Friday, April 21, 2017

A little political philosophy won’t kill you (or will it?)

Some anxious readers of this fine blog have been complaining of late that the frequency of my musings has decidedly diminished of late, and wonder if my much decreased output is due to an irreversible disenchantment with the medium, or is rather a temporary blip, hopefully to be soon reversed. Difficult to say for sure. I enjoy writing furiously almost unintelligible blabber as much as ever, but it’s true that the number of my commitments has increased, with the career in mathematics and the demands of the weightlifting club. It doesn’t help that April and May are usually the busiest months at work (I’m the head of the quality organization within my firm, and in May we pass our annual certification with external auditors, which require a lot of attention). So for the foreseeable future my posts will be few and far between, and I’ll need to compensate my faithful followers with extra doses of quality (in the form of pungency of the commentary on the follies of our current and past mores, rather than in brevity and pithiness, of course) as a form of compensation for the decrease in quantity…

Now to the matter at hand: I finished a couple weeks ago a rather infuriating book by a retired editor that had published too many Marxist historians, and it showed, as he had himself imbibed too much of their wacky outlook during his professional career. Nothing unusual or shocking that would merit a post to comment, as Marxist historiography in Continental Europe held almost a monopoly position within the opinion of the learned since the end of WWII. To make things worse, the author in this sad case was Spanish, where a Marxist orientation was almost mandatory if you wanted to be published in the post-dictatorship squalid intellectual milieu of the last decades of the last century. The result could be summarized as a mediocre book by an incurious author (incuriosity masked by the mandatory hundred pages of bibliographical notes containing all the canonical leftist blabber, plus some liberals in the Anglo Saxon tradition to keep the appearance of academic impartiality) that leans too heavily in every conceivable stereotype and commonplace to describe a century (the XVIII) whose intellectual forces he barely understands. But such lack of understanding is in itself revealing, as he essentially takes a trope well loved by left-leaning thinkers the world over, namely, the fact that every product of the human spirit, be it art, political discourse, philosophy or the arrangement of society itself, is a manifestation of “ideology” to mask the only thing that really matters: the relationships of production (in Marxese, the fact that owners of capital force the proletariat to sell their labor for a pittance, to extract from them the maximum benefit trying to compensate for an ever diminishing rate of return on their investments) and runs with it as long as it would allow (it could be argued that he indeed runs with such tired trope a few hundreds of pages longer than what it would allow, but let’s be charitable here).

Our author (whose name will be left unsaid, there is no need to publicize mediocre writing) doesn’t resort to the pseudo-economicist language his brethren is so sadly famous for (I use the prefix because the relationship between a Marxist and Economics is similar to that between a logical positivist and Religion; they may dabble in opinions about its syntax and how their statements are built, they may, that is, pontificate about the “object language” without actually being able to use it for its original purpose, without really “getting” it), and relies instead in a simpler concept that seems easier to grasp: what makes our own age awful, and made the XVIII century in the West even more awful (and I would argue made the whole of human history everywhere else the absolutely most awful thing ever, but the author seems strangely unable to reach that self-evident conclusion, as it would imply that our current age was the less-awful actually obtaining in the real world’s history, something no self-respecting leftist could ever agree with) was its appalling inequality, an inequality whose defense and justification is the ultimate explanation of everything that every historical character of that time and place set out to do: Mozart operas (“the magic flute” first and foremost among them)? A mere justification for growing differences in wealth and income. The American, English and French revolutions? A shameless power grab by elites to ensure they could increase their exploitation of the hapless populace. Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant’s philosophy (an odd mixture if there ever was one)? All barefaced defenses of the great unfairness of their society. The ultimate force behind the Industrial Revolution? The desire of greedy capitalists to amass more material goods and differentiate themselves from the toiling masses (and their sequestration of the legislative process to ensure they could do so in ever more egregious ways).

