Economics for the People, Jamming, 27/03/2017

So I had a great time live-tweeting the New Democrats’ Youth Debate this weekend. And watching it as well.

I continue to be impressed by Guy Caron, for one thing. Whether or not he wins the leadership, I hope his profile, power, and influence in the NDP, in Canada, and global progressive politics grows.

There are two aspects of that hope. One has to do with his tireless advocacy for basic income. Basic income is a transformational economic policy, for two reasons as far as I understand the issue, economic and moral.

While I think Caron and Niki Ashton are the best candidates among the
NDP leadership field, Caron's intellect makes me think him best suited
to be Canada's Finance Minister. In that role, he has the potential to be
epoch-making, beginning a process of economic transformation not
under the emergency conditions of Varoufakis in Greece, where crisis
and sabotage caused his failure, but in a prosperous, resilient Canada.
In a strictly economic sense, basic income is a solution to poverty and inequality. By taxing profitable corporations, wealthy individuals and families, and stock transactions fairly in comparison to the rest of society, you can provide funds for everyone to supply their basic needs of food and shelter.

That lifts people out of poverty, and gives otherwise desperate, hopeless people an anchor in their lives. As modern industry continues to automate and artificial intelligence advances, there will simply not be enough good jobs in the economy for the world’s entire population.

There probably aren’t enough such jobs already. But basic income in an automated industrial society would keep demand high enough to prevent economic collapse. If unemployment rates are huge, but economic productivity high due to automation, the economy will end up collapsing – Very few people will be able to buy the huge amounts of goods and services created.

This (along with his motives to simplify and reduce welfare state bureaucracies) is why the model neoliberal economist Milton Friedman first proposed basic income. But there’s a moral reason why basic income is necessary for a state’s welfare obligations too.

Basic income removes morality, blame, and condescension from our welfare systems. There will no longer be an excuse for you to spit on those who don’t hold jobs, as if they were all lazy good-for-nothings. Surely, some of them are.

But maintaining demand levels in the face of widespread automation and job loss – high productivity and low employment – doesn’t give a damn if a jobless person is a bitterly disappointed ambitious striver or a 400 lb mooch. And neither should we.

Milton Friedman. The era of the conservative libertarian economist,
the shadow of Mt Pelerin, the neoliberal consensus, the fetish of a
free market that has never, could never, and will never truly exist,
must finally come to an end. Their ideas have wrecked the dreams
of generations.
If you want to get high and mighty, you can say it’s about justice. But I prefer not to be high and mighty – humans rarely deserve it. But we shouldn’t let our moral beliefs about who does and doesn’t deserve to life a dignified life interfere with how we want to maintain our economic prosperity.

I mean, who are we to judge? Who is anyone? Only God can determine anyone’s actual moral worth. And even when we’re dealing with God, there’s plenty of room for appeal and argument.

But here’s the second, and I think larger, cause of the hope I see in Guy Caron’s candidacy. For too long, people like Friedman and the conservatives, libertarians, and oligarchs who’ve followed his teachings have had total public ownership of economics as a science.

The people who speak the language of economics for the public are people whose policies and ideas are rarely in the interest of public welfare, health, and prosperity. They’re people who represent the interests of oligarchs.

Caron is an economist who is dedicated to using the science of economics in the interests of the people and the common wealth. As his profile rises, he joins Thomas Piketty and Yanis Varoufakis as leading progressive economists. He’s joining a global leadership of people rededicating that science to the service of the people.

No Wit Today – Just Exhaustion, Advocate, 24/03/2017

There are some days when, like everyone who’s had to move from one career to another, I miss my old career. I was good at teaching, and I enjoyed it. I loved writing philosophy – it’s why I still do it independently, and why I put that analytic and creative skill to use in my current work as a writer, marketer, and artist.

But I read something earlier today that left a bitter taste in my mouth. John Searle is the subject of a viscerally disgusting set of sexual harassment allegations.

I don't really want to go over this in much detail. If you read the Buzzfeed article, you’ll discover all you need to know. I don’t want to discuss what Searle might or might not be found legally culpable for. Those are the kinds of discussions for law courts, which have much higher burdens of proof than straightforward ethical discussions.

I never really liked Searle's work to begin with, either.
The truth is, I’ve become increasingly alienated from the academic establishment. Although I regret the difficult and sometimes painful path I’ve had rebuilding my career after leaving the university sector, I find myself increasingly repulsed by the arrogant and grotesque behaviours the institution seems to encourage.

