The Abject Humanism of It All II: The Problem With People, Composing, 20/07/2017

You want to know my problem with humanity? The poverty of our vision is the foundation of the poverty of people. Human vision is poor when, in this context, it collapses into a humanism.

Now, you can’t write in a philosophical context that you’re critiquing humanism without someone in the audience mentioning Martin Heidegger.* His “Letter on Humanism,” the most famous text where he engages with this concept. He spent virtually his entire career critiquing humanistic ways of thinking, in different words at different times.

* Usually an academic specializing in writing commentary on Martin Heidegger.

But Heidegger’s thinking can’t go far enough in the critique of humanism. His quietism, piety, and fatalism get in the way of understanding the most profound aspects of what humanistic thinking does in the world.

We consume our whole world as if it were a fancy meal in a restaurant.
This is humanity at its most pathetic – turning the cosmological into
a petty pleasure. Image by Brittany Jackson.
Consider this post a stab at my own critique of humanism. It’ll likely be translated into my full manuscript for Utopias eventually.

Humanism is, quite literally, understanding all experience as ultimately related to human ends. It universalizes human ends to all things.

That’s part of what Heidegger has to say. But his concerns are to restore a proper relationship between humanity and being in a sense very disconnected from the problems of suffering and destruction. Destruction – social and ecological – is for Heidegger a symptom of a greater ontological failure.

For me, the priorities are reversed – Actually no, not reversed. Merged. The Heideggerian way of thinking merges questions of being with social and ecological questions. But it subsumes the social and ecological into questions of being, because for him being is the paramount question of philosophy.

For me, screw that. If I could give my philosophical perspective a label – at least for today – I’d call it a pragmatist anti-humanism. We destroy our societies and our ecologies with self-absorbed humanist ideas that our chauvinist priorities are the only ones that matter for human action.

You want an example? Okay, go back to Friedman’s words about national parks. You can think of many reasons to create national parks and wilderness reserves.

As far as I’m concerned, the best reason to conserve significant tracts of wilderness is to keep complex ecosystems functioning. There’s a humanistic angle to this, because humans need complex ecosystems to maintain all the processes that keep us alive – atmospheric balances, dealing with air pollution, cleaning water, preventing erosion of our land, preserving the processes that keep our soil arable and our food growing.

But there’s also the priority of wanting more complex ecosystems because ecological complexity builds a robust biosphere. The complexity of our ecologies are literally what keeps the Earth alive. Earth is a body that literally dwarfs humanity, no matter how powerful we’ve become.

We’re one recently-evolved, self-destructive species on a remarkable planet 4.5 billion years old. Earth is a body with far greater dignity and majesty than humanity. Humanity are pests compared to the Earth. And we tend to be pests on the Earth as well.

Take seriously the material existence of cosmological majesty. Humans are petty, small creatures. We can do amazing things, and we have a lot of potential. Our science-fiction can be the vehicle of our ambitions to achieve our greatest potential. But we won’t achieve that potential until we understand our pettiness and purge ourselves of it.

Pettiness like Milton Friedman writing that the purpose of national parks and nature reserves is to provide good customer service to campers and hikers.

The Abject Humanism of It All I: Parks and Recreation, Research Time, 19/07/2017

So here’s something I came across reading Milton Friedman that I found really interesting. In the light of some contemporary politics and prosecutions around who has the right to do what on government-owned land in the United States, it’s worth thinking on.

He talks about the national park system in the United States, and how he thinks it should be privatized to individual businesspeople. So far, so doctrinaire. But think about the reasons why.

Friedman doesn’t position himself in any way like the activism of the Bundy family. He’s much more sedate, as benefits a professor rather than a cattle rancher.

He thinks national parks and federal nature reserves should be privatized because of general libertarian principle against government ownership of all that much. But he also thinks that private companies could achieve the same purpose much better.

Come on, son! You and your dad are goin' fishin'! Hyuk!
So what purpose does he consider national parks to have?

Camping. Hiking. Fishing. The enjoyment of the great outdoors. All that good old Outdoor Life Network stuff.

While outdoorsmanship may have been the original purpose of the national parks in Teddy Roosevelt’s mind, national park and reserve systems do a lot more than that now.

