the publication of “An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement” by Aaron Schurger. He developed an argument that the readiness potential is empirically accurate but the conclusions are not. His work focused on a churning, always-on, fluctuating, background buzzing of neuronal activity present in all our brains which emerges as the result of spontaneous electrical flickering of thousands of interconnected neurones at rest. He noted that this electrophysiological noise rises and falls in tides without being matched by physical activity. However, if one was to analyse the data by ordering it by its peaks and reverse-averaging it, it would visually look like climbing, purposeful trends, and this was the methodological technique that Libet used. Schurger concluded that the readiness potential is simply a circumstantial epiphenomenon, rather than a causal phenomenon: once the ebb and flow of background neuronal noise reached closer to the threshold for initiation of movement, otherwise uncued subjects were flipped over into activity rather than inactivity. However, where Schurger’s otherwise impressive exposition fails, is that it does no favours for free will. He simply replaces a causal readiness potential with a random, meaningless background neuronal hum that can push a person towards a particular choice if it reaches the appropriate magnitude. This is simply an appeal to indeterminism, rather than a defeat of determinism. Moreover, a multiplicity of authors have now replicated Libet’s findings using a variety of techniques and data interpretation methods. Overall, it is clear that Libet stumbled onto an observation that was gargantuan in its implications for philosophy, albeit with flawed and outdated methodology by today’s rigorous scientific standards.
Neuroscience’s case against free will has been strengthened time and again throughout the 21st century, to the dismay of professional philosophers. Cognitive scientist JD Haynes replicated Libet’s findings using advanced fMRI techniques, which showed that the prefrontal and parietal cortices contain electrophysiological information about which button a subject will press in an experiment up to 10 seconds before the same subject is even aware of making such a decision. The brain is already unconsciously bubbling up neuronal activity in order to produce a motor action far in advance of one’s conscious awareness of a “choice” to carry out the action. Upon criticism that the “choice” to push a button was too simplistic and not generalisable to human activity, Haynes repeated the study but using the complex task of adding or subtracting numbers and found that the same neuronal activity was evident 4 seconds before subjects were aware of making a decision to calculate. Similarly, Fried et al. reproduced these findings at the minute level of individual neurones. They found that solitary neurones fire 2 seconds before a subject reports a “will” to act, and that the activity of only 256 total neurones is sufficient to predict with 80% accuracy a person’s decision to move, up to 700ms before they are aware of it themselves. They concluded that “at some point, things that are predetermined are admitted into consciousness”, that is to say, consciousness is a mere biochemical afterthought, rather than the causative factor. The assertion was further echoed by Adam Bear and Paul Bloom’s work, which makes the case that the brain rewrites history to deceive the person into believing they made a choice all along, a “postdictive illusion”, when in reality one simply becomes aware of the experience of a “choice” passively. Their data suggested that subjects’ minds swap the order of events to make it appear that they had made choices, even when they didn’t physically have the time to do so. In similar fashion, Wegner and Wheatley showed that the experience of intentionally willing an action is just a post-hoc causal inference, not a factor in producing behaviour. Later work by Stefan Bode detailed fMRI experiments which once again showed it to be possible to decode the outcome of “free” decisions several seconds prior to the decision reaching conscious awareness. Philosophers, such as Alfred Mele, have argued that the previously described neuroscientific experiments have been flawed, quantifying things in milliseconds and relying on accurate temporal pinpointing by human subjects. A common criticism is that the data is based on simple, binary decision-making whereas free will involves complex, multifaceted, detailed, social situations, and thus the data is not generalisable to reality. Despite all of this, there has been no critique able to destroy the fact that unconscious neuronal activity precedes the conscious experience of willing an action.
The case against free will from physics
It is clear that we have already levied an extensive case against free will and have interrogated its criticisms. Nevertheless, it is important to describe supporting argumentation from the field of physics. Physicists, such as Sabine Hossenfelder, have asserted that the very concept of free will is not only incompatible with physical laws, but altogether meaningless. We know that the laws of nature are subject to differential equations, whereby the initial conditions at one moment in time determine events at any other moment in time. Extrapolating this, one can argue that every single detail of the universe was already determined at the big bang, the original initial condition. “Will” is grounded in biological neuronal activity, consisting of matter and thus subject to the laws of physics. That is to say, the particles which make up the brain are the initial conditions which determine future outcomes, and the actions you take are a consequence of the physical particles of which you consist. Hossenfelder also asserts that the fact that the physical system is partly chaotic does not change the conclusion, as chaos is still deterministic, only making predictions difficult, but not undetermined. Similarly, the true randomness and unpredictability of quantum events are not influenced by anything, therefore reality is determinism with the occasional, random, undetermined quantum jump. This leaves no room for free will. Some charlatans such as “information philosopher” Bob Doyle propose that the randomness of indeterminism is what introduces free possibilities from which one chooses possible futures. This assertion is utterly obtuse as randomness and chance are defined by the very fact that they are not chosen by anything. I would also posit that the idea of free will never made much sense anyway: if a choice was determined by your wants then it was not “free”, and if it was not determined by you then it was not a “will”.
So what is the point?
In conclusion, the evidence amassed by 21st century science, despite all the best efforts of a brigade of desperate free will fideists, is damning. Despite issues with Libet’s foundational work, and much of the criticism being well-founded, later research in neuroscience has solidified the evidence and the conclusion that voluntary acts are the result of preceding unconscious neuronal processes. This, alongside the view from physics and the “standard argument”, has levied a blow to free will from which it can never recover. To echo Nietzsche, not only have we killed God, but now we have killed free will. Evidence from all fields continues to mount against free will, and this should be celebrated, for not only is the truth important, but so are the real-world implications of the concept’s death. One may ask “well, what’s the point?”, if we are all just passengers without freedom then why bother with anything? To fall into such fatalism is a mistake: just because human actions are caused and determined does not mean they are unimportant, our actions have an impact in the world and we embody part of the causal chain of the universe. An accurate understanding of free will, or its nonexistence, has profound implications for moral responsibility, justice and society. People, deep down at the neuronal predetermined level, are not morally responsible for their actions. They are simply conscious passengers on a giant deterministic chain, products of factors over which they have no choice. This knowledge can open us up to a true compassion: awareness that “evil” people drew the short straw, and “good” people won the determinism lottery. Taking this further, it enables us to shift the aim of justice from punishment to rehabilitation, one such example embodied by Norway’s prison system. This is not to say that the safety of the public should be disregarded, and those who cannot be rehabilitated or remain forever dangerous should still be kept from harming others. The death of free will also reshapes one’s understanding of achievements and prowess in society: increased humility in those who have “done well” and a sincere empathy for those who are less fortunate. Such an understanding of free will is the foundation of a humanitarian society, and allows the construction of an economy based on equity and need. Free will is dead, let us revel in it.
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