The Biology of Progressive Politics


The  Biology of Progressive Politics
Clayton Morgareidge, Old Mole Variety Hour
March 2, 2009

The rhetoric of the Obama presidency is a lot more progressive than anything we’ve ever heard coming out of the White House.  The new administration is still taking shape, and so is the  way it is perceived by the public and the media.  So now is a special time when we should be pressing for the most progressive agenda we can come up with.  To do so, we should first try to be clear about the philosophical underpinnings of a progressive agenda.

The political left is inspired by its sense that although we are individuals, human life is deeply social.  We are social beings not just because we have to have rules of the road in order to not to crash into each other as we compete for scarce resources.   We do not just live next to each other: we live our lives within the lives of other people. Together we construct the forms of life that make each individual life possible, meaningful and desirable.  How others talk and think and write and paint and sing and build creates the horizons of what I can see and do.  How others organize and implement personal and family relationships creates the world in which I will love and hate and fear and hope.  The ways in which production and distribution are carried out determines my opportunities for being productive, secure, and comfortable.  Human life is never merely individual or personal.  There is no way for us not to be interested, and emotionally invested, in what other people do.

Philosophers and political theorists, including Marx, have argued that we  are  social animals by looking at how human life and labor throughout history have been socially organized, and how the life of each individual is shaped by the kind of society in which she lives.  The more we know about the beginnings of human life, the more we see that we evolved in groups working together, not as separate individuals in opposition to each other.

In recent years, scientists studying the brain have demonstrated that we are biologically made to be connected with each other.  Daniel Stern, for example, in his book The Present Moment (pp. 76-77) argues on the basis of  recent studies of the brain that we  live in “the  intersubjective matrix.”   “Nature has designed our brain and mind so that we are  attuned  to the  actions and purposes of  other people.”   When we see the faces and gestures of others, “we can directly feel something very like what they are feeling.”  (This  is thanks to mirror neurons in our brains that connect perceptions of what others are doing to the same sets of neurons that make the similar actions happen in us.)   Faces and bodies continuously express  emotions, telling “what we are thinking as well as what we are feeling.”  As we see other people move, “we can feel what it must be like to move that way.  We feel it in our body and sense it in our mind, together.”   “Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience  others  as if from  within their skin, as well as from within our own.  A sort of  direct feeling route into the other person is potentially open and we resonate with and participate in their experiences, and they in ours.”
Stern goes on to say,

This must be seen in the light of our being highly social  animals  who probably spend the majority  of our lives in the presence of others, real  or imagined. …

[We live, in other words, in an] intersubjective world ….  We [should] no longer see our minds as so independent, separate, and isolated. …. … We live surrounded by others’ intentions, feelings, and thoughts that interact with our own, so that what is  ours and what belongs to others starts to break down.  Our intentions are modified in a shifting dialogue with the … intentions of others.  Our feelings are shaped by the intentions, thoughts, and feelings of others.  And our thoughts are co-created in dialogue, even when it is only with ourselves.

In short, our mental life is co-created.  This continuous co-creative dialogue with other minds is what I am calling the intersubjective matrix.

Now if  this is true, then what can we say about a politics that spends freely on war, but condemns unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and early childhood education as wasteful?   What about the capitalist  system  itself , which permits privately owned, profit maximizing corporations to control the banks, hospitals, insurance companies, energy companies, and big employers like the auto industry – institutions which, as  the economic crisis is teaching us every day, we all rely upon for getting through  our lives?   It  seems  obvious that right-wing political passions,  ask us to deny, to smother, a deep part of  who we are – our intense involvement with and empathy for the needs of others.  It denies  us the medium of our existence – our   “intersubjective  matrix.”  In fact, to be a fully participating member of the individualistic, competitive world of capitalism causes us to repress a good deal of our natural empathy for the situations of other people.

Some of the policies, and more of the rhetoric, coming from the Obama administration, do appeal to  our natural concern for each other.  Listen to the opening of  the President’s speech last week:

I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others, and rightly so. If you haven't been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has: a friend, a neighbor, a member of your family.
You don't need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It's the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It's the job you thought you'd retire from but now have lost, the business you built your dreams upon that's now hanging by a thread, the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope.

But more bombs for  Pakistan and Afghanistan, more concern for bankers than for those who are  in debt to them, more stonewalling against due process for so-called enemy combatants, more concern for private health-insurance companies than for sick and injured people, demonstrates that even for democratic  political leaders, the intersubjective matrix is stratified:  it has its ghettos and its mansions.  Rhetorically all of us are created equal, but in practice, some are more equal than others.

In this shifting political landscape, our mission is to appeal to the better  angels  of our nature that live in our hearts and our brains.



"But more bombs for Pakistan and Afghanistan, more concern for bankers than for those who are in debt to them, more stonewalling against due process for so-called enemy combatants, more concern for private health-insurance companies than for sick and injured people, demonstrates that even for democratic political leaders, the intersubjective matrix is stratified: it has its ghettos and its mansions. Rhetorically all of us are created equal, but in practice, some are more equal than others."

I understand, and agree with your philosophy. What I do not agree with is the actions that you believe that philosophy entails. Do you seriously believe that the actions President Obama is going against such a philosophy with his actions? He isn't. He recognises the equality of human value.


Yes, he is trying to eliminate those whom refuse to tolerate any views but their own. However, he is engaging the Muslim world to try to pry the moderate voices from the extremists; to show that if you will respect our views, we can and will respect yours. "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth defending in the event of war is much worse." "A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself." John Stuart Mill. You end up defending a philosophy instead of lives. And that is what it is: defense. Obama and I agree that War should be a last resort, the last defense to turn to should those who oppose resort to violence.


He is not helping 'the bankers.' He is doing all he can to restore the flow of credit, to help all those who have been hit by the recession; and this entails providing the bankers with the necessary resources to restore the credit flow, with oversight to ensure it actually happens.

Terror Suspects:

Having banned torture and starting the process of closing Gauntanamo shows he is doing, as fast as is practically possible, what is moral and legal. The process for reviewing each of the detainees to decide what can be done will take time, and is not a failure on his part.

Health Care:

Ideally the US, like all other First World Western democracies, would have universal, single payer health care but realistically this is too impractical given that many people are currently adequately covered by the current system. Pragmatically it makes practical sense to preserve what already sufficiently covers many Americans, and simply build on the current system to extend coverage to all Americans; rather than having to start from scratch. Politically, it is the only possibly achievable route he can take.

You need to take stock of reality, and stop prioritising philosophy of human lives and well-being. What is important are the values we hold, the achievable vision we advocate, the ideas we generate to attain that vision, the manner in which those ideas are pursued, and the impact of the pursuit and implementation of those ideas. It requires Idealism (in thought) tempered by Realism (in analysis) pursued with Pragmatism (in action). I admire your idealism, something with which I happen to agree, but you do not have realism or pragmatism, and this will prevent any progress as you percieve it.


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