The thermodynamics of inequality and social collapse

art: “the fall of nineveh” john martin, 1828


The stress felt by world civilization due to the COVID pandemic is a dress rehearsal of a much greater test—increasing instability brought by climate change.

In fact, the science behind climate change isn’t the urgent puzzle—the physicist Arrhenius connected global warming and carbon dioxide one-hundred twenty years ago.  The deeper question is this: Why, in spite of knowing the apocalyptic implications, has humanity burnt so much fossil fuels in the last century?  

The answer is related to an ancient addiction of humanity: social inequality. Maintaining  hierarchies consumes energy.  When environmentalists blame growth, consumerism, or lack of government regulations for the planet’s wearing, they really mean social inequality: an elite that seeks comfort and security at the cost of environmental destruction and the degradation of other human beings. Or, more concisely: the elite increases the predictability of their life at the expense of others and the environment.

Order and predictability are costly. For example, both physics and information theory have shown that the gain of information, which in information-theoretic terms is the decrease of uncertainty, burns energy [1]. A way to decrease uncertainty is to increase order.  For example,  biologists have described organisms as machines that increase order and process information at the expense of energy [2]. However, only a fraction of the energy consumed goes to useful order, and the rest is dissipated into random, chaotic motions.  This process is not dissimilar to how engines only spend a fraction of the energy on useful work, while the rest is dissipated into heat, sound, and turbulence.  This conversion of fuel into disorder follows from the second law of thermodynamics.  Our highly unequal civilization is an extremely inefficient engine that consumes fossil fuels and land to create the predictable, richer and healthier world of the elite. Yet, at the same time, the machine of inequality leads to a more disordered planet through global warming, and land and water degradation.

The fact that today’s civilization is so unequal, energetically costly, and destabilizing to the environment is no accident. It follows from the connection between inequality, ecological disorder and extreme energy consumption.  Much of societal breakdowns can be traced to a mixture of environmental stress and social disorder.  Archeologists have pieced together how hierarchical civilizations, such as those of the Mayans or Babylonians, declined as they consumed forests and degraded land.  Monoculture fueled the slaves, soldiers and peasants that built the palaces, stockpiled grain, and manned the armies. This ecosystem in turn made life secure and predictable for an elite, guaranteeing food, shelter and pleasures to emperors, priests, scribes and bureaucrats through violent and unsustainable means. However, this machine grows fragile due to the social and environmental stress behind inequality. Then at some point, environmental changes, such as climate change and land salinization, exacerbates breakdown.

The same  fragile machine of inequality powers the modern world.  A quick glance at the energy needs of “cheap goods” shows how truly costly the engine is.  In fact, economists argue  many goods are artificially cheap, since the costs incurred on the environment and the people are unaccounted. For example, markets ship food across continents in order to exploit cheap fuel, cheap labor and low regulations in the developing world. The costs of these transactions in terms of environmental stress and exploited labor remain unaccounted for. In fact, due to global warming and the social disorder caused by inequality, humankind is in its most precarious state since the end of the Pleistocene. 

The  environmental disorder caused by inequality and the second law can be understood as a loss of predictability. As unequal societies perturb the regular ecological cycles that replenish land, animal populations, and sequester carbon, the future becomes much harder to forecast, and therefore planning becomes an illusion. This ecological uncertainty then feeds into society, driving social disorder as organizations and governments become unable to use prediction to solve problems, spiking disease, unemployment, and food prices.   

Inequality as social disorder can be better understood when considering its degradation of human beings. In fact, after a certain material threshold, it is not deprivation that stresses and kills human beings, but low social status. The profound feelings of shame and humiliation caused by a society of winners and losers make people sick and violent.  For example, disrespect and humiliation are the most consistent excuses given by murderers. Violence here, then becomes a means to honor when deprived of it from other sources, such as wealth or a job. Those in the bottom are driven into madness, suicide or killed by heart disease [3]. It is this mass of disordered and hostile human beings — of  strangers to each other that are separated into favelas, inner-city neighborhoods, and gated communities,  that make inequality so volatile.

What can be done about this social disorder? Archeology and history shows that social disorder often leads to violent collapse. The extremely unequal Roman Empire desintegrated as environmental degradation, slave insurrections, and civil war consumed it.   More recently,  the recent Syrian Civil War that annihilated institutions and killed and displaced millions,  can be traced to a potent mix of sectarian tensions and bad harvests caused by climate change [4]. The fate of our world-civlization could follow a similar track as inequality and climate change brings a violent end. 

Yet,  archeology also shows that in the face of impending collapse, societies can choose social revolution and therefore avoid a death crisis. For example, although the abandonment of the great Mayan cities around 900 AD is often interpreted as a violent apocalypse caused by climate change and environmental degradation, it may be a testament of a popular revolt against the elite,  where workers and peasants  refused to toil anymore in fields and construction sites, and instead dispersed into the surrounding jungle, building more egalitarian societies [5]. In fact, archeological evidence supports this thesis, in fact, archeological evidence supports this thesis, where more decentralized and less stratified societies replaced the great city-states, without any cataclysmic dip in population [6]. Today the Mayas still exist in Mexico and Guatemala, remembering their ancient language and some of their egalitarian traditions. 

The Mayan example shows that social revolution may be an alternative to an impending ecological and social doom. Although the Sun replenishes the planet — pumping energy and order into the ecological cycles, world civilization leaks disorder at a faster rate than regeneration, leading us dangerously towards perdition.  To stall the apocalypse, we require  a social revolution that brings ecological and social synchronicity to humanity. 

How would this social revolution look like? Perhaps we need to learn from societies that managed to stay socially and ecologically coherent. We know that the egalitarian !Kung in Subsaharan Africa build social cohesion through gift giving: although food that individuals collect is their private property, gift giving drives wealth redistribution, while disincentivizing accumulation [7]. Before Mayans had built their great hierarchical cities where an elite hoarded technological knowledge, they maintained in the jungle for 1500 years a complex and sustainable civilization  of millions, using interconnected and specialized villages of skilled workers [8].  A modern social revolution would be a sustainable world of distributed knowledge, power and wealth, where elite hoarding of material and information would be disincentivized.  

In conclusion, we need to heed the warning once penned by Karl Marx, since our increasingly unstable environment forces us to choose between ‘a revolutionary constitution of society at large or the common ruin of the contending classes.’”

1.  Parrondo, J. M., Horowitz, J. M., & Sagawa, T. (2015). Thermodynamics of information. Nature physics, 11(2), 131-139.

2.  Marzen, S. E., & DeDeo, S. (2017). The evolution of lossy compression. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 14(130), 20170166.

3.  Wilkinson, R. G. (2006). The impact of inequality. Social Research: An International Quarterly, 73(2), 711-732.

4.  Malm, A. (2017). Revolution in a warming world: Lessons from the Russian to the Syrian revolutions. Socialist register, 53.

5.  Graeber, D. (2008). On Cosmpolitanism and (Vernacular) Democratic Creativity: Or, There Never Was a West. Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted, Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives, 45.

6.  Aimers, J. J. (2007). What Maya collapse? Terminal classic variation in the Maya lowlands. Journal of archaeological research, 15(4), 329-377.

7.  Woodburn, J. (1982). Egalitarian societies. Man, 431-451.

8.  Scarborough, V. L., & Burnside, W. R. (2010). Complexity and sustainability: Perspectives from the ancient Maya and the modern Balinese. American Antiquity, 327-363.

Power as Savior and Destroyer of the World

Originally published in Cosmonaut:

I

The whole conversation is rigged.

Now that climate change has turned up on the radar of economists and policymakers, they are pretending we had it too good, that we lived in a utopia of cheap consumer goods, long lifespans, automobiles, and gadgets, and that our own self-indulgence brought us the trouble.1 The economists and industry captains were selling us what we wanted since their product was good: economic growth and cheese sticks. They just didn’t know about the caveat: the perturbation of the earth into a new thermodynamic equilibrium, one that could have extreme consequences in our fragile human systems.

They say everyone shares the blame since we were too happy indulging in their products. That is how it’s sold to us: salvation is to be inconvenienced by not using that straw, that grocery bag, and walking to the corner store instead of driving.2 These meaningless inconveniences are merely psychological pressure points to suggest the greater unpleasantries of a radical solution. They are training us to imagine the greater sacrifice, which inevitably means austerity. Reversing some of this utopia is the panacea of the illness of civilization. If we have grown too fat the solution inevitably means austerity.

They know this story is awful, that it is a hard sell. But it does a couple of things. First, it sells the decisions done by power brokers in the last two centuries or so as overall good, the unsustainability an unfortunate caveat. Whatever comes next must look like the present social order, because it is good. Having a tiny percentage of the world population controlling the resource distribution and the rest having to fight for certain “jobs”3 that decision-makers, asset holders, and professionals have decided are useful in order to warrant access to nourishment and shelter is seen as a good and realistic model. The second thing it does is quite magical.  Because this story is a hard sell, and normal people are not willing to sacrifice their lifestyle, the elite can pretend they are not pushing for change for the demos does not want it.4 The poor democratic souls!

Finally, the culmination of this story is an argument for human nature. They say humans are naturally greedy convenience seekers and have short attention spans.  According to the educated, cable tv consumers, and anxious mortgage and index fundholders, the majority won’t buy the story because human nature is diseased.5 There are two corollaries to this story: that the present social order is perfected for the human soul, and there is nothing to be done because any “better world” is incompatible with the human soul.

