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Slavery, Wage Labor, and the Inversion of Work

This scene from the 1969 film, Burn! is certainly thought-provoking. However, it operates under – as this blog will argue – a defunct paradigm. It has been replaced by one more ruthlessly efficient and fantastical! It is they hyperreal component of our contemporary society-economy. This is the third blog in a row on the topic of hyperreality – and it will be the last (for a while, at least) – but this particular situation is not only fascinating but relevant for us all.

But first things first: definitions.

Work. Work, in economic-productive terms (i.e., what you do at a job), is defined by the OED as a particular act or piece of labour; a task, job.

Labour, by the same meaning, is similarly defined as physical exertion [can be and often is mental in contemporary society] directed to the supply of the material wants of the community; the specific service rendered to production by the labourer or artisan.

Job is defined as a piece of work; especially a small definite piece of work done in the way of one’s special occupation or profession.

But work, in this context, and in the context of our contemporary society – one in which mass material production as the basis of the economy is largely obsolete, replaced  by services and other intangibles as the new consumables, and all this being facilitated by a global network of mass communications systems – takes on a new and terrifying meaning. Crimethinc’s most recent publication, Work, gets into the specifics of what work used to be, what it has become, and what we can do about it. For them, work is the leasing of one’s creative powers to others. They continue:

Selling our time rather than doing things for their own sake, we come to evaluate our lives on the basis of how much we can get in exchange for them, not what we get out of them. As freelance slaves hawking our lives hour by hour, we think of ourselves as each having a price; the amount of the price becomes our measure of value. In that sense, we become commodities, just like toothpaste and toilet paper. What once was a human being is now an employee, in the same way that what once was a pig is now a pork chop. Our lives disappear, spent like the money for which we trade them.

But it isn’t just the person that is transformed from human into commodity, but the socioeconomic system as well. Guy Debord wrote, in Society of the Spectacle, of what likely preceded such a personal transmutation:

When economic necessity is replaced by the necessity for boundless economic development, the satisfaction of primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of psuedo-needs which are reduced to the single psuedo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy.

We, especially as Westerners see this all around us, every day. The sacred importance of the economy is as ubiquitous as the priests of the economy – CEOs, economists, politicians, and laymen alike – seeking to construct endless GDP as surely as the Babylonians sought the heights of omnipotence. These caste-members give pronouncements as if they were oracles: lower interest rates!reduces taxes on the most profitable!; disempower labor unions!; cut domestic aid programs!open up foreign markets!privatize!!: as if the economy were a fickle god, whimsically bestowing upon its subjects profit or poverty depending on the value of their prostrations. The economy has become the God of the West (and Jesus admonished us: Matthew 6:24), and we serve it now (not the other way around).

But this is not the end of the analysis. For Baudrillard infuses the chimerical into work:

The whole world still produces, and increasingly, but subtly work has become something else: a need (as Marx ideally envisioned it but not in the same sense), the object of the social “demand,” like leisure, to which it is equivalent in the course of everyday life. A demand exactly proportional to the loss of a stake in the work process… :the scenario for work is there to conceal that the real of work, the real of production, has disappeared. And the real of strike as well…

So… Our work is not really our own; it is not even meaningful in a social sense since it no longer truly serves us; and as a result, the work we do has become a farce of the process of human being. But what if one of us were to find happiness and meaning in our work – could we somehow contradict this conclusion? It doesn’t seem likely. For it amounts to a Sisyphean feat: eternally pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down again and again (And Camus argued that we can – we must! – find happiness in this).

I think he’s right: it is possible for a slave to love his condition, but then again: a slave isn’t a subject, but an object; not a person, but a commodity.

Simulacra, Simulation, and the Spectacle

Ren? Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009

This post serves as the primer mentioned in the previous post. It gives a more thorough understanding of key concepts in Baudrillard’s philosophy as well as that of the Situationists International (SI).

As previously defined, simulacra is a copy without an original. Baudrillard originally uses the example of a map so detailed that it covers exactly the land it is supposed to be representing. Such a map would be as big as the territory and would include topography to mimic the topography of the original landscape. Ultimately, Baudrillard says, the landscape changes but the map does not change with it. What is left is map. It is the map that has become the “real” territory by which the people live. This map is a hyperreal terrain, indistinguishable from the real terrain that it once emulated, covered, and now obscures. This map, for those who live according to it, is the real – for they know no better: that it is merely a copy.

Baudrillard’s example isn’t exact enough, though, because the map is a copy of original terrain. Another example, then, seems in order. Imagine your typical Irish pub. A dingy dive, decorated with four-leaf clovers, leprechauns (fighting or otherwise), fire station paraphernalia, advertisements for Irish alcohol, some of which is served on tap; there may even be an Irish folk singer that plays regularly, perhaps Irish cuisine is served — all this gives the impression that one is really in Ireland, or at least in a bar that one could find there. This is the simulacra. There is no authentic Irish pub that serves as the model for this typical American “Irish pub.” Certainly, elements from it could be found in a real Irish pub, but taken as a whole there is no original. What is being created is an illusion, an impression, a simulacra and simulation of an Irish pub so that this particular drinking establishment can offer a “real” experience of Ireland to its patrons (and distinguish itself from other bars so it can establish an economic advantage). These types of simulacra, Baudrillard argues, inundate our reality to such an extent that our real society is replaced by a hyperreal one – regulated, maintained, and propagated by such symbols and their relations to one another.