Not especially subtle (or original, again) but it got me thinking about how the perspective of every author is tinted (defined by) his previous political persuasion, and how a few simple concepts (like inequality, in this admittedly somewhat extreme case) are marshalled to provide an explanatory scaffolding far beyond what their ramshackle frame would allow them to comfortably do. It is probably an unavoidable part of our mental architecture, and surely we all do it to a greater or lesser degree. So I started considering how my own thinking may be constrained (or oriented) by my own big idea (the fact that a lot of social constructions, from the most complex organizations to the most everyday individual decisions, are guided by what I’ve called “dominant reason”, which can be summarized as the collectively agreed upon answers to three key questions: “what is the ultimate goal of life?”, “what desires are socially legitimized to attain such goal?” and “how is socially precedence determined (and thus, how are conflicts between individual’s desires solved)?”). And it dawned on me that such big idea could indeed be applied to classify, and better understand the political persuasion of most people, not only the residual and somewhat nostalgic leftovers that constitute the dwindling crop pf disciples of Marx.

It stands to reason that although everybody participates in the main tenets of such dominant reason (everybody is aware of them, as they constitute the default answer to such questions that he may individually offer, prior to any reflection), not everybody endorses them with the same enthusiasm. Every society has its critics, and some are more vocal than others. While most criticize some accessory aspects of the social organization, advocating very minor changes (like the substitution of one governing party by another within the same constitutional framework, which I’m learning more and more is of very little consequence), a few others go against the most fundamental elements that serve as foundation for the whole social edifice. That allows for grouping very naturally political tendencies that, although apparently very different, share between them a definite “family air”, just by considering their attitude towards the current dominant reason. That way you may find that certain strain of conservatism and certain strain of progressivism have more in common than what immediately meets the eye. When the terms “right” and “left” were coined (that was in the States General of France in 1788, according to where the representatives of the Nobility, Clerisy and the “third state” sat), being more or less for maintaining the institutions of the Ancien Régime could be a meaningful distinction, but nowadays it most certainly is not.

Accepting then that such attitude towards the dominant reason of the age is one defining feature of every political persuasion, we may identify a further dimension for distinguishing between those that reject it (or share a basically negative outlook) if we focus on what they would replace it with. Is it something that has already been dominant in our history, or something entirely new? If the former, how close is what they yearn for in time? If the latter, how hierarchical is what they envision as an alternative to today’s system?

Given the characterization along those two dimensions, we could elegantly plot the existing political options in the following diagram:  

Which I would argue defines the different political outlooks of our days better than other, more traditional classifications, typically along a single axis (like progressive vs. conservative, or democratic vs. authoritarian, or individualistic vs. communal). Our taxonomy would then classify the different political philosophies:

-          According to their attitude towards the dominant reason we find first the ones that enthusiastically endorse it (considering more of it should be applied, so it more fully and completely determines your own and everybody else’s life). Let us call them either libertarians (desiderative reason is highly accommodating to possessive individualism, and it can be argued that it has indeed provided for unprecedented levels of individual freedom) or neo-liberals. Both groups overlap, albeit do not entirely coincide: the first appellation is most used in the USA and the 2nd in Europe, but both refer to people relatively opposed to state intervention in the economy and oriented to a mythical laissez faire economy in which the “market” optimally regulates what is produced and how it is distributed, externalities be damned. Note that the opposition to state intervention can be construed as a rejection of any interference with social status being determined by anything different than the possessions any individual is able to acquire all by himself (one of the central features of desiderative reason), as the dreaded state intervention introduces a redistributionist tendency that necessarily alters the “natural” outcome of the market with some exogenous criteria. Distinct from those enthusiastic endorsers we would have people which overall agree with the prevailing dominant reason, but rather than making it “more” desiderative would try to fix it in its current form, which already requires a significant participation of the State in the economy (understood, in opposition with the former groups, as acceptable), and which could admit of an even greater intervention to reduce the inequality of outcomes that the unfettered operation of the markets may produce. As the size of the public sector in most advanced economies is relatively high compared with the historical standard (much, much higher if we extend the comparison to the eras before the development of modern, technologically advanced Nation-States) such people today tend to be classed broadly as conservatives, if they are happy with the last four decades of growing inequality, and consider such an acceptable price to the concomitant increase in GDP (however inequitable distributed -they tend to be in the winning side) or social-democrats (a more European label, in the USA they are simply those aligned with the Democratic party) if they have become increasingly queasy about it. The important thing about those two latest groups is that, as we’ve already stated, they are both essentially happy with the status quo, and think that very minor tweaks are necessary to maintain it humming along (just putting their preferred representatives in power, identified with a political party within the purported democracy in which they think they live). Also happy with the current desiderative reason, but unhappy about how it is being applied we have the populists, with which we will deal in more detail separately. For now, it is enough to note that they are attracted by the current system of values (which they understand as a meritocracy) but not by the way it’s being, or has recently been, applied (as it enhances the social recognition, and gives all the spoils of the social product, to “others” defined in a way that excludes them, based on criteria they can not share) which makes them willing to bet the house on untested formulas that promise to correct such wrong. Finally, we would have the (so far mostly in the fringe, and with little prospect of acquiring political power anytime soon) outright critics (considering the current dominant reason, and its subsequent social system, an unmitigated disaster that cries for being replaced with something better).

