Defining Home 2

Something that has struck me over the course of the global economic crisis is the overlap between groups on the “far- left” best personified internationally by the Occupy Movement, and, at least in the United States, the “far-right” whose libertarian aspirations has been best encapsulated by Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.

In my view of things, both the Occupy Movement and Ron Paul libertarians share a great many things in common. Both represent a systematic critique of the current economic and political order along with a strong desire to change that order. This sharing of basic assumptions by those on opposite ends of the political spectrum is not entirely new. In the early part of the 20th century the Communists and Nazis both offered systematic critiques of the then current order. What gives me hope today is that both the Occupy Movement and libertarians, unlike the Communist and Nazis, set themselves firmly against the coercive apparatus of the state both in its international and domestic manifestations.

The Occupy Movement is an anti-war movement (and war is now the constant condition in which our society exists)  in that it seeks to shed light upon and undermine the current practice of real politik and the injustice of American empire. The libertarians want, quite literally, to bring all of the boys home, that is to unwind the American empire and its globe straddling military apparatus that has been in existence since the Second World War.  Members of both movements hold deep respect for the dissident Julian Assange, and are deeply troubled by the increase of the state’s powers of covert surveillance and control.

Both movements seek an end to the collusion of finance and governments and the cronyism found in the relationship between the state and corporations. They both hold that the state should have little, if anything to do with the choices of individuals, and oppose use of the coercive powers of the state i.e. imprisonment to punish people for those choices, such as drug use.

The members of both movements, also, tend to be young, no doubt a reflection of the fact that this crisis has been particularly hard on the youngest members of society many of whose aspirations for the future have been clouded or destroyed by the crisis.  However, in this sad fact also lies my hope. For, if these young people, unlike the generation of the 1960s that abandoned their critique of the system for what was largely a return to the status quo, can hold firm to their principles then they might eventually bring to the system deep and truly systematic change.

In that vein, I hope the conversation below between two young and articulate voices from both sides of the political spectrum represents, in its very small way, the beginning of a philosophical discussion that rises above the sophistry of the current regime.

The discussion was sparked by a prior post Defining Home after which I tried to bring these two deep thinking bloggers into discussion (the dialogue below in its original form can be found in the comments section there).  On the surface the two could not be more different. Giulio Amerigo Caperchi is an Italian-American living in Italy who writes the excellent blog Geaneology of Consent  which looks at current events from the perspective of the political theory and represents an excellent window into the types of ideas that underlie the Occupy Movement. Henry Moore is a fervent Ron Paul supporter hailing from Yellowstone country, and a thoughtful voice for the sentiments of libertarians who writes for the blog http://keimh3regpeh2umeg.wordpress.com/.

The discussion below lays out the differing views of the two sides on the nature of and our relationship to the free market. This is the chasm that currently separates the Occupy Movement from libertarians, and, in my understanding only when this chasm is bridged will we really have a real possibility of any systematic reform of the crumbling world of the early 21st century.

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Giulio:

One of the key assumptions running through classical liberalism and neo-liberal theory (from Adam Smith, through Hayek, up to Milton Friedman) is that the market is the only place where true, spontaneous and un-biased information may be witnessed and analysed. The market, for these economists, is a site where individuals freely interact (“trade, truck and barter” as Adam Smith said) unhindered and on a completely voluntary basis. As such it is the only place where “real” human behaviour is expressed: “reality” thus occurs in the marketplace. The market is conceived as a neutral ground devoid of ideology and political influence.

This is a tremendous assumption with far-reaching consequences. And, more importantly, it is a key ideological manoeuvre. What neo-liberals like to claim is that seeing that they derive their social policies from feedback accruing from the “neutral” free market, they are ideologically un-biased. They contrast themselves to “big-government central planning” and socialism which apply one-size-fits-all social policy to intrinsically diverse populations. The crucial point is, however, that basing social policy on the utopian idea of perfectly working, self-regulating and unbiased free markets is itself a sublimely ideological assumption. The neo-liberal free-market is a utopia as much as the communist classless society is. In this respect forcing societies to conform to the rules of the free-market is itself a one-size-fits-all policy.(Joseph Stiglitz is probably the most important economist which shows that markets are VERY imperfect and VERY biased).

This is not to say that one should be completely relativist and refuse the idea that there is nowhere that one may garner social feedback with which to inform policy. But the deconstruction of what experts and technicians call “reality”, “truth”, and “natural law” is always necessary to reveal the ideological bias ALWAYS present in any idea, concept or science.

I therefore totally agree (Rick) with your powerfully stated conclusions, namely, that there is the need for constant discussion and deliberation on these “assumptions” which inform our private and public lives. The democratization of these assumptions is critically needed to reveal their ideological underpinnings and their nature as instruments (sometimes) of domination. That is why epistemological sovereignty (mostly at the local level of course) is a key instrument of resistance and a safeguard against the excesses of what experts (be they in Washington, in a university or on Wall Street) call “truth”.

Henry:

Giulio,

To me “neoliberal” is a loaded word. One that I am not ashamed to cast about myself, particularly for “Supply Siders” and other assorted Friedmanites. I do not put myself in that camp, though as an Austrian School lay-enthusiast, I see some common ground, though not as much as I would otherwise like.

I don’t know much about what neo-liberals think in terms of whether “the market is the only place where true spontaneous and un-biased information may be witnessed and analyzed.” I guess it really comes down to how you define “market”. Markets in the purely economic sense? Or markets in the more abstract sense?