Simulation is the production and relation of these symbols. Simulation in our post-productive society involves the destruction of the real that used to serve as a basis for the symbols, simulacra, and simulations. Whereas the original landscape in the map example simply changed with time, our society actively destroys the original terrain – it must. And the primary terrain of our lives involves the relations amongst ourselves. And this hyperreality, Baudrillard and the SI argue, is where we all exist; is what is produced and reproduced ad nauseam in myriads ways; and, ultimately, inescapable…(?)

Situationist Internationalist, Guy Debord, wrote of this phenomenon 15 years before Baudrillard and he used a somewhat different language and more optimistic tone. He referred to this phenomenon as the Spectacle. He defines the spectacle as being, “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” Like Baudrillad, Debord writes that, “the spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjected them. It is no more than the economy developing for itself.” Both authors argue that the modern post-productive, mass-communications society both “informs” and transforms society. Society becomes an entity itself, existing only for itself and not for those by whom it is constituted; it is autonomous and semi-sentient, and subjects its inhabitant-participants to simulation of a society; once a social-contractual organization in which men ruled and dictated for themselves, but whom now only dictate (merely like some necessary appendage) on behalf of the economy-society. The symbols “manufactured” on its behalf mollify the men and women that used to reign, convinces them that this illusion – the hyperreal – is real (because hierarchies still exist, because freedom to choose among given choices exist, because the hyperreal is too fantastical and simply cannot exist!).

“Love” is a perfect example of a relation that is managed by the society-economy. In fact, the recent movie, Don Juan, illustrates it perfectly. Men’s understanding of love is informed primarily by exploitation, sex, and pornography; women’s understanding of love is informed primarily by naive notions perpetuated by Disney and various Hollywood happily-ever-afters like romantic comedies (“romcoms”). The result is that both sexes use these manufactured understandings of “love” to inform their relationship and how to behave in it as sexual-romantic partners, often with negative consequences (the necessary result of the fantasy of illusion) — this is how the relationship between “lovers” are mediated by the images and symbols presented by these media. This symbol relation and mediation also informs friendship, parenthood, education, maturation, work, success, politics, etc, etc. Whereas Debord is optimistic as Don Juan — for the movie ends with the protagonist learning about and living “authentic” sex and love — Baudrillard is not. He thinks that some threshold has been passed: that the real, which our simulacra seek to simulate and replace, is no longer knowable, and as such: impossible. For Baudrillard, no escape from the hyperreal is possible because there is no real (or any other alternative) to which to return.

Revolution as Meaningless Simulation

Vehicle_simulator

 

Power floats like money, like language, like theory. Criticism and negativity alone still secrete a phantom of the reality of power. If they become weak for some reason or another, power has no other recourse but to artificially revive and hallucinate them… The deterioration of power is irresistibly pursued: it is not so much the “revolutionary forces” that accelerate this process (often it is quite the opposite), it is the system itself that deploys against its own structures this violence that annuls all substance and all finality. One must not resist this process by trying to confront the system and destroy it, because the system that is dying from being dispossessed of its death expects nothing but that from us: that we give the system back its death, that we revive it through the negative. End of revolutionary praxis, end of the dialectic. (24)

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation is an experience, to say the least. I don’t think I’ve read a book that has so radically challenged my perspective since Richard Rorty’s Contingency, irony, and solidarity. In short, it is a semiotic work concerning the applicability of (and even the possibility of) meaning in the postmodern world of electronic mass media. It centers around the two concepts eponymously referred to in the title. Simulacra, in brief, is a copy (of a model/image/abstraction) that has no original. Simulation, similarly, is the generation of these copies/models without origin or reality. The result of this product and process, respectively, is the creation of what Baudrillard terms, hyperreality; and it is in this space, he contends, that our social “realities” takes place. I think I’ll write a shorthand primer concerning these concepts since they’re difficult to explain and understand without greater explication. Here, I am concerned with the application of these concepts to political revolution and the implications that seem to follow.

From the quote above, it seems Baudrillard is saying that revolution has become a part of the system which the revolution seeks to dismantle. Furthermore, that the system itself fosters this revolution in order to justify itself to those whom are subject to it (almost like the false flag operations of the Italian government post-World War II), to reinvigorate it, and establish itself more firmly. In this way, the revolution is meaningless – worse: it is an illusion, or as Baudrillard is wont to describe it: a simulation of revolution. Even if the revolution is successful in achieving its end, the political-ideological/linguistic/communications framework that makes the system (and the revolution) possible still exists intact, and ultimately subsumes the revolution into the “original” system. This reminds me of the Arab Spring movement in Egypt in which a dictator is overthrown only to be replaced by a new dictator, and now it seems as if this event is repeating itself once again.

Baudrillard goes into greater detail about how this similar situation plays out in Western, especially American, society – and it is truly disturbing. For the details I would recommend the book; although, I think I will cover some more of these topics in later posts. For now, I focus on revolution.

If the illusion of revolution was not disheartening enough, Baudrillard says that now, in this hyperreality of which we are all a part, there is no longer the possibility of revolution. The hyperreality subsumes all into meaninglessness, without true referents – only the images and appearances of things. And the hyperreal would subsume any antithesis to the hyperreal. Thus, resistance truly is futile. Even death is rendered meaningless and thus ineffective. The dialectic is over.