Friedman thinks about none of the ecological achievements of government or public trust in stewardship of the land. Setting aside at least some land from the reach of exploitation, if you do it with enough ecological knowledge and care, can mean the difference between a resilient ecosystem and total collapse.

Now, I don’t expect Friedman or that many other people writing in the early 1960s to have thought of this aspect of the problem. Rachel Carson was a lonely voice for a long time.

Even if you leave that critique to the side, there’s a blindness in Friedman’s thinking. It’s the blindness that anything in the world is only as good as its customer service value. No public service besides customer satisfaction.

That’s a world of incredible poverty. Maybe not poverty in terms of wealth and riches. But I mean poverty as a drab, trivial world. There’s too much of the human view in that way of thinking. Too much reduction. Too much humanity.

I think I’ll talk more about the problem of humanity tomorrow. It’s not like humanity doesn’t have plenty of problems.

Is Freedom Really Free? IV: Who Can Control You, Research Time, 18/07/2017

Make sure you notice that I didn’t write that subtitle as a question. I don’t want to ask the question – if you ask a question, it implies that you’d be satisfied with only one answer. No, call it an investigation. An investigation never really stops.

He wasn't a private investigator as a profession. He was a private
investigator as a person. He found himself in a weird and complicated
situation, and wanted to find out what the hell was going on. You
won't be satisfied with the first, easiest answer. The Dude isn't lazy
where it counts.
There's no mystery. Only a world to explore. That’s the secret of Sam Spade. And The Dude.

So let’s start with a fundamental truth about Milton Friedman’s moral thinking – what he thinks it fundamental to a just society. It’s about liberty, and liberty is defined as freedom from coercion. The perfect society is the one where no one can tell you what to do.

Primarily on economist, he’s most concerned about economic structures. What kinds of economic systems prevent the most coercion and violence? That’s the economic democracy of the free market. There, you’ll find potentially infinite variety of business, product, and service – whatever an enterprising huckster can produce with ingenuity and materials at hand.

A frequent argument – at least in the 1960s, when Friedman was writing Capitalism and Freedom – against a totally free market was that the state needed to have the power to break up monopolies.

Monopolies create situations of mass vassalage to a single company or small group of business magnates in an entire industry. Say an industry began as a bunch of little companies.

But some company makes a technological innovation that gives it an enormous advantage over competitors. Their technology disrupts the balance of the entire sector. It either buys up all their competitors or forces them into bankruptcy.

The entrepreneur is a truly virtuous man.
Once it’s taken over the whole sector, it crowds out or buys out new competitors and whatever innovations they’ve come up with, before they grow enough to challenge them. The smartest* companies roll out some version of their acquired competitor’s innovations among their own products.

* Or most diabolical, however you want to think of the practice.

Such monopolies, says Friedman, are never stable. Most of the time, they aren’t even true monopolies. Free market competition – some little upstart who refuses to be bought or contained – will overcome even the most aggressive big player.

No, to Friedman, the only true and stable monopolies are those supported by the government, or state-owned companies themselves. Or else, they arise through an unjust collusion, as industry heads conspire together to stifle genuinely competitive market relationships – price-fixing, or supply control.

Either way, it all comes back to the government. Because if a government doesn’t want to tolerate some kind of industry collusion or monopoly, they can smash it. They have gladly. So a government has to build a monopoly through a state corporation, colluding with business magnates, or turning a blind eye to the collusion of business magnates.

Well, that’s not really so true anymore. I think it may have been true, or at least the rule had few enough extensions to stand. At least it did in the 20th century.

You have to understand that people really used to look like that
when Monopoly the board game was invented.
But look at the examples I linked, and you’ll see how powerful technological disruptions enabled – if not monopoly – then the creation of an oligarchy. Oligarchy – gangsterish collusion among super-rich business magnates given the dignity of a technical name.

If you consider the economic conditions of 21st century Earth, you’ll see a situation where disruptions create real monopolies – or at least business models whose ultimate stated goal is to become a monopoly. That’s literally Uber’s corporate mission.

This is the ideal of fortune through disruption in Silicon Valley’s business culture. You develop a particular kind of technological disruption – a communications platform that lets you undercut the labour of an entire industry at once. Your profit is built on finding ways to lower labour standards legally, and pocket the entire difference yourself.