If the former, and if your claim is correct, I would say that neo-liberals are quite narrow minded. If the latter, I would tend to agree with the neo-liberals. If this more abstract, conceptual marketplace, essentially an (I am loathe to use the word) aggregation of human action is indeed the only place to witness spontaneous and unbiased information, it is precisely because of how broad an idea it is. This is where the Austrian School often faces the most criticism: the theory that all human action can be deduced using the same (or superficially dissimilar) axioms as purely economic action.

So basically, ALL human action, spontaneous or otherwise is seen as part and parcel of the marketplace (which could, in effect really be an infinite amount of smaller marketplaces). Given this axiom, it is impossible for human action to exist outside of the marketplace, by definition. Based on this, the market would be the only place to witness spontaneous information.

And then there is the question of bias. Bias exists in the market. Whether this is desirable or not depends entirely on the human actors themselves. This includes those acting spontaneously and those acting more deliberately. Those acting deliberately (such as the state, regulators, corporations) are able to cause undesirable bias by distorting the market. They cannot do this without committing, perpetuating, or taking advantage of some form of coercion, explicit or implicit. At which point the FREE part of the Free Market goes out the window.

Under ideal circumstances, which may not even be attainable on a large scale, biases that occur are simply a reflection of the decisions of market actors. I fail to see the problem. If there is good, good. If there is bad, the fault is in the actors, not the system. I don’t think most libertarians believe in the perfectibility of the human condition, which to me is the defining characteristic of a utopian ideology. And certainly most would not suggest that the Free Market alone could accomplish this. Most hold that the Free Market, whether it might be considered to have inherent flaws or not, at least is the best allocator of resources and cause of economic growth. But the main reason some prefer the Free Market has little to do with how effective it is in these areas, but instead the fact that it is the most consistent with what are seen as natural rights. Some, myself included, would still advocate the Free Market even if it was not the “best” system for allocating resources and spurring growth. It is not the practical implications that are our chief concern. It is the ethical ones.

I agree that Markets are not, as you say, “perfectly working, self-regulating and unbiased”. I do hold, however that Markets are the best of all possibilities, but this is not perfection. That markets self-regulate to a point, which happens to be the same point at which the word FREE goes out the window. That bias is not undesirable, per se.

I am sure that you and I agree more than we would disagree on many an issue, this one included. It is not my intent to argue, though I am happy to engage in discussion. I am only here to express another point of view for the benefit of this blog’s readers and to, in someone else’s words, engage in a civil exchange of ideas between bloggers.


Giulio:

Hi Henry,

Thank you for your wonderful and very articulate response. You are indeed right, we do agree on many respects.

Essentially, what I am arguing for, and the chief reason I criticize utopian strands of free-market ideology, is for the separation of the the political sphere from the economic, and the refusal of subsuming politics and the public sphere to economic imperatives.

I do not agree with the fundamental neoliberal axiom that all human action may be explained in terms of rational individuals freely pursuing their interests. Coming from a more communitarian perspective (think Michael Sandel for example), there are certain types of behaviour that cannot be rationalized through market motivations. Patriotism and sacrifice, for example, elude the idea of rational interest-motivated behaviour. The virtues informing classical citizenship, also, are not informed by market behaviour but by respect and allegiance to the public sphere and to the common good of the “demos”.

More importantly, something like the social contract and the erection of democratic a order are not a spontaneous acts arising from the state of nature (as some neo-liberals and libertarians have it -think Nozick), but a conscious political effort of collective human agency.

On the question of bias, we thoroughly agree: very few believe in the infallibility of human behaviour and that there won’t always be bias/asymmetries/coercion in our societies. I also agree that it is not inherently the fault of the free market. However, I do think that a society informed by the rationale of laissez faire is more inclined to exacerbate such power imbalances that we naturally find in the human condition.

Finally, I am not arguing against the free market per se. But I am arguing that in CERTAIN domains the free market is NOT best suited to allocate resources or inform behaviour. For example (and here comes my European bias) healthcare, basic public transportation, the military, certain infrastructure, water provision, education, and the right to food are services and issues so essential to the unity and stability of the modern nation state that they cannot be exposed to the imbalances/biases/asymmetries inherent in the free market. In addition, I do not think that the free market is always most consistent with regimes ensuring natural rights. The ethical implications of natural rights, for me, do not arise spontaneously from a system of free-markets but from a united and concerted discussion within democracies on which ethical paradigm(s) best applies to particular contexts.

 

In conclusion, I agree with your final remarks saying that markets are not perfect but that they are better than many other catastrophic politico-economic systems witnessed throughout history. But we cannot remain blind to the economic and financial catastrophe caused by unbridled and corrupt free markets (with governments thoroughly compliant of course) unfolding before our very eyes. Yes to free markets – but constant vigilance of its inherent excesses (as in all things).

I therefore think that we must have a public discussion on WHERE markets are best suited to allocate resources and promote growth/innovation/creativity, and where they are not. While I am not a fan of government regulation (and this is my libertarian side coming out), prudential limits and legislative boundaries are essential to our stability as a nation and as a united people. Therefore, as Rick says in his post, we should have a public discussion on whether the neoliberal axiom we have discussed earlier should in fact inform societal and governmental behaviour.

Many thanks for taking the time to answer my points and engage in this fruitful discussion. Indeed this is what democratic deliberation is all about. I really do think we don’t disagree that much and that we both favour a democracy and an economic order where liberty is indeed maximised.