Was Fukiyama wrong – did he miss it entirely? Is it not liberal democratic ideals and societies that will “conquer” the world, bringing to historical conclusion the dialectical opposition between capitalism and communism; but instead, a (now-global) mass communications superstructure – disseminating ideals and ideas that are misconstrued, misunderstood, and dispossessed of meaning – that spreads like a psychic cancer, ultimately imprisoning us all in the hyperreal? Are we truly lost in the desert of the real?

The Fallacy of the Broken Window

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The following excerpt is taken form Henry Hazlitt’s book, Economics in One Lesson, though the origins of the concept of “opportunity cost” are attributed to French theorist, Frederic Bastiat. I chose to quote verbatim because he does an excellent job of portraying the parable in a readable and relatable form. The significance of this teaching cannot be overstated – too much of today’s thinking involves such terrible and short-sighted thinking, even outside the field of economics. While there is truth to the notion of “creation from destruction,” how it can be rightly applied to human systems is much more limited than is typically thought. It would serve us well to remember this parable often. Surely, I will refer to it in posts to come.

A young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies. After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has a bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate of glass window cost? Two hundred and fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $250 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $250 more to spend with still other merchants and so on ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment  in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.

Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no more unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper wil be out $250 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace the window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $250 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as a part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer.

The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new “employment” has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. The will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.

*  *  *  *  *

One evening at the University I was attending, I was walking with a friend who, when she had pulled out her last cigarette, crumpled up the box and threw it on the ground of the parking lot. I looked at her in shock for her brazen littering. Quick to see my environmentalist outrage she quickly began to rationalize her own version of the broken-window fallacy. “Littering is good because it will create a job for someone to clean it up.” My rebuttal was an unsophisticated, near inarticulate, diatribe about how we need to take better care of the Earth and our shared human spaces – I even had to pick up the cigarette box and threw it away in the receptacle not far from where we walked. Had I known then what I know now, I could have argued more effectively and in a manner that was to her self-interest. I could have said, “Yes, that is true. But, if you throw it away yourself, that job will go unneeded and the money to pay that person a salary can be saved. Eventually, this savings can be passed on to us by lower tuition because the University has one less employee to pay; or, similarly, they could afford to pay higher salaries to better teachers thus improving the quality of our education, or some other more productive project.” Yet one of many “I should have said” stories I have. But the lesson has been learned, and my argument awaits new specious reasonings.

There is no shortage of similar sophistries in contemporary American life. My hope is that if we are mindful, we can identify and counter them. Maybe in this way, our individual efforts will be more effective in improving our lives and society.

Equality — Which?

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A recent academic debate has both disturbed and motivated me. Disturbed because of many reasons but the most relevant, intellectually, is that very smart individuals speak of equality but seem unclear as to what it means, exactly, and how it translates operationally into the various social arrangements. And it has motivated me to inquire and expound upon a concept that I think we all take for granted in thinking that we know what it means.

Let us begin with basics: denotative definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines equality in several ways:

  1. The condition of being equal in quantity, amount, value, intensity, etc
  2. The exact correspondence between magnitude and number in respect of quantity, the existence of is which is sometimes expressed by the sign =
  3. The condition of having equal dignity, rank, or privileges with others
  4. The condition of being equal in power, ability, achievement, or excellence
  5. In persons: fairness, impartiality, equity; In things: due proportion, proportionateness

The first definition is the essential meaning, it describes the condition/relationship between two objects and their identicalness, correspondence, or sameness. I will call this Platonic Equality in that it describes the purest, most fundamental essence (or form) of equality – all other descriptions of equality have this essence contained within its meaning. The second definition is Mathematical Equality in that it refers to quantity and/or magnitude. It bears little significance to the upcoming discussion but is worth mentioning.

The third, fourth and fifth definitions are all related in kind but differ in degree. For that reason I will refer to them as Aristotelian Equalities given that they have an operational relevance in politics, economics, and society in general. Moreover, each definition in turn can be further classified by their functioning within human social systems. For example, the third definition describes what can be considered as the basis for liberal democracies. In this way, people are equal to each other in that they all have the self-evident, inalienable human rights codified in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Human Rights, and as such an equal share in directing their sociopolitical system(s). For this reason, I will refer to this as (AristotelianPolitical Equality.

The Fourth definition refers to the capability or capacity of an individual. These abilities are those we are each born with or develop over time, which helps to make us unique. When people say that “we are not all equal” it is usually this equality to which they refer – “Not everyone can play basketball like a MIchael Jordan; not everyone can lift weights like Arnold Schwarzenegger; and not everyone is an Einstein.” And while this is true, most certainly, there are equalities even in ability. For many of us make the same grades as others; or score identically on IQ tests; or even have the exact same top running speed or high jump. Indeed, one need look no further than statistical standard deviations to see the truth of this. This definition is problematic because it is often cited to highlight inequalities more than equalities, and thus seems to contradict the tenet of equality. However, as I’ve pointed out, even though the extremes of any deviation referred to are rare, most of us fall within similar deviations/categories and are equal in that respect. Given the contradictory and counterintuitive nature – and use – of this definition, I will refer to this as (Aristotelian) Statistical Equality.