It’s a problem that I find libertarian concepts are inadequate to dealing with. If your labour conditions get worse and worse – more and more time on the job for less and less money – how can any contract between a pauper and an oligarch ever be fair?

Gather Around, Composing, 17/07/2017

So I’ll get back to the walk with Milton Friedman tomorrow. Today, I want to talk about yesterday, the film shoot for our documentary. Working title is Around One Table.

Sunday, Khalil and his family met up with Nancy and her family for a big vegetarian buffet dinner in Nancy’s backyard in East York. It was a tough shoot in some ways – technical difficulties, barking dogs interrupting interviews, rain, fear of rain, some typically Canadian social awkwardness. Well, really Ontarian social awkwardness.

Not only that, but the food was pretty damn good. Conceptually,
potato soup and spiciness could never really go together. But
they did it – I could tell it involved some strategically placed
chillies. I was impressed. 
But we had some beautiful moments that I think are going to make for a fantastic film. Let me tell you about some of them.

About a month ago, we filmed an interview with Khalil and his wife Samar while they prepared an iftar dinner and sent it along to a couple they’d met earlier through the Welcome Dinners program. Samar spoke about the meal she prepared, and shared happy memories of her early married life with Khalil and childhood in Syria.

Khalil gave us a long interview in Arabic, his first language, where he’s most comfortable.* So I sat with him while my co-director Maher asked the questions, and Khalil remembered for us what it was to leave Syria.

* He told me at the shoot today that I speak beautifully, but much too fast for him to follow what I’m saying.

I don’t know all the details. But he’d mentioned to me in English earlier that this interview would tell the story of his travel down the Road of Death. There are several Roads of Death in Syria, but this is the one leading out of Homs, eventually going through Damascus and into Lebanon.

So Khalil, in Arabic, told the story of how he jammed his wife Samar and their five kids into a car and chugged along a highway pockmarked with bomb craters, whose shoulders were dotted with the burned out – and sometimes still smoking – skeletons of cars and their drivers.

Families just like his run off the road, robbed, and slaughtered, as they were fleeing the mass air war that would pummel their city.

We recorded it in closeup, because you’d have to be a fool to tell that story in wide shot.

That interview was back in June, as we were shooting some meal exchanges our Syrian participants made with their partner / host families to celebrate Ramadan.

Sunday, we talked with Nancy and Tim, the hosts for Khalil, Samar, and their kids today. Nancy told me a story that wasn’t quite as harrowing as Khalil’s worst road trip ever. But it was a shock to her.

Hey, White Supremacist. Do you want to get the fuck out of my
whimsical old-growth Canadian urban community?
So do you remember a few days after Donald Trump won the election to be President of the USA? And these posters asking white people to mobilize against multiculturalism appeared in a historic neighbourhood of Toronto in the East York borough?

Nancy teaches at a very ethnically and culturally diverse elementary school that was in the epicentre of that poster blitz. She was horrified. She ran exercises at her school to teach even the youngest children about our fundamental solidarity as humans.

She helped organize a group that distributed buttons reading “Unite Against Hate” for people to stick on their clothes and backpacks. Her neighbourhood is now covered in rainbow-coloured posters and lawn signs reading “Unite Against Hate” in English, French, and other languages like Hindi and Arabic.

It’s very easy to say that such actions don’t mean anything. But they’re communications that are constantly present in the community. They always blast the message that this is a community that stands against racism and embraces solidarity regardless of who you are, as long as you too embrace that same solidarity.

But they are also targets on every house. That same courage is at the heart of a community’s solidarity too.

Is Freedom Really Free? III: Fairness Peace and Fear, Research Time, 14/07/2017

When I was looking back through Antonio Negri’s Empire to prepare yesterday’s post, I found a beautiful line.
“Disobedience to authority is one of the most natural and healthy acts. To us it seems completely obvious that those who are exploited will resist and – given the necessary conditions – rebel.”
It’s a very deep truth about humanity. We rebel in the face of exploitation – we fight for our exit.

The very real division between libertarian-leaning and anarchist-leaning folks these days is over what constitutes exploitation. If you take Negri’s lead, exploitation is a matter of an entire economic system – the global network of relations that constrain the choices of millions of people into a series of shit deals.