 

Rick:

Henry,

What I am curious about is this: I know from reading your blog that you are strongly anti-interventionist in terms of the government trying to manage the economy, and hold that many of the large-scale economic crises we have experienced were brought about by government interference in the market.

But do you think this always the case? Are markets, in your view, not so much perfect as impervious to catastrophic failure insofar as they are not subject to government distortions? Has the government no or only a minimum role in cushioning the public from such crises in your understanding?

Some further questions: Do you not hold the view that what are termed neo-liberal policies have the consequence of exacerbating sharp economic inequality? If you do believe neo-liberal policies can result in rising inequality why is this inequality not a danger to the survival of the market based society you wish to promote? At some point, it seems to me, some level of equality is necessary for the survival of the market itself. Isn’t it in a sense true that this is what natural property rights are meant to protect? Wouldn’t the right to hold property contradict itself in a society where only a tiny minority actually held property?


Henry:

Rick,

Please understand that I approach Free Markets from a Libertarian position, rather than an Egalitarian one. That is, from a love of liberty (which is simply the result of others’ duty to not aggress), regardless of its consequences, rather than a love of equality (which has many forms, some of which seem not to be compatible with others, and some which may be incompatible with liberty). Having said that, libertarianism and egalitarianism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there is a “leftist” school of thought that emphasizes both. The left-libertarians, particularly Market Anarchists argue, pragmatically, that markets are best because they lead to equality and social justice, that monopolies rarely come into existence, and that when they do, it really is because they are the best and most efficient at what they do, rather than because their cronies did them a favor. To them, it is regulations that truly cause monopolies, rather than protect against them.

More right-leaning anarchists and libertarians (such as myself) would tend to agree, but with the caveat that even if markets did lead to inequality they are still better because they do not violate the non-aggression axiom. However, my heart does bleed more than others I could name.

Wikipedia says, “Neoliberalism is an ideology based on the advocacy of economic liberalizations, free trade, and open markets. Neoliberalism supports privatization of state-owned enterprises, deregulation of markets, and promotion of the private sector’s role in society. In the 1980s, much of neoliberal theory was incorporated into mainstream economics.”

Looking at the first sentence, it would seem that the libertarian groups I mentioned above all fit neatly into this camp. But neoliberalism, especially as it has been incorporated into mainstream economics does not seem to have much common ground, apart from a few general principles, with the more fringe (anarchists, deontological minarchists) elements of Free Market advocates.

First, Neoliberalism tends to accept things the way they are, even while advocating for a change of hands, from the public sector to the private sector. If there is already a monopoly, regardless of how it got there, so long as it is not a public entity (on paper), all is well. That is their take on economic liberalization. Rather than lead to inequality, this enshrines inequality that already exists.

Second, free trade to a Neoliberal, is not free at all, it is managed, often heavily-managed trade and consistent with the ideas of a state-corporate partnership that resembles a “benign” fascism, i.e., crony capitalism, and entangling alliances. That is not to say that one form of managed trade isn’t better than another form, but to call either free trade is a mockery.


Third, the concept of an open market is not the same as that of a free market. A free market is an open market that is always subject to market forces, and in that sense they are the same.

But an open market could in theory be a part of any economic system so long as none (perhaps meeting certain requirements like competency, liquidity, and/or competitiveness, perhaps not) are denied the right to enter that market as a merchant. Also, the otherwise laudable idea that all markets should be open markets leads to the more contemptible idea that “closed” markets should be forced open. This can amount to forced trade, or at the very least trade that favors one party over the other. Another variant of legal plunder.

Fourth, privatization of state-owned enterprises, may be all well and good for things such as railroads and communications and resources, but in the case of an entity that should not exist in the first place (Federal Reserve System, Federal National Mortgage Association, Federal Home Loan Mortgage Association, to name a few), privatization is just another road of economic fascism.

And finally, deregulation can mean any number of things. It can mean deregulation of certain entities or industries and not others, which is picking winners and losers. It can also mean the removal of regulations that were in place to paper over the problems caused by other regulations, or to remove the original regulations and leave the ones that only came about as a result of the original ones, when this may be a considerably worse thing to do than to just leave them all or remove them all. This sort of occurrence is fodder for the mainstream media which can then claim that deregulation is causing economic mischief and miscalculation.

So Neoliberalism, as practiced, does seem to promote inequality. Not a gradual inequality emanating from true competition and market forces, but an already present inequality solidified and then worsened in the process of so called “liberalization.”

Inequality such as this is indeed a danger. Partly because the sheer scope of it may squeeze out competition, thus harming potential competitors and consumers, and partly because it was brought about through coercion.

Some level of equality (though I am not sure how one would measure it) may be necessary to the progression of a market based system. If different players do not at least have similar chances, the one with the best chances will necessarily end up on the top. By the same token, if their chances are roughly equal, they can compete and keep the others from crowding them out. Even so, it is very hard to maintain front runner status, even with a huge head start (in terms of resources or capital), without being artificially propped up. There will always be those smaller (unequal) entities that are just able to do things more efficiently, provided the larger entity does not have some regulatory body fixing prices in its favor, which is just one example of being artificially propped up.

Can markets have serious downturns or crashes without large scale government intervention? The answer is yes. But something (the market, to me, is not a “something”, but rather the absence of “something”, it is negative, not positive) still must be the cause. Put in place of government intervention either wide-scale fraud or groupthink. I see no reason why these wouldn’t cause problems. But there are several differences between these things and government intervention.