The fifth definition refers to a judicial system. Under this meaning, equality means equality under the Law. This means that all are culpable (or commendable) for their actions; whether President or pauper, if one breaks the law, one is subject to punishment. In other words: No one is above the law; we are all equal under it. For this reason, I will refer to this equality as (AristotelianLegal Equality. It should be noted that there are other specific forms of equality, like gender equality, that are manifest but I find, so far, that they fall under one of these mentioned categories. Gender equality would fall under the Aristotelian Political (and Legal) Equality, for example.

*  *  *  *  *

The context of the debate that sparked this inquiry was a discussion about Vladmir Lenin and the establishment of the U.S.S.R.. Under Lenin’s system there were essentially two castes: the vanguard (and later the Politburo) and the masses – both inaccurately subsumed under the term, the Proletariat. In Communism, all were equal workers entitled to the means of production and what was produced. However, Lenin established an inner circle of cronies, with himself at the center, who received more – in all ways possible – than those outside of it. This two-tier system is perfectly exemplified in the memorable phrase, and Animal Farm commandment, in George Orwell’s novella about Leninism/Stalinism: “All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”

Here emerges a new type of equality. It is a hypocritical equality, a contradiction, and utter nonsense – for there is no such thing as more equal. Yet, this was the way that Soviet Russia operated under its dictatorship of the proletariat, and this “logic” was accepted and enforced. But, again, this is nonsense. But fear is a powerful motivator, and history is rife with examples of human beings accepting illogic as logic, and inequality as equality, all due to fear. This definition of “equality” is not given in the OED but I think it should be. I will refer to this conception of a two-tier equality – really just another form of inequality, but accepted as its opposite – as (Aristotelian) Orwellian Equality.

The argument was made that Orwellian equality was equality proper, despite the fact that all the participants to the discussion knew this to be a false equivalence. Several times the contradiction was pointed out, and several times it was denied, even though everyone knew it to be otherwise. Then there came a new argument:

Soviet Russia was a “closed system.” There was an authority that determined “truths,” and his cronies were responsible for disseminating it. All the rest were equal in their submission to it; and the inner circle insisted that itself, too, was equal to those outside of it. But this was not the case; clearly, the inner circle had privileges the masses did not. And by definition, this is no type of equality other than Orwellian equality, which is, in fact, a contradiction of equality. I understood the analogy, it was accurate in describing the social system developed by Lenin, but it was in no meaningful (or literal) way, equal.

*  *  *  *  *

So, why make these distinctions; why write out this inquiry; and why try to clarify? In short, because it is important. First, and in the context of the discussion mentioned, it is important because what the Soviets practiced was not proper equality (nor was it Communism in the Marxist, denotative-philosophical sense). It was a practice very similar in our times of people calling themselves Christians but living very unChristian lives – just because one calls oneself something or claims to live under certain principles, does not mean that that is, in fact, the case. In order to determine the veracity of such statements, they must be judged according to the standard of its definition(s) or practice(s). Equality is equality only if it satisfies the condition of sameness; and a Christian is a Christian only if (s)he satisfies the doctrine, i.e. definition, of Christianity.

Second, it is important because the world is getting more complex and yet our language (or maybe it’s our thinking) is not evolving with it. And this matters because the more precise our language the more our ideas, and ultimately our lives, approximate truth (about what we talk and think). Without this precision, we cannot be sure that we are talking about the same thing, thus confusing terms and keeping ourselves unnecessarily divided and powerless. This phenomenon is prevalent in modern-day politics, so much so that it has an official term: double speak. Politicians use words like “freedom,” “equality,” “fairness,” “liberty,” “capitalism,” and “free markets” but, like Lenin and his comrades, they often mean different things than what those who hear these words think. This is a major problem with American society today: ignorance, and exploitation of that ignorance through tactics such as double speak.

It is absolutely critical that we develop this linguistic precision so as to communicate more effectively, and, ultimately, shape our world with these words and ideas; and even hold those accountable who lie to us in such duplicitous ways. By doing this way, we maintain the vigilance that is a citizen’s duty; earn our intelligence as rational agents; and develop our humanity as conscious beings.

Utopias: Old and New

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The significant problems we face today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. -Albert Einstein

In the most general political sense, the Oxford English Dictionary defines utopia as “a place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.” Etymologically, the term derives from the Greek words ou and topos, and literally translates as not a place or no place.

This inquiry is the result of a conversation I had with a renown theorist and practitioner of international relations, national security, and policy. The original debate circled around the the argument that the original idea of communism has been appropriated to mean something different – what most people understand it to be in contemporary times – and that the significant distinction between the two conceptions is neglected to our detriment.

Similarly, a following debate ensued about the term utopia and that, similarly, there is an important distinction between the meanings with important political implications. However, in this instance, it wasn’t about two simultaneous denotative conceptions, but between an existing conception and a burgeoning one. In short, the argument was that the aforementioned definition of utopia is part of an old paradigm; that a new conception is possible, if not necessary, and with it, a commensurate political paradigm.

