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Posts Tagged ‘marxism’

Hi!  It’s me, Trivium, posting for the first time in a long while.  I tried doing the song lyrics analysis thing here last year for a while and it was fun, but I know that mostly why people still come here is for the trenchant, often economical analysis of various topics that matter.

I’ve been wanting to do something on this for a while, since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded a year or two ago, but well, a) it seems like blogs have moved on a bit, and are now a bit 2008, and b) time, time time, which they are attempting to squeeze out of even professors now more than ever.  I am resisting, but one can only resist one’s employer so much and still stay in the good books.  Basically as my professional life has taken off, it’s meant so much less mental energy for blog posts.  Today in fact, I should be organizing a conference and writing the intro to my latest edited volume, but…

So here’s a topic which interests me, the long-term economic historian, so much.  And where I think I have a genuinely useful voice to add to the din, and perhaps help people to get over their own bigotry and prejudices, and get more into actually solving today’s most serious problems.

Ok, so the world has gone a bit crazy over ‘identity politics’ in the last year or so.  This is a natural development of what has been going on in intellectual circles since about 1990, and in some ways, decades before that.  It is the trend where identifiable minorities become the darling hero of progressives.  So basically for progressives the more minority you are, the better.  So if you’re gay, great:  if you’re a gay pirate, better, if you’re a substance-abusing, sadomasochistic, gay pirate, even better~!  I know a professor who got a coveted tenure job writing about these:  no joke.  And in progressive circles, i.e., around liberal arts departments, one can hardly get a job now unless one is a minority, or ‘at least’ a woman:  a recent university of chicago ad said:  we want 3 things from candidates:  a list of publications, a list of teaching qualifications, and a statement of how you have contributed to campus diversity in the past.  Wow.  And yet, they tell you if you ask, that there is no ‘bias’ towards minority or women candidates.  In fact, while women and minority progressives harp on about how they can’t get equal pay etc., in academia, the pendulum has demonstrably turned against white male new hires, at least.  I know the old boy network is still white male, in many cases, but for new hires, you’re up shit’s creek without a paddle if you’re a white dude, who happens still to be the majority of applicants in topics like say, European philosophy.  But if you’re black and do European history or literature, you have 10 job offers in one year, while if you’re white with a much better CV of publications, you have 1 offer in 10 years if you’re lucky.  Now I exaggerate a bit, but I’ve been around and seen a lot, and this is the clear trend in academic hires.

Fine.  My point is that the conservative movement does have a bit of real ammunition, when they argue that things have moved perhaps a bit towards the hysterical regarding ‘the nightmare it is to be black in America today’ as a recent slate article about a movie about black people put it.  It assumes that at every moment, to be black in the US right now is to inhabit a special type of torture.  And I’ve been following the police brutality thing:  I am the very first to admit please note, that there are massive problems with police racism and that US cops in general are way way too aggressive:  (a lot of this has to do with the fact that guns are legal and so they are always facing death:  this might get people more on edge.) (more…)

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Because the wealthy have been in power since the beginning of civilization, they have been very keen to stigmatize poverty as an evil to be cured, but never wealth.

In the Enlightenment, people began to realize that wealth, like poverty, was an evil to be cured; Marx and Engels took over this banner, and unfortunately all talk of being against extreme wealth ended up being powerfully associated with Marxism/Communism/Socialism.

But, now, we’re finally moving into a post-Marxist society, where we can once again, after 100 years or more of Marxism/Communism, begin to talk about extreme wealth, or more specifically extreme disparities of wealth, as a social evil which should ideally be cured.

Note there is also a distinction between theory and practice:  de facto, democracies tolerate extreme wealth only because we have not yet come up with a social system which can create wealth for the many which does not also have the (unfortunate) side effect of creating extreme wealth for a few.  Really, if we could create a society with more equality, democracies would do that, because the many will inherently be jealous of the few, if they realized that there was no good reason to have wealth.  As it is, even the most learned economists realize that we need extreme wealth in order to have entrepreneurialism, innovation, incentives, etc, and that our economy can’t do well without these things.  So there is no push, at the pundit and elite level, to do away with extreme wealth, even in France, which is one of the more anti-wealth societies yet created.  (more…)