Whereas the failures of government intervention can be used to excuse even more of it, when fraud or groupthink occur, because they are not thought to have the same irreproachable nature as the state, they are more readily dealt with. A downturn caused by government just leads to more such intervention and more problems. Look at the dot-com boom and bust. The government’s and the Fed’s policies resulting from it led to our current housing boom-bust, and those same policies in reaction to that are now leading to a sovereign debt boom and soon to be bust. But con artists and highly speculative fads, because they do not have power over whole jurisdictions simply cannot create as big of problems. And because they are not quite so sacrosanct as the state, they will be discovered, understood, and dealt with, and will have no chance of using their own blunders to save or perpetuate themselves.

In the case of fraud, there should be laws protecting against it, but they should be defensive in nature rather than aggressive. They should not forbid every single action that could, in theory become fraudulent, as they would tend to weed out perfectly safe and moral economic actions. And in the case of irrational or risky manias, no law can protect against these. There are too many variables. Should the Dutch government have banned tulips or the cultivation of tulips or any activity related to tulips even if it had known tulipomania would lead to a bust? But even in that example, the monetary environment was distorted by debasement of the currency. Crooks and speculators (who, unlike the former, serve a valuable purpose in the market) will always exist and always be problematic, but when they are enabled with regulations protecting them from bankruptcy and granting them monopolistic privilege; or with an elastic currency encouraging their risk-taking and misallocation of resources, then doesn’t the blame fall on the enablers as well?

That the government should cushion the blows of its own making is just another way it can get its foot in the door and create more distortions. I do not think the government should have the role in bailing out industries, especially when the time is coming when the government will be the one that is in need of a handout. I am a little less inclined to criticize welfare programs for their economic effects (which, as with a bailout or stimulus, are negative), as much as for their lack of necessity. I don’t see why charity and initiative (as opposed to just one, which may be insufficient) can’t more than replace welfare programs, especially in relatively normal economic times. During a crisis, drastic measures may be more necessary, but only because of how dependent some have become during more stable conditions.

I apologize for being so long- winded in answering your questions. When I really thought about them, they were much harder to answer than I thought they would be. To be honest, I wish I could say even more, but for both our sake I will leave things as they are. I also apologize for not answering things in the order you asked them and for stringing out some of my sentences.

Rick:

Giulio,

What I am curious about is this:

I know from reading your blog that you are especially interested in finding alternatives to the current economic and social order which you find to be dominated by corporate interests which use the tools of the state for their own ends and suppress what might be called “forms of living” that emerge spontaneously and organically from the people. I am thinking here of things like peasant movements and organic farming. Knowledge, in your view, is often an instrument of power.

My questions are, though you reject the idea Henry promotes that property rights are the basis of natural rights: Is there any natural limit to the power of the state acting as an instrument of the people to demand use or regulation of the property held by individuals? If yes, what limits do you think these might be? If no, is how is this not a kind of tyranny of the public, and why will it not give rise to the same sorts of injustices and epistemological imperialism you see now originating from the free market only now from a different set of players- bureaucrats, democratic factions, ethnic groups etc?


Giulio:

I thoroughly believe that there is absolutely no natural limit to what the state’s power can be used for. Be it guided by private, ethnic, religious or public interests, the modern state remains fundamentally a coercive apparatus with absolute sovereignty over its territory and citizens (in its classical Weberian definition). If an egalitarian-minded political movement claiming to represent “the people” were to take power tomorrow morning, there would be no internal or “natural” principle limiting its power: it would most probably coercively redistribute the hard-earned property of the well-off and may very well impose its own epistemological imperialism. History is rife with such occurrences.

My central point, however, is that principles of limitation of public and private power do in fact exist. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, along with most of modern legal orders clearly limit the power first and foremost of the state (these were, after all, documents enshrining principles defending the private citizen from arbitrary power of centralized monarchies). In addition, most of the greatest minds of the enlightenment (both liberal and egalitarian) such as Montesquieu, Locke, Rousseau, along with practically all of the American Founding Fathers saw the separation of government’s powers as central to the architecture of any democratic nation.

So the first effective limits to state power come into existence with the birth of the modern democracy. We may safely state that the aforementioned “fathers” of liberal democracies were primarily concerned with the state NOT falling into corrupt hands (be them egalitarian or private-minded). Madison’s famous essays in the Federalist Papers are a prime example of this.

The limitations to state power are therefore, in my personal opinion, not “natural” limits based on axioms of non-aggression or conceptualizations of personal and property rights as libertarians have it. Rather, they are principles born out of historical struggle and resistance against various forms of oppression (in the enlightenment it was against absolutism and aristocracy). These principles may be “self-evident” and “universal”, but they do not exist in a void: if government were to retreat to nothingness tomorrow morning we would not in fact be left with our inviolable personal liberty. Liberty, as French philosopher Foucault once said, is relational: it exists solely in virtue of its mutual recognition.

This act of recognition is thoroughly a positive act, as it is born out of political struggle and out of democratic deliberation. Indeed, the recognition of rights to one another is the basis of a democratic society, of the social contract and is the very “stuff” of democracy. Thus, any limitation to the power of the state, for me, is not based on “negative” rights but on positive democratic deliberation over what those limitations should be. Which brings me to why I do not agree with libertarian tenets. Even though I agree with libertarians in asserting that government is essentially a coercive apparatus, I don’t believe that its simple retreat will leave us with more liberty. It is not a zero sum game of: more government = less liberty; or, less government = more liberty.

