Dialectics in One Lesson- a quick introduction

I have recently done a deep dive into the works of Chris Matthew Sciabarra- a libertarian scholar associated with NYU. Anything I have right about dialectic reasoning can be credited to his work. The mistakes are my own.

This is the first in a series of posts about dialectic reasoning and how it relates to libertarianism and Austrian economics.

Before that discussion can begin we have to first be clear on what is meant by “dialectic.”

My first exposure to this concept was in Marx. “Dialectical materialism” is the Marxist idea that the material productive forces of capitalism (the tools, machines and physical capital goods) govern or determine the economic, social and political relationships between people. This is to say the existence of capital goods means that some will be capitalists and others will be wage earners, landlords, lenders, etc and further that this will also determine a socio-political hierarchy. The economic system influences and is influenced by the culture, politics and so on.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, as it were.

I mention these ideas only to begin a rough sketch of what dialectical thinking involves.

To begin that sketch I would say that what is essential to dialectical understanding is the view of reality as a set of relationships between agents or elements which interact and co-determine each other. This is the opposite view from that which treats elements in reality as separate entities with relatively fixed natures.

To relate this to Marx’s ideas one could say that the choice of economic systems is not purely an economic one for it has consequences for culture, politics and society in general. The dialectical insight is that we should not treat the economy as something external to or separate from culture, politics and the rest of the social ecosystem.

Another thing essential to a dialectical understanding is the idea that things are not static. Change happens as nature unfolds through interaction in time.

A non-dialectic approach tends to abstract one dimension in frozen time and reify it as a separate entity with purely external relations to the rest.

An example of reification, in terms of the economic dimension, occurs when economists model man as a purely self interested wealth maximizing automaton, coldly calculating how to make the most profit, without any sense of duty, community or compassion.

This is not a realistic view of man. It’s a fractured view rather than an integrated view. Man is seen as driven solely by material ends as if the human dimension did not matter or carry any weight in his decision making.

A dialectical approach to human motivation would suggest that the profit motive is just one of many motives that we experience and that other values are also present to varying degrees, such as a sense of fairness and reciprocity.

Many Marxist critics of neo-classical free market economics have made the point that the economists vision of man neglects our social and communal natures and reifies the market relationship at the expense of a more fuller and richer view of human motivations. This has been derided as “vulgar economism” and rightly so.

Just as many economists on the right have reified the economic dimension some on the left have reified the collective dimension. There is blame to go around when you put on the dialectical goggles and take a look at the world.

This is to say that dialectics is not a tool merely to beat libertarians and free market types over the head with. It also can help offer constructive criticism of the left.

A dialectical approach finds balance in the middle ground between extremes. It recognizes the mutual necessity of apparent opposites.

In duality, dialectics sees unity. The yin yang is a great symbol to capture this view of the world.

In my next post I will discuss the non-utopian orientation of dialectical thought and what implications it has for libertarianism.

About TowardLiberty

I am married to a wonderful woman and we are expecting our first child next year. I studied economics at the University of Houston and recently quit my job at a marketing company to work from home. I am interested in practical solutions for decentralizing decision-making. The ultimate goal is to promote the replacement of the legacy monopoly institutions we currently have with emergent and horizontal forms of association. Buckminster Fuller’s quote strikes me as spot on: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
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