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So it’s an ongoing project here at the Platonist, to come up with the ground rules for what would ideally become a book, setting out a Grand Unified Theory (if we may), of how to create an ideal economy, politics, and society.  This is essentially an update of Plato’s Republic, moving beyond earlier utopian or dystopian literature and taking into account what we’ve learned in the last few decades, since advances in the social sciences have been tremendous, and very inspiring if you know where to look.  This is especially true  in our advances in the theory of egalitarianism, and the discursive elements of this, since Foucault.  And of course our ‘system’ has to move beyond being a system, since one thing we’ve learned is that imposing systems doesn’t at all work.  What we would suggest in this rewriting of the Republic, would be a series of concrete policies that would be designed to maximize happiness, through existing democratic and legal institutions, and maximize opportunity, for those who would want it, without imposing anything on anyone (since this would never be better than our current system–freedom is key).  In essence, we’d be continuing the current and ongoing explorations in the social sciences, whose goal, we would argue, is to find ways to help us to live better.  To explain what has worked, and why, and what hasn’t, and why, with the aim of furnishing us with wisdom to make the right choices, ones that are of course naturally obvious.  For example, it’s quite obvious now that democracy works better than any true monarchy or one-man rule, for a whole host of reasons.  This was not so obvious 300 years ago.  This is the sort of thing, only using newer discoveries, that we are aiming to highlight here.  Economics, in particular, is a rich field for this, since  the marxist-capitalist conflict of the 20th century arguably blinded most economic thinkers by turning them into partisans, instead of scientists.  Economics has been dominated too much by polemics, and not enough with the business of maximizing happiness and opportunity.  It is still in the hands of the anti-marxist, pro plutocratic elite, and we need to reclaim economics from them –  – real economics, scientific university economics.  The book ‘prosperity without growth’ is part of this new trend.  It is happening.

At any rate, one of the fundamental stumbling blocks to any would-be set of principles for improving the way things work (since surely there are quite a few problems we have yet to address as well as we could if only we worked it through) is the fact that we’re still pretty much hardwired for hierarchy as I have said in another post – i.e., we still carry strong tendencies to act according to pack and troop principles, which got us through our millions of years living as beasts.  These instincts aren’t however often so great for creating an egalitarian, maximum-opportunity society.  Psychologists and anthropologists have now identified a lot of these, but let’s spell them out here, so that we can get them out in the open, and grapple with them as we discuss and shape our economic and political wish list.

1)  The desire to be cool.  This used to be called ‘honor.’   It’s probably our first instinct, once we move beyond toddlerhood, and stays with us until senility.  You want to have the people immediately around you like you, and act positively towards you.  This is because in primate troop society, this meant you were  ‘alpha.’  Everyone fawns over you, does stuff for you, laughs at your jokes.  This translates into personal power.  The Fonz snaps his fingers, and people do stuff for him.  (Jeff Winger in “Community” being an updated version of the same).

2)  The desire to be sexy.   (more…)

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I am certainly opposed to the harsher aspects of “capitalism,” and I am all for worker’s rights.  I believe that people have a fundamental right to dignity and happiness.  Remember “the pursuit of happiness?”  And I believe that in the last 15 years, the people that I call the ‘MBA efficiency people’ have systematically crushed the middle-class out of many occupations.  Building a middle-class occupation is a choice.  Occupational parameters, people have yet to realize, are basically legislated by the government.  Doctors make a lot not because they are worth it, but because they have always had a monopoly of a certain type of power and prestige, which has enabled them to win legislation which protects their incomes (tho HMOs have been eating steadily at this).  Lawyers ditto.  If their occupation were totally opened up to the “free market”, there would soon be so many people competing for their jobs, that law students would be starving.  (Some claim they are, but generally, still, they aren’t.  The fact that the “bar” keeps many people out, in effect creates a monopoly which allows a large number of lawyers to maintain higher-than-basic lifestyles).