This story is such a monstrous, self-serving con that it should infuriate any person that dares to use their brain.

II

The above story can only begin to be questioned by reassembling many of the concepts we inherited from many smart, intellectual types.

Perhaps this reassembling must start within me. Many of my past writings have been about solutions to the ills of something called capitalism. One identifies this discrete epoch of “capitalism” and then describes the force that will destroy it. This capitalism, a logic that permeates the world, manipulates all living things for the purpose of profit/capital growth. This includes the destruction of many beings and worlds for some venal abstraction. The way it goes is that there is no agency behind these structures, the economy, the market, or “capital” are autonomous machines with their own inner programming, the businessman, workers, and politicians merely its puppets.

Usually the expositors of this story are proud that it counters ordinary common sense. Much of the uneducated instincts you can follow in youtube, or eavesdrop at the bar, blame the problems of the world on a group of people with inordinate influence, hence the prevalence of conspiracy theories. The instinctual story gives a large agency to the “puppet-masters” that are made of flesh and blood. The intellectual, such as a certain breed of Marxist, will say that deposing the flesh and blood  “puppet-masters” would not do much since the only puppet master is capital.6 How do you overthrow Capital, which is G-d?

This argument is structurally the same as the neoliberal argument. It claims that there is something called the Economy that follows certain laws of motion, and these laws of motion say that the Economy would become crippled the moment the State is used as a tool against the elite, for devaluation and capital strikes would appear.7 This “Economy”, which is based on reification of certain limited, mathematical models in textbooks, has become a favorite sword of the right-wing to defend congealed interests.

I am not claiming the scenario exposed by the neoliberals and the Marxists that parallel them is unrealistic. Instead, I would argue that what they refer to as the “Economy” or “value” is merely a power relation, imposed by a class upon the other, in other words, a human relation. The economic problems we tend to talk about, such as capital flight and devaluation, are merely questions of power and therefore freedom. By reframing this dialectic in terms of power, freedom of is injected ontologically; the scaffolding is made of humans deliberating.

One could counter my argument by saying that there is a certain impartiality of the economy.  Industry captains can’t merely price their commodities at any value they wish. Establishing more humane labor laws in their industries abroad, or socializing certain industries, would make the United States less competitive in the global market, which would deny the state important revenues that could be used to build schools or hospitals.8 Yes, in some futures, some very realistic ones, this could happen. But it’s not because of some objective “Economy” that favors certain rules over others. It’s merely a question of power.

Instead, powerful agents today are embedded in a network of power nodes, and they must compete and maneuver against other power brokers. This creates emergent tidal waves, that may sweep across the network of nodes, creating the notion of an impartial earthquake. But at the end of the day, this turbulence cannot just be categorically tamed with “laws”, and the ripples still are shaped by the hierarchy of sovereigns. This is the reason why some countries can run higher debt tallies than others, or why sometimes counterintuitive policies such as quantitative easing do not cause catastrophic inflation. And it is in this picture that one may find the answer to politics in this warming world.

Let’s come back to the “uneducated” instinct, the vector that points to conspiracy theories. The instinct is partly right but also flawed. It is a healthier instinct than the intellectualized, anthropomorphization of the “economy” and capital since it at least offers the possibility of freedom. But the flaw of this instinct is that there is no discrete entity called the elite that controls the world.

Rather, it is a continuous distribution, a gradient across a fluid of power. This gradient radiates from the billionaires at the top but also includes the professionals that monopolize certain technocratic jobs, the white families that own assets and index funds (which usually are represented in the mainstream, think of the GOP and the DNC),  and the meritocratic elites that structure the job and educational pipelines so that certain people are destined to lord over others. But even these “little” bourgeoisies are an approximation, as class power isn’t a discrete stratification but a continuous gradient. This is the problem of the slogan “against the one percent”. A social system cannot be sustained by the support of only a tiny elite. And a political project that does not bring reckoning with the current power gradient will fail in changing the story.

The solution then is to somehow nudge this class power vector into another direction, which is ultimately what Marx wanted.

III

The question of power is very deep. Nietzche thought everything was power all the way down, the immanent substance of the Universe. Hobbes referred to value as power, and Adam Smith, the father of classical political economy, approvingly cited Hobbes’ quote.

It’s a banal question as well. We identify that the state ultimately has the right to kill us, throw us into a cage, and force us to act in ways we don’t agree with. We remember the bully at school, the authoritarian father. Power has scarred all of us, and we secretly desire it.  Some of us play with these roles in the bedroom, perhaps trying to exorcize the immanence of power through the most primeval combination of sweat and blood.

Power is interwoven with freedom. Power cannot be understood as merely inertial, the violence of blind laws.  This is not because power is an endeavor of humans only; in the same way Nietzche thought power was immanent to the Universe, so is freedom, and ultimately they are both the faces of the same Ultimate. Power is arbitrariness which is freedom.

Let’s analyze how an ontology of power and freedom enriches the original story.  Global warming is often explained as a straightforward process of quasi-deterministic laws. In the last two centuries, humanity has experienced unprecedented economic growth, which economists have tied as being coupled with carbon emissions. The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts as a powerful greenhouse gas that traps the radiation from the sun, preventing the escape of heat into space. As the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, less radiation is released into space, increasing the temperature of the Earth. This increase in temperature will feed into dangerous feedback loops, such as the reduction of ice cover, or the enhancing of other powerful greenhouse gases such as water vapor and methane.

The economists then argue that global warming would cause GDP losses. Extreme events such as floods and droughts would negatively affect agriculture, livestock,  infrastructure, and health. These damages, in turn, could cause teleconnections into other sectors such as finance.9

However, this above account is impoverished in so far it occludes the role of humans deliberation, and therefore power. It does not reveal the malleability and contingency of the coupling of economic growth to carbon emissions, or our understanding of GDP. Furthermore, the entities of the Earth-system are considered inert, subject to deterministic laws.

A better and richer account could be the following. The current sovereigns of the Earth thought they could control it to do their bidding, as if the earth system, with its water vapor, oceans, ice-sheets, and cyclones, was a submissive object that will lay bare to our manipulations. The power of these sovereigns is distributed but stratified, so there is not only one king, and the emergent processes of these networks of deliberations give rise to the apparent “impartiality” and the illusion of law-like behavior. This complex distribution of power is often referred to as the “economy” or the “market”, but this conceptualization often hides the element of deliberation and freedom of its actors, subsuming them under scientific regularities. The lack of absolute monopoly over the commodities from some of the players gives the appearance of laws that exist outside the deliberation of States, notwithstanding the violent and colonial monopolies  (e.g. East Indian Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, Dutch East India Company) that emerged from the birth pangs of the current world system.

The market becomes an illusory category, a mystification of the fluid of nodes that embeds together power brokers like the state, the creatures and objects that form the Earth, and other sovereigns, human formations such as insurgent parties, activist groups, and clandestine paramilitaries, etc. Ultimately, this ensemble forms an immanent, turbulent fluid, full of vortexes, tidal waves, and shocks, horizontally wide but stratified.  One of the stratifications of this fluid is class power. Class power can be represented as a multidimensional vector along the stratification of this power-fluid. This vector not only encodes 19th-century factory bosses, or the top 0.1 percent but includes all sorts of asset holders such as mortgage holding, white families in select zip codes that concentrate the means of intergenerational wealth.

This power-fluid is alive with freedom. I stretch the term life here, for it does not only include what is referred as life by biologists, creatures with a chemically defined genetic code but also includes the turbulent ocean and atmosphere, the chemical and hydrological cycles that enshroud the Earth with clouds, the cyclones caused by the interaction of the earth’s spin with temperature gradients. Sure, some aspects of this system appear fairly predictable and therefore give the appearance of determinism and lifelessness. For example the orbit of the Earth, the trajectory of an individual electron,  the weather within one day, the job market within a month, the average lifespan of a dog. However, these systems are tractable until they aren’t, as many of them may become subject to shocks in the same way the behavior of a friend might be familiar until they fall into a deep depression. The emergence of indeterminism and stochasticity is often seen as noise, as an effect of not having enough information about the system. But this view is just a theology. Regardless of whether we find this noise as ontologically superfluous, the indeterminism still slaps us with full force. The Earth system is not behaving as it “should”, as the economy experiences shocks, love sometimes withers, and flying cars haven’t appeared but the internet has. A more interesting and useful ontology is acknowledging the freedom and agency of matter, not falling into the Christian trap of considering only humans free.

The structural determinists, such as the economists and their laws, and the Marxists and their “value” are merely tweaking the Christian theology, for the old philosophers of Christendom considered matter dead while the human being was ensouled. These economists/Marxists merely take this incorrect ontology of dead matter and include the human being (and the world system) as made of billiard balls with positions and momentum vectors assigned to them.

Against the “price distortion” and “law of value types” that think of themselves so clever because they wield vague regularities as absolute laws, power, the real immanent substance, is made of agents consciously deliberating, albeit lacking complete omnipotence, and surrounded by a fog of war. It is in the game of power where the class struggle becomes intelligible.

