What matters? What matters historically? What matters morally? These questions plague any politically- or philosophically-minded person. In his magnum opus, On What Matters, philosopher Derek Parfit considered the last question: what matters morally? Parfit’s answer relates to what I’m going to consider in this post, but it’s not too central. For Parfit, moral statements are true or false, and their truth values are discernible through innate moral intuition and rational discussion. But their truth does not depend on our cognitive capacities; they are simply true, or simply false. Some things are good, others bad. Parfit’s criteria for the truth of moral claims are whether such a claim is ‘optimific [has beneficial consequences], uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable’. These criteria derive from Parfit’s liberal heroes J.S. Mill, Immanuel Kant, and T.M. Scanlon. But these aren’t the only criteria for judging moral claims.
For ancient Greek philosopher Plato, there are three kinds of value:
- Bronze: The value of money, pleasure, and the satisfaction of wants;
- Silver: The value of community, honour, and dignity;
- Gold: The value of wisdom–the freedom to understand.
Just as gold is more valuable than silver, and silver more so than bronze, so wisdom > community > satisfaction. This sure is a good order for value: individual satisfaction is less intuitively good than communal recognition, while community in turn is less intuitively good than wisdom. The first inequality (community > satisfaction) is clear when we consider philosopher Robert Nozick’s hypothetical pleasure machine, which would give you infinite satisfaction in a virtual reality with only one real person: you. What’s lost in this virtual luxury reality is community–such as sharing of satisfaction with other people. Community trumps satisfaction in intrinsic goodness. The second inequality (wisdom > community) is clear when we consider what community is for: a community of understanding is intuitively better than a community of ignorance. Plato’s triple moral theory, like Parfit’s triple ethical theory, seems well-founded. But is it complete? Even if gold > silver > bronze in morality, does the same hold in history? Could wisdom, for instance, be both the most valuable activity and the least causally significant activity? Perhaps wisdom ought to reign supreme but does not in fact do so.
History confirms this suspicion. While Plato wanted philosophers to rule, usually the ruling class isn’t comprised of contemplation-minded people. The gold do not rule. In antiquity, the silver ruled: Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle but fought for valour and dignity over truth and goodness. In modernity, the bronze rule: oligarchs don’t fight wars anymore but, through what political scientist Jeffrey Winters calls ‘income defense industries’, they succeed in getting their way politically through the power of money. They frequently buy elections for their favoured politicians in the US, own much of the world’s media, and use the threat of capital flight to intimidate smaller states. But oligarchs like Jeff Bezos don’t care for contemplation or community as much as they care for the pursuit of more and more money, beyond what they need to survive, or even thrive. But in both modern and ancient times, the gold part of our souls is subordinate to the silver and the bronze. Moreover, while modernity has seen the superficial triumph of ‘bronze’ satisfaction over ‘silver’ community and ‘gold’ wisdom, the state still precedes class hierarchy: after all, rich people are only rich because the state lays down certain property rights, and the absence of a world state grants small states little say in their economic policy. Throughout history, silver > bronze > gold, though the gaps between the power of each domain vary over time. That is to say, the power of the state is greater than the power of any class, while the power of the ruling class is greater than the power of culture. In history, the state > class > culture.
But Plato missed out something else, besides the difference between the moral hierarchy of the soul and the historical hierarchy of the soul. Humans don’t just need community, satisfaction, and wisdom. We also need survival. In fairness, Plato made a clear distinction between necessary and unnecessary appetites, though he lumped both into the ‘bronze’ part of the soul. To be more precise, perhaps we could allocate to the ‘bronze’ part of the soul unnecessary desires, and to an ‘iron’ part necessary desires. The bronze part of the soul pertains to satisfaction, while the iron part pertains to survival. In history, in turn, the bronze part pertains to class, while the iron part pertains to technology–which humans have always needed to stay alive by transforming the Earth to meet our needs. In history, then, there is a diamond–not just a triangular–hierarchy of domains (e.g., ‘bronze’), needs (e.g., ‘satisfaction’), and social spheres (e.g., ‘class’).
So, here is the theory of history:
- a) Survival
- b) Technology
- a) Community
- b) The state
- a) Satisfaction
- b) Class
- a) Wisdom
- b) Culture
And here is the theory of morality:
- a) Wisdom
- b) Culture
- a) Survival
- b) Technology
- a) Community
- b) The state
- a) Satisfaction
- b) Class
And, using the hierarchy from the theory of history, here is the diamond theory of everything:
Just as Plato sorted our needs into a moral hierarchy, so do we, here. And just as Marx sorted social spheres into a historical hierarchy of causal significance, so do we. History and morality have an analogous hierarchy–but the hierarchy is almost reversed. In history, iron > silver > bronze > gold. Iron trumps silver, silver trumps bronze, and bronze trumps gold in each domain’s causal significance. In morality, gold > iron > silver > bronze. Gold trumps iron, iron trumps silver, and silver trumps bronze in each domain’s moral significance. The diamond theory of everything has two parts: a theory of history, and a theory of morality. I provide reasons for believing the theory of history elsewhere. I also elsewhere provide reasons for believing the theory of morality–but I only justify why gold > silver > bronze–not why gold > iron > silver > bronze. Here I suggest why.