In this conceptualization, when government retreats out of the individual’s life we are left with the free market. But the free market is not a “negative” domain devoid of interests, morals and values; rather, it comes laden with specifically free-market ethics and morals (or lack thereof). For example, in the domain of free markets liberty is not primarily understood as the relationship between free and equal citizens in the public sphere, but is rather defined by, and exercised through, the exchanges between rationally motivated individuals pursuing their self interest. This is a momentous change in the very conceptualization of the citizen and her/his relationship within society.

In conclusion, I therefore argue for increased democratization of the spaces in which individuals interact: be it government or free market. The principles limiting the domains and extents of the public and the private are never given but always negotiated, fought over and forged through political contention. Let us use our democratic instruments to participate in the definition of our public and private life and not retreat to what some consider a “natural” form of human existence. What some deem “natural” (as some proponents of free markets do) is, in my personal opinion, an ideological paradigm no different from the ones we are familiar with today. For me, it is better to define our nature collectively through democratic means in positive political acts rather than allowing “natural” forces -such as inequality- strip us of our personal liberty and collective self-determination.


I thank you again Rick for allowing me to be part of this enlightened discussion, and please excuse me again for this late response. And Hank, thank you for clearly stating and elegantly expounding many of the key points of libertarianism, as well as helping me understand some of its areas which I had previously not been acquainted with. Although I do not agree with all libertarian tenets, I do remain fascinated by it and will now study it in a different light.

Henry:

You guys have been great and this has been a very informative discussion.

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It is my belief that these are precisely the kinds of conversations we should be having, and I would like to make it a permanent feature of this blog to do so. If readers are interested in these types of conversations both through text, and perhaps actual discussions via SKYPE or some other medium, shoot me email: rsearle.searle@gmail.com. I hope to make this feature available on Utopia or Dystopia starting sometime this fall.


Rick Searle

Ameritopia Revisited

Ameritopia is a recent book by the conservative political writer and radio commentator Mark Levin. Though the book made the New York Times bestseller list, it has largely been ignored by mainstream media. This is a shame, not because Levin provides us with anything radically new on the subject of utopia, but because his view is poised to become the prism through which a large number of Americans define the very idea of utopia, and therefore what this idea means to America’s past, present and future. A more balanced reading of America’s utopian history might permit Americans, whatever their political stripe, to take something positive from our utopian heritage.

Levin structures his book by taking four authors as exemplary of the utopian mind-set: Plato, Thomas More, Hobbes and Karl Marx and contrasting them to what he believes to be thinkers in the anti-utopian camp: Montesquieu, John Locke, James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. Plato, More, Hobbes and Marx respectively represent rule by an intellectual elite (guardians), the suppression of human ambition and inequality, total control by the state, and the abolition of property. Their counterpoise respectively represent the separation of powers as a means to prevent tyranny, natural right and God given rights as the basis of a necessarily limited government power, the idea of American government as a limited form of government, the dangers of pursuing economic equality as opposed to the necessary equality of political and legal rights.

Levin uses selected writings of Montesquieu, Locke, Madison and De Tocqueville to define what he understands to be the American philosophical and political tradition a tradition that views utopianism such that:

Looked at another way, the utopian models of Plato’s republic, More’s Utopia, Hobbes Leviathan, and Marx’s Communist Manifesto could not be more repugnant to America’s philosophical and political foundation. Each of these utopias, in their own way, are models for totalitarian regimes that rule over men as subjects. 122

Right around the same time I was slogging my way through Ameritopia the Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, had a piece in the New York Times with the fanciful title: Hello, Martians. Let Moby-Dick Explain.  In the article Atwood is having an imaginary discussion with a group of Martians who are asking her to explain the United States.  Even though she is Canadian she gives it a shot with the following:

“America has always been different from Europe,” I said, “having begun as a utopian religious community. Some have seen it as a dream world where you can be what you choose, others as a mirage that lures, exploits and disappoints. Some see it as a land of spiritual potential, others as a place of crass and vulgar materialism. Some see it as a mecca for creative entrepreneurs, others as a corporate oligarchy where the big eat the small and inventions helpful to the world are stifled. Some see it as the home of freedom of expression, others as a land of timorous conformity and mob-opinion rule.”

Thing is, while Levin sees America as the heroic anti-utopia that through its political traditions and institutions has resisted utopian fantasies that have reigned elsewhere, Atwood sees America as the land of utopia defined by that dream more than any other society. Both can’t be right, or can they?

Soon after I finished Ameritopia and read Atwood’s article I began to compile a list of American utopias or strands of utopian thought in America. The list soon became so long and tedious that I was afraid I’d lull my poor readers to sleep if I actually wrote the whole thing out. There had to be a better way to get all this information across, so I decided to make a slideshow.

Immediately below is what I take to be a general history of utopia in America.  Anyone interested in specifics can consult the slideshow. It should be noted from the outset that I probably missed more than I included and may have made some errors on multiple points. Any suggestions for corrections would be of help.

The idea of America has been intertwined with the idea of utopia from the day Europeans discovered the New World. The discovery of the Americas became tied to anticipation and anxiety about the end of the world and the beginning of the reign of Christ on earth, it inspired a new golden age of utopian literature beginning with Thomas Moore, it became one of the main vectors through which the myth of the noble savage became popular in Europe. Many of the initial European settlements in the Americas either were themselves utopian experiments or gave rise to such experiments. America was seen as the place where utopian aspirations such as the end of poverty could in fact be realized, and the American republic was built from utopian themes such as equality.

