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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 30, 1997

Posted to DEOS-L on 30 Jul 1997

A Taoist master once said: "What is a bad man but a good man's teacher?" For the sake of argument I can easily list a number of people who do not contribute to the good of any society. If you conduct an honest survey of history say from the 1960's to present in our country alone I think you will get my drift.

There is no requirement that any person contribute to the good of society. To create such a requirement presupposes that there is a clearly defined 'good of society', contributions toward which may be measured.

We think that any number of people are not contributing to the good of society. I would in Canada list a number of prominent people who fall into that category, including a former prime minister, several governers general and some hockey players. Things which advance society is ways I do not like cannot count (in my mind) as contributing to the good of society.

To measure the worth of a person based on that person's contribution to the good of society reduces a person's worth to the sum total of their actions. On this scale, babies and the elderly are worthless, because they do not contribute. But we reject that conclusion, so we must reject the reasoning which led to it.

The basis for most communitarian philosophies is that each individual constitutes a good in him/herself. That no matter what such a person does, that's person's life is valuable and should be nurtured. In contemporary America, communitarian philosophies have been cast under the rubric of "communism". Calling an approach 'communist' is a signal for others to dismiss it without comment.

But the minute we begin to measure human life under any measure other than inherent value, we see the essential weakness of that class of approaches generally classed as 'capitalist'. As Jack London's "The Sea Wolf" points out, based on the law of supply and demand, life is cheap and disposable. There is an infinite supply, and, as the quote cited above points out obliquely, little demand for most.

A previous author sardonically drew attention to the flight of refugees to American shores. In fact, refugees and immigrants flock to the shores of most western industrial nations, including especially Canada, France, Germany and Britain.

The author's suggestion was that these refugees were drawn toward the unbridaled capitalism which propels the American dream. The proliferation of refugees elsewhere in the world casts doubt on this explanation. The fact that there are few remaining communist nations also casts doubt.

It would appear that, except in cases of war, refugees and immigrants are fleeing from one capitalist society to another. Why would they do this? The nations toward which they turn their bows are not only the wealthiest, they are also the most regulated. It would seem that these refugees are fleeing nations where unbridaled capitalism has taken hold, in favour of nations which embody a more communitarian ethic.

Communism as it is described in the late twentieth century is described in capitalist terms - it is viewed as an enforced flow of capital from the rich to the poor. This current depiction owes much to the writings of Marx and Engels, but just as much to capitalist society in general, which has difficulty depicting anything other than a flow of capital.

But at a deeper and more historical level, the question of communism and capitalism is a much more fundamental debate between value systems. If this list is to become the sounding board for today's new breed of capitalists - as certainly seems to be the case - then let them grapple with these more fundamental issues, and leave the jingoism and slogans for home consumption.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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