-          To analyze the latter, it serves us better to resort to the second dimension, that is, which is the alternative dominant reason they consider optimal, be it a future (mostly undefined) one, or any of its past incarnations. In the former case, I’ve labeled anybody who doesn’t want to share in the dominant reason of any age, including the present one, an anarchist, as they obviously have a problem with settled and commonly accepted rules, be they for determining hierarchies (they would rather dispense with all of them outright) or for establishing what a life well lived looks like (better to leave each individual define it for him or herself -punctiliousness in gender assignations seem to be a fastidious feature of the anarchist tradition). As a brief aside, such outlook, which I have looked with great sympathy in the past, is extremely naïve (Duh!) and self-contradictory. As I’ve said in many other forums, people con not auto-legislate individually the foundation of their morals, or in other terms, give themselves an ultimate goal in life and decide in a vacuum what desires are acceptable and which ones are not. All of those have to be socially provided to boot, and they are both the prerequisite and the consequence of any minimally functioning society (as we see in our own current one, less functioning by the day as the agreement on such issues wanes and weakens). You can aspire to change the dominant reason, but it is irrational and misguided to aspire to live collectively without any reason being dominant at all in the sense I’ve described…

So let’s commiserate poor anarchists for a moment, forever doomed to vie for a dominant reason perpetually in the future because of their wholesale rejection of the current one, whatever the current one happens to be (indeed, since the creation of the movement they have already rejected, and rightly so, the two types of reason that have become dominant: both the bureaucratic one, against which they rebelled in the first international, and the desiderative one, which they currently fulminate). They are joined in their rejection by traditionalists and counterrevolutionaries and legitimists and reactionaries of different stripes, which similarly reject the current reason, but in their case because they would like it to return to a (typically highly idealized) past. Such past may be more or less remote: Marxists would like a restoration of bureaucratic reason, and have the state fully determine everybody’s position in the social hierarchy; Nationalists would like a restoration of romantic reason, and the genius (the ability to embody the spirit of the people, the mythical volk) of each gifted individual being again the sole determinant of the recognition (and eventually the material wealth associated to such recognition) to be granted to him; Alt-righters (or Neoreactionaries) have upped the ante, and are claiming for the rejection of the whole modern project embodied in the three last iterations of the dominant reason, which would take us all the way back to Baroque reason, where the ultimate goal in life was not to satisfy desires, but to prepare for the next life, social rank was determined by birth and only simple, survival-oriented desires (eat good food, have a nice house and a comfortable bed) were socially sanctioned. Surprisingly, they reveal their affinity with the other publicly visible group today that espouses such quaint views of how the good life and the good society that would nurture it look like: radical Islamists (Wahhabis) equally suspicious of modernity, that would like to take society to a pre-modern state not that different from the one proposed by Mencius Moldbug, Nick Land, Andrew Anglin and the like (well, the clothing, the traditions and the race of the simple, contented masses lorded over by the übermensch that know better may be different, but that’s all).