Throughout the early 19th century the United States was the primary location for utopian communities seeking to overcome the problems associated with industrial civilization. By the end of that century large numbers of Americans had placed their utopian hopes with technology and government control over the economy, a position that was not fundamentally shaken until the late 1960s when utopian aspirations in the United States flowered and took on a more communitarian, spiritual, liberation, and environment centric form.

The end of the Cold War saw a further upsurge in utopian thought this time seen as an end to history and a further acceleration of wealth. Both aspirations were done in by political events such as 9-11, and the crash of stock market bubbles in 2000 and 2008.
Even in such technologically advanced times apocalyptic utopianism remained a major strain of American thought, a new breed of secular utopians and technophiles had also emerged that held their own idea of an approaching technological apocalypse. Lastly,
the era since the economic collapse has seen the rise of political movements which exhibit a combination of ideas from America’s utopian past. The story of utopia in America is not over…

Click on image above to watch the slideshow.

Given all this it is fair to ask how Levin could have gotten things so horribly wrong.

Sometimes we are wrong about something precisely because we are right about something closely related to it. And Levin is write about this: that the founders well aware that they were engaged in a kind of bold continental sized experiment wanted to make sure that experiments of such a scale would be incredibly difficult to initiate in the future. They were especially leery of national experiments that might originate from the two major strands of utopian thinking in the past- economic and religious.

Here is the primary architect of the American system of government, James Madison, in Federalist Number 10:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

No matter how critical we are of the gridlock of today which prohibits necessary systematic change it was probably one of the factors that helped prevent the radicalization of American society during the tumultuous first half of the 20th century- a period that saw much of the rest of the world succumb to fascist and communist dictatorships. For all its flaws, the system probably still keeps us safe from the extremes on either side of the political spectrum, and we should therefore be aware of what we are doing when we try to change it.

Be that as it may, Levin gets this right and as a consequence misses the actual legacy of utopian thought in America. When large scale social and political experiments go wrong they can hurt a lot of people, the Soviet Union was one such experiment as is the European Union whose ultimate fate is today in doubt. The United States itself almost failed in its Civil War, which was the point made by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”.

Small scale utopias or even imagined utopias are much less dangerous. When they fail, as almost all do, they burn a lot less people. At the same time they serve as laboratories in which new ways of being in the world can be tested. The aspirations inspired by purely imagined utopias often spur real reform in society in which the real tries to meet the standard of the dreamed.

In many ways the utopian tradition helped give rise to the society we have today. Certainly not utopia, but much more humane and just than the America these utopias were responding to in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is Ameritopia.

Would Kierkegaard Tweet?

Recently I had one of those incidents of intellectual synchronicity that happen to me from time to time. I had grudgingly, after years of resistance, set up a Twitter account (I still won’t do Facebook). For whatever reason Twitter reminded me of a book I had read eons ago by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called The Present Age.  I decided to dig the book out from the catacombs of my dusty attic to find out what my memory was hinting at.  More on that synchronicity I mentioned later.

The Present Age is Kierkegaard’s 1846 attempt to think through the spiritual and existential consequences of the new condition of a cheap and ubiquitous press.  The industrial revolution wasn’t only about the accelerated production of goods, but also enabled the mass production of information.  The art of printing was ripe for a revolution having remained essentially unchanged since Guttenberg in the 1400s.

In 1814 the Times of London acquired a printing press with a speed of 1,100 impressions per minute. The widespread adoption of this technology gave rise to extremely cheap publications, the so-called, “penny press”, that were affordable for almost anyone who could read.  The revolution in printing lit a fire under the mass literacy that had started with Guttenberg extending the printed word downward to embrace even the poorest segments of society and was facilitated by the spread of public education throughout the West.

This revolution had given rise to “the public” the idea of a near universal audience of readers. While some authors, such as Charles Dickens, used this 19th century printing revolution to aim at universal appeal Søren Kierkegaard really wasn’t after a best seller status giving his works such catchy titles as Fear and Trembling.

What Kierkegaard is for can be neatly summed up in one quote from The Present Age:

If you are capable of being a man, then danger and the harsh judgment of reality will help you to become one. (37)

Kierkegaard wanted individuals to make choices. Such choices came with very real and often severe ethical consequences that the individual was responsible for, and that could not be dismissed. The ethical life meant a life of commitments which were by their very nature hard for the individual to fulfill.

One of the main problems Kierkegaard saw with the new public that had been generated by the cheap press was that it turned everyone into a mere spectator.

The public is a concept that could not have occurred in antiquity because the people en masse, in corpore, took part in any situation which arose, and were responsible for the actions of the individual, and moreover, the individual was personally present and had to submit at once to the applause or disapproval for his decision. Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction ‘the public’, consisting of unreal individuals who never are and can never be united in an actual situation or organization- and yet are held together as a whole”  (60).

The issue for Kierkegaard here is that, since the rise of the press, the world had become enveloped in this kind of sphere of knowledge which had become disconnected from our life as ethical and political beings. A reader had the illusion of being a participant in, say, some distant revolution, famine, or disaster, but it was just that, an illusion. Given how much this world commanded our ethical and political attention, when in reality we could do nothing about it, Kierkegaard thought people were likely to become ethically paralyzed in terms of those issues where we really could, and should, take individual responsibility.