“Utopia means ‘no place,’ it is an unrealizable goal,” went the assertion. “Yes, under an old conception of the term but here it is proposed that utopia means something different, something subtle yet significant,” went the rebuttal. The discussion continued, “This new conception isn’t a refutation of the old conception; in fact, it embraces the old definition – it relies upon it for its own definition – it sees the truth in it, but sees that truth more deeply and ironically. Indeed, utopia is not a place, but a process; it no more an independent entity than running is an independent entity from the legs that hurriedly move.”

There is a growing consensus among the psychological, neurological, neuro-philosophical communities that the mind is not a separate entity from the body. Rather, the mind is (the product of) the functioning of a holistic information processor identified as the brain. Without the brain – a working brain – there is no mind. With no mind, there is no self – and often they are understood as one and the same. In fact the word mind is a misnomer under this scientific conception – a better and more precise term would be minding, since the gerund form of the word indicates the true nature of the mind as an action, a process (like running). This is both an empirical refutation and solution to the “mind-body duality (problem)” that emerged thousands of years ago.

Similarly, utopia should be viewed etymologically/literally as not a place but a process. But not a innate process of political objects, i.e. human beings, like minding is to brains, but a willed process – the continuation of a decision made, much like the continued decision to stay in a marriage, a healthy lifestyle, or a consistent moral life. The reason being that the former oversimplifies the concept and renders it an impossible goal.

Most people’s conception of utopia is understood as some end state that is free from conflict, diversity, individuality, and change – this is because people incorrectly view it as a form of human perfection (which also, incidentally, is in need of a similar redefinition). And since human perfection is impossible, so, too, the reasoning goes, must be any political product humanity creates. Again, this is correct, but only if the concepts such as utopia and perfection are understood as end states and not processes.

The word process implies the interaction with(in) time. This is key for several reasons. One, it means that utopia is not a heaven – it’s not some final state where humanity solves all the problems of the human condition and everyone is happy all the time. This is likely never to be the case, even within this new conception of utopia – human existence takes place within the Universe, which is in a constant state of flux between creation and destruction; humans will always reflect this nature since they are an embodiment of that nature. Two, it means that utopia can, and eventually will, mean different things at different times. Sociopolitical architects will decide on what is the best form of government at the time and, hopefully, when new information emerges and people are ready, changes will occur and a new government will be constructed to suit these people under new conceptions of the best form of government. In this way, humans are allowed to grow and evolve, donning new sociopolitical systems when they need to and, similarly, doffing them when they must. In this sense then, utopia, is the process by which human political systems are perpetually improved with certain goals in mind (for example, reducing war, poverty and famine, needless suffering, crime, etc – notice the word reducing and opposed to eliminating – remember perfection [under the old paradigm] is not a realizable goal to which we should work; instead, we should continually strive to be better than before – morally, intellectually, personally, etc).

When combined with Reason and the scientific method, human beings can not only enhance their governments but develop entirely new ones altogether! This is an endeavor limited only by the imagination of human hope and effort; and tempered by the understanding of human nature and the limits of their technology. The technology of our age gives the people of our time the advantages of greater information and mobilization than the generations before could ever have imagined – and still don’t. It is time that we begin in earnest to start thinking about utopias again, but this time equipped with the knowledge of our time and its best methods. For it seems unlikely that the way things are currently progressing (and promise to continue to do so) are ever going to bring about the kind of changes worthy of the word utopian.

So this begs the question(s): “But wait – don’t we do that already? Isn’t that what democracy is in the West – people changing laws so that their governments and societies are better than they were before?” Not in the sense I mean: the changes I have in mind are those similar to that between changing from a feudal monarchy to a capitalist democracy, for example. A capitalist democracy is an improvement in many ways but it is not the final best form of government – there are better ones awaiting us still, and we are long overdue. However, in the grand scheme of things, we do, indeed, engage in utopianism when we petition our government and change our laws. In short, if we are vigilant and meaningfully participate, we are engaged in a continual, if albeit gradual, process of change and readjustment – a micro version of utopia argued for in this post.

How about that?

Labor: How Private Enterprise Today Gets Capitalism Wrong

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The annual labor of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes, and which consists always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

The opening lines of most works are often the most important in terms of underlying message. This was the lesson illustrated many years ago by a professor of mine as we studied Machiavelli’s, The Prince. Indubitably, whether ones reads the tract as genuine or satire, the message Machiavelli conveys is the acquisition of power. Here is the first sentence from chapter 1 of his work:

All states, all dominions that have held and do hold empire over men have been and are either republics or principalities.

From the first line, alone, we understand Machiavelli is discussing the ways in which dominions are held over the masses of people, and the specifics of this dominion/power is the subject of the rest of the work. Even his dedicatory letter that precedes his first chapter speaks of the way in which one may acquire their own power (favor) with a prince:

It is customary most of the time for those who desire to acquire favor with a Prince to come to meet him with things that they care most for among their own or with the things that they see please him most.

Similarly, Adam Smith speaks of an underlying theme in his most famous – and surprisingly unread – work, The Wealth of Nations. That first line indicates to the reader what “the wealth of nations” really is: labor. Without labor, there would be no produce, nothing to trade, and nothing in which to invest; indeed labor is the most fundamental unit of both wealth and economies. Without labor, there would be no wealth.

