Sunday, December 28, 2014

Speaking the truth, precisely

“Nella politica di massa dire la verità è una necessità politica, precisamente.” - Antonio Gramsci

That Gramsci quote has been the tagline to my personal email account for quite a while, now.  “In mass politics, speaking the truth is a political necessity, precisely.”  It is one of my all-time favorite quotes.  I think about it all the time.  What does it really mean?  Not so much to Gramsci, but to me.  It flies so much in the face of most “pragmatic” political thinking, which is all about how you present the facts, phrasing, paraphrasing, restructuring, eliding, evading, to “win hearts and minds”… guided by your polls and focus groups.   Political activists, even left ones, usually seem perfectly complacent with some version of Plato’s “noble lie”.  But not Gramsci.  “ speak the truth is a political necessity, precisely.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking the difference is one of goals.  If your goal is to win elections, even if your goal is to make people’s lives in some way materially better, then strategic lies and half-truths may be helpful.  If your goal is to emancipate people, then to speak the truth, as precisely and clearly as you can, becomes an urgent necessity.  You cannot free people with a lie.  The best a lie can do is to help them exchange one chain for another.

(I wrote about another take on this quote back in July of 2010.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Thomas Piketty, on page 572 of Capital in the 21st Century, worries that an excessive tax on capital income would “risk killing the motor of accumulation.”  He means entrepreneurship. 

So what if it did?  Profit-driven innovation is not innovation for human need.  It prefers idle whim, if  backed by cash, to the most urgent necessity without.  If inequality is extreme, this disfigurement of priorities is demonstrably exacerbated.  We have people watching TV on iPhones, while others go hungry and homeless.

I begin to suspect that the entrepreneur, as conventionally conceived, is as useless as the capitalist – and I am convinced that the capitalist, qua capitalist, has no social value whatsoever. 

If all capital were socialized, if all decisions about how to allocate material resources were made by some democratically accountable process – David Schweickart’s model of “Economic Democracy” shows one way this could be done* – if no one, ever again, would ever be paid just for already owning stuff, do we really think that all innovation, all creativity, all progress would stop?  And suppose it did, or even just slowed dramatically, couldn’t that just be because people no longer saw any need for it?  And wouldn’t that be a good thing?  It would mean people thought things were good enough, and no more change was necessary.

I don’t think that’s likely.  People are curious, creative, inventive – even just for the sake of those qualities, in themselves, but especially if they see need.  People like to do good work.  They like to be productive.  They like to help.  They like to make a difference.  If someone saw a need, and the need was real, in a truly democratic world, they would convince others to go along, and resources would be made available, both material and in the form of people’s time and creative energy.

Desire for personal wealth is one possible human motivation.  The theory of the invisible hand shows that, in some cases, this motive may suffice for a greater social good.  The theory does not prove that it will always so suffice, nor that it is the only motivation that can do so.  And the theory certainly does not show that greed is the motivator best-suited to curing humanity’s ills.

*David Schweickart explains the system he calls “Economic Democracy” in his books Against Capitalism, and After Capitalism.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Natural that it be paid

Thomas Piketty, on page 423 of Capital in the 21st Century, says, “If capital plays a useful role in the process of production, it is natural that it should be paid.”  Actually, I think it is not. 

When I read those words of Piketty, back in October of 2014, I wrote in my notebook, “It is only the separation of property ownership from labor characteristic of capitalism (but not unique to capitalism) that makes this seem reasonable.  If all the wealth in the world were evenly distributed (but still privately owned), and everybody labored, then I would expect to use my own property in my work.  I would expect my labor to bear return, more than enough to cover any of my property used up in the production process (otherwise I am falling behind).  But I would not naturally think of paying myself a rent on my own property.  I would not demand a return on my capital, per se.  It is only the fact that some have not enough property, while others have more than they need, that makes paying for the use of capital seem ‘natural’”.

Rereading those words, I have a couple of additional thoughts. One is that there is no reason to assume that property should be privately owned, rather than somehow held in common.   Then, also, I question whether I would necessarily expect my labor to at least replace the capital “used” in it.  Certainly, this would not necessarily be true if there were other, intangible, benefits to the labor.  The real point is, I would expect my labor to bear fruit in some fashion (otherwise, I would not labor).  And I would use whatever material goods I had access to in pursuit of my ends.  But the idea that “my” capital should be “paid” is not necessarily intuitive.  Consider also that, outside of capitalism, saved property does not generally multiply.  Food stockpiled may be a hedge against starvation (as long as the stockpiles survive vermin and decay), stockpiles of fuel or clothing may guard against the cold, etc.  But if I do not add to them, eventually my stockpiles will be used up.  “My” fruit trees may naturally replenish their fruit, with little labor on my part.  But most kinds of “stuff” do not naturally multiply on their own.  I see no reason that it should be “natural” to assume that they would.

