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A Meandering Species

While this is only my second philosophy class at Iowa State, already it has simultaneously

expanded my thinking while filling in gaps that were present before this course. Much of my mental

effort goes towards trying to understand the state of affairs we currently find ourselves in. The readings

and discussions on Heidegger, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Lukacs have hit home with particular

vigor. The Western Marxists articulate concepts that I believe have a lot of explanatory power when

looking at the modern global economy; while Heidegger provides a backdrop through which

breakthroughs in understanding might be achieved and solutions painted upon. It is apparent to me, that

the World has chosen to enslave itself to principles that are not holistic, and will persistently produce

outcomes most view as unacceptable do to our inability to act according to any other principles. Only

once a new framework is clearly articulated, and a cultural revolution realized can humanity become

the noble species we all know ourselves to be, instead of the meandering one we collectively form


The New Tyranny

“Freedom!” is the battle cry of the age. We find ourselves now in the age of Enlightenment,

which has brought us tremendous scientific and technological advancement, astronomical economic

growth and prosperity, and a steady expansion of political rights and freedoms across the globe. We

were to be free from fear in embracing the logical, the rational, the quantifiable. When we know how to

explain and describe everything uniformly and completely, we will be free of the unknown and free of

fear. These principles argue Horkheimer and Adorno, underly the modern age.

However, Enlightenment dooms itself from the start, by proclaiming immanence, discarding the

very idea of the unknown and asserting itself as the only truth is the basis for its untruth, and thus

placing it firmly within the realm of myth.

“Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the

increase in their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power.
Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so

far as he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things in so far as he can

make them. In this way their potentiality is turned to his own ends.” (emphasis mine)

Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Concept of Enlightenment”

Enlightenment is obsessed with a universality of nature, and mathematics becomes its dogma. “The

multiplicity of forms is reduced to position and agrangement, history to fact, things to matter,” argue

the authors. Formal logic provides Enlightenment thinkers their conceptual framework: the

calculability of the world. By restricting themselves to only this form of logic, they ignore qualitative

meaning as well as other forms of reason in an attempt to eradicate the fear of nature. Indeed,

Enlightenment is totalitarian. These thoughts echo Heidegger's argument against the domination of the

subject-object relationship in the whole of Western Philosophy, which we will return to later. They also

resonate in perfect harmony with the work of Georg Lukacs.

Lukacs, in his characterization of commodity fetishism, clearly defines for us the exact social

structure through which Enlightenment thinking has come to dominate and control human existence.

We are not slaves to Chemistry, or Biology, or Physics in our daily lives. No, it is the Economic system

which perpetually calls for our participation and tribute. It seeks to shape our body and soul in order to

increase and solidify its own preeminence. Lukacs argues that through the process of commodity

exchange, hinged upon rationality, we come to reify our very real, organic human relationships in terms

of economic goods, that have some given value on a fundamentally universal scale: its price.

In order for this to be a useful way to structure the world, it must bow to the tenents of

Enlightenment thinking. The universal quantifiability of things and the establishment of equivalencies.

Market value must be determined and accepted as the true definition of a things intrinsic worth and

potentiality. I can tell you from experience in Environmental Economics that this is precisely how the

world operates and thousands of decisions are made everyday according to its dogma. In enviro-

economics, we measure damage to the environment as damage to the economic system that depends
upon that environment. We seek to quantify in dollars and cents how much value is provided to people

by walking in a wooded park and enjoying the surroundings by measuring how much they spend to do

to so or how much income they forgo.

The fetishism comes in a way that mirrors Horkheimer and Adorno's examination in the

adulterating effects of instrumental reason's tyranny on our ability to imagine anything outside the

current system, a requisite for reason itself. The organizing principle of rationality, which is the

objective combination of specialized systems to achieve greater efficiency in production, generates

abstraction and thus alienates the human from their work and the usefulness of their work. The

individual comes to define his role in society by how much and what kind of labor he can sell in the

labor market to firms which ruthlessly pursue profit by way of rationality, thus perpetuating the


The result of which is human beings coming to form the cogs of a great machine, that they

continually create and perpetuate through their all important energy and effort, but never define a

purpose for. The individual falls in line, both mentally and physically to serve the will of the economic

system. And what is that will? What does the economic system seek to accomplish? As it turns out, it

didn't have much of a plan in the first place.