It is disheartening, then, to see that in the United States laborers – those who perform the labor – are not only vilified but denied its significance as an economic force; that laborers, i.e suppliers, are being stripped of their right to negotiate with the buyers of their commodity in the labor market. Today, corporatists-capitalists and “free-market” proponents speak of the evils of unionized labor – how it makes business hard to function, how it drives the cost of goods up, how it’s wrecking the economy as a whole, and is a socialist institution threatening the very existence of American enterprise. But Smith, father of Capitalism, the ideological inspiration for this country’s economic model, couldn’t disagree more with such sentiments.

Smith was a moral philosopher by training; he was an economist insofar as he used he philosophical inclination to look at economics and best methods of economic organization. As such, he was primarily concerned with human beings. But Smith was no utopian, he knew people were motivated by self-interest (for the most part). So he devised his system based on observations about people and industry, but that had infused into it moral elements in order to make it just and equitable. Most people are rarely familiar with the morality that Smith infused into Capitalism but it suffuses the work, throughout. For example, he was concerned about workers rights and well-being, promoted public education, a welfare system, a progressive tax system, and on and on. And he was acutely aware of the exploitation that could be wrought by financially powerful interests. But these elements of his philosophy are rarely mentioned, if not ignored altogether.

This begs the question: “Why?”

Is it because the morality of such systems is hard to quantify mathematically and as such keeps the economic theory of capitalism unscientific? It’s possible to argue that point but anyone familiar even with the basics of economic theory know that while there are some good working models, economics is hardly a “hard,” science, the ways physics, chemistry, or biology are; in fact, much of it remains theory (lower case “t”). This is why Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve Chairman at the time, was unable to see the lead up to the economic meltdown as it was happening in front of him (despite warnings from other economists and forecasters) – because the real-world data contradicted the theory of how it should have played out. The same goes with advertising – dominant economic theory asserts that consumers will seek information that will allow them to make the best purchase of a good/service of all the options presented; but advertising is a direct undermining of that information-seeking because it appeals not to a sense of understanding of the product but of feelings about a product upon which advertisement plays.

The answer may, ironically enough, be answered by Smith himself: self interest. Like advertising, if consumers had all the information they needed they would make the best purchase possible, or more than likely: none at all. This would make it hard to persuade a consumer into buying an inferior product or good (Remember: we live in an economic society who’s credo is “buyer beware”). In fact, it is likely consumers would consume less than they do because they would be informed of the fact that companies want them to buy products, even if they do not need them – this would definitely affect a nation conditioned to consume, and whose consumption constitutes 70% of its annual GDP. Similarly, if laborers in an economy were aware of just how important they were, it’d be less likely that businesses could exploit their labor so brazenly.

Does this sound cynical? Then I would remind the reader of the history of labor movements in this United States – there was a time when children worked; when adults worked to scrape by a meager living (and still do – most households fund their living with revolving debt, for example); when American immigrants were unabashedly and shamefully exploited (and still are – see: Mexicans); when working conditions were unsafe and often led to worker deaths; when the only weekend was a half-day on Sunday, and the work-day was 12 hours or more; when monopolies existed and the government had to break them apart. And let’s not forget the ultimate exploitation – that which gave America a head start as an economic powerhouse: slavery. The exploitation of labor is a part of American history, although, it is seldom discussed; and it continues to this day Another example: do major corporations outsource manufacturing jobs in the U.S. to foreign countries because they can’t turn a profit? or is it because they want to selfishly increase their profits as much as possible by paying foreign labor a fraction of what it takes to pay a U.S. worker living wages (a practice that Smith was opposed to)?

Whatever the explanation, it is no secret that Corporations are rapacious profit-seekers and that they disproportionately influence the markets (and the government that makes the laws that govern the rules of the market place). And, though, this is just one of many examples of the incongruity, it is clear that the U.S. version of “Capitalism” is not Adam Smith’s version. And this discrepancy is costing labor in the U.S. significantly.

This train of thought begs another question: if several major tenets of the original Capitalism are stripped away, is what remains still Capitalism? It reminds me of a question about identity that another professor asked class one day: “What is essential in a thing? What parts of the whole are necessary in order for the whole to still be considered that essential thing? For example: a table. If we remove one leg, is it still a table? If we remove, two? three? if we remove all four legs, is it still a table?”

Are there enough legs left of Smith’s philosophy in today’s Capitalism to be truly considered Capitalism? And what do we do about the mistreatment of the wealth of our nation? Let us labor together to discover the answers.

The Art of War

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Sun Tzu writes:

Those skilled in war cultivate the Tao and preserve the laws and are therefore able to formulate victorious policies.

To which Tu Mu adds:

The Tao is the way of humanity and justice; ‘laws’ are regulations and institutions. Those who excel in war first cultivate their own humanity and justice and maintain their laws and institutions. By these means they make their government invincible.

What if the public’s revulsion to the casualties incurred by U.S. forces (as well as allies and innocents) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other “theaters” in the long war isn’t a result of the casualties per se but the reason underlying those casualties? In other words, is it possible that the public is really upset that their fellow citizens are dying for reasons that aren’t entirely clear?

It seems that this may be the case. Looking back on the revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the public understood that death happens as a result and, though they didn’t want their citizens to die, they weren’t as upset by it as they have seemed over this current war.

If that is true, then governmental attempts to hide the death and destruction are misguided. Those officials who think it is the deaths themselves that upset the public instead of the cause for which they are dying are missing the point of the disaffection. Furthermore, that they do not address this real grievance illustrates either a lack of understanding of that difference (at best), or see it as a necessary deception required to cover up the real reason behind the war, which they are unwilling to address (at worst).