IV

Class power could be summarized as the strategic capture of resources of one class (Colin Drumm) over the other. Class here is a demographic description, that only becomes intelligible in the sense that it is hierarchical: a class captures resources at the expense of others. Class power should not be thought of as a discrete distribution of a couple of classes. Instead, it is a continuous distribution.

The most important theorist of class power was Karl Marx. His life’s project was to show that the economic and political stories were cons validating the most powerful class during his era: the bourgeoisie. The law, religion, ideology, and even some “science” were merely justifications of the bourgeoisie’s class power, narratives that made the strategic capture of resources of a tiny elite seem “natural”.

Those who are privileged reflect the cosmic, static order. The Chinese emperors came from Heaven, God gave the right to kings to rule, and today the elite rule because they reflect human nature. The elite embodies democratic nature to accumulate property and assets which inevitably leads to the optimal hierarchy.

Here is where the con within the stories about global warming is revealed. The current narrative of climate change is sheer class power.  Yes, the elite must acknowledge the power of the earth system to destroy the civilization they rule. But at the same time, they must remind their subjects that right now they have the highest possible standard of living, and that nudging the system too much would destabilize this standard.

In fact, it is the projection of their power that makes us addicted to their world.  For it is not only chemical or sexual dependency that their products offer, such as processed sugar, or digital porn. More importantly, they sell us the illusion that through their products we can become like them, socially recognized by the rest. The search for social recognition is ancient. Amongst certain small, indigenous egalitarian societies, “big men” try to outdo each other with gifts and potlatches to become honored. In modernity this impulse is channeled into owning larger houses, better cars, having a degree from a good University. They rob the children from their childhood so that someday they can become accomplished professionals that can be paraded in the deranged pageantry of the technocratic castes. Meanwhile, we all end up playing, touching, and caring less, for we are conned into keeping up with the Joneses.

This is not human nature, it is the product of a certain group of people trying to maintain their privileges at all costs, and the historical directionality imposed by the phenotype of that modern elite (capitalists, bankers, professionals, asset holders). It doesn’t matter that some of them may suffer in the process – their kids may kill themselves because of the pressures of grad school, or professionals may develop mental illnesses by stuffing their skull with information concerning their assets, debts, and career moves. What matters is that they are not the worst off, that people below them are more miserable.

This world that serves the elite was manufactured through deliberative actions, even if decision-makers could not be aware of all the outcomes. The stamp of the asset holders’ freedom scars every planetary entity. Therefore, It is only through the deliberative actions of the non-asset holding classes that this world can change.

V

The structures of the world are not absolute and can be nudged into a direction through the imposition of power

There is no autonomous capital that is subject to its own internal desires. There are no “objective” economic laws that the neoliberals love to hark on about. The spurious regularities of innovation, stable currency, and debt are place holders for embedded power dynamics that are linked to imperialism and the quasi-monopolies of financial systems (American and English banks), technology (intellectual property law and corporate secrets), and monetary inertia triggered by the sheer violence of world wars (the death of the gold standard, the creation of the Breton-Woods regime). It is power all the way down.  When someone talks about “innovation”, “entrepreneurship”, GDP, and inflation, chances are that they are interpreting noise (e.g. random initial conditions that gave access to important resources and tools), or mislabelling the spurious regularities of the powerful (quasi-monopolies over the financial system like the US and the U.K own).

However, the freedom of the powerful opens our own possibility of freedom. There are no blind laws that oppose the stability of the earth system, the creation of a softer and brighter world of more play and touch. The streamlines in the power-fluid that carry the world into warming are imposed by certain, powerful entities. Yet we can impose our own cyclones, jet-streams, and eddies by building channels that change the course of the fluid.

VI

The change of conversation always implies the imposition of class power. And class power is not merely words, but institutions, resources, an army – in other words, the state.

Perhaps we can find an interesting example in the Russian Revolution, as Andreas Malm noted.10 In 1917, famine scourged Russia, probably due to a climate fluctuation. The tzarist regime was too incompetent and married to the interests of landlords to be able to use the machinery of the state to solve the food distribution problem. Instead, Lenin posed the question of the workers and peasants taking power, organized through a political party, to solve the food allocation problem, since the interests of the non-propertied classes aligned with the solution. There is a pedagogic parallel to our current predicament here. The Earth-system is becoming dangerously unstable, to the point where food price variability may nudge civilization towards collapse. The state’s scaffold is too married to asset wealthy classes to be able to enact the radical changes required for a flourishing society that responsibly stewards the Earth system. Only a Party that is not subject to these interests, that is, a Party of workers, farmers, the indigenous and racialized, could realistically steward the Earth system and therefore save civilization.

If a Party of this type does not emerge, reactionary formations may occupy the vacuum left behind by environmental instability.  The far-right is excited about the incoming climate refugee crisis to help them gain support for a xenophobic ethnostate.

The question of power is intimately linked not only to the access to resources but also to how we ethically and spiritually interface with those resources. The response to climate change cannot merely be some imposed austerity in consumer goods while the power structures that interface humans between themselves and the Earth remains intact. The question of climate change can’t be resolved through the technocratic administration of resources while human relationships and the associated conceptual universe stays the same.

VII

Throughout the last century, the ruling classes have rewired our serotonin pathways to become addicted to what they offer: cheap porn, diplomas, credit, status, SUVs, and plane tickets. Meanwhile, touch, community, healthcare and permanent and secure homes are becoming more scarce. What couldn’t be more damning evidence of our screwed-up serotonin pathways than the declining rates of sexual intercourse and the ballooning debts and mortgages?  The society of the spectacle that erodes our power over our own lives is linked to the diffuse sovereignty of corporations, asset holders and real estate moguls. Meanwhile, this turbulent society is coupled with the increased instability of the earth system, leading to a warming world.

Therefore, only by building a movement armed with a political program that visualizes the totality that binds together the earth system, resource allocation (or stewardship), and the ethical dialectic between humans and the Earth can we begin to reckon with this warming world. Right now, we get caught by loose threads of the unstable system – we grasp in a piece-meal fashion at automobile culture, air travel, the meat industry, or “consumerism” in isolation; this can only generate confusion and solidify the supremacy of the elite. Meanwhile, such a political movement must instead strike into the center of this class structure, the engine that weaves many of the false narratives of climate change. Modern class power has eroded human relationships, replacing play, sexual freedom, and the dissolution of the ego into the Universe itself. Only a life-affirming politics can replace the destructive power of asset holders.

 

  1. New York Times Magazine: Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change
  2. Forbes: Does Skipping The Plastic Straw Feel Futile Against Climate Change? Help Is On The Way
  3. Vox: Bullshit Jobs: why they exist and why you may have one
  4. Energy Post: Why it’s so difficult to reduce CO2 emissions
  5. New York Times Magazine: Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change
  6. Endnotes: Communisation and Value Form Theory
  7. Forbes: The Flamboyant Absurdity of ‘Modern Monetary Theory’
  8. Brookings: Workers’ Rights: Labor standards and global trade
  9. State of the Planet: How Climate Change Impacts the Economy
  10. Andres Malm: Revolutionary Strategy in a Warming World

The Party, the Just City, and the Sacred Fire

Originally published in Cosmonaut.

 

I

We live in an epoch that is morally and intellectually mediocre. The State simply exists as a machine that administers commercial and interest groups under a squalid scheme of rule of law and private property. Being a “good politician” today means being the most effective at winning elections, and in this mercenary society where money and moral manipulation move everything, a politician that “wins elections” inevitably ends up being a virtueless person. Sometimes, this mercenary aspect of politicians is not only evident in their thirst for power and their capacity for lying, for saying what certain interest groups want to hear, but also in their stomach for violence. Many of these individuals are willing to carpet bomb entire cities simply to win the next election. The labyrinthine nature of this coordinating machine prevents common people from accessing it. Only those who are animated by mercenary purposes end up acquiring the positioning to navigate and capture the State.

The question of the “good life” does not exist in political discourse, for the political limelight is a concatenation of micro-discussions about business and demographic interests, and when a general idea is invoked, in place of flourishing as a collective activity, a spurious and violent universality is summoned, such as nationalism or rule of law.

This environment corrupts even the most virtuous of activists. For in order to mobilize against this infernal machinery, it is necessary to package actions into discrete interests that can be absorbed by the State. One may focus on climate change, trade unions, or police brutality, but the question of the “good life” is not the ultimate root of these themes. This is not because activists do not have vision, but because the fragmentary realities of the State and this society conspire against a conception of the interrelation of the Universe.

Science has demonstrated the ancient intuitions of the Taoists that the Universe is made of fluxes and potentialities, and that each one of us contains the whole World within. A human being is affected by electric, nuclear, and gravitational fields that are emitted by creatures and other entities in its surroundings; for example, the light of a star that has extinguished millions of years ago can affect our destiny today. Isn’t this causal nexus evident when clairvoyants inform their civilizations of the misfortunes reflected in the heavens?

The problem of climate change demonstrates this reality in the most intense and brutal manner, since the cumulus of interpenetrations between economic activity, the atmosphere, life, and the sun attacks us with the whole force of the Real: the mortal blow delivered against us by the assemblage of the living, the inert, and the economic.

