Monday, December 25, 2006

The Proving Ground of Communism

People in the Movement often point to Cuba as the shining example of communist theory gone right. There is an argument that because of the success of the Cuban system, it is undeniable that communism is not dead and can be successfully implemented, even in an increasingly capitalist/republican democracy world. They point to the cheap medicines, the success of socialist-oriented policy, and the survival of the Cuban economy in the face of American embargoes.

But I cannot say that I agree with the above statement. My first thought, when reading of the recent news of Castro's steady decline, was that the real test of Cuban communism is just around the corner. It must be understood that the success of the Cuban system can be attributed to one of either two things: the Communist system, or the leadership of Fidel Castro. Some might argue that it is a confluence of the two, that one would lead to another and vice-versa. Yes, I can agree with a point of view that states that these two factors are closely tied, but it doesn't do to simply argue chicken-egg on this point. One of these holds more importance then the other. And the question of "which one?" will be answered once one is removed. In the very near future, Fidel Castro will be replaced; even now, we see it in the increasingly present Raoul Castro. What will become of Cuba then? If the country can continue its isolation and practice of communist economic policies, then we can say with increased confidence that yes, Cuba's success was contingent upon its economic policies. However, what happens if it fails? It means that the system wasn't what really made the difference; rather it was the presence of an able and strong leader in the character of Fidel Castro.

Another problem with using Cuba as an example of success brought about by a politico-economic theory is that history has shown that economic success has no correlation between a system/theory and the actual state of the economy. In other words the system/theory of governance used in a country won't spell out success or failure for that country's economy. British monarchy in the 15th-19th centuries ruled the British Empire with absolute power. Not so much as God on earth as the British royalty in Buckingham or anywhere else in the world that was the British Empire. They didn't operate on free trade; they established ruthless monopolies, governed by the East India Trading Co. And they got rich, and until now, the exchange rate of the British pound in comparison to the Euro and USD is a testament of the success of that economy built by centuries of exploration, exploitation and monopoly. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yu established an authoritarian regime. Today, they are one of the strongest economies in South East Asia. Last case in point is the dual success of two vastly different systems: India, with is free market federal system, and China, with its socialist party-dictated system. Both are experiencing rapid economic growth.

No matter what system is used, the success of a country is actually dependant on the people. You can't say that one system or political/economic theory is better then another. It all depends on how the people use a particular system to further the interests of their nation.

Communism? We'll see, but it's not as certain as the people in the Movement would like to believe.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Going Back to Meaning

Ludwig Wittgenstein wasn't really associated with post-modern thought. What he is known for are his philosophies on language and meaning, particularly the suspension of definition in favour of meaning.

What the heck is that supposed to mean?

Let's start simple-stupid. Language is made up of words. These words have certain meanings attached to them. These meanings are articulated in definitions, which are used to limit and clarify how those words are used to convey meaning.

For example, the word "hammer" is defined as a construction tool held in one hand used to drive nails into surfaces. But this is where it gets a bit gnarly. Any reasonably smart person can say that the word "hammer" can refer to a lot of different types of hammers: claw hammer, ball and peen hammer, mallet. A hammer can also be a part of the mechanism of a firearm, or it can be a small bone located inside a mammalian ear. What about a wrench used to drive nails for the lack of a proper hammer? Isn't that, according to the definition, also a "hammer"? If I said the word hammer to a guitarist, it means to tap an open string at a certain fret to change its pitch abruptly. "Hammer" isn't only a noun, its also a verb. It can mean to repeatedly strike something or subject something to sustained stress "The speaker was hammered by audience's questions."

What happened to the definition of "hammer"? It isn't really a "definition". In other words, the meaning isn't really limited, because it crosses the whole scale of literal, implied, physical and slang meanings. And that's with a relatively simple word. What about something as abstract as "democracy"? Or, even better still (but rather cliche) "love"? How do you limit the meanings of these words?

Okay, back-track a bit. Why do we even bother limiting words to definitions? Why should a word have an assigned "meaning" when in truth, its being used in so many different contexts? Language, as discussed by Michel Foucault, is an imposition of order and control. We need to define words so that there won't be any confusion when I say something. If I say "cat", it means a mammal with forward looking eyes, padded feet with retractable claws, a tail, and it purrs and has a rough tongue, and is very cuddly. I don't have to say all that; i just say "cat", and other people understand what i mean, because everyone understands its meanings.

Wittgenstein, in his earlier works, argued that the structuring of language, and its entire value, must be placed on these definitions. Everything, in order to have meaning, must be defined in order for it to be of value.

But, as we see above, language defies definition. The meaning of text changes from context to context, from speaker to speaker. This is precisely the problem with an idea such as "democracy". All the people who use it understand it in different terms: a multinational corporation, a populist movement, a local politician, college students, the media, interest groups, religious organizations, the military... all have different understandings of the concept of "democracy", and the board is littered with examples of how these different understandings clash with one another. How do we use democracy when the people using it have a collection of contradictory meanings associated to the term?

Okay, a logical solution is to find a common meaning that everyone can agree upon. But try simplifying the word "democracy" to something everyone can agree upon, and you end up with a definition that leaves so much to interpretation, opening the windows for reletavism and therefore, a deconstruction of your definition. However, if you narrow it down, you alienate and disregard other uses of the word which have just as much value and use as whatever narrow definition you create. At the end of the day, defining the word is meaningless.

Wittgenstein recognized this problem, and after spending half of his career arguing that definition was the core of linguistic value, he completely reversed himself by saying that the meaning of words were no longer in their definitions, but rather, in their use.

It is needless to define "hammer". All we have to know is how it is being used. If a musician is talking about guitar playing techniques and refers to "hammering the string" the value of the statement comes from its use.

I think this is a pretty simple point, but it has some very disturbing implications on our previous discussion on democracy. It means that the interpretation of democracy by the farmer has just as much legitimacy as the interpretation of democracy presented by a professor of political science.

Furthermore, doesn't this also mean that the depth of meaning, or the value of meaning, is contingent of the diversity of meanings associated to the word? A word with one meaning doesn't mean as much as a word with a lot of meanings. "Love" is so loaded with meaning that its use is so...darn...meaningful. In the discourse on democracy, we cannot simply impose one standard of what democracy is, rather we should seek out all the different meanings associated to it by all the people, and then use it in a particular fashion as to approximate the different meanings.

-the 9th Wanderer