Many are aware that the invasion of Iraq was predicated on lies – this is indisputable given the plethora of evidence. The so-called intelligence failure wasn’t a failure on the part of intelligence analysts failing to show that Iraq had no WMDs, but that analysts were complicit in the lies certain ideologues were promoting; their integrity failed, not their ability. In terms of public support the war in Iraq was a failure – and Sun Tzu’s analysis allows us to understand why.

Furthermore, that we dehumanize our opponents and the killed/maimed civilians, referring to the latter as “collateral damage;” that we ignore international laws that have been set up over the decades to enshrine and ensure that certain universal ideals will be respected and protected, even in war; that we compromise deep-rooted principles and laws for a dubious security, and all while hiding it from us and lying to us about it when it initially comes to light – none of this suggests a country that cultivates humanity or justice, or one that maintains its laws and institutions. And perhaps this is why this “war” is so unpopular (and unwon); that people are upset about the surveillance state being set up behind their back; and that these government policies are not victorious in the eyes of the people.

This is not an apology for those criminals who committed acts of terrorism against the U.S., or those that commit these acts against others around the world – there is not justification for these acts. This is an entreaty for national self-reflection. Sun Tzu urges disciples of war to know yourself, lest you lose your war; but maybe he should have also said know yourself, lest you lose yourself in the war. Perhaps Nietzsche was right – maybe we’ve been battling monsters for so long that we have, ourselves, become a monster.

Why Am I Writing This?

The answer to the title question is multifaceted. I write this post because I am concerned with truth and I feel compelled to argue for its behalf. I also write because I can’t stop thinking about the topic of motivation(s). But mostly, I write this because I had an incredulous experience yesterday that has left me perplexed and I want to address it as well as the source of that incredulity.

My first day at a think tank internship was yesterday. During the course of editing a critique on new counterterrorism training guidelines it became evident that people still see this “War on Terror” as solely religiously motivated. There are still intelligent, American policy makers who completely discount the stated political motivations by Osama bin Laden (OBL) for 9/11. These individuals attribute the attack to a fundamental antagonism towards the West within Islam itself, and not as the complicated, multifaceted conflict that it is.

The objection I read in this report was that the so-called political motivations stated by OBL and his affiliates, and those Americans who cite them as the former’s rationale, are examples of flawed argumentation. It couldn’t possibly be because the U.S. has troops in Saudi Arabia; the million civilian deaths caused by the U.S. during the first Gulf War (most of them the result of economic sanctions after the war); and the one-sided U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In short, U.S. foreign policy cannot be the reason we were attacked. The rationale behind this line of reasoning, I have often heard, is that, “we have engaged in unpopular foreign policy in other countries and they don’t respond this way.” But is this line of reasoning really any less flawed?

Let’s imagine a playground. During recess, a bully goes around beating up kids and taking their lunch money. The first nine children take the beating and lose their money. However, the tenth child refuses to be pushed around and fights back, blackening the eye of the bully. The fight is interrupted and both children are sent to the principal’s office. This principal naturally asks the second child, “Why did you blacken the eye of your classmate?” To which, he responds, “Because he was trying to bully me and take my lunch money, like he did the other kids.”

This isn’t a difficult situation to understand; it makes sense and there’s a part of us that not only understands the second child’s motivations but also are proud of him for standing up for himself. Regardless, various U.S. officials discount this simple logic. For them, the second child couldn’t have beaten up the bully because none of the other nine children responded that way. No, instead it must be something else… and they conclude it must be this child’s religious background. Now, the geopolitical reality in which the world finds itself is infinitely more complex than the described scenario; however, the stated cause and effect of the aggressor in the scenario and of OBL and AQ are identical, and the U.S. ignores this at its own peril. Attributing speculative causes to the “real” motivation not only commits a number of formal logical fallacies but it commits another irresponsible and unreasonable action, one that will cost the U.S. in many ways. And it is simply disheartening that policy makers and other intelligent people still think this way.

Allegory of the Cave

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“… take the following parable of education and ignorance as a picture of the condition of our nature. Imagine mankind as dwelling in an underground cave with a long entrance open to the light across the whole width of the cave; in this they have been from childhood with necks and legs fettered, so they have to stay where they are. They cannot move their heads round because of the fetters, and they can only look forward, but light comes to them from fire burning behind them higher up at a distance. Between the fire and the prisoners is a road above their level, and along it imagine a low wall has been built, as a puppet showmen have screens in front of their people over which they work their puppets.”

“I see,” he said.

“See, then, bearers carrying along this wall all sorts of articles which they hold projecting above the wall, statues of men and other living things, made of stone or wood and all kinds of stuff, some of the bearers speaking and some silent, as you might expect.”

“What a remarkable image,” he said, “and what remarkable prisoners.”

“Just like ourselves,” I said. “For, first of all, tell me this: What do you think such people would have seen of themselves and each other except their own shadows, which the fire cast on the opposite wall of the cave?”

“I don’t see how they could see anything else,” said he, “if they were compelled to keep their heads unmoving all their lives!”

“Very well, what of the things being carried along? Would not this be the same?”

“Of course it would.”