But before leaving my readers to ponder about such fanciful taxonomy of the political kingdom and its consequences, I would like to dwell a little more on the particular taxa that has forcefully occupied the limelight of late: the populists. According to my schema, populists in all ages are essentially conformists that agree with the three tenets of the dominant reason, but feel slighted by the results of its application. There are interesting ways of interpreting great upheavals in human history as populist movements acquiring power and finding out that they could not just redistribute more of the social product to their followers while keeping the ultimate goal of life, the acceptable desires to achieve it and the criteria for deciding who should take precedence in case of conflicting desires between individuals intact, so ended up overturning the dominant reason in which they thought they were comfortable enough:

·         In a big European country, towards the end of the XVIII century (under Baroque reason, although a neighboring country on the other side of a certain channel had already started moving towards the next type), a relatively new class (the commercial bourgeoisie) just wanted to pay less taxes (but at the same time enjoying a similar level of national prestige and security, which required noblemen and priests to pay a bit more). They all publicly professed a religion that in private they mostly despised (but not as much as the aforementioned noblemen). They all harbored the same simple desires and, by seeking to buy a nobility title as soon as their rents permitted, agreed that birth was the main determinant of social precedence. They saw that poor harvests had bred a level of popular discontent between the peasantry that allowed for minor tweaks in the existing system they thought were enough to improve their lot. And they ended up causing the French Revolution, the Terror, the fall of the Old Regime and the consolidation of a new kind of dominant reason in all of Europe and its American colonies.

·         In a much bigger country, straddling Europe and Asia, at the beginning of the XX century (but living in a complicated mixture of reasons that had not fully congealed in a coherent whole that could be called dominant, hence the difficulties of the ruling dynasty to translate the country’s many natural riches in power and international recognition) a group of daring intellectuals tried to harness social discontent from a foreign war gone wrong to impose the rule of a tiny minority (nominally the urban proletariat, in reality y a cadre of opportunists and bandits extracted from the very scarce students of certain branch of German political philosophy) over a huge majority of illiterate peasants. In this case, they succeeded in imposing the reason that was already dominant in the rest of Europe (bureaucratic), developing it in the general direction of more despotism (the Asian tradition?) and less respect for human life and flourishing.

The two previous cases show us populism before democracy, so it was a populism of certain factions of the elites vying for power and trying to grab a larger share of the pie, that only in an advanced phase resort to the masses to strengthen their hand and unleash forces they are typically not able to contain and that end up consuming them (the proverbial revolution devouring its sons). I’ll analyze now two cases that happen in the more familiar milieu of representative democracy and party politics:

·         Again, big European country that had been the poster child of the improvement in material wealth and shared prosperity that bureaucratic reason can generate, with a vibrant cultural life and universities that, both in research and applied science cause the envy of the world. Unfortunately, its cultural and material success makes it arrogant, and it ends up caught in a global war that destroys most of its infrastructure and ends up losing. Far from uniting the population, it ushers a wave of cross-recrimination that is only exacerbated when an international economic crisis sinks its economy even further. Along comes a clear sighted leader, that tells everybody that everything will be OK. He’ll make the country great again without having to change mental habits or old hierarchies. Their dominant reason had not failed them, the motive it was not working any more was that a powerful cabal of secret conspirators was thwarting the normal outcomes of the democratic process, so if they kicked them out, everything would be good again. The guy barely wins a contested election, but scrapes by to form a government that in few months has monopolized all the levers of power within the country, and embarks in a furious program of public works to refloat the economy. Unsurprisingly (given the low level of resource utilization) it rebounds strongly, and in a similarly unsurprising way (given that the renunciation of previous international commitments has closed any means of foreign borrowing) in few years the economy overheats, inflation threatens to rear its ugly head again and corruption and graft in a single party state with no checks and balances are more and more prevalent. To extend the party’s grasp of total power the staid, vaguely boring bureaucratic reason is jettisoned and replaced by none other than its predecessor, romantic reason, as any appearance of fixed rules and impersonal merit recognition is displaced by party loyalty and belonging to the “right” race. You all know how it ends, when the need to keep growing the economy can only be met by crazy rearmament, then imperialist expansion in neighboring land, then total war and then near total annihilation.