Remembering that bronze represents our unnecessary desires, and iron our necessary desires, it seems that bronze is not just less expedient but also less valuable than iron. Without iron, without survival, we can have no other goods—except, perhaps, the good itself. Thus, iron is more valuable than bronze or silver. Iron can indeed be sacrificed when life is not worth living–but bronze and silver reasons are not sufficient for this to occur. The iron part of the soul can only be neglected if there is no possibility of fulfilling any other part of the soul to a great extent. The only certain grounds for neglecting it are when the gold part of the soul–the possibility of pursuing understanding–is threatened. Thus, iron still trumps the bronze and silver parts of the soul–though I say this with less confidence than the other claims I make in this post with respect to moral and historical hierarchies of needs.
But there’s another reason for putting bronze at the bottom of our moral ladder. The bronze part of our soul tends to corrupt the other parts of our soul to a significant extent. This is best exemplified by Plato’s analogy of the charioteer.
Imagine a charioteer who guides a chariot with two horses. The ‘light horse’ is noble and spirited, while the ‘dark horse’ is voracious and appetitive. These horses, by some fluke of physics, have wings which allow the chariot to fly through the air. For the chariot to steadily rise to the sky without being pulled down by the conflicting pursuits of the horses, the charioteer must remain in control, and the horses’ movements must be balanced and synchronised. The light horse is to be favoured over the dark horse, which needs to be whipped more sternly and controlled more thoroughly, but both horses need controlling and steering by the charioteer. If the silver horse takes control, the chariot will slowly fall back to the Earth. If the bronze takes control, the chariot will rapidly fall back to the Earth, and the charioteer will need to heal the horses and re-start the ascent to the heavens.
Above the clouds are the ‘forms’, which are perfect logical concepts the charioteer must perceive to obtain wisdom. The highest form is the ‘form of the good’, akin to the sun, which lights up the other forms. Only when the charioteer sees the form of the good clearly and distinctly is the journey complete. Before then, the charioteer will always fall back down to the Earth, and will need to remember the forms in order to guide the chariot back up to the sky. The lesson from Plato’s analogy is clear: the bronze part of the soul corresponds to the dark horse, the silver part to the light horse, and the gold part to the charioteer. But what part of the soul corresponds to the chariot?
The iron part: survival. The charioteer must keep the chariot in tact, and must repair any breakages which occur when the horses fight one another or seize control from the charioteer. Plato didn’t consider this fourth part of the soul in much detail, but it is a very important part, and more morally significant than the dark and light horses themselves–the dark horse poses such a danger to the other parts of the soul that it lacks the value of the chariot, while the silver horse’s honour cannot really compensate for a loss in the chariot’s survival. The horses may have greater appearance of value than the chariot–but they do not have the same real value as the chariot itself. Even the light horse requires the chariot to be effective in leading the charioteer to the heavens. Only the charioteer can do without the chariot if they are already in the clouds. Gold trumps iron, iron trumps silver, and silver trumps bronze–in our diamond theory of morality.
So, what can the diamond theory of everything tell us about the world today? For one, it can suggest the root of enlarging economic and ecological debts: capitalism. Capitalism is the social order that divides political power among states and stratifies economic power by class. Uniquely, capitalist class hierarchy involves a subject class of wage slaves–who slave away at economic tasks in return for money, rather than directly in return for sustenance, as in the case of chattel slaves. The capitalist state also creates a space for market exchange which is more ‘disembedded’ from direct state control than prior social orders. (1) A unity/disunity complex (including ‘intrastate unity‘, thanks to state centralisation, and ‘interstate disunity‘, thanks to the absence of a world state), (2) state-market disunity, and (3) distributional inequality between mercantile oligarchs and wage slaves constitute the fundamental characteristics of capitalism.
These structures strengthen the bronze relative to the silver parts of the soul, as they weaken the power of individual nation-states relative to the power of a global market. Admittedly, the capitalist global market has a political anchor: the hegemonic state, which in the nineteenth century was the UK, and in the late twentieth century was the USA (whose dominance today is, at best, gradually fading and, at worst, rapidly evaporating). The hegemonic state is influenced by oligarchs through the direct influence of money in politics, while peripheral states are also influenced by oligarchs, but predominantly through the risk of capital flight brought about by global economic integration without global political integration. Capitalism creates the impossible: a global market without a global polity–a world economy without a world state. By doing so, it paints each sphere of society with a bronze tint.
