George Walford: Reply to Austin Meredith

This letter left us with ambivalent feelings, and after a time we began to see why. Although written as a whole, it falls into two parts. The first consists of the ideas Austin would have us accept. These are not to be swallowed unquestioningly – he would not want that – but they are all solid and thoughtful, they have to be taken seriously. The other part comprises his presentation of various things said in IC29. Reading his letter we found ourselves repeatedly thinking: “Good God! Did we really say that?” and on going back to the article he was speaking of we repeatedly found it not to agree with the impression given in his letter. Austin has not always managed to make clear the distinction between what IC did say and what he would like it to have said in order to help him make his point. So let us take one quick run through, bringing this into order, and then turn to his own views. Our blessings upon him for numbering the paragraphs.

1. No, we weren’t being nasty to God, only to Lord Acton, trying to show he had not thought his statement through. When a proposition carries difficult and puzzling consequences there are at least two reasonable responses. One is to wrestle with these, and this Austin invites us to do. The other is to re-examine the proposition, perhaps to reject it, and this would be our choice here. In asking whether his lordship had applied his “power corrupts” remark to the Lord we were intending to suggest that if he had done so he would have seen that it required at least qualification.

2. “The only escape is forward.” In the article commented on here we spoke only of direction, not of speed. We agree that faster does not have to be better or safer, and only the dead are secure; our piece said nothing to the contrary.

3. IC does not in fact use the “conscious / unconscious-mind talk” the letter suggests we would be better without; it speaks rather of people being “unaware” of their assumptions, in order to avoid just the connotations Austin understandably dislikes.

4. The passage from IC quoted here specifies continuing dependence of the later and higher stages upon the lower, and this seems to distance it sufficiently from the examples given in the following paragraph. The final sentence of this, ending “attitude y is demonstrated to be morally superior to attitude x” refers to a view contrary to that taken by s.i., which stresses the absence of any rule saying that the more advanced, more sophisticated, higher ideologies have to be in any general sense better than the less advanced, simpler and lower. The assumption of synonymity between “higher” and “better” falls apart when we recall that a high window is not better to fall out of than a low one, that a high death rate is seldom preferable to a lower one, and that when we describe a statement as “the height of absurdity” this does not mean we think particularly well of it.

5. If the reference to liberal facts being bogus means that the UN fakes its figures, we should like to see some support for this. It still seems to us that the statistics given – population of Europe stationary, that of Africa set to treble – do suggest a connection between high living standards and low birth-rate. Whether using this connection to reduce the birth-rate would result in reduced or increased overall impact on the evironment is, we agree, a different question. It is also a question the IC paragraph did not touch, being a direct response, to the report of an expected population increase, that did not attempt to take in associated issues. On racism, and expecting them to solve our problems, reduction of the birth-rate is a solution (if it be one) that. Europeans have already applied to themselves. To the extent that individual consumption is at present excessive and a problem of America and Europe (though here we have old people dying of hypothermia every winter because they can’t afford fuel), the less developed countries are making it their problem as fast as they can.

6. Of the information and communication spoken of in the IC paragraph 99% was specified non-volitional and not, therefore, subject to intentional falsification. As for the other 1%, yes, it may well be falsified; indeed we know it sometimes is; but that does not make it any the less information and communication. Misinformation and unreliable information are both types of information and both have to be communicated if they are to be of any effect. Austin seems to be speaking here of the purposes for which speech can be used rather than the atmospheric vibrations (“information in the vocal tract”) which formed the subject of the piece in IC.

Now, turning to Austin’s own views. We first met some four years ago at a conference in New York, and the stimulation derived from discussion with him since then has more than justified what was otherwise a pretty dismal experience. His main theme is the risk of “success-extinction” facing humanity. In biology the success of a species is measured by increase in its numbers, but a species that expands inordinately runs up against limits set by the environment and, sometimes at least, incurs extinction. Austin draws attention to the expansion of humanity, not only in numbers but in consumption producing impact on the environment, condemns it as inordinate and predicts that to continue along this course will be to incur the fate of other over-successful species. Continuing success will lead to disaster; failure, by avoiding ultimate disaster, will be more successful than success. Hence the remarks throughout his letter, that faster does not mean safer, that dawdling is one of the most viable alternatives, that consumption by undeveloped countries should not be increased but that of the developed countries reduced, and the opposition to the suggestion that rising living standards tend to produce a lower birth-rate.