Marx was right to a degree:  if there were no laws legislating otherwise, everyone would soon be earning an absolute minimum starvation wage.  The only reason that employers have to pay you something, is so that you can barely survive and reproduce enough so that you and your children will keep working for them.  In the end, that’s the only economic argument there is for wages… or is there?  There is also the fact, discovered in the 20th century US, well after Marx’s day, that the capitalists also have to pay someone enough money so that they can buy luxury and other consumer goods.  This keeps the economy flowing.  So, businesses used to realize that they have a vested interest in keeping some people middle class, so that they can keep making money – after all, if you just pay people starvation wages, they can’t buy the stuff you make.  So, the US model was to keep people in enough money, pay them just enough, that they can keep buying stuff.  It used to be, that this meant that many jobs were kept “middle class” i.e., you worked a 40 hour work week, and you made 2, 3, or 4 times the poverty wage rate, and you got to enjoy your white picket house.  Now, you can get some jobs like that, but they work you 80 hours, due to “efficiency creep,” which in the 90s realized that there was no effective labour law left to keep this from happening. (more…)

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By this time, I think most of us know that the answer to this is a mix of both yes and no.   The question of how, and why, is the issue of primary interest.  There are still a few of us who hold the older liberal view that corporations are always evil, and there are quite a few of us, the vast majority in fact, who hold the standard conservative view that corporations are “not evil.”  They hold this latter view, of course, because the corporations in question ultimately control so much of the money and power in our global society, that they influence the culture in their favour.  Since the majority of humans are “hardwired for hierarchy,” (see my post on this topic) and thus to be followers, it has always followed that the majority opinion has tended to favour whoever is in power:  whether it’s the king, the dictator, the emperor, the president, or the corporate CEO, humans tend to kow tow to the “big man.”  But is this even the corporations’ fault?  This is part of what we need to examine.

Let’s start by debunking the first myth, that corporations are “evil.”  What does this mean?  Visitors to this site often leave comments to the effect that corporations are greedy and grasping and manipulative.  Which in the aggregate is quite true, and in many specific cases is more than quite true.  Big tobacco, big oil, paint companies (who for decades hid scientific evidence that lead causes brain damage), and pretty much any other wealthy, hierarchical vested interest have long been happy to forsake the common good in pursuit of their own personal gain.  But again, who do we blame for this?  Can we blame “The corporation?” (more…)

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Here’s the link to the guardian’s coverage of China’s stymieing of the Copenhagen summit.  We had all been focused on the oil petrosaurs in the Republican camp.  When George W was replaced by Obama, it was like the clouds parted, and suddenly… there was another big wall of clouds.  China and the American republicans, between them, then, are the single biggest threat to the planet – ensuring that there is a real danger that the average temperature of the earth will go above 2 degrees C (that is, over 4 degrees F) over the 1990s average (let alone the preindustrial average, which was .7 degrees C colder than the 1990s average).  But for a little while here, we have a window, when the republicans’ power is temporarily reduced, and there is a chance that we can get something serious done.  That is, were China not the enormous problem that it will undoubtedly continue to be.  Why is China such a problem?  Well… in some ways the answer is obvious:  it’s a totalitarian state.  But how, exactly does this work?  The analogy with Austria-Hungary, which together with the Czarist Russian empire was the main instigator of World War I, is striking…

Everyone knows something about World War II, or at least, we think we do, largely because it was the first major war in which the movie camera was developed to the extent that footage from it is widely available.  And, of course, the Nazis were so wondefully, resolutely evil, so as to make great bad guys; and, let us not forget, also so European, that portraying them as badguys does not set off any of our modern political correctness-o-meters (and while I agree with the ideas in principle, as a means to correct centuries-old bias vs. non-Europeans–it’s important to remember that the Germans are getting the rap for being the world’s worst badguys, when, in fact, many Asian and African regimes, and some South American ones, have been just as evil in terms of people killed per capita, or in the brutality of the murdering.  Why don’t we see extensive footage every week on how evil the Cambodians were under Pol Pot, or how brutal the Japanese were to the Chinese? (more…)

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I would now like to point the finger at the economics establishment, and suggest that economists have almost entirely retreated from what should be the main purpose of their field, which should be to ask: 

How can we make it so that everyone has maximum access to maximum resources?

Instead, economists have bent over backwards to avoid this question.  Instead, they have devoted themselves wholeheartedly to maximizing world economic output, with very little regard to how this wealth is distributed, and even less regard to how this might impact the sustainability of the environment, and thus of life itself.  Why is that? (more…)

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