And now back to that synchronicity I had mentioned. Right around the same time I had dug up my dusty copy of The Present Age I was walking through the local library and happened to pass a 2011 book by Evgeny Morozov called The Net Delusion. On a whim I brought the book home and when I cracked it open to my surprise saw that he had a chapter dedicated to the Danish philosopher- Why Kierkegaard Hates Slacktivism.  Morozov’s point was that the internet gives us this illusion of participation and action that requires very little on our part. We sign this or that petition or make this or that donation and walk away thinking that we have really done something. Real change, on the other hand, probably requires much more Kierkegaard-like levels of commitment. These are the types of commitments that demand things like the loss of our career, our personal life, and in the case of challenging dictatorships, perhaps the loss life itself.  The ease of “doing something” offered by the internet, Morozov thought might have a real corrosive effect on these kinds of necessary sacrifices.

It is here that synchronicity plot thickens, for both Kierkegaard and Morozov, despite their brilliance, miss almost identical political events that are right in front of them.  As  Walter Kaufmann in the introduction of my old copy of The Present Age points out Kierkegaard totally misses the coming Revolutions of 1848 that were to occur two years after his book came out.

The Revolutions of 1848 were a series of revolts that ricocheted across the world challenging almost every European aristocracy with the demand for greater democratic and social rights. Rather than having acted as a force suppressing the desire for change, the new press allowed revolution to go viral with one revolt sparking another and then another all responding to local conditions, but also a reflecting a common demand for freedom and social security. Individuals acting in such revolutions were certainly taking on very real existential risks as states cracked down violently on the revolts.

Similarly, Morozov’s Net Delusion, published just before the beginning of the 2011 Arab Spring, missed a global revolution that, whatever the impact of new technologies such as Twitter, were certainly facilitated rather than negatively impacted by such technologies.  The Arab revolutions which spread like wild-fire inspired similar protests in the West such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement that seemed to require more than just pressing the “like button” on Facebook for the committed individuals that were engaged in the various occupations.

When it came to the Revolutions of 1848, Kierkegaard was probably proven to be right in the end as the revolutions failed to be sustained in the face of conservative opposition paving the way for even more revolutionary upheaval in Europe in the next century.  Only time will tell if a similar fate awaits the revolutions of 2011 with conservative forces regrouping in autocratic societies to stem any real change, and Western youth becoming exhausted by the deep ethical commitments required to achieve anything more than superficial change.

  • Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age , Translated by Alexander Dru, Introduction Walter Kaufmann, Harper Torchbooks, 1962
  • Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion, Public Affairs, 2011

The Dispossessed

The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself. 

(240)

I just finished The Dispossessed, a 1974 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. This wonderful book tells the story of an “ambiguous” anarchist utopia. Though written during a period much different from our own, The Dispossessed  might have lessons for us today, especially for those in the OWS movement whose political philosophy and hopes represent what might be seen as a triumph of anarchism.

The novel is set on the anarchist colony on the moon of Anarres, founded as a breakaway settlement of a movement called Odonianism- a moral and political philosophy created by Odo a woman who railed against the capitalist system of Urras, the rich and beautiful mother planet.  The two worlds under “The Terms of the Closure of the Settlement of Anarres” have interactions limited to a space freighter that exchanges necessities between them 8 times a year. There is a “wall” between Anarres and Urras, and it is the efforts of the protagonist of The Dispossessed,  a brilliant physicist named Shevek to brake down this wall between worlds that form the essence of the story.

Without doubt, Odonianism has created a moral utopia. The inhabitants of Anarres, constantly subject to a harsh climate and in constant danger of scarcity and famine, are bound together tightly and suffer continuously for one another. The needs of the whole community come before all others, even those of family. As Shevek and his loved partner Takver separate in the name of the needs of the community.  Anarres is an organic community that in the words of Shevek arguing with a Urratzi social Darwinist:

Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species are those who are the most social. In human terms the most ethical. (195)

The people of Anarres have no real government, though it can not really be said that they have politics either. Like Saint-Simon had suggested, without the class war endemic to the state, politics would become the mere “administration of things”.  A series of councils/syndicis make important decisions such as the allocation of work (though an individual is always free to refuse to go where a work syndic requests.  To my ears, these councils sound much like the “working groups” of the OWSM each tasked with a very particular need or goal of the movement. On Anarres they are a place where rotation and openness to debate mask the fact that they can be manipulated for political ends such as the machinations of the scientist Sabul who uses his ability to control the flow of information between Anarres and Urras, and even to control the publication of scientific papers to use the brilliance of Shevek for his own advantage, and take credit for what is mostly Shevek’s work.

It is this ability and desire to control the flow of knowledge and insight (including the insight brought by travelers from other worlds) whether stemming from the flawed human condition of someone like Sabul, or the tyranny of the majority implicit in an egalitarian society, that is the sin of Anarres. For, when combined with an internalized moral code that commands them not to be egoist, the Anarrresti are unable to express their own individual genius. Whether that be in a case like Shevek’s where he is constantly thwarted from constructing a theory that would allow faster- than- light communication, and therefore the enable the strong connection of interstellar peoples to become possible, or the comedy of a non-conformist playwright, such as Tirin, who writes a play about a comic character coming from Urras to Anarres. This suffocation of the spirit of the soul is the primary, and growing, flaw of Odo’s utopia.  As Shevek says:

That the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t cooperate -we obey. (291)

In an effort to break free from the control of knowledge, Shevek and those around him set up a printing syndicate of their own. This syndicate eventually starts communicating with the outside, with the Urratzi, which ultimately results in the ultimate attempt to breakdown walls- Shevek’s visit to Urras itself.