Not all professors, of course. Not all professors I knew in my academy days look straight through me when they see me on a campus or at a conference. Not all professors conduct blatantly dishonest job searches. Not all star professors in their fields regularly abuse their prestige and offices to prey on young female students.

The professors I knew who don’t do any of those things are wonderful people who I’m glad to have known. But I’ve also known enough who’ve done all these things. On the small scale my own life, I’ve met the arrogant, I’ve met liars, and I’ve met bastards.

I see how the prestige of an academic position feeds personal arrogance. I’ve seen the institutionalized untouchability of a prestigious office erodes people’s sense of ethics.

Now it seems I can’t go a year without learning of some other American university-based philosopher faced with civil claims or forced to resign over what in each instance are credible allegations of using his office to prey sexually on young female students.

Four years ago, it was Colin McGinn. Just over a year after that, it was Peter Ludlow, who when I met just a few months before his fall, was one of those academics who looked straight through me when he discovered I held no position.

Last year, it was Thomas Pogge, a multidimensionally hypocritical case of an ethicist praised for his selfless approach to political thought. Well, he had also been using his office and research institute to manipulate and seduce a long string of young female scholars from the Global South.

The same reporter carried out the investigation into Searle, and the lawsuit by Joanna Ong that he propositioned her multiple times, then cut her salary and fired her for refusing him. Yes, Ong’s suit alleges that he did, indeed, make that very joke.

The What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy blog exists, chronicling everyday sexist bullshit throughout the discipline. It’s beyond tiring, and I don’t even work there anymore.

I look at this institution that I had wanted to be part of, that defined a career path for me for a decade. It’s past being decadent. It’s past being sad. I feel a kind of sickly contempt at that institution. I don’t even know how I could have thrived there if I’d stuck out the career.

If I had seen something like what Searle and Pogge were apparently doing, would I have done something about it? Or would I have looked the other way? When I think about what my own livelihood would have depended on, what the established norms and moralities of my institution were, maybe I just would have been content with not doing such reprehensible acts myself.

Or maybe after many decades rising through the hierarchy of that world, growing entirely accustomed to its cultures and the power of an office, maybe I’d have done worse than turning away my eye.

I think it’s a profound and important ethical truth about humanity that when we think we’re incapable of monstrosity is exactly when we’re most vulnerable to becoming monsters.

Come Together VI: Live While You Live, A History Boy, 23/03/2017

Read the Come Together series of posts on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract from the beginning.
• • •
Continued from previous . . . I ended yesterday with a question. If even the most virtuous will inevitably fall, why should we even hope?

The question underlies the whole point of writing about utopias and political or ethical ideals at all. Well, no, it underlies rather more than that. Taken rhetorically, it’s the sigh of despair for every aspect of life. It’s the possibility that death nullifies the value of life.

It’s the challenge of mortality. Everything ends eventually. Realizing this thought is sobering, and sometimes terrifying. Funny thing is, it’s actually defined my work since I started publishing philosophy.

My first published essay in an official philosophy venue was an essay in the first Doctor Who and Philosophy collection. Because of course it was. It grappled with that existential question, of what the value of life could be if death negated all its achievements.

The answer to the question is to deny its validity. Just because the effects and knowledge of your actions won’t last forever doesn’t rob them of their value. The value of our actions are in the actions themselves, and the immediate time frame of their effects.

The city rises and will fall one day. Its dignity is in its life.
If I help one old poor woman get a good lunch one day, it doesn’t matter that she died that very evening of a catastrophic coronary in her sleep.* If you go to any figure in the general canon of Western philosophy, you’ll find this concept most clearly in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.

* I sometimes feel like I don’t do enough to help people who need it.

But I see it asked in Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and I’m left wondering about its status in that very ambiguous text. Before I picked up Rousseau’s books again for this string of classical research, I hadn’t really touched his writing since I was an undergraduate.

I learned a very simple Rousseau back then, one that doesn’t quite jive with the ambiguous thinker I see here. My education in political philosophy suffered from the unfortunate trend of undergraduate teaching – making the ideas clear, too clear.

Rousseau’s work is remembered because of his ambiguity. He’s a genius at describing the hidden potentials of humanity – freedom, happiness, social harmony, all the aspects of our perfection. But he’s also a genius at explaining what it is about human society that keeps us from realizing that potential.

We can conceive of this potential and approach it, even though we might only inch toward living a more perfect existence in our own lifetimes. Circumstances might conspire against us completely in trying to become more perfect creatures.

I’m reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy right now. He, most stereotypically of anyone else in the tradition, is a thinker of contingency and crap circumstances. You can tell, when you read these two books one after the other, how scholars are on target when they discuss the deep influence Machiavelli had on Rousseau.