Hannah Arendt in “The Human Condition” in a small space articulated that it was the political

system alone that could stand up to the tyranny of the economic system. It was a realm where

qualitative meaning could still be exerted and the economic system coerced to play along. These times

appear to be behind us. In my study of the events of the past two years, it has become apparent that the

economic system exerts near total dominance over the political system, the main conduit through which

pure qualitative meaning and importance can be assigned by a society.

My first bit of evidence is the bailout of the financial system that resulted in late 2008. Global

markets were thrown into turmoil as a house of cards a decade or more in the making began to unravel.
Some of the largest and most integrated banking institutions in the world came to the door of the

United States Congress and demanded a bailout. Fear gripped the system as they urged the government

to shift the monumental risk of loss to the American taxpayer and provide them with the funds to

maintain liquidity. They offered no choices, no alternatives. Save us, or we are all destroyed. While

initially there was resistance, the resulting market chaos that resulted forced the political system into a

situation where is had no choice but to blink. The economic system demanded and the political system


The dominance extends past isolated cases of government interaction with large corporate

firms. Indeed, the principle question surrounding the national debate today is the persistently high

unemployment rate. The government is now expected the world over to provide the conditions

necessary and for economic activity, jobs for which its individuals to toil at, a place in the machine that

exerts its will over all who live within its scope. A place in a firm is what this boils down to.

But firms by their nature do not care about how many people it employs except for how that

number relates to its total costs and productive output, caring little about the stability of communities or

the fair assurance that the wages will provide for the quality of life that the workers feel entitled to in

this truly bountiful age. Firms by their nature, through mathematical abstraction and relentless number

crunching, pursue only profit. Higher profit for the owners. These numbers and targets are decided and

built upon according to quantitative caluculation and a web of supposed equivalencies; in these forms

the tyranny of Enlightenment thinking is apparent.

It is possible with this view to attribute the Bubble/Bust, unbalanced, asymmetric nature of

modern economic growth and activity to a lack of vision or coordination. Gobs and gobs of foreign and

domestically held investment capital is channeled into the economic system seeker higher rates of

return. The system operates purely in accordance with accumulation and self-preservation. In doing so

however, it over inflates and becomes too dependent on one particular industry or set of economic

activities: the dotcom bust, the housing bust and mortgage meltdown. Investment capital no longer
serves to create sustainable investment that will increase the wellbeing and economic competitiveness

of the community, but rather to pad the pockets of the owners of that capital.

People wonder why we are witnessing a jobless recession. Well, it isn't really that surprising

when you look at the numbers. Though corporate profits have returned and are now reaching record

new heights, rehiring of unemployed workers is not forthcoming. This is because many companies

have already replaced them with greater productivity and technological improvements or if they are

deciding to hire more workers, it hires them in a different country entirely, anywhere that doesn't have

the costs associated with hiring here. All the while, the jobs that are being created require skill sets that

the current unemployed don't have: so those individuals are no longer a match for collaboration with

the rational economic system. They are cast out of the machine, destroying livelihoods and lives

because they are not longer useful in a quantifiably rational way.

The manner that the tyrannical economic system approaches the environment is unsurprising as

well. Damage is accepted if its profitable; unrestrained resource use, irresponsible and impossible in the

long term, is allowed in the near term if it is cost effective and allows for greater economic activity

NOW. When the entire system is built upon a fundamental abstraction, a separation and alienation of

the human being from the outside world, it is unsurprising that we end up with widespread

environmental degradation and lax stewardship. The climate and ecosystems of this world are under

increasing strain from the pressures imposed by humanity, and eventually this process will erode the

ecological pillars that sustain our current level of existence.