One (among so, so many) humiliating result of
signing a contract with Donald Trump. I still can't
believe he's actually the President of the United
States. For fuck's sake.
The libertarian has a much narrower conception of where exploitation could arise. Look at Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, any of the trolling social media activists, and a lot of the popular communications coming out of the major liberal think tanks today.*

* Before you have any conniptions, yes, I do consider libertarianism the logical extension of liberal values about politics and economics. It’s the trajectory of any individualist logic. It needs leavening with values of community and universal brotherhood to avoid its own perversity.

Friedman, early in his great popular work of philosophy Capitalism and Freedom, describes the utopian liberal ideal. He describes a society where there’s barely a need for a government because the community can govern itself through free, voluntary associations and agreements.

That does sound genuinely wonderful. In a society where no one wanted to hurt each other and no one ever got hurt, we wouldn’t need government. The idea needs a whole hell of a lot of development. But that’s what the book is for. I'm writing a blog post well before I'm ready to get this thing written.

Instead, I want to focus tonight on a more critical question about Friedman and the libertarian perspective in general. Why does Friedman think it’s good to get rid of government? What’s the reason for his distrust?

Conveniently, it’s in his book. Yes, the most peaceful way to construct a society is through voluntary associations and agreements between all the individuals in that community. But he’s extremely pessimistic about whether an entire community of people can reach genuine agreement in real time.

No constitution is ever accepted by literally everyone. Not even the current (and second) United States constitution. The contemporary right wing in America may worship their dogmatic icon of this document with all the mystic rage of a prophet. There was plenty of opposition. Just read The Federalist Papers and you’ll see that.

But Friedman's focus on government as the only significant force
of constraint on people doesn't hold up to our individual
experiences. In everyday hypocrisy, everyday cruelty, we still
have to fight for our rights. Even if it's just the right to party.
Humans are volatile, changeable, and very different from each other in a lot of different ways – interests, culture, histories, positions, personalities. In all that diversity, agreement in real time at one moment is impossible.

So a society of humans can only be peaceful in a context where our variety is tolerated – everyone must be able to believe, do, and be whatever they want without any force trying to constrain them. Any force or movement that tries to make anyone agree to anything but tolerating disagreement is oppressive.

He counts among those oppressive forces the government. But Friedman also counts the bonds of community, family, and any kind of social solidarity for any purpose or ideal than leaving each other alone.

The existence of the state, says Friedman, is built on a false premise. That falsehood is the presumption that an institutional decree alone is all you need to produce harmony and peace in society. In reality, negotiation never finishes and will never finish.

In a sense, that’s true. That sense is at the heart of libertarianism’s and liberalism’s appeal to anyone who does value freedom. No matter how limited it might be.

Is Freedom Really Free? II: Exodus, Research Time, 13/07/2017

Is it really freedom if your only choices are between a cruel, abusive, barely-subsistence, dangerous job and starving to death?

The doctrinaire libertarian perspective states that this is freedom. When I say doctrinaire, I’m talking about the libertarian shock troops – the ordinary folks who provide the street and online activist core of the libertarian right wing as a political movement.

Demand better. One of a series of old posters from when we
thought the fight would be easier than it is now.
If a free market is only offering you barely-subsistence wages under terrible conditions or poverty and starvation, then that’s the choice you can freely make. Freedom is the right of exit from any negotiation before the promise is made.*

* Yes, I know there are many other dimensions of freedom as a concept in libertarian thinking, but I’m just sticking to this one for now! It’s a blog – I’m not going more than 800 or so words at a shot with this.

But is there an additional path to follow? Jokingly, in my reviews and posts about that show, I’ve described this ethical argument against the libertarian decision between two bad choices as Doctor Who ethics. When the system you live in offers you two unbearable choices, you break the system.

This is where I see the anarchist-leaning left providing a corrective to the libertarian right. Think of it as a helping hand. The libertarian, as I’ve described them, sticks with the choices you’re given. But you can also upend the table.

Milton Friedman called the right to walk away from a bad deal the right of exit. As he unfolded the concept, it was left with that vulnerability – You could walk away from any shit deal, even if your only alternative was an even more shit deal. You were still free.

The problem of following Friedman is that you may always be stuck with some kind of shit deal. Antonio Negri takes the right of exit farther than the libertarian model – literally an exodus.

One most brutal and blatant commodification of humanity was the institution of black slavery in the Americas. Labour was literally bought and sold, and there was a continual urge in the black population to escape. Negri makes this a starting point for the human drive to liberation.