The necessary social change that will bring flourishing and liberty is linked to being able to act in such a manner so that we can comprehend the World as it is, a totality of interrelated processes rather than the logical atoms that the Anglo-Saxon intellectuals pretend we are. This capacity to act in tandem with the consciousness of cosmic order (disorder) needs to be based in honesty and transparency, for only on the basis of democratic relations can such a movement self-comprehend itself as what it really is: a community of creatures connected between themselves and the Universe, but at the same time each creature (human or non-human) is a being capable of creating itself on the basis of the whole World contained in its heart-mind (xin).1 Once this community acquires this understanding, they will be able to act in coordination with the nature of the Universe, the latter an interwoven nexus of Mind, Matter, Liberty, and Causality. If the links that unite the creatures in this movement are turbid and corrupted, and the members cannot relate to each other in an honest and egalitarian manner, then the community will not be able to process the Universe (including themselves) in a sufficiently optimal manner to be able to act on the basis of the true structure of Being.

We will call the community born in this Modern Era that wishes to respond to the question of the “good life” on the basis of an understanding of the organic Universe, the Party. The Party prefigures the potential polis where the corporeal and mental bipolarity of Being is accepted, and where the capacity for self-creation of each creature in the Universe is recognized, in other words, the Party affirms the True Science. Doesn’t an electron act with a free creativity when it chooses a position or velocity in an indeterminate manner given the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics? The Party also acknowledges that the actual and past Universe is contained within the heart-minds (xin) of the partisans. Sometimes the idea contained in this Party is referred to as socialism, communism, or democratic republicanism. Furthermore, we recognize that the principal enemy of the Party is the Union between capitalists and technocrats that treat the human being as a simple individual separated from the Universe, conceiving of the human as only an automatic machine. Furthermore, that Falsity does not recognize the interrelation and self-creativity of all the beings in the World, and that is why it treats the planet like a mere warehouse of demographics, energy, commodities, and business interests that need to be administered by a reduced elite of industry captains and politicians. Falsity recognizes these latter beings as philosopher-kings.

II

Some words on Falsity. Falsity is the nexus of historical forces that conspire to organize a society that pretends humanity is separated within itself and from the rest of the Universe. Falsity engages in this conspiracy while it preaches a false materialism that is often referred to as “scientism”. Here lies the paradox: scientific fact understands the interpenetration of the universe (fields, nonlinearities, systems, etc.), but Falsity, basing itself in “scientism” preaches atomism and reductionism (individualism, biologically reductive explanations of race and gender, univariate linear correlations, etc.)

The material structure of this Falsity can be felt in the forests converted into plots, in the transfiguration of communal discourse into technocratic administration, and artisanal labor transformed into offices and levers. However, the total profundity of this Falsity cannot be grasped in a couple of sentences, for it reaches the ontological heart of this infernal reality.

A way to land the airplane of metaphysics on the land of corporeal Being is to historicize Falsity. One of the axes of this perspective is the historical record of the Party in its confrontation against Falsity. We shall focus only on the Western manifestations of the Party. This focus will form an incomplete history, for the Party belongs to the whole World. However, Falsity as Separation probably emerged first in the West, and therefore, a Western history will make some of the primordial structures of Separation intelligible. The Party today exists only as a potentiality, but it has been an actual occasion during various periods of Modernity, confronting Falsity.

The central sprouting of Falsity that has given coherence to its other manifestations was the enclosing of the commons: the traumatic proletarianization of the European peasantry, and the parcellation of the communal resources (e.g. forests, lands) into liquid rectangular plots that could be sold and bought. This False aspect emerged first in the 17th century in England, only to contaminate all corners of the planet in the ensuing centuries. On this occasion the plans that outline how Falsity will come to dominate are made manifest: Evil will turn the World into an altar perpetually flooded with blood, where all creatures will be sacrificed for the formation of rectangular plots and liquid treasures that will be accumulated and exchanged.

In the 19th century in Europe, this sacrificial altar began to be populated by monstrous machines that devoured proletarians: those factories that emitted fumes from their chimneys. The wheels and gears grew as they consumed the flesh and bones of human beings (Marx). Entire forests were destroyed to feed these machines with lumber, ethnic groups were displaced and exterminated to convert what was once the home of creatures into polygons of wheat.

The Eternal Return (Nietzsche) actualizes entities from the past within Separation, for historical objects are embedded in the substance of the present. For example, Separation unearthed Roman legalism from thousands of years in the past. Roman Legalism with its iron rules and private property structure the foundations of Modernity. These Roman laws, which were used to displace creatures (e.g. Gauls) and produce plots and booty for the Empire two thousand years ago, emerge in early Modernity as a catastrophic thunder.

This Roman Falsity emerged in Modernity against first the European peasants: the latter were unrooted from the land and converted into atomized and salaried entities, and their lands turned into rectangular plots that could be bought and sold. Once these methods of Separation were perfected in Europe, the same technique of Separation was used to transform the homes of human and non-human creatures in the Americas, Africa, and Asia into storages of treasures and slaves.

In this historical outline, we can see the False principles of Separation and understand the subsequent cataclysms of the West. Furthermore, with this outline, we can also comprehend the Party that emerges to oppose this Falsity. One of the actualizations of the Party flourishes in the second half of the 19th century, with Marx as its principal theorist. The Party did not only emerge to combat the Enemies of the Partisans (the bourgeois state with its soldiers, police, factories, and False intellectuals) but also attempted to form the community that prefigures the solution to the problem of Separation. In Germany, the activists of this Party began to refer each other as comrades, reflecting the desire to acquire the Unity of the Ancient Polis (filtered through the French Revolution). They created reading and sports clubs and formed trade unions: they tried to collect the fragments of peasant ruin in order to weave the proletariat into a prefigured community, into a polis. We also know that the evolution of this Party was mutilated by Falsity: by sexism, racism, and even a jingoism that would end up destroying the Party in the First World War. However, we can say that within this movement there was a Party that searched for an answer to the question of the “good life”.

I do not want to elaborate on the history of the workers’ movement in the 20th century, which was undoubtedly part of the Party’s history. This history has already been told too many times. However, I want to say a couple of words on what was the peak of Separation, the concentration of Evil and Falsity in its most pure form: National Socialism. This subject is important beyond academic curiosity, for it echoes in our collective consciousness as socialists since one of the obsessions of National Socialism was to annihilate the Party materially and spiritually. This obsession was part of the same assemblage that contained antisemitism, imperialism and white supremacy, for these three processes cannot be separated: they all emerge from the same malevolent root of Separation. Furthermore, National Socialism not only stands within the consciousness of Western Civilization as the Great Evil but also as a latent possibility, for our World-Spirit shares the same primal matter of Separation as National Socialism. Today, National Socialism is treated as a particularity of mid 20th century Germany, a singular horror. However, National Socialism was merely an occasion of acute Separation that lay within the heart-mind of Western Civilization, and that involved a practice which had been refined since the beginnings of Modernity (with the return of the Roman Armored Monster).

National Socialism not only united in annihilation and bloodbath all the primary processes of this accursed civilization, but it is also crystalized in our material structures, and therefore, it is an immanent process of this civilization. The future could reactivate this crystalized part in our material code, and mutate it into an even more monstrous process.

The first thing to note is that there are three principal ideas that define National Socialism: antisemitism, hatred for the Party, and imperial obsession for territorial expansion. The first instance is known by the average middle schooler, but the latter two are rarely elucidated in a clear manner. National Socialism, when it emerged on the streets of the 1920s, was a combat machine specialized in attacking and killing members of the workers’ movement: this machinery manifested in the famous brown shirts. When the Nazis took power, socialists and communists were among the more prominent victims of torture, extermination, and imprisonment. Hitler’s obsession against the communists was so profound, his ontological hatred so obsessive, that he waged a war of extermination against the Soviet Union, for this state represented to Hitler one of the greatest expressions of the Party (even if, in reality, the Soviet Union was also infected by the Lie of Separation). The Nazis hated the Party because the latter represented the immanence of all the humans and the World: the materialism that left all humans on the same existential plane, shoulder to shoulder, in the same continuity with atoms. In opposition, Nazi transcendentalism imposed a vertical order where whites were the “most human”, and hence, had the divine right (that they cloaked in pseudo-scientific blather) of dominating the Earth and all its beings, since the Whites were closer to the infinite heavens while the rest of the entities were chained to ground. The acquisition of absolute power was the White’s destiny.