“Suppose the prisoners were able to talk together, don’t you think that when they named the shadows which they saw passing they would believe they were naming things?”

“Necessarily.”

“Then if the prison had an echo from the opposite wall, whenever one of the passing bearers uttered a sound, would they not suppose that the passing shadow must be making the sound? Don’t you think so?”

“Indeed I do,” he said.

“If so,” said I, “such persons would certainly believe there were no realities except those shadows of handmade things.”

“So it must be,” said he.

“Now consider,” said I, “what their release would be like, and their cure from these fetters and their folly; let us imagine whether it might naturally be something like this. One might be released, and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round, and to walk and look towards the firelight; all this would hurt him, and he would be too much dazzled to see distinctly those things whose shadows he had seen before. What do you think he would say, if someone told him that what he saw before was foolery, but now he saw more rightly, being a bit nearer reality and turned towards what was a little more real? What if he were shown each of the passing things, and compelled by questions to answer what each one was? Don’t you think he would be puzzled, and believe what he saw before was more true than what was shown to him now?”

“Far more,” he said.

“Then suppose he were compelled to look towards the real light, it would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning them away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him.”

“Just so,” said he.

“Suppose, now,” said I, “that someone should drag him thence by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun, would he not be distressed and furious at being dragged; and when he came into the light, the brilliance would fill his eyes and he would not be able to see even one of the things now called real?

“That he would not,” said he, “all of the sudden.”

“He would have to get used to it, surely, I think, if he is to see the things above. First he would most easily look at shadows, after that images of mankind and the rest in water, lastly the things themselves. After this he would find it easier to survey by night the heavens themselves and all that is in them, gazing at the light of the stars and moon, rather than by day the sun and the sun’s light.”

“Of course.”

“Last of all, I suppose, the sun; he could look on the sun itself by itself in its own place, and see what it is like, not reflections of it in water or as it appears in some alien setting.”

“Necessarily,” said he.

“And only after all this he might reason about it, how this is he who provides seasons and years, and is set over all there is in the visible region, and he is in a manner the cause of all things which they saw.”

“Yes, it is clear,” said he, “that after all that, he would come to this last.”

“Very good. Let him be reminded of his first habitations, and what was wisdom in that place, and of his fellow-prisoners there; don’t you think he would bless himself for the change, and pity them?”

“Yes, indeed.”

“And if there were honours and praises among them and prizes for the one who saw passing things most sharply and remembered best which of them used to come before and which after and which together, and from these was best able to prophesy accordingly what was going to come — do you believe he would set his desire on that, and envy those who were honoured men or potentates among them? Would he not feel as Homer says, and heartily desire rather to be serf of some landless man on earth and to endure anything in the world, rather than to opine as they did and to live in that way?”

“Yes, indeed,” said he, “he would rather accept anything than live like that.”

“Then again,” I said, “just consider; if such a one should go down again and sit on his old seat, would he not get his eyes full of darkness coming in suddenly out of the sun?”

“Very much so,” said he.

“And if he should have to compete with those who had been always prisoners, by laying down the law about those shadows while he was blinking before his eyes were settled down — and it would take a good long time to get used to things — wouldn’t they all laugh at him and say he had spoiled his eyesight by going up there, and it was not worth-while so much as to try to go up? And would they not kill anyone who tried to release them and take them up, if they could somehow lay hands on him and kill him?”

“That they would!” said he.

“Then we must apply this image, my dear Glaucon,” said I, “to all we have been saying. The world of our sight is like the habitation in prison, the firelight there to the sunlight here, the ascent and the view of the upper world is the rising of the soul into the world of mind; put it so and you will not be far from my own surmise, since that is what you want to hear; but God knows if it is really true. At least, what appears to me is, that in the world of the known, last of all, is the idea of the good, and with what toil to be seen! And seen, this must inferred to be the cause of all right and beautiful things for all, which gives birth to light and the king of light in the world of sight, and, in the world of the mind, herself the queen which produces truth and reason; and she must be seen by one who is to act with reason publicly and privately.”

“I believe as you do,” he said, “in so far as I am able.”

“Then believe also, as I do,” said I, “and do not be surprised, that those who come thither are not willing to have part in the affairs of men, but their souls ever strive to remain above; for that surely may be expected if our parable fits the case.”

“Quite so,” he said.

“Well then,” said I, “do you think it surprising if one leaving divine contemplations and passing to the evils of men is awkward and appears to be a great fool, while he is still blinking — not yet accustomed to the darkness around him, but compelled to struggle in law courts or elsewhere about the shadows of justice, or the images which make the shadows, and to quarrel about notions of justice in those who have never seen justice itself?”

“Not surprising at all,” said he.

“But any man of sense,” said I, “would remember that the eyes are doubly confused from two different causes, both in passing from light to darkness and from darkness to light; and believing that the same things happen with regard to the soul also, whenever he sees a soul confused and unable to discern anything he would not just laugh carelessly; he would examine whether it had come out of a more brilliant life, and if it were darkened by the strangeness; or whether it had come out of greater ignorance into a more brilliant light, and if it were dazzled with the brighter illumination. Then only would he congratulate the one soul upon its happy experience and way of life, and pity the other; but if he must laugh, his laugh would be a less downright laugh than his laughter at the soul which came out of the light above.”

“That is fairly put,” said he.