The capitalist nation of A-Io invites Shevek out of the belief that he is on the verge of discovering a unified theory of time which they will profit from.  Shevek’s journey is a disaster. What he discovers on Urras is a beautiful yet superficial world built on the oppression of the poor by the rich. Not surprising for the time period the novel was written, a Cold War rages between capitalist A-Io and the authoritarian communist nation of Thu. The two-powers fight proxy wars in less developed nations. When the poor rise up to protest the rich in A-Io they are brutally massacred, and Shevek flees to the embassy of the planet Earth. The ambassador of earth shelters Shevek, but expresses her admiration for Urras, with the civilization on earth having almost destroyed itself. Explains the ambassador:

My world, my earth is a ruin.  A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left and then we died…

But we destroyed the world first. There are no forest left on my earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot.

She admires Urras for it’s  beauty and material abundance, which has somehow avoided environmental catastrophe. She does not understand the moral criticism of Shevek- a man from a desert world of scarcity, and famine.

Earthlings were ultimately saved by an ancient, sage like people the Hainish. They return Shevek to Anarres, along with a member of the Hainish that wants to see the world anarchist have built. The walls Shevek sought to tear down continue to fall…

What might some of the lessons of this brilliant novel be for our own times? Here are my ideas:

1) For the OWSM itself: that the “administration of things” always has a political aspect. That even groups open to periodic, democratic debate are prone to capture by the politically savvy, and steps make sure they remain democratic need to be constant.

2) One of the flaws of Le Guin’s view of utopia is that it seems to leave no room for democratic politics itself.  Politics, therefore can only be in the form of manipulation (Sabul) or rebellion (Shevek) there is no space, it seems, for consensual decision making as opposed to a mere right to debate and be heard.

3) There is a conflict between the individual (the need for creativity, love of family) and the needs of the community that is existential and cannot be eliminated by any imaginable political system. The key is to strike the right balance between the individual and the community.

4) That the tyranny of the majority is a real danger for any consensus based community and not just a mere bogeyman of conservative forces.

5) The most important thing we can do to preserve the freedom of the individual and health of the community is to keep the lines of communication and connection open. That includes openness to the viewpoints of ideological rivals.

All quotes from: The Dispossessed, An Ambiguous Utopia, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harper and Row, 1974

It’s the concentration, stupid!

Harper’s Magazine has an interesting interview with the Marxist political theorist Slavoj Ziizek.  There Ziizek makes what I think are some critical mistakes regarding the OWS movement. Ziizek labels criticism focusing on concentration and cooruption in the financial system as what he calls the “fascist trap”. In effect drawing strong lessons from the Anti-Semitism of Great Depression era fascism to conclude that curent critiques of the financialization of the economy could likely veer off in the same dangerous direction.
Now, any Anti-Semitic rhetoric coming out of the OWSM, or any where else, should be condemned in the strongest terms, as should the overly simplistic demonization of capitalist generally. But that doesn’t imply that we should not be able to speak about the issue of financial and economic concentration, and its overall impact on both politics and the economy. Someone suggesting that perhaps the system would be more robust if the big banks were forced to be smaller, as the conservative Niall Ferguson has done, or that the revolving doorbetween Washington, Wall Street, and Academeia should be at least partially closed should not be bundled up with blind belivers in conspiracy theories or truly fascist maniacs. It is by openly talking about these issues, rather than avoiding them, that Anti-Semitism or any other idiotic simplificaction of the complex world in which we live can be cut off at the root.
Perhaps, as the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen points out in today’s NWT the real distinction that should be made is that between real capitalist, such as Apple, with crony capitalist such as agribusiness,with the real reform of the system being to unlock the grip of the former. Zizek does not want the OWS movement to draw a clear line between Wall Street and Main Street, but from my vantage point at least, the 99%ers, with their critique of capitalism generally, the way they have adopted communist artistic motifs, and their lumping together of the guy who owns the local car wash with multi-billion dollar companies, threatens to drive the so called petit-bourgeois, into the hands of it not reactionaries then at the very least of those uninterested in any systematic reforms. Zizek’s obstiancy in holding on the the communist label, to me at least, seems to show a lack of seriousness about getting the middle class behind any legitimate agenda of financial and economic reform. (Zizek is spot-on with one point, though. What we need is a good understanding of why communism, and I might add all other utopian movements, have ended as either monstrosity or farce.)
But, for now, what if concentration (bigness) and not capitalism itself is the real problem?
The picture above was produced by James Glattfelder et al  and shows the 1318 companies that dominate the global economy.  Studies by other complex systems theorists have also shown the vulnerabilities of complex systems with a high degree of concentration for systemic crises and collapse. The problem of concentration is what we really should be talking about, but what does Zizek suggest the OWSM and other critics of the current system do?
Zizek hopes the OWSM will focus on a clear goal such as universal health care. With that example he shows himself to be an old school statist, with the ultimate task of the OWSM to focus itself on asserting control over the state for the purpose of social justice. Social justice is a great end in itself,  but I think he misses what are the most amazing aspects of this movement which are 1) Its embodiment of participatory democracy, 2) The idea that networked groups can provide not just governance but social goods themselves, 3) Their international aspect, 4) Their critique of the current global economy as a system. What the OWSM shares with many “main-steam” Americans is not a desire for a more active state, but an innate suspicion of the state, and the perception that the system is not only rigged, but doesn’t really work- at least not for the majority. The reason the majority feel the system is broken is because of real-world concerns over unemployment and stagnant or falling living standards.
The question is whether or not falling living standards can be explained in terms of wealth concentration. That will be the subject of my next post…
Rick Searle
November, 13, 2011