This False ontology of the Whites as infinite beings destined to be imperial sovereigns of Earth, and the perception of a Party as the force that represents the immanent humans and the finite Universe, brings us to the subject of antisemitism. Like we said, the Nazis used transcendental theology masked as science, where a scientific-secular God imposed a “natural” order from outside. This vertical and Separated order, where humans were parcelled into nations/races and structured into a line that emerged from the ground toward the heavens, would undoubtedly contain an ontology of an enemy. This enemy is defined as the one that opposes this natural law. The Party was an enemy to this False order, for it preached that all humans are an assemblage of particles, and therefore there was no transcendental order that hierarchized them. However, the Jew, who since the medieval era has been seen as the Other of Christendom, emerged in the Modern Falsity as the Other of natural law. Natural law, rooted in blood and soil, the infinite, and vertical orders, saw the Jew as an exemplar of immanent processes of modernity. The Jew was spuriously associated with the lack of nations, financial crisis, and the other finite, modern, and material aspects that destabilized the False order of secular, modern Christians.2

However, this concept of the Jew cannot be separated from imperialism and the racial-imperial order, for this secular theology has abandoned the transcendental God only in form but not content, incorporating the Jew into the racial ontology of the Nazis. In other words, the same society that divides humans into Aryans, Blacks, and Slavs, ordering them vertically, subsumes the Jew into this order. This theology where the Earth and its creatures are made to be dominated by the Aryans, subsumes the rest of this parcelled humanity (such as Jews, Slavs, and Indigenous peoples) into a destiny in an evil racial utopia, this destiny being displacement, enslavement, and finally, annihilation. We must reiterate that this racial order was not invented by the Nazis, that the pro-empire liberals that expanded their destructive machinery in India and America had designed this spurious order, as evidenced by the hagiographic references of Hitler to the Amerindian genocide and the colonization of India. The concentration camps and the planned genocide were already in the material memory of the Europeans.3 National Socialism is simply the methods that were previously applied in America and India but mixed with the technocratic rationality of late modernity. Churchill, that imperialist and defender of white supremacy, was only separated from Hitler by the thickness of a paper. This ontological kinship was first recognized by Hitler since, before the war, he expected Great Britain to unite with him under a banner of white supremacy and hatred for Bolshevism.

In National Socialism, then, we see Separation and Falsity in their most acute manifestation. The material Separation between human and human, human and creature, human and universe, and finally Subject and Object, culminate in an explosion of a magnitude never before beheld by Earth.

The Party opposes this calamitous Separation that created National Socialism with the immanent interpenetration of all entities in the Cosmos.

III

The Eternal Return uses the material memory of the Roman Empire, with its legalism, great estates, large concentration of slaves, and imperial methods of extermination in order to structure Falsity within Modernity. The legal structure of private property was intimately connected with the imperial dynamic of Rome, for the legal concept of “empty thing” (res nullus) denoted the rules and conditions where a citizen could transform land into property by virtue of it being “unoccupied”. This Roman assemblage was catapulted into actuality through the Eternal Return, and it became involved in the massacres, conquests, and misfortunes of Modernity.

However, within our material memory, in the past that serves as primary substance of actuality, there are fragments of Being. In the same way we used the history of classical civilizations to unearth the Roman armored monster (Falsity), we can feel Being itself in the Greek legacy. This palpation produces the example of the democratic polis. The democratic polis, as a historical example of the apprehension of Being, helps us prefigure the structure of the potential Party. The content of the democratic polis can be analyzed from the ontological level to the political.

At the political level, Ellen Meiksins Wood4 has described how the polis enters into the prefiguration of the Party. According to Wood, Athens should not be understood as only a slave society, where free people based their own liberty in its negation within slaves. The Athenian democracy was a democracy of free producers, such as peasants and artisans. Finley argues that it was through class struggle that the peasantry was able to gain its liberty and citizenship rights and constrain the power of the landlords. This class struggle structured the State in a peculiar manner where the poor could leverage their citizenship in their favor. For example, according to Wood, the Greek landlords could only own small plots of land, and they could never acquire the great concentration of land and slaves that the Roman aristocracy could since the democratic structures of Athens prevented such concentration. This configuration birthed one of the most peculiar states in the West, one that was not used to extract surplus from the Athenian peasants. In other words, the slaves that existed were domestic, urban, or worked in mines, and the self-reproduction of society was in the hands of a free peasantry.

This freedom led to the famous direct democracy of the Athenian polis. The central legislative-executive body was the assembly and many of the officials were assigned either by vote or lot. This social structure was described by Plato in his Protagoras dialogue, where the reality of cobblers becoming judges is discussed openly.

This political aspect of the polis is famous and has been an inspiration for revolutionaries throughout history. However, the political aspect can only be understood in its totality not only as a formal political process but as a mode of life rooted in a correct ontology that palpated some of the surfaces of Being. This mode of life palpated Being by attempting to answer the question of what is the “good life’.

What makes this mode of life so special? Macintyre tries to answer this question by asking himself what makes it possible for the Athenians to raise the issue of the good life, in contrast to the present incoherence of that issue. MacIntyre finds the uniqueness of this mode of life in the self-consciousness of the internal interrelation of its entities (a consciousness that palpates Being), in contrast with the false self-consciousness of entities as discrete and separated. He refers to this self-consciousness as “practice”. MacIntyre describes Greek politics as a practice where the participants search for the practice’s internal goods.

Chess is a good exemplar of a practice with internal goods. The most excellent internal good of chess is victory within the game, and such a victory can only be acquired by following the rules of the game in an honorable manner. Of course, there are external goods that the victorious player can benefit from, such as fame and wealth. However, it is sensible to say that the majority of people that initially practice chess do not engage in it to enrich themselves, but rather out of love of the practice. To foment the excellence of the practice it is necessary to demand certain virtues from the players. For example, it is necessary that players are honest, and that the arbiters of the game are just, so that they apply the rules impartially. This is where virtues such as honesty, justice, and courage become necessary qualities to acquire excellence in all practices.

According to Macintyre, politics for the Greeks was a practice. The practice of the polis was structured around the question of the “good life”. The response to that question is found in the excellence of practicing politics in the context of a community of free and self-governing citizens. But all these components of practice, such as the intelligibility of the good life and excellency can only be comprehended as interpenetrated aspects of a mode of life, and cannot be separated analytically. This impossibility of analyticity is not only contained in arguments but is also within the qualities of the human being, for this being cannot persist as an individual atom, and therefore the modern doctrines that see ethical options as a function of individual autonomy, such as Kantianism or emotivism, produce an incoherent and self-deceiving life. Without the formation of a practice, politics degenerates into mercenarism, for the individuals seek external goods such as fame and power. This mercenary mode of life defines contemporary politics.

The defendants of contemporary liberalism will argue that the State cannot and should not respond to the question of the “good life”, for the answer to this inquiry is different for each individual. However, for Macintyre, this is a deception, and this argument forms part of the mercenary nature of liberalism. At the end of the day, the individuals, even the socially atomized individuals of today, still inquire about the nature of the good “life”, and outside the polis, the answers to these questions end up being incompatible: for example, those who are in favor of abortion contradict those who are not, and the State ends up violating the supposed neutrality of its position (generally for purely mercenary reasons, such as politicians wanting to win elections). In a few words, for Macintyre Greek politics are characterized by a practice that penetrates different beings of the polis, and this network of signification formed the structure where the question of the good government and good life is rendered possible. Embedded in this context, philosophers such as Aristotle could create rational arguments for the purpose of human life, for this scientific rationality was embedded in a mode of life that made the argument intelligible.

If we consider Plato’s Republic as a faithful description of the typical philosophical conversations that appeared in ancient Athens, the lack of controversy around the axiomatic assumptions that are uttered becomes impressive. For example, Socrates and his interlocutors assume with frequency the existence of functions and teleologies for objects and creatures, inclusively entities that have no creator, such as human beings, animals, body parts, etc. By telos I mean that, analogously to the purpose of a hammer being to hammer excellently, for the ancient Greek, the ear has the purpose of hearing excellently, and humans the purpose of the excellent life. These ideas are controversial in a contemporary philosophical discussion, but in antiquity they are as basic as lunar cycles. What is most impressive is that on the basis of these assumptions, the characters of these dialogues elaborate a rational and scientific discourse on subjects such as justice and the good, subjects that today are considered completely incompatible with science. In the lessons of Aristotle, one can see this scientific attitude on the issues of morality in his incisive and cold prose.

The principal condition that generates the intelligibility for a “science of the good” is interpenetration. For example, a hammer has a purpose only in the context of a world full of workshops and tools, where an interpenetration between the hammer, the human that hammers (such as a carpenter) and the other equipment (such as nails and tables). Therefore, the intelligibility of the question of the good life, which would be the purpose of the human being, only exists when the interpenetration within a community, and between the community and the Universe, are comprehended. But this understanding is not merely a speculative-intellectual activity, for comprehension only emerges when one lives in a manner where the interpenetration becomes evident. For example, due to the fact that Western societies are slaves to the Falsity of Separation, it is impossible for them to ask the question of the good life. Socrates in the Republic implies this point, where Justice and the Good can only be understood in light of the interwovenness: in reply to the indagations of Glaucon about injustice, Socrates is compelled to describe a city-in-speech, where the interwovenness between humans is made explicit, in order to elucidate the Good in a manner that would be impossible in a context with only a single soul. Finally, the civic context of post-Socratic philosophy, the one of democratic Athens, invokes tantalizing questions. The Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics did not emerge in an oligarchy such as Sparta, but in Athens, one of the most democratic societies of Western antiquity. Here we receive another hint on the nature of the community that asks the question of the Good, and this is the democratic republic. Such a polis is the only community-form that is sufficiently self-conscious of interpenetration to elaborate on the Good Life.

In order to understand this interconnection within the polis, it is necessary to understand how the Greeks intuited their own relationship with the Universe, and only in that way can we begin to resolve the puzzle of the question of the Good Life. According to the ancient Greeks, the same method of deducing the truths of the natural sciences can be applied to investigate ethical truths, and therefore, the distinction between what is and what ought to be collapses. For the Greeks, the same laws that regulate the Universe also regulate the human being. The divine fire, the logos that orders the cosmos is the same logos that orders the human soul. An exemplar of this attitude is the ancient Stoics.