If you leave cultural bias aside, there is nothing more natural in an ethic that people should profit from “their” property than in an ethic that those who have more than they need should share with those who do not.  People trained to “classical” (i.e., capitalist) economics may be tempted to assert that the former is enforced by the “invisible hand” of self-interest, whereas the latter necessarily requires collective action to counter “natural” selfishness.  That reaction unjustly deprecates people’s very real impulse to selfless, generous social behavior, which exists alongside their impulse to self-interested greed.  But besides this, it denies the massive cultural edifice we have erected to the protection of private property, starting with definitions of same, complex and controversial, which we have created so that people may know what is and is not “their” property, because people do not necessarily spontaneously see this the same way.  Then there is almost the entire body of contract law, most of the police and court systems, arguably even much or most of the military. 

The resources that go into regulating the “natural” relationship of people to each other’s private property are enormous!  There is no obvious reason why the social structures required to support an ethos of sharing would be more unwieldy than those we have erected to support an ethos of greed.  And they would probably generate a far, far better world.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Freedom Man

When I was a very young man, for a time I adhered to a philosophy I called “libertarianism”, under the influence of a rather obscure author named Harry Browne, and his book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.  (No, I never read Ayn Rand.)

Later in life, I realized that one of the central premises of libertarianism, as I knew it, was irredeemably incoherent.  This is the idea that no one has the right to interfere with those of my decisions that affect “only me”.  I came to realize that, as we are members of a social species, unavoidably members of one or more overlapping communities, the conceptual boundaries of a decision that affects “only me” cannot be rationally delineated.  I also came to realize that some of the ideas that had attracted me to Browne’s version of libertarianism were less libertarian, and more like a version of classical (Greek and Roman) stoicism, absent the mystical underpinnings.  These ideas could be summed up by saying that you are responsible, on a certain level, for your own “happiness”, or physical and psychic well-being.  This is not to say that you cannot understand that you have been victimized, by fate or by other humans, but rather to say that, at any given point in your life, you are faced with real, de facto choices for how to move forward.  Regardless of how this came to pass, your future happiness is best ensured by taking responsibility for those choices, and making them  as wisely and resolutely as possible.  Further, to accept these facts, and this responsibility, is psychically liberating, in-and-of itself.

Browne’s contribution, which has had enduring value for me (long after I threw out the rest of his ideas), was to base this concept of personal responsibility in a materialist philosophy, unlike the classical stoics, who believed in a universal soul or mind, divided into parts or sparks indwelling in each of us – personal souls which desired nothing so much as to reunite with the universal.  Giving the stoical concepts a materialist base also avoids the worst rhetorical abuses of classical stoicism, like advising adherents that even if you were captured and tortured by an enemy, you could literally feel no pain, if you were true to the dictates of your own inner soul.

Speaking of the universal soul or mind (the ancient Greek term “psyche” did not distinguish between the two), leads me to a semi-related thought:  to say that there is no universal mind, and no souls to unite with it, is not the same as saying “we are tiny, isolated, alone.”   I’m not just referring to the aforementioned overlapping communities (the person who cries “we are alone” in existential angst on the denial of a supreme being hardly denies those).  But the concept of “us” as atomic individuals, as something that could be “isolated” somehow, separated from the matrix we are a part of, doesn’t seem consistent with the actual state of affairs.

The fact is, if you step back far enough, “we” hardly seem to exist – certainly not as indivisible atoms.  Physically and psychically, “we” are complexes of complexes, colonies of colonies, each, on each level, having fuzzy boundaries which rather vaguely distinguish and define both its limits and its interactions; stronger interactions each with “each other” (parts of the same organism); and generally and observably – but still vaguely – weaker ones with “the other” (the world beyond the organism).  These complexes of complexes are hardly isolated from the universe.  They could not possibly be – their boundaries are too fuzzy, and irreducibly overlap!   The “self” that feels oppressed with solitude is just a particular sub-bundle, and a rather confused one, at that, which invents a mystical purpose and something to commune with to try and solve an imagined problem.

The title I selected for this mini-piece was suggested by Jim Morrison’s song “Universal Mind”.  Which has almost nothing to do with the two disparate points of this essay.  But one of the complexes of my psyche happens to work like that.  At least I didn’t call it “Turning keys, setting people free.”  That would have been hubristic.  (And now, with my suitcase and my song, I’m off…)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Knuttunen’s Konjecture

I conjecture that, given any model, M, which conceptually goes to infinity, when M is applied to the real world, and its results are correlated to empirical observations, as M advances in the direction of infinity, eventually the observed nature of the real world results changes, and M no longer even approximately applies.

“Infinity” should be taken to include any infinite or infinitesimal meaning, including infinitely large, infinitely small, infinitely many, and infinitely long or short in duration.

I think this conjecture is saying two things:  that any model has its own, finite, domain of applicability; and that nothing corresponding to our idea of infinity actually exists.

‘Course, I could be wrong.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Government control

One “common sense” argument put forth against socialism, in the (limited) sense of direct government control over the economy, is that the government cannot be trusted to invest wisely.  They may keep non-viable enterprises going, for example, pouring in money drawn from better-performing portions of the economy, in order to win votes.

