Special Feature by Dr. Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.

Mainpage | E-mail Directory | Discussion Forum

Virtue in Living with Life's Contradictions

Posted November 10th. 2001

Living with life’s contradictions reflects behaviours that indicate just how complex we are as humans. It shows how remarkable is our ability to accept and then cope with thinking and functioning that are often at cross-purposes. Many people and states even prosper lavishly from the arrangement. As time passes, daily life becomes normal even as contradictions tend to increase and, at times, seem to overpower in their reach. Perhaps one of the most perplexing of all contradictions in general political life and statecraft is the fact the more freedoms we demand and gain as individuals, the more are restrictions necessarily imposed upon us by the state, giving fillip and context to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s plaintive cry: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”

Two things have triggered this insight about contradictions. First, my friend Tony Farnum over in Trinidad and Tobago rebuked me the other day for having lived in America so long that the views I express in these weekly articles have become blind to the reality and cause of Third World struggles. The criticism stung and pushed me into introspection.

Second, the media here in the USA have become increasingly critical of how officialdom is advising the public to deal with the ongoing threat of terrorism: go about normal business but be cautious – a clear contradiction. To me, however, it was puzzling that media personnel could not reconcile the two opposites so that the advice made sense as wisdom derived from experience, or in a word, prudence.

We live in a political world where the very basic content of politics is contradictory. So are the environments in which it is played. And so too are we humans and the various ideologies that serve as justifications for our actions. Does this mean that our actions and the various belief systems that inform them are invalid? Does this mean that there can never be any real sense of virtue derivable from contradictory life and what it produces? Does this mean than the search for development or an end to poverty can never be a virtuous pursuit or outcome? Let’s start by examining the contradiction of politics itself.

There are several competing definitions of the term and they all tend to be complementary. However, without being immodest, I prefer my own formulation. Thus, for me, politics refers to those ideas and actions regarding how power is sought, won, exercised, maintained and lost with regard to the generation and distribution of values and resources in society, taking into account the need levels of citizens. Values refer to guiding principles of human behaviour. The rest of the definition is self-explanatory. Upon closer scrutiny of politics, it is clearly a dynamic concept prone to several manifestations along a spectrum spanning from radicalism to conservatism, from closed hegemony to anarchy. Moreover, certain other fundamentals become so obvious that we will have to agree with the finding of Duverger who, more than most, except for Karl Marx, highlighted the essence governing the contradictions.

Said the French thinker: “Ever since men have been reflecting on politics, they have oscillated between two dramatically opposed interpretations. According to one, politics is conflict, a struggle in which power allows those who possess it to ensure their hold on society and to profit by it. According to the other view, politics is an effort to bring about the rule of order and justice, in which power guarantees the general interest and the common good against the pressures of private interests.” In sum, politics is about both domination and integration. It is ambivalent and contradictory. And these two elements are ever present as two sides of the same coin of politics.

The latter fact of opposite sides of the same coin is discernible in all political ideologies. This is especially so regarding the capitalist democratic ideology which is now in vogue and provides the major universal belief system by which, of necessity and not necessarily of conviction, most states are guided. How so? Capitalism worships rugged individualism and a trial and error approach to attainment of success. It frowns on and is hostile to governmental intervention in a state’s economy. It emerged from reforms to shocking thinking of, among others, Thomas Malthus who is most famous for urging that masses be made to starve in order to control population growth and limit and stabilize economic developments. The laissez faire ideas of Adam Smith were also a pillar. Democracy, on the other hand, integrates all people in the administration of the state’s affairs in the general interest. Its core belief is wisdom through collaboration of many even while valuing the individual. Its search for egalitarian outcomes contracts and limits the sweep of unbridled capitalist endeavour. It imbues each individual with a set of equalizing fundamental rights and freedoms that further restrict capitalist omnipotence and subjugates it to the “will of the people.”

Yet, by what I have labeled in writings elsewhere as “the miracle of democracy,” advanced western democratic political systems have successfully married the two opposed concepts and managed to produce and maintain by such an unlikely union the world’s most stable, wealthy and technologically advanced states. Explanations of this phenomenon are for another time except to posit here that what matters and gives decisive positive energy to behaviours under capitalist democratic ideology is what people who live by its principles believe. For example, they evince heightened efficacy. Here, however, simply suffice it here to say that this result is again testimony to people living with life’s contradictions with a sense of virtue in quest of individual human happiness in a political system that rewards commensurably both the wider public and the individual.