The Stoics5 discovered immanence, in other words, the different aspects of the Universe were not stratified in a hierarchy but were interwoven. For the Stoics, the Universe is composed of two increated principles (archai). The first one is inert matter. The second is pneuma, the sacred fire that animates the otherwise inert matter, and it is identified with reason. God is associated with the pneuma as the eternal Reason. God is a vital fire, the sperm that contains the first principles, the seed from whence the Universe flourishes. God is a corporeal and organic entity that spreads outwardly, penetrating and animating matter, and as an organism, it flourishes, reproduces, and withers, concatenating the Universe in a series of word-cycles. The Eternal Return is identified by the Stoics, in the same way it was identified by Nietzche thousands of years later: past occasions of the world-cycles have the potentiality of actualizing in the present: the global warming that terminated with the last glacial period, the imperialism and private property of the Romans, the extinction events that annihilate species in an instant, and the holocaust of the indigenous of America actualized in Auschwitz.

The divine fire is the immanent substance that gives form to otherwise inanimate objects, that makes plants blossom, and that forms the soul of animals and the reasoning of human-animals. Finally, the fire contains the Universal in its expansive movement and the Particular in its contractive motion. In other words, the immanent substance of God folds and moulds itself into the differences and granularity that we see in the Universe, that idea that the Eternal Return implemented in the brain of Spinoza.

It is important to understand that the pneuma is a substance of elastic, corporeal, and mobile properties, and not something that transcends this world. The human being is structured by this substance, and therefore the same fire that animates its actions is the same divine light that makes plants blossom and that supports the firmness of planets. However, this fire takes the shape of reason in the human being, and this defines human nature.

This is the context where the question of the Good life develops for the Stoics. The question of the Good life can only be answered not only when the human being is understood as inhabiting a polis, but at the same time, where God, the divine fire, penetrates all human beings and embeds them in the same divine network alongside the trees and planets, while at the same time constitutes all these entities. The Stoics saw the good life as living in accordance to this nature, and did not make a distinction between what is and what ought.

This recognition of the qualities of immanence and interpenetration as fundamental aspects of the Universe, and at the same time, the context that must be recognized and lived in accordance with in order to uncover the Good, are not contributions unique to the Greeks. Historical materialism recognizes that similar modes of life can emerge in different spatial and temporal coordinates (exemplifying eternal return): for example, it’s probable that certain pre-Columbian communities in the modern-day Americas approximated themselves to the democratic polis, where these peoples recognized the immanence between them and the Universe. This can be seen in the democratic communities that emerged in North America, such as those that grouped themselves around the famous Haudenosaunee confederation. Some of these federations maintained a sacred fire in their capitals, where representatives of different peoples swore to keep their word before the spirits. It may be that the Eternal Return transformed the pneuma of the stoics into the sacred fire that animated these peoples, or vice versa.

IV

However, the Greeks were also affected by Separation to the point that their palpation of Being was fatally constrained. Politically, this was evident in the existence of a slavery predicated on democratic citizenship, and in the complete abjection of women. The mortal malaises of that society were reflected in the metaphysics of their Universe: even if they recognized the interpenetration of the Universe, and some (like the Stoics) had inclusively discovered immanence, their Universe was carceral, lacking freedom. The divine fire, the seed, or God, was subject to iron laws. In spite of the discovery by some Greek philosophers of the freedom immanent in matter, such as that of Epicurus and his famous “swerve”, the latter a process where a particle that moved in a straight line could suddenly change its trajectory, the Universe of ancient Greeks was a deterministic one. Whitehead6 7speculates that this deterministic Universe was correlated with the tragical temperament of the Greeks, that culture that invented the modern tragedy: the perspective that the misfortunes of humans were produced by a necessary and pitiless destiny. Furthermore, Whitehead argued that the mechanistic (and False) Universe of the Enlightenment was rooted in this Greek attitude, an attitude they inherited from the Church’s schoolmen in a dissected and mutated form.

The false aspects of Ancient Greece, like determinism, slavery, and patriarchy, show that it is not possible to assume that the ancients were closer to Being, which was a fatal mistake Heidegger made. Even without assuming a teleology of history, it is probable that the misfortunes and class struggles that actualized after Antiquity were necessary for the formation of a Party that could fight for the freedom of everyone, and therefore, against Falsity. The Party contains the potentiality of a Just City illuminated by the rays of Being, transcending the Separated Greek example.

For Whitehead, the Greek model of immanence can only be completed when recognizing another fundamental aspect of the Universe: Creativity. Continental philosophers baptized this aspect as Freedom. Yet, for modern Westerners, in as much as Freedom is accepted as ontologically real, it is often only aligned with the Mind, with the material world outside our consciousness being assumed as slave to principles and propositions. The Cartesian philosophers were so mutilated by Separation, that they had to design an ontology of fragmentation, where freedom was caged inside Mind (freedom of will) and the extended matter was subject to a pitiless destiny. For example, Kant argued that freedom was part of that noumenal reality beyond perception, for the phenomenal reality of the sciences was subject to necessary laws: he changed the iron bars for gold bars, but without transforming the carceral nature of Western ontology. Creativity is contained in the interior of the Mind, where liberty inevitably withers and dies. The only hope these Christians had was Death, for only the decay of their corpses was capable of unchaining & releasing their spirits into the heavens, outside this miserable matter-world they considered inert.

However, the incarceration of freedom inside the Mind is one of the Falsities of Separation. There is no evidence, whether philosophical or scientific, that negates freedom as inherent to the Universe, even with simple particles such as electrons or quarks. The modern version of determinism in the Universe was first based on the Cartesian theories of matter, and today in a vulgar interpretation of Newtonian Physics. The contemporary ontologies begin with the arbitrary judgments that our minds can be reduced to inert matter, instead of assuming that mind may be ontologically basic, and interwoven with matter. In other words, there is no reason to not assume that mental processes are immanent to the Universe: an attribute interwoven with the corporeal, where the mental does not only penetrate the consciousness of humans but is also inherent to such a simple entity as an electron. This does not mean that the mental processes of an electron are as complicated as ours, but that the assumption of ex nihilo actualization of human mentality is arbitrary and not based on empirical evidence. Even the most modern version of this determinism, that sees Mind as the complex emergence of matter is rooted in ex nihilo, since even when the phrase ex nihilo is replaced by “complex emergence” the division between Mind and Matter is still assumed, albeit in a more confusing manner.

Inclusively in the formal methods of physics indeterminism is inherent. For example, in quantum objects, it is impossible to exactly predict position and velocity given that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle makes quantum physics fundamentally probabilistic. In other words, an electron does not behave as a billiard ball but can choose between possible futures, even if all these futures are rooted in its past. Even in the macroscopic context, the majority of the systems are chaotic, or in other words, they are so sensitive to their initial conditions that their future cannot be computed. In general, a more complex system than that of two particles that interact is chaotic (for example, a system made of two planets and a star). Therefore, the combination of chaos and quantum physics leads to a Universe that is fundamentally undetermined, for the quantum effects that make the positions of electrons and quarks undetermined propagate to the macroscopic level of animals and planets due to the extreme sensibility of initial conditions.

For Whitehead, causality should not be understood as something necessary, as a process that should be deduced from first principles. Instead, causality is a judgment process where entities decide, based on their past, the manner in which they will actualize. In other words, an electron judges how to actualize itself in the future based on the interpenetrations of all entities in the universe, and although this judgment has an element of non-determination, it is not a process that is totally unconstrained and free and must be partly a function of the occasion of the past. The ontological method of Whitehead is fundamentally that of empathy, instead of assuming that non-human entities, like slugs, the stars or the climatic system, are fundamentally different from us, it’s more fruitful to expand the concept of our experience into the interior lives of these entities. By doing so, many of the tensions of modern philosophy, such as subject-object, mind-matter, and religion-science, are resolved.

My wife S1gh3org summarized the problem that the freedom of matter poses to humanity in the following manner. We thought we were masters and suzerains of the Earth, but today we face the planet’s vengeance: the climate-system rebels against our spurious sovereignty, and our pretensions of knowledge of this World collapse. Instead of dwelling on the Earth in a manner that allows the trees, the creatures, and the clouds to interweave with us, and opening our heart-minds to the sacred fire, we conceive of ourselves as Minds separated from the rest of the Universe, perceiving the Earth as a simple storage of treasure that must be ransacked and manipulated.

Now that we account for the free nature of matter, we can come back to the question of the democratic republic, unearthed by our Athenian example. What makes the democratic republic the ideal form, outside these empirical examples? The democratic republic organizes itself as a fractal of the Universe itself, and therefore palpates Being. First, the democratic republic exists in a plane of immanence, where there is no hierarchical, transcendental authority that shapes the polis, no Emperor appointed by the Heavens, no technocrat appointed by Expertise. In the Universe, there is no hierarchy of energy nor matter, no special value appointed to the stars or creatures with opposable thumbs. Difference appears from relations, it is not imposed by outer hierarchies. Second, the democratic republic acknowledges the interrelation of human beings. Democratic deliberation can only appear where entities acknowledge their interwovenness in a greater structure, but at the same time acknowledge the differentiation between themselves. The republic, the Just City, should organize itself as a fractal of the Universe itself, where entities are interwoven by fields, even if the entities themselves have a degree of differentiation. Third and finally, the democratic republic acknowledges the freedom of its creatures, which is isomorphic to the freedom of matter.