Friedman stays at the level of the bad job offer – walk away and find something better. Negri carries this principle farther, as far as it can go and where the concept itself would actually lead you if you follow its logic to the end. The human drive for freedom is expressed in the act of walking away to find or create something better.

You keep moving until you can't go any farther. But you still have to.
You’re walking away from any form of exploitation, brutality, or generally horrible conditions of life. You could be walking into a much worse deal. One example. Ask any of the South Asian or African immigrants who come to work in the Saudi Kingdom or the United Arab Emirates.

Thousands once sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Millions now move across Asia. And that’s just counting the economic migrants – the job seekers. The war refugees throughout the world are millions more.

But there’s also the people who leave their home countries – overpopulated, crushed by climate disaster, autocratic, or still stricken with grotesque inequality – and come to places like Toronto. People like some of my students who come to Canada in search of a better deal.

The best of them are coming here not just to ask for a better deal, but to build one for themselves. That’s the human desire for freedom – don’t just choose the lesser of two evils, but walk away and make the good.

Is Freedom Really Free? I: Walking Away, Research Time, 11/07/2017

I’m not going to continue with that last thread of ideas I was writing about Milton Friedman’s writing last week. Two reasons. One, after taking a few days off from writing about it, I realized it wasn’t the best way to start a longer train of thought. So I’m starting from a more fundamental and stimulating angle today.

The second reason? I hated that title I gave it.

Friedman’s insightful introductory remarks about the nature of contracts are a great way to begin. That conception of the freely entered contract between two equals is at the heart of so much new liberal and libertarian rhetoric today.

I’d hear it from my wacky libertarian trolls, my first long-running window into the world of the far-right internet. Reading this passage of Friedman, I remembered what C & G told me, because it seemed to come directly from the big man’s pages.

What people love about America is their freedom!
The fundamental bond of any economic relationship is the contract between two people doing business. It could be between a business owner and a worker, between two or more business owners, between a business and a client or customer. Whatever. All economic activity flows from these relationships.

Those relationships of contract formation are the core bonds of business itself. They come to be, says Friedman, as two private individuals reaching an agreement. Such an agreement is morally right if the contracting individuals are free.

Now, what do we mean by freedom? That’s not just a word you can appeal to without a fair idea of the concept itself.

Friedman uses freedom in the context of the conditions of contract formation. When two individuals are negotiating a contract, at any moment up to the signature that locks them both into their promises, they can walk away.

Freedom is the right to exit. That’s universalized over a lot of moral judgments new liberals and libertarians make about economic and business relationships.

Do you dislike your job? Do you feel that your boss mistreats you? Are you not paid what you think you should be? Do you find the conditions now more dangerous than when you agreed to work there? Then walk away from it.

The right to walk away – for the modern dogmatic libertarian, many new liberals, and quite a few traditional liberals – renders any of the protections that workers’ movements have gained people moot.

More details on the silliness of a frictionless, perfectly logical vision
of the world can be found at the link, on paragraph 107.
You want a minimum standard wage? Health insurance? Safety protections? Reasonable hours? Vacation time? Maternity or paternity leave? Then don’t force your current employer to give them to you if he doesn’t want to provide them. Leave, and try to negotiate it somewhere else. The right of exit trumps all else.

It seems perfectly reasonable when you’re only thinking about it in the abstract, through pure reason alone. But once the messy contingencies of the real world leak into this clean, frictionless vision, its logic begins to break down. This way of thinking faces problems that it actually can’t grapple with, so can only wave them away.

Think about some situations where you can’t really walk away from a job. Most of them amount to not being able to walk straight into an alternative job and risking destitution otherwise.

Maybe there’s a recession and there are far more job-seekers than positions. Maybe you’re in a low-paying sector and you don’t have the savings to support yourself while you look for a better opportunity. Maybe you can’t afford retraining and there are no free or loan-supported avenues for it.

In all those situations and any others along similar lines, the right of exit still exists, but it’s a terrible idea. The material conditions of a contract's writing smashes the balance between signatories for it to be a truly free agreement. If a person has the power to let another starve, then the one with power holds the other in his fist.

Even if you’re starving to death, my old libertarian friends used to tell me, you still have your freedom. But must you accept death as the price of freedom?