As a prima facie argument, this strikes me as silly.  After all, private capitalists cannot be trusted to invest wisely, either, and to the extent that they do, they invest for their own benefit, not ours, and the public weal follows as a side effect, if at all.  It’s not that I don’t believe in the existence of the “invisible hand”.  I just think its reach only extends so far.  Maintaining jobs in a money-losing business that produces a useful commodity may actually be a perfectly reasonable public investment in some circumstances, but not one that would ever appeal to the private capitalist.

On a more detailed, implementation-focused level, of course the anti-socialist objection is not entirely ridiculous.  If we have publicly managed investments, we do want them to be managed well, and managing investments well is not a trivially easy job.  We also need to protect ourselves from outright corruption.  Addressing these issues is partly a matter of management, of checks and balances, of trying to design a system as free as possible from irrelevant, systematic distortions.  But to get a well-balanced, robust plan of public investment that takes all direct and indirect costs and benefits into account, I think we would need a much more participatory planning process.   (Note that taking ALL direct and indirect costs and benefits into account is something that capitalist enterprise management NEVER does.)

Can we get a suitable democratic planning process within our current models of government?  I do not believe in the blanket statement, asserted by some on the left, that “you cannot tear down the master’s house using the master’s tools.”  But some of the master’s tools are in fact rather specifically engineered to serve the master’s purposes, and are not so readily adapted to the needs and purposes of the folk.  In my mind, our really-existing systems of representative government are examples of such tools.

Representative governments originated, in Europe, as a way for kings to appease the aristocracy, and eventually the richer bourgeoisie, without ceding too much central control.  Some constitutions, of course, were constructed as a conscious break with the rule of kings; however, the one such “revolutionary” constitution I know something about – our own in the U.S. – was consciously created to keep hoi polloi at arm’s length, and guarantee effective control by the richer classes.  Obviously, there have been modifications in these constitutions over the centuries, most of which (I think)  have been in the direction of greater democratization, but there still is a long way to go.  Most ordinary folks participate in democracy only by spending ten minutes every 2-4 years in voting  (if they even do that).  “Debate” takes place between politicians and pundits in the commercial news media (primarily), and is, to most people, at best a spectator sport.  People’s own discussions tend to take place amongst small groups of their own friends, and can influence the broader process of policy formulation only to the extent they happen to be queried through the passive (and eminently manipulable) process of polling. 

A truly democratic process would have people involved in interactive debate, with both themselves and opponents as participants; a debate taking place in a public forum that fed directly into the decision making process.  Listening to arguments pro and con, and being forced to make a meaningful decision afterwards, focuses the intelligence, I believe, like almost nothing else.

The punditry would assure us that people just don’t want to be that involved in their own government.  Maybe that’s only because they’ve never had the chance.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Isocrates and us or “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”

 “When I was a boy, being rich was considered so secure and honorable that almost everyone pretended he owned more property than he actually did possess, because he wanted to enjoy the prestige it gave.  Now, on the other hand, one has to defend oneself against being rich as if it were the worst of crimes… for it has become far more dangerous to give the impression of being well-to-do than to commit open crime; criminals are let off altogether or given trivial punishments, but the rich are ruined utterly.  More men have been deprived of their property than have paid the penalty of their misdeeds.”

This was the Greek, Isocrates, writing I guess in the early 4th Century BC.  The thing is, if de Ste. Croix is correct in his analysis in The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World,  Isocrates wrote these words during a time when, in fact, economic inequality was growing in much of the Greek world.  The demos was on the defensive; the oligarchic sector was (correctly) realizing that their interests were better served by supporting outside imperialists like Phillip II of Macedon (and his successors), who would permit them free reign to squeeze the local peasantry, as long as they eschewed outright political ambition beyond the local level, but would be very suspicious of the potential for a popular uprising by hoi polloi.  And, in fact, under, first, the Macedonian kings, and later the Romans, the last vestiges of democracy were stamped out, opening the world to more and more vicious exploitation of the poor and middling by the uber-rich, until finally the Emperors Diocletian and others basically enserfed the entire population below the economic and political elite.  Economic, and political, inequality in the late Roman Empire reached a level that we, in our still relatively open societies, can barely conceive.

The thing that bothers me about the Isocrates quote I opened with is that it seems so modern.  We again find ourselves subject to “poor me” complaints from the rich, fuming, for example, that they pay the lion’s share of income taxes (but taking as a natural right their claim to an even more disproportionate share of the fruits of economic production), and decrying the slender benefits allotted to the “undeserving” poor; calling for us to be tough on crime (while we imprison, in the U.S. more of our population than any other country in the world, and more black men than were slaves  before the Civil War), and for tax cuts for the “creators” of (mostly non-existent) Mac-jobs.  So, while financial markets soar post-depression, we cut unemployment benefits and food stamps in time for Christmas, and produce movies in which criticism of the excesses of the corrupt ruling class is so muted that members of that class can cheer at screenings, while critics on the left complain, in effect, that the director is praising with faint “damns”.

And I think:  It’s been 2400 years.  Why are we still fighting the same fight?