V

The Party is the potential community that promises to combat Separation and to create the conditions where the question of the Good can be pronounced, and consequently, resolved. The question of the Good becomes imperative since the form of life that we uncritically maintain is leading us into a mortal collision with the planet, that will not only cause the annihilation of creatures due to droughts, fires, hurricanes, and floods but will also lead to chain reactions that will dislocate economic, social and food systems on which the reproduction of humankind depends. Here is where the destructive part of the planet’s freedom manifests: a stochastic and unpredictable attack against us, the false suzerains of a matter that never accepted to be our slave.

The Party that has actualized itself on various occasions, such as the workers’ movements of the 19th and 20th century, promises to terminate Separation through the prefiguration of the Just City. Prefiguration in the sense that even if the City cannot be actualized immediately, the Party contains the City as a potentiality in the manner it organizes itself. This potentiality is found in the manner in which the Party promises to fight in the name of the Earth and all its creatures against Separation, using all possible means: from activity in the streets and workplaces to the elections and the State itself. In the same way the ancient communities of ancient Greece and pre-Columbian America discovered, and the revolutionaries of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century rediscovered, the Party prefigures the democratic republic, for only a community that is self-conscious of the interpenetration of its members can comprehend the interwovenness between human beings and the Universe. Finally, it is not improper to assume that only human beings that attempt to be free can comprehend the freedom inherent in matter, and therefore, fight for a form of life relating ourselves to the Earth as kin.

  1. “In early Chinese thought, xin, which refers to the physical heart, is regarded as the site of both cognitive and affective activities. It is translated sometimes as “heart”, sometimes as “mind”, and in recent literature often as “heart/mind” to highlight the different aspects of the activities of xinXin can form certain directions, which can take the form of long term goals in life or more specific intentions.” From: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/mencius/
  2. Postone, M. (1980). Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to” Holocaust”. New German Critique, (19), 97-115.
  3. Fritz, S. G. (2011). Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East. University Press of Kentucky.
  4. Wood, E. M. (2015). Peasant-citizen and slave: The foundations of Athenian democracy. Verso Books.
  5. Baltzly, Dirk, “Stoicism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/stoicism/&gt;.
  6. Whitehead, A. N. (1925). Science and the Modern World Lowell Lectures, 1925.
  7. Whitehead, A. N., & Sherburne, D. W. (1957). Process and reality (pp. 349-350). New York, NY: Macmillan.

The climate crisis calls for a planetary politics

DMReturns_2880x1620-Lede-2880x1620

Originally published in Briarpatch Magazine.

I

Global warming connects the local and the global. As Canada dumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a rate of 22 tonnes per person each year, sea levels in Bangladesh rise, swallowing coastal communities.

Instead of tackling political affairs as a question of nation-states, the climate crisis calls for a planetary politics. In other words, we need to think of ways to organize that transcend our countries’ borders, to complement and reinforce local organizing that’s already happening on the ground. By this, I mean: a world democratic socialist republic.  

No longer can transnationals, banks, and politicians command inordinate power over the fate of all life, and tear our Earth apart for the venal goal of profit. The majority will become stewards of the land, oceans, and major industries, and will manage them for the good of the planet and the humans and other living beings that inhabit it.  

II

We have inherited our national borders from wars, parcellation of whole continents by imperialists, and the breakdown of empires. For decades, nation-states have been competing for razor-thin margins, ransacking the cheapest natural and human resources on the planet.  

Right now, our fragile and unpredictable world system is controlled by a world oligarchy, leading to what’s called core-periphery relations. Core countries like Canada and the United States are wealthy states that can command much of the world’s economy. They can basically monopolize highly technical processes through a combination of trade secrets, intellectual property law, and state sponsorship. For example, Canada, the United States, and Western Europe held 34 per cent of world’s refinery capacity of oil and gas in 2017, while representing 7 per cent of the world’s population. Peripheral countries are forced to buy back the raw resources as more expensive finished goods.

Core economies also host the headquarters of transnational companies. Although the presence of these transnationals may extend across countries, the main logistical decisions are made in the core economies. Gold mining giant GoldCorp, which is headquartered in Vancouver, received over 1.5 billion dollars in revenue from the mines they own in Latin America in 2016. Its impending merger with its Denver-based rival Newmont will create the world’s biggest gold mining company.  

Peripheral countries are forced to sell their workers’ labour and resources, without safeguarding the dignity of workers and the environment, since they need U.S. dollars – the world’s reserve currency, used in international transactions – to be able buy technology, refined resources like gasoline, and other capital intensive products from core states. This core-periphery dynamic gives rise to the hellish conditions of textile factories in Bangladesh or Mexico, the cobalt mines that employ child labourers in the Congo, and the agri-business giants that spray Argentinian farming communities with cancer-causing herbicides.

Even leftist governments elected in core countries are still forced to maintain a competitive economy under capitalist terms. They need to produce and sell commodities in the world market in order to get U.S. dollars they can use to buy products from the outside, as no country can produce everything that it consumes. This makes it so that even nominally leftist governments may be compelled to steal land from Indigenous peoples, enforce austerity, implement anti-worker laws in the hopes of increasing productivity, and engage in the ransacking of the periphery.  

Plus, virtually all nation-states are run by an alliance of the business elite and politicians. In so-called “democratic” countries, public posts are shuffled amongst a small pool of elites who hoard the wealth and networks necessary to run viable political campaigns – think of the Clintons, or the Trudeaus. And modern “democracies” generally don’t allow for the self-government of localities, where power would bubble from the local level upwards to the national level. In Canada, this can be seen in the way the federal government routinely violates treaties and the sovereignty of First Nations through the extraction of natural resources and the imposition of oil pipelines.

III

A state accountable to workers, Indigenous peoples, and peasants around the world can only take the form of a democratic republic – one that balances self-governing localities with global structures. Localities should be allowed to achieve as much self-sufficiency and autonomy as possible, and the administration of local services and resources should be left to them.

Meanwhile, capital intensive industries that require logistical chains across large scales, like the energy industry, would be administered and owned democratically by the world republic. Global, socialized management would make it possible to wind down the fossil fuel industry and invest its final profits in green energy.

In order to abolish the unaccountable class of professional politicians, all important public posts should be electable, recallable, and term-limited, and individuals should be prohibited from running for too many posts during their lifetime.

The autonomy of localities and the global socialization of large-scale industries would undermine the tendency of large states to become centralized and authoritarian (like in the cases of the Roman and American Empires). It will lead to the self-determination of Indigenous groups and other ethnic minorities by allowing them to manage their homelands. All of this while opening the door for cooperation on large-scale, logistically complex, international projects.  

IV

It’s true that all sorts of political changes would have to occur to create the conditions for a world socialist government. But we’ve already seen regional movements emerge and transcend the nation-state – the next step is for them to coalesce into global polities. Historically, many social movements took a continental character – like the anti-imperialist struggles in 19th century Latin America that culminated in the short-lived state of Gran Colombia, and the spikes of socialist, working class militancy that swept across European borders in the 1910s and 1920s and led to the Italian Biennio Rosso, the German Revolution, and the Russian Revolution. Today internationalist solidarity movements that struggle against American military intervention, climate change, and the occupation of Palestine are a testament to this tendency. In fact, the old socialist movements of the First, Second, and Third International created far-reaching organizations that could coordinate internationalist struggle with the loyalty of millions of workers.  

Recent history has already shown that the world plutocracy will pursue profit at all costs, even if it leads to massive inequality, environmental destruction, and humanitarian crises. The only way to fight the destructive power of the elite is for those that have a stake in the planet’s future – the disenfranchised majority – to take over the world economy with democratic and transparent institutions. This political program takes the form of the world socialist republic: the global, participatory stewardship of the earth, seas, and sky.

 

 

Who Thinks Abstractly? 2.0

Originally published by my friends at Cosmonaut:

Soviet poster from 1923, reads “Let Us Unite All the Forces of Science with the Creative Energy of the Working Class”

For too long there appeared a conflict between what seemed to be eternal, to be out of time, and what was in time. We see now that there is a more subtle form of reality involving both time and eternity. 

Prigogine, describing physical non-equilibrium systems.

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that A building is not finished when its foundation is laid; and just as little, is the attainment of a general notion of a whole the whole itself. When we want to see an oak, we are not satisfied to be shown an acorn instead. In the same way science, the crowning glory of a spiritual world, is not found complete in its initial stages.

Hegel

I

The world is complicated and opaque. The old societies, such as hunter-gatherer tribes or agricultural communities, could comprehend themselves in a more total way than modern societies. We may understand better today the laws that rule the natural universe, laws that we have been able to manipulate to send man to space, impregnate the air with electromagnetic waves that carry instantaneous messages, and annihilate whole cities with the mass-energy of atoms. But the self-comprehension of ourselves as a society is lower than in antiquity, for today’s laws that make the community flourish are sunken below layers of complexity and abstraction. In ancient cities, like Rome, or Athens – or inclusively in the urbanization projects of many developing countries of the 20th century – the restrictions that inhibited flourishing were well known. For the destiny of communities was rooted in their capacity to create the calories and housing necessary to sustain a population, and these activities were constrained by the capacity of agriculture to create sufficient flows of energy.