In authoritarian political systems, the factor of contradiction is also ubiquitous and affects all who live under such near absolute control of the coercive and persuasive state and other societal institutions. Indeed, contradiction and ambiguity define authoritarian regimes. Juan Linz, notably one of the foremost thinkers on the subject described them this way: “Authoritarian regimes are political systems with limited, not responsible political pluralism; without elaborate and guiding ideology but with distinctive mentalities; without intensive or extensive political mobilization, except some points in their development; and in which a leader or occasionally a small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones.”

This definition, by underscoring contradictions in the forms of stipulations, ambivalence and other unsurety, suggests that authoritarian regimes exhibit chameleonic characteristics and, as a consequence, are hard to pinpoint although we will know them when we see them. Hmm! Imagine the odd scene of a man who, in pursuit of an elusive target, grabs a weapon with which to hunt his foe only to find the weapon changing its characteristics, as if by magic in a world of mythology, and becoming as elusive as the target being chased.

Now, imagine using the definition of authoritarian regimes in efforts to locate and label dictatorial practices in the political system. It becomes obvious how difficult this would be given the contrariness of factors. The same difficulty arises when we examine and seek to declare confidently who is an authoritarian political leader. This is because while there are many independent variables that help define such personalities, there is also an enveloping caveat. It holds that such a leader is also known to exhibit behaviours that contradict what is expected of authoritarian figures.

Yes, contradictions not only inhere in political and other arrangements in state and society, but also they powerfully energize our behaviours.


Is not all life a series of “virtuous” contradictions?

Part II of II

Summary of main points from last week: Most aspects of daily life are contradictory. These are so rampantly routine that a cover of normalcy surrounds their presence. Strictly speaking, this means that the guiding principles by which we live might not be virtuous since they are shrouded in ambiguities, ambivalence and governed almost always by moral relativism. But is this as damning as it seems? Towards resolution, contradictions in the concepts of politics, capitalist democracy and authoritarianism were outlined.

Start of Part II of Article

Contradiction inheres in the human. As an individual, the human is armed with the twin instincts of self-preservation and pre-eminence that spur all thought and action and thus validate displays of selfishness most of the time. However, as a social being, the same human must shelve selfish self-centeredness and reach for cooperation on a daily basis in order to survive and to be successful at becoming preeminent. This contradiction is a required norm in the formation and maintenance of social relationships in the workplace, in friendship and in love. In these ties, trust is of pivotal importance even though that concept contradicts the selfish nature of the human necessitating, as it does, the voluntary putting aside of selfishness, of going against one’s nature so to speak. Perhaps, this is why trust is broken so often every day, and betrayal is the source of so much grief in both narrow human relationships and wider state and societal relations.

Once we accept that the human is flawed because of contradictions between selfish immanent instincts versus selfless conduct required socially, it should be no surprise that leaders are themselves contradictory in the skills they must display to demonstrate effective political leadership. Machiavelli provides the clearest indication of this. His ideal political leader emerges as a god, so omnipotent and omniscient must he be, and so omnipresent too must be the many contrary dispositions of mind, character traits and capacities he must possess. For example, the leader must have the gift of a mechanically prudent capacity to turn on and off emotions as if he were a robot and not a valuing human being. If not, then there is risk of judgment being clouded, of emotion overpowering reason, and there will emerge the certainty of failure: “…it is necessary for a prince…to learn how not to be good, and use this knowledge and not use it, according to the significance of the case.”

More graphically, he reasoned for a portrayal of appearance over substance towards effective guile in leadership conduct. Expanded, the leader must appear to possess virtuous qualities such as mercy, faith, humaneness, sincerity and, above all, religiosity. In reality, he must feign but not actually have them for they are usually imprisoning moral handicaps that can hinder the leader from doing what is necessary and not what is “good.” What’s more, even if a leader has all the best qualities as adumbrated and more, there was still no guarantee of successful rulership performance given the vicissitudes of fate which controlled fifty percent of all of life’s outcomes regardless of human intent.

Of course, before Machiavelli, and after him on into today’s debates on defining the isms of our time, the contradictions between what we label as good and bad remain powerfully determining of the contexts of activity and our valuing of them and of human conduct in daily life. Usually, ideas on appetites, utilitarianism, pragmatism, relativism and universalism help shape the parameters and substance of opinions and decisions.

Thus far, we have seen the pervasiveness of contradictions in the following: politics, the ordinary human, leader, capitalist democracy and authoritarianism. I have saved one of the biggest contradictions for penultimate and perhaps very last consideration – Marxist ideology of communism. This necessitates a return to focus on ideology.