Scholarship aside, it’s not as though Machiavelli’s pragmatic sensibility survives in Rousseau. The Social Contract and all his major works are aporetic – they leave you hanging. There are no certainties, no comforting paths forward.

You understand the human condition better than before you read it – our possibilities for social harmony and perfection along with our tendencies to corruption, greed, violence, and ruin. Understanding leads to wiser action.

Wisdom is not a correct answer on an exam. Never confuse the two.

Come Together V: Even the Best Will Fall, Research Time, 22/03/2017

Continued from previous . . . Say freedom explodes in a society. Tyrants fall. The corrupt oligarchs and bloodthirsty generals either flee or are strung up. People look around them when the fires die down and see a wide field of potential. And they smile.

The truly insightful ones, underneath their smiles and their joy at finally being free, are also scared shitless.

A tyrant can be so exalted among his people that
he appears invincible, as if he'll always be their
Because when you literally get the chance to form an entirely new republic, constitution, institutions and all, you’re faced with a tremendous burden. You have to build a state that does justice to your people, especially if you really have overthrown a dictator and have a chance to grow a democratic society.

It’s interesting, in that context, to read Rousseau steadfastly refusing to say anything like what the best government for people would be. That’s what a good chunk of traditional political theory is – analyzing and arguing over state institutions, their powers, and their affects in shaping a political culture, to identify the best form of government.

Thinking about this question is where Rousseau’s pessimism begins to emerge. However much he’s known as a utopian thinker – and however much he really is a utopian thinker – he’s a deep pessimist about real human potential.

He shies away from answering this question with any content for two reasons. One is an empiricist’s humility. Rousseau knows that there’s a huge amount of cultural and economic variety just among the different states and societies of Europe.

You can’t, given that variety, give an account of the best forms of government that will be universal. Not if you want that account to have much content other than the will to freedom. Which doesn’t get our hypothetical fellow in the ruins of his old tyranny out of his problem.

Because you don’t escape the problem of how best to govern people. Rousseau explains that all governments – no matter how virtuous in their beginning – will always eventually fall apart. As he puts it, any unified government of free people will eventually collapse into either another tyranny or violent anarchy.

So our man in the rubble can build with all the ambition and wisdom his people can muster. It will all be a tyranny again eventually.

Only a few tyrants are ever really so fortunate. And you think Qaddafi
got it rough in the end. You should have seen Rome.
Rousseau uses a concept of corruption in this argument that I think has roots in Aristotle. I may dig around for a copy of On Generation and Corruption to examine the concept there. But in the context of The Social Contract, this corruption is a kind of cultural erosion.*

* Here's another welcome sign of Rousseau's materialism. Nowhere in his account of the reasons for humanity's corruption does he fall back on any Christian concepts of original sin. He relies on no talk of the soul or our fallen relationship with God. He speaks only of the material processes of culture, the social forces among classes as some communities tend to work as private citizens and some communities tend to produce governors, bureaucrats, and other powerful people.

Any stable state maintains itself in tension between a few fundamental social forces. As Rousseau puts it, that tension is between the sovereign power of the people themselves, and the institutional power of the governing classes.

In a well-structured society, it’s a creative tension – incredible achievements arise from the battles and rivalries among the popular and institutional classes. But the heat will always wear away the machinery of the government. That creativity may make a state last longer and achieve greatness, but things will begin to creak.

They’ll be near-silent, but audible.

That’s the tragedy of human society. We can achieve so much when we can encourage freedom in society while building institutions that solve our coordination problems for large-scale activity. But the energy in any culture is fuelled through the tension and conflict of people and institutions.

Such greatness occurs only in the most virtuous governments, which are rare enough as it is. Most real states are far more vicious. Cruel. The 20th century even saw the perfection of government through mass murder-suicide. Our virtue is rare.

If even the most virtuous will inevitably fall, why should we even hope? . . . . To be continued

The Terror of Popular Skepticism, Composing, 21/03/2017

I’m taking a break from my extended treatment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s most canonical essays for some self-promotion. My latest essay just dropped at the Reply Collective, and I’ve had some follow-up ideas.

I always have follow-up ideas to these essays. Sometimes, they tumble out onto the blog and nothing much else happens with them. Sometimes, some of my SERRC colleagues pick them up formally or casually. Sometimes, we all have a big chat about it. Sometimes, I just write a follow-up essay for them later.