·         A very big American country that has emerged from a series of fortunate historical circumstances as the single hegemon of the world system, with unmatched military power, at the beginning of the XXI century (the age of maximum dominance of desiderative reason). By the end of the previous century the system was giving clear signals of exhaustion: innovation was slowing (although most people were not aware, as the media kept reporting more and taller tales of breakthroughs and disruptions that somehow failed to materialize and actually affect average people lives’), median income had been stagnant for almost three decades, and even the frequent wars the country embarked on to keep hidden the continuous flow of resources from the public sector back to (few and well connected) private hands (“weaponized Keynesianism”) never seemed to be won, or even to actually end. Although the middle class has seen its fortunes dwindle, two classes have kept steadily improving: the super-rich (more and more visible in an era where the only true progress happens in communication technologies, thus making everybody’s lives more and more interconnected and visible) and the urban poor. Along comes a clear sighted leader, that tells everybody that everything will be OK. He’ll make the country great again without having to change mental habits or old hierarchies. Their dominant reason had not failed them, the motive it was not working any more was that a powerful cabal of secret conspirators was thwarting the normal outcomes of the democratic process, so if they kicked them out, everything would be good again. The guy barely wins a contested election, but scrapes by to form a government that in few months has achieved little, as checks and balances seem to preempt his every move. In the face of sinking popularity (the ultimate fuel that keeps him going, like most populist leaders) he makes more and more outrageous claims that somehow leave his followers undaunted…

Of course, the final outcome of the second case study has yet to be written. The orange one may be a blip, an anomaly after which the system regains its footing and continues towards ever more enlightened, fairer, more prosperous configurations (with or without desiderative reason that, long as its reign has already been, will some day be superseded, as all dominant reasons have been before). Or he may be the harbinger of something more substantive, a true (and infrequent) revolution that provides the final push to a crumbling system to force it to radically change, setting in motion the (typically serious) disturbances that announce (and are the prerequisite of) a change in dominant reason.

And what I’ve said of the American president could as well be applied to the many populist leaders-to-be waiting in the wings in so many other countries: Will Marine Le Pen end up inhabiting the Élysée Palace? Beppe Grillo in the Quirinal? Is it legitimate to compare the two, and both of them with the Donald? I’ll have more to say on the French election (summarizing: I think not in the end, but wouldn’t be surprised if she did), but I say the comparison is fully legitimate. What we see in all cases is a bare majority forming thanks to the discontent with a situation where no discontent is easily granted. Voters of populists are not the downtrodden of the Earth. Most are employed in economies that, in historical terms, are wildly successful and wealthy. But they all see the future with anguish and feel they are not getting from society as much as they should. I don’t understand them as saying that the rules are rigged against them, they seem to be fine with the rules, at least with how they were interpreted and applied twenty or thirty years ago (when their parents benefitted from them to achieve a standard of living unheard of, and most likely unexpected even by themselves). What has changed (it is important to note that in the populist imagination this is always the case) is that suddenly those same rules that benefitted their parents are benefitting somebody else, and not leaving enough for themselves. Those free-riding immigrants, mostly (although in the middle-class white North American the role the immigrant plays for the European is played by “blacks” and, a late addition, “browns”). It is them who have to be purged from the social body, put back in their place, so the current rationality works again for the benefit of the native sons.

I think that expectation is basically deluded. The generation that is nowadays beginning their professional careers (from the kids entering college to the thirty-somethings that should be settling in a job and being offered their first significant promotions, or starting to generate benefits in their self-started businesses) is working longer and longer hours for more meager rewards not because immigrants are siphoning off all the riches we are collectively capable of creating (what in its face is a pretty absurd notion), but because we have exhausted the possibilities of our current dominant reason, which at this point is not able to make us collectively produce more, or even just enough people to replenish the ranks of consumers that modern economies demand to keep chugging along. We could close our frontiers and prohibit trade as firmly and as tightly as we wanted, and our economies would still be in the gutter (again, compared with those of our parents, which still leaves ample room for them to be outstanding compared with 99,9% of human history) for lack of aggregate demand in the face of a dwindling population AND lack of Total Factor Productivity growth in the face of lack of innovation outside of Telecomms and video games. Want proof that getting rid of the maligned “other” used as scapegoat by the populist leaders rarely, if ever, works? The Germans kicked out the Jews really bad, and see where that took them (I’m aware revisionist historians see their defeat at WWII as the ultimate proof of the existence of that powerful cabal, which then successfully whitewashed history to exonerate themselves… hogwash, the German economy had proved to be inviable before the Nuremberg laws, and certainly long before the start of the war). Expect nothing different if Trump built his wall and repealed every single trade treaty (or Marine did the same). The ills that have created populism in the first place can not be cured with populism own recipe’s.

How could they be cured, then? That, thoughtful reader (you have to be really thoughtful to have made it up to this point!) would be the subject of another post. 

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