Why is examination here important? For one thing, Karl Marx remains the most influential political thinker in all of modern human history. For the sheer profundity of thought, there is simply no rival that comes close. Beyond that consideration, the ideology and activities spawned in his name have had no equal in time and space for depth and breadth of influence. Even if one combined the reaches of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and all the other mesmerizing faiths, these still do not equal the power of Marxian thought in their spread around the globe and the capacity of Marxism to generate true believers and revolutionary actions.

The contradiction here is obvious right away. Marxism is a difficult ideology intellectually yet its followers were overwhelmingly illiterate people who were/are willing to lay down their lives in its cause. Does the average citizen really understand the concept of dialectical materialism or the Hegelian principle from which it was derived? Of course not! Yet, contradictorily, Ebenstein (and many others) found that: “The devout follower of the Marxian faith has an unshakable conviction that he knows what the meaning of history is, the goal towards which it is moving, that he has joined forces that in the end must win, and that opposing the coming of communism is not only wrong but futile since the march of history cannot be stopped…”

The very first few paragraphs of the Communist Manifesto are testament to the importance of contradiction in the evolution of all life towards perfection of the human in a utopian Marxian sense: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another…” The contradictions between the opposed classes led to change and reconstituting of newer opposed classes culminating in the emergence of the most difficult of all oppressive classes to fathom – the bourgeois. Contradictions in this class in its relations of production with workers will trigger the ultimate victory of oppressed over oppressors.

But Marxism blasts religion and is atheist in outlook. The famous citation every newly bamboozled recruit knows is: “religion is the opium of the people.” Put another way, religion is akin to dope that intoxicates and stupefies. It unhinges the human mind from stark realities of existence and equips man with an intractable other-worldliness that stagnates will power and the human capacity to reason and solve man-made problems. Its grounds of legitimacy lie in faith. In the Christian religion, for example, all that is necessary is enough faith like a mustard seed. Put another way: “only believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved … with all things added unto you.” Thus, stripping oneself of this mental yoke, this yeoman burden that arrests and steals the mind is absolutely necessary for discovering truth, according to Marxists. Yet, ironically, in the search for the real state of nirvana, true believers in Marxism behave just like Bin Laden-type religious zealots, and that fact constitutes the ultimate contradiction!

The truth is that Marxism is an ideology whose legitimacy depends on quasi-religious acceptance by blind faith and enabling tactics. Here again is Ebenstein: “…while Marx was personally a convinced atheist and insisted that his thought was guided by strictly scientific criteria, the historical influence of Marxism was not so much in the realm of scientific analysis as in its popular appeal as a new religion of the dispossessed and oppressed.” In other words, the sure way to salvation for the poor and the powerless lay in acceptance of its creed by blind faith supported by necessary, energizing, catalytic actions a la Vladimir Lenin to speed up the inevitability of utopian change. What was to bring about the change to utopia were not the contradictions of Hegelian spirit and idea whose clashes in the forms of thesis and antithesis led to progressive unfolding of truth in the forms of new universal syntheses. Rather, clashes of classes as outlined in the just cited Communist Manifesto in a vein similar to Hegel’s finding would lead ultimately to a classless society and utopia; a virtual end to the exploitation of man by man through the abolition of capitalism. Hmm! Didn’t happen and will never happen. This is in part because of the contradictory basis of legitimacy for the ideology and a clearly wrong interpretation of human nature that, quite bluntly, contradicted reality but made Marxism extra appealing as THE true heir of what is called the “libertarian, equalitarian democratic tradition.” The interpretation of human nature? Man is by nature good but for corruption by capitalism. This is of course absolutely false!

I want to make the argument that the Caribbean in which we live is also a contradiction – richly researched but poorly understood; comprised of states so small as to make their survival as such well nigh unlikely; and asserting the presence of a vibrant culture when none really exists. Ah! But time is a busy thief. In similar vein, I want to outline contradictions about the Guyana state and society. I can’t for pagination is also a thief. However, I do hope that my friend Tony Farnum in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) who is now busily concerned with the contradictions in T&T politics and US policy in Afghanistan will pass less harsh judgment on my appearing contradictory upon occasion. The truth is we are all contradictions in search of virtuous conduct towards purposive good.



Dr. Brotherson is a Professor of Political Science and a Senior Research Associate in Ohio, USA. Before leaving for the USA in 1972, he resided in Bel Air Park, Georgetown. He attended Tutorial High School (THS) and was active in the Jaycees and Toastmaster's organizations. He graduated from University of Californai, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1985 with a Ph.D. in political science. He has been and remains a political activist and writer on issues of Guyana, the Caribbean and wider Third World.

Dr. Brotherson is a Guyanese professor of political science and corporate risk-assessment consultant who resides in the USA.