Indeed, Enlightenment thinking via the economic system seeks to expand its dominance across

the globe, and perpetuate itself by locking humanity into a framework where it has center-stage. The

market is presupposed to know what its doing, and all effort is put towards means without thought to

the ends, a demarcation of the dominance of instrumental reason in the present age. What we are

actually left with is a twisted pile of human interaction and decision making that is interested in a

purely subjective self interest at all levels. The economy simultaneously pursues the goals of all of its
participants, essentially being pulled in all directions but actually moving nowhere but towards the

goals of the most economically powerful and towards a state of affairs where it will be best able to

perpetuate itself. Due to that root exclusion of the qualitative meaning inherent in Enlightenment style

thinking and reasoning, the economic system seeks to combine things that are dissimilar through a

common and known set of mathematical rules. As such, things that are really important to humans and

human communities, such as stable incomes, safe drinking water and food, a healthy environment, a

sense of purpose and fulfillment, and a fair distribution of resources, are largely ignored or

underrepresented and thus are trampled on capital's way towards higher returns.

The individuals themselves are complicit in this domination however, because they have

objectified themselves and reduced their place to a nut or bolt into the great Rubegoldberg that is the

global economy. By failing to understand the true nature of their being, and the importance of the

qualitative meaning that has been lost, they help the system to continue by operating from alienated,

subjective frameworks.

Rediscovering our Place in the World

It is apparent from the discussion and reading of Martin Heidegger, that he was playing the

game on a whole different level than many of his contemporaries and predecessors. Whether or not his

project ever reached a scrutable solution or conclusion is apparently up for debate, but it seems that no

philosophy of the past century or the present one can operate without at least acknowledging

Heidegger. I feel that this is with good reason. Heidegger lashed out in a radical away against the

preoccupation with the subject-object relationship, because it was a worn out line of thinking that

reduced the subject to the level of object, and left us devoid of any fulfilling view of the world or our

place in it.

It is in Heidegger that I feel hope for the current situation is buried. While I do not hold that his

writings can offer us specific policy guidance or even a method by which to break the tyranny that

imposes its will upon us and our relationships with each other and our world, I believe that his
fundamental shift in focus could be connected to the required shift necessary to get us out of this mess.

Heidegger focuses on an existential analytic of Dasein in order to get at the nature of Being

through the back door. This is because Dasein is a being to which Being is an issue, an entity that

understands the world through conceptual frameworks. Dasein builds conceptual frameworks built

around the preunderstanding of ontic domains, but since Dasein can recognize and change these

frameworks suggests an underlying understanding about the nature of Being that is presupposed.

Heidegger said that the isolated subject does not exist, and is merely an abstraction. Instead

there is a given unity between the subject and the object. Indeed, the Being of Dasein is that of being in

the world. We are a natural phenomena, wholly built and originally governed by nature. We do not exist

outside of it but instead entierly within it. We do not exist outside of and independent of the other

people who form our communities, quite the opposite. Indeed the outcomes of our decisions

continually shape the world and thus the space in which all others including ourselves operate. This is

Heidegger's concept of Temporality. According to Heidegger there are no fixed and stable essences,

which to me translates to an attack on the Enlightenment idea that all the world is quantifiable and

repeatable. There is much more beyond this. Qualitative differences that should have a role to play in

our decision making, in our moral and logistical reasoning that have had the mute button pressed on

them in order to allow the steady march of the empirical and the quantifiable to proceed in shaping

things to its liking without interruption.

Humans have built a spectacularly powerful machine in the form of the global economic

system, one with almost unlimited potential for technological progress. But unless it we reject it as the

false absolute it proclaims itself to be, we will continue to be plagued by its failure. The system runs

rampant, in no direction but according to the principles that define it. It's incredible productive capacity

can be harnessed to serve the higher goals of humanity. Until we recognize that there are real aspects of

the human phenomena that are intrinsically valuable in a way that can not be quantified, the peoples of

this planet will continue to serve and be served poorly by this our greatest machine.