While ancient city-states and empires were ruled by politicians pursuing the ‘silver’ ends of honour and dignity, today’s ‘private states’ (as I call them) are governed by individuals who are concerned with money, or, if not, who are disproportionately influenced by moneyed interests that buy politics. Even warfare–which in antiquity was a ‘silver’ pursuit–is increasingly commercialised and therefore shaped by the ‘bronze’ part of the soul. The state still dominates class–but the dispersion of power among many states in modernity weakens the power of any one individual state relative to the power of the global oligarchy (with the 26 of the wealthiest oligarchs owning as much as the poorest half of humanity, as of 2018), even though states collectively have the upper hand.
To address problems like climate change and the worrying rise in non-financial corporate debt (mirroring the rise in financial debt in the run-up to the financial crisis), we need to weaken the bronze part of the soul. We need what Polanyi called a ‘great transformation’. In a world of unequally powerful states, that means the working class taking control of the most powerful states. But as China and Russia are autocracies with little institutional adaptability as a consequence, it’s likely that the change we need will take place (as Marx originally predicted) in advanced capitalist democracies like the USA, France, and Germany.
In the 2020 US and 2022 French presidential elections, self-proclaimed democratic-socialist candidates could (theoretically) lead working-class movements to power in these states. In the (now, sadly, very unlikely) scenario that Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination and (which, as nominee, would be highly likely given he outperforms the incumbent President Trump in almost all head-to-head polling) goes on to become President of the United States, he could try to pass reforms like a $16tn Green New Deal and a dramatic boost to power of labour unions (which, admittedly, would be a very tall order). Failing that, he could at least change the structure of the Democratic Party to give left candidates more leeway to bring about structural change in the future. Again, this is all very unlikely. But if Bernie can try it, so can we.
Just as a right-ward shift took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s under US leaders Carter and Reagan and UK leaders Callaghan and Thatcher, a left-ward shift could take place today in states like France and the USA (even if the UK, after the tragic election results late last year, is off the cards for a while). Such political changes could help weaken the bronze part of society by weakening the power of the ruling class–bringing about a reinvigoration of working-class political power: a great transformation.
As economist Robert Pollin notes, current investment in green energy is 0.4% of global GDP–but would need to be 1.5% of global GDP to effectively mitigate climate breakdown. Such an increase in investment is not possible through purely market mechanisms: as World War II demonstrates, a rapid increase in investment requires massive state involvement. Democratic socialism, in the natural world and on the internet, is the only viable path forwards.
Just as Spotify is a big platform where individuals put their music on, with its only major market competitor being Apple Music, so could a future world state (or democratic-socialist hegemonic state, like the USA) take Big Tech into public ownership while maintaining individual creativity and liberty. The market has its role–but Big Tech is basically a set of natural monopolies, where market competition is redundant. If we’re going to try socialism anywhere, it’s best tried on the internet. Think of it as state ownership without state control–indeed, with individual control over production and consumption of data. Just as Bernie Sanders wants ‘single-payer healthcare’, so could a future presidential candidate campaign on a platform of ‘single-payer entertainment‘.
The diamond theory of everything tells us a fair amount about morality and history. It can also suggest what we need to do politically, for reasons of both expediency and morality. We need a great transformation to weaken the power of the bronze part of the soul relative to the other parts. Then, there could be a great transcendence of all parts of the soul except the gold, in order to pursue the good itself, and, once and for all, to perceive it clearly and distinctly. Of all our desires, the desire to understand is the most good. It is this desire which only socialism can allow us to satisfy–first by satisfying our other desires, and lastly by transcending all desires but this one. States have called themselves ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ in the past–but they’ve never lived up to these labels, as they’ve tried post-capitalism in feudal conditions, which is like trying capitalism in hunter-gatherer societies. Socialism with authoritarian characteristics isn’t socialism at all–socialism in the twentieth century was mostly just a legitimation story rulers told their citizens to keep them in check.
Socialism in the twenty-first century, by contrast, can be genuinely conducive to civic-republican freedom. It can be used for the purpose of pursuing the good, eventually leading towards true communism and full emancipation of the gold from its iron, silver, and bronze fetters. Socialism as post-capitalism is our destiny. To try anything else is to play with the fires of damnation. In this century, the word ‘socialism’ is not the road to serfdom. Indeed, if we don’t try democratic socialism, serfdom is what we’ll get instead. Because Plato was right: the good is the highest aim, and all other aims–be they money, status, or even survival–pale in comparison with the form of the good. To pursue the good is our purpose. To overcome its capitalist fetters is our present mission. To tread the socialist road towards it is our vocation.
Shall we begin?