I’m actually waiting to hear back from Buzzfeed Reader about a pitch for basically the same essay, but rewritten in a more casual, journalistic tone.

In “Subverting Reality,” I consider that my own discussion of fake news will probably become obsolete or incomplete in the time between drafting and publication. Even though that was only about three weeks. I was half-serious, but only half-joking, since things really do change that fast in Trump’s world.

He is epochal.
And it turned out that I was right! The day “Subverting Reality” was published, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee about the ongoing investigation of the Trump Campaign (now the Trump Administration) regarding a possible quid pro quo with Vladimir Putin’s government.

How this all plays out will create a dire test for democracy – if a group of people accustomed for so long not to trust government and to believe the most ridiculous conspiracies about their opponents can believe inconvenient truths anymore.

There are significant numbers of Americans whose worldview is shaped so much by pernicious conspiracies – birtherism and pizzagate – that an intelligence community plot to destroy their movement’s leader is an ordinary thought. How does the truth win out in a society where lies are more trustworthy?

Call them institutional skeptics, because they’ve lost trust in the government institutions whose trustworthiness grounds the entire legitimacy of the state. A lot of those people are seniors who watch too much FOX News. But enough of them could also be in militias like Ammon Bundy’s.

Judging by what Comey said and pointedly avoided saying, many high-profile figures in the Trump campaign are under intense investigation. The collusion with the Russian government could constitute incredibly serious charges.

How do you convince people who’ve had their entire practical political worldview shaped by this culture of partisan falsity and conspiracy since the 11 September attacks to trust in democratic institutions again?

That's a terrifying and epochal question for the thinkers of social epistemology – in its most political sense, as the knowledge of the people – to grapple with.

Come Together IV: Liberation Through Communication, Research Time, 20/03/2017

Continued from last post . . . Rousseau offers us conceptual resources to understand how political power is rooted not in the state or any institution, but in ordinary people themselves. If I can throw a bone to my right-wing populist friends, Rousseau is a classical source of critique against “the elites.”*

* Whoever these elites actually are, since the definition gets more than a little slippery.

Here’s the structure that “the sovereign” has when you read The Social Contract. It’s the energy of a whole community acting in harmony, the kind of self-conscious social harmony I described on Friday.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 and 2012 were attempts to overthrow
oppressive, tyrannical governments and replace their corrupt practices
with democratic, accountable leadership that served the common
interests of citizens. Citizens came to know their common interests
through talking with each other, which allowed them to come
together as one social body to demand change. Never forget this.
Sovereign power emerges from the expression of thousand (or maybe even millions) of people in a community acting together on their known common interest. That's the immanent power of political action.

Practically, you’re now forced to ask how to produce this intense solidarity in your community. It would be wonderful to live in that kind of community, where every interaction with your neighbours is defined by mutual aid and friendship.

Even though Rousseau often talks as though his ideals are impossibilities – a utopian through and through, that hypocritical old Genevan – he does give a few possibility conditions, even if in a roundabout way.

Communication is a necessary condition of the general will, the spontaneous unity and harmony of a whole community. He doesn’t argue for this directly in The Social Contract, but it’s implied by what he says about the conditions where a despot thrives.

By this, he means the material conditions. The most important one is the dispersal of a people in a country. If there are a lot of small, relatively isolated communities, dictators can do remarkably well.

Keep your eyes on the material conditions of the world where Rousseau was writing too. This is a world where real-time communication is pretty much impossible except between people standing literally right next to each other and physically speaking.

Rodrigo Duterte uses intense public relations through Facebook to
manage his public image in The Philippines, where as president he's
leading a radical and violent campaign against drug use and the drug
trade. Communications technology is a condition of liberation, but
can easily turn against the interests of free people.
To people of my generation, this is a strange, alien world. A 21st century person taken to the technological context of 1762 Geneva would probably have a mental breakdown from information starvation.

I’m not just talking about the internet – email, videoconferencing, all the social media and messaging platforms we use daily, casually. We’re a culture that’s just so accustomed to things like telephones, radio, and television that a world without these things is disorienting.

We take vacations camping in the middle of the woods to escape these networks for a few days, but if we ever had to live in these conditions for our entire lives, we’d curse the god who sent us there. Now imagine if this is the only world you ever knew.

Communicating over any distance whatsoever, with more than a few hundred people in your life, depends on mass media. And in Rousseau’s day, any kind of media transmission – printing presses, pamphlets, mail – depends on state institutions to guarantee their stability. Or just straight-up building the media networks in the first place.