This approach, maintaining that success is or will become ultimate failure, and that failure will be lasting success, entails highly sophisticated and flexible thinking. It operates on the principle that X is not only X but also non-X (success is also failure); that is to say, it refuses to be bound by Aristotle’s principles, which specify that X is X, everything is either X or non-X, and nothing can be both X and non-X. In speaking of success-extinction Austin introduces a self- contradiction and this must, on Aristotelian principles, be nonsense. But he knows and shows it to make good and important sense.

It seems hardly sporting of him, while claiming this liberty for his own thinking, to insist that s.i. must submit to the Aristotelian limitations. His p,q,r argument works only so long as these are accepted; if it be allowed that X can also be non-X, that p can also be q or r, r also p or q, and q also p or r, then his rigid and (on Aristotelian terms) inescapable conclusion dissolves into flexibility. We do not have to eliminate all other possibilities before inferring, from the observation that people behave in certain ways, that they hold certain assumptions. Equally, of course, our inference does not possess the security that is (or rather, seems to be) enjoyed by an Aristotelian conclusion; it remains always in need of further testing and subject to correction. This is explicitly accepted; s.i. does not deal in certainties, only in probabilities – though these do tend to be of the same order as the probability that a kettle on the fire will boil rather than freeze.

Austin speaks of proof, but we don’t think he will find IC ever claiming to have proven anything – not even that the “socialism” of the (A-)SPGB is impossible. Proof, a conclusive demonstration that something is thus and not otherwise, (X is X and not non-X) is an Aristotelian concept; s.i. works with a more inclusive logic in which the Aristotelian principles, and the formal logic deriving from them, appear as a special case, the more general rule being that X both is and is not non-X. (It is because Aristotle’s laws are limited in their application that formal logic is of so little help in living).

Austin presents a sharp choice: either we cease to acquire and exercise increasing powers or we continue on our present course to success-extinction. But if our more flexible thinking be applied to the issue then this rigid exclusiveness, X or non-X, breaks down.

There may be greater scope than we tend to think for using one resource in place of another. As the forests disappear more heat and more ships are being produced than ever before. The advent of fusion plants, cleaner and safer than the present fission, may render nuclear power acceptable in place of vanishing oil and, always, there is the probability of unforeseen developments. But let us be prudent, putting optimism aside and accepting Austin’s estimate of our position. What, then, is to be done? We deal in probabilities; in order to reach even a tentative conclusion we must adopt certain assumptions which cannot be proven, and one of them is that for the period in question, whatever that may be, the human race will be effectively restricted to the resources available on this planet. In that case we must, at the least, expect serious difficulties if industrial growth as we have recently known it, with its accelerating destruction of the natural environment, should continue. But it does not follow that we must put a halt to increase of the powers wielded by society. The trouble is not that social power is too great but that it is too small.

By “society” here we mean the totality of organised humanity. This is what is being put at risk by pollution, exhaustion of resources and the other horrors. It is not society, in this sense, that is creating the dangers, but some of the individual groupings that make up society, most of them industrial enterprises, others governments or government undertakings. These operate for the most part independently, each of them pursuing its own interests with little regard for the welfare of the collectivity. Prior to this century this may have been acceptable; their powers were subject to limitations imposed by nature and they could not do irreparable harm, either to the environment or to humanity as a whole. That is no longer so. They have broken free of natural controls and no others have been imposed. They are coming to have freedom without restraint, and they are demonstrating that freedom without restraint puts an end to itself. Freedom can be real and enduring only when it is united with restraint, and the need now is for power to impose controls upon industry, and governments, in place of the natural restraints that are no longer effective. Not less power but more. Power to control power. The only way out is forward.

Austin works to draw attention to the dangers facing society, and in doing so (here we meet that flexible thinking again) he goes some way towards destroying his own argument. In drawing his parallel between expanding humanity and the natural species that expanded into extinction he overlooks a crucial distinction: those natural species did not not have an Austin Meredith to sound the alarm. Once put on the alert we have the chance of avoiding success-extinction. In order to make use of it we need greater understanding of the behaviour of firms, industries, military-industrial complexes, governments, societies, and universal society. We need to understand the influences which affect them, and among those influences one of the most powerful, and least understood, is that of ideology. Here, more than elsewhere, understanding means power, power to control the powers that threaten to destroy us.

from Ideological Commentary 31, January 1988.