It’s such a contrast to our lives, where the physical architecture of the internet – server farms scattered around the world, enormous cables strung under the sea, consumer ISPs hitching onto phone and cable lines, satellites – is beyond the control of any single government.

The Street Enters the House, a 1911 painting by Umberto Boccioni.
Boccioni's paintings often depict the mass movement of people and
technology recreating the physical world itself, always a unified,
harmonious movement.
Communication is necessary for building a community. It’s a truth that goes beyond just the similarity in words. Communication lets us know each other as people, lets us figure out together what ideas and goals our society will share. It helps us harmonize our beliefs and interests.

That’s the earliest, most rudimentary steps of harmonizing a society around common interests. In Rousseau’s time, this can happen only among small communities without the direct help of the state.

But in our time, like-minded people can connect with each other all over a country, and all over the world, for real-time communication limited only by the languages they speak. Communication technology has been central to democratic revolutions from the 1700s to today.

Of course, oppressive regimes can also use the communication technology that otherwise liberates. Having the technology doesn’t mean freedom will follow. But the technology for real-time mass communication would appear to be an important condition for an explosion of freedom.

But what shall we do with our freedom if we gain it? . . . . To be continued

Come Together III: In Perfect Harmony, Research Time, 17/03/2017

Continued from last post . . . An impossibility is an inspiration. It is Eden. Heaven on Earth. Rather, it’s Earth becoming Heaven.

That’s the movement Rousseau makes from the reality of humanity to its perfection. In real life, we’re a bunch of incurably corrupt, inescapably ignorant bastards. But in our perfected state, we damn near perfectly understand the common interest of our whole community, and are kind enough always to act on it.

Submitting completely to an authority that speaks with the voice of God
has never been a request that turns out well for anyone of whom it's
asked. Usually, it's a submission to slavery, as when Indigenous
Canadian children literally had Christianity beaten into them.
This is the mind-set of the individual when the will of a community is expressed as the general will. The harmony of thought across the whole society isn’t somehow imposed from above.* It’s a perfectly harmonized expression of every individual spontaneously.

* I haven’t read nearly enough Rousseau scholarship to say authoritatively whether my hypothesis is generally on target. Nor would I really want to, even if I had time. It’s not like I would have had time as a professor either – I’d have had budget meetings to attend with the associate vice-deans.

When he says that “Gods would be needed to give men laws,” he isn’t talking about God as a person standing over obedient humans. This isn’t any divine absolute despot, giving orders to which you submit.

If that were the kind of god that was on order, then Rousseau is quite the totalitarian. That’s what it means to submit all of human existence to the orders of an authority. But I’m taking Rousseau as a thinker of radical freedom, and it’s easy to do so if you just think of God in that line differently.

Remember that he’s said that the only true laws that a legislature could write were rules and institutions written as the expression of the general will. Only when the entire community (politicians and bureaucrats included) act in perfect harmony and love spontaneously is any legislation a truly legitimate law.

In any case less perfect than that, the laws are just rules backed up by threats of punishment (like jail time) or rewards (like tax credits). The law has only moral significance.

No ethical significance. The general will is the immanent expression of a community itself. Now you see it.** I’m using Rousseau in Utopias as part of a tradition of political materialism, whose fulcrum is Spinoza.

Well, hello there, good sir.
** And so do I.

I have one question for any of my scholar friends who might come across this. I may actually just write a former professor of mine who I remember has published academic articles on Rousseau. I’m not sure how believable this reading is. Maybe I should call it an appropriation. I feel like that’s a more accurate term for what I’m doing with the historical research for this book.

One of the problems with Rousseau is that he knew his audience too well. This is what makes it difficult – as a scholar or just an attentive reader – to be sure he’s really thinking what you think you read in his writing.

So when he uses terms like “the sovereign” or tosses off flourishes like that line above about gods, he sounds like he’s referring to monarchs and God the Father. Because that’s what his audience of reasonably intellectual literate people in 1760s Europe thought of when they heard those terms.

It’s how Rousseau’s own audience thought of power, authority, kingship, and the divine. This conception of divinity as a perfect material expression would have gotten someone strung up for some hardcore heresy.

Geneva was a Calvinist country at the time, and that is not a religious authority known to tolerate leniency. At the time, “Spinozist” was an insult you hurled at someone when you wanted to destroy their reputation. Materialism of Spinoza’s expressive, free kind was considered just as corrosive as atheism.

So how plausible would it be for me historically to make Rousseau a chain link in a semi-underground Spinozist tradition? Should I even care about plausibility to the scholarly community when I don’t even plan on making Utopias a scholarly book? . . . To be continued