Today, our bodies and spirits are subject to many complex and contradictory forces, that sometimes lead to tidal waves that submerge our destinies beneath emergent properties of which we have very little control or understanding. Even the economic elites, with their capital and firms, only have partial epistemological access to the chain reactions that their activities can unleash. These actions can lead to financial chaos, the elite’s capital devaluation, or mediatic crisis. Another complexity nexus is how our biological bodies react before the abstract layers and terraforming created by the capitalist world-system. We are evolved animals, produced by natural selection, but we are also abstract animals programmed by the semi-autonomous systems created by modern civilization, including its landscapes of concrete, glass, and steel. Trying to grasp the specific mechanisms that mould the human spirit is a very complex task.

In other words, we human beings are subject to microphysical mechanisms, constrained by particularities like “free” choices and biological processes, but we are also regulated by macroscopic forces that are universal and abstract, such as financial systems, history, culture, and the market. This dialectic of the particular and universal cannot be dissected surgically, for the microphysical and macrophysical aspects are in communication with each other, generating an interrelation that is not easy to disassemble.

The cosmos is living and palpitating, in constant flux. For example, the worlds of the hunter-gatherer and the 21st-century cybernetic-worker are entirely different universes, even if there are similarities rooted in the human being’s evolved animality. However, today’s self-mythology of modernity is based on inert and linear laws. This is due to the victory of the technique, which had triumphed in the 19th and 20th century. Chemistry, electromagnetism, and nuclear physics could be manipulated to create a world filled with light, machines, and mechanical monsters that devour human bodies. This capacity of the technique to convert a forest into a storehouse of energy created a class of enthusiastic intellectuals that wanted to apply it to every class of problems. In other words, they wanted to violently convert the universe into a mechanical clock.

In all disciplines, inclusively in those not related to the natural sciences, this tendency towards the technique can be seen in the dissection of a substance into its analytic parts. However, the properties of the natural sciences are different from those of the human body and its mind. In the case of the systems of natural sciences, the problems studied are linear and static. Linear in the sense that the system can be approximated as the sum of its parts. For example, in many calculations involving elementary particles such as electrons or photons, the system can be approximated as the sum of its parts, and this makes possible a very precise mathematical study. Since many systems that are studied in the natural sciences can be approximated in this manner, the technique, that method that dissects the substance into digestible units, proved enormously useful in the investigation of the natural universe. However, the social world is an accumulation of interrelations, emergent properties, and totalities, and cannot be approximated as the sum of its parts (a linear system). In other words, the human totality is an assemblage of biological, historic, and economic processes, and cannot be disassembled that easily.

However, given the predominance of the technique, many intellectuals, scientists, and opinion makers have enthusiastically pushed it as a method to study the bio-historical-geographical assemblage that is society, trying to linearize the problem as if we were just a cumulus of electrons and quarks in steady-state, without taking into account the nonlinear, emergent properties and feedbacks. This tendency towards linear equilibrium not only is fundamentally naive but also encourages very conservative and reactionary thinking. Indeed, if this world can be explained as a product of unchanging, static universalism, then the impulse to change it for a freer and more dignified cosmos becomes an affront to science itself. Since I think this approach is not only fundamentally wrong but also imposes unfreedom – as the heart is merely reduced to electrons, springs, and wheels – I find that it is my duty to combat this cretinization. Furthermore, I also noticed that there is a tendency in both thought and activism to challenge this linear thought by pretending the world is just flux and difference, dismissing universal patterns and properties.

Curiously, I learned that our world is pulsating with life, light and change from science itself, as my doctorate in physics ultimately concerned the fate of nonlinear systems. A nonlinear system is ultimately a coupling of both the universal and particular. At the microscopic level, there is indeed difference and particularity, such as the random motion of particles, but this apparent individuality gives rise to macroscopic phenomena, that in turn influence the trajectory of these microscopic world-lines. Nonlinear thought tries to grasp the coupling of both the particular and universal, for a non-linear system is more than the sum of its parts, yet the behavior and properties of each individual part become relevant too.  Therefore, this article is concerned with a study of the origins of this reductionist impulse to either reduce the world to the universal, or in the opposite case, the particular, and how a living and nonlinear thought should, in turn, supersede this impulse.

Designs for a monument to Issac Newton by Etienne-Louis Boullée

II

In philosophy, the technique emerged in the form of analytic philosophy in the Germanic countries, where the old form of philosophizing, which was impregnated with historicity, literature, and forests of concepts, was replaced by a philosophical program that wanted to reduce the world into logical atoms. Although the seed of this philosophical technique can be found in the work of Descartes, for in his “Discourse of Method” he explicitly describes the method of reducing a system into its atomic parts so that it can be analyzed (the geometric method), this seed did not become totalizing until the 20th century.

This assault against traditional philosophy began with the criticisms against Hegel and Heidegger launched by English and German philosophers. In England, Russell rebelled against the Hegelian-inspired idealism that was popular in that era, to replace it with a research program that exchanged the ambiguous language of traditional philosophy with logical precision. This logical-mathematical language was inherited from Frege, a mathematician-philosopher from the 19th century whose project was to reduce arithmetic to a logically consistent system that could be derived from axioms. In Germany, Carnap severely criticized the language of Heidegger, for Carnap thought the utterances of Heidegger lacked sense and were misuses of language that could indicate the emotional state of the utterer but not describe the world. These positivist philosophers wanted to reduce the world to logical and atomistic propositions that could be verified with empirical observations.

The project of logical-atomism that emerged in the early 20th century is considered a failure by philosophical consensus, but its technical spirit persists in that impulse to reduce the world to thought experiments on a canvas emptied of history. For example, one of the most famous analytic philosophers of the second half of the 20th century, John Rawls, developed a theory of justice where the initial assumption of his thought experiment was a “veil of ignorance” where the citizen has no knowledge of their social, cultural, and psychological position in relation to other members of society. I will not affirm that Rawls’s methods cannot be useful in specific contexts, but it still demonstrated that tendency to linearize the world into a thought experiment, ignoring the nonlinearities of history. Given that the political world is nonlinear, and is more than the sum of its parts, the true materialist dialectic must grasp the interactions between the abstractions of history and the particularities of individuals, not just reduce the problem to a geometric derivation.

III

Another example of thought infected by linear technique is economics. The political economy of the 19th century, which studied the couplings between social classes, and the value and labor chains that began in agriculture and ended in factories, has been marginalized to the remote wing of only a few university departments. Today, the economy focuses on mathematical functions of utility that are maximized in order to calculate agent preferences and Walrasian equilibrium. In other words, the destiny of mankind, with all its historical, institutional and cultural dimensions, is reduced to mathematical functions, equilibrium and stationary state assumptions.

These assumptions exist because they linearize the problem, approximating it into something similar to those systems that are already well understood in the natural sciences. However, these assumptions that treat the economy as a linear problem end up converting the abstract mathematical model into a concrete policy objective, especially after the economic shock of the 70s. In other words, Washington tried to submit the rich and nonlinear complexity of developing countries to the violence of a myopic universality. For example, the policies of developing countries focused on the liberalization of the market due to models of Walrasian equilibrium that were in fashion in that era. The state intervention that was ubiquitous in developing economies, including such policies as fiscal expansion and import-substitution, was criticized for distorting the market, and therefore triggering scarcities of commodities.1 Anglo-Saxon economists counseled Latin American countries to liberalize their economies, pointing at the economic growth experienced by some countries in Eastern Asia (e.g. Singapore, South Korea, China).

This linear and abstract thinking wishes to submit the chaotic world to the violence of universality, yet, it was unable to capture the historicity of developing countries, which goes beyond tepid Walrasian equilibrium. The economic liberalization of Latin America did not birth the economic growth that was expected, but caused contractions, inequality, and slow growth.2 A more materialist analysis of Asian economies would reveal that the liberalization narratives of those Western economists were simply a caricature. In all of those Asiatic countries, the government intervened in an extreme manner that countered the counsel of Washington, to the point that such intervention contradicted Anglo-Saxon economic orthodoxy. According to the models of Washington, governmental presence of such magnitude would lead to great distortions of the market, producing inefficiencies and scarcities. However, these Asian countries instead experienced great economic development thanks to state planning.

An example of the misjudgments of these economists is the case of South Korea. While the marginalists argued that South Korea experienced an explosive economic growth thanks to market liberation, more accurate studies found that the state had great control of the most important industries.3 Even if the state did not possess these industries in a legalistic and transparent manner (the only manner intelligible to Anglo-Saxon brains with their myopia of formal structures), the state manipulated them for the accomplishment of discrete and planned objectives. A great part of this planning was possible because the state controlled the financial system and could manipulate corporate incentives through discretional credits.4 In fact, some economists saw the relation of the state to firms as forming one organization, where firms were simply internal organs of a corporate association between them and government.

Other Asian examples demonstrate even more the deficiencies of Western orthodoxy. For example, all the economists that see the growth of China as evidence of the supremacy of the free market are blinded by their fidelity to Anglo-Saxon abstractions. Other more nuanced thinkers have argued that the current growth of China is rooted in the base of the “socialist” state imposed in the 50s, when China adopted the Stalinist model, since this was an era where a rational state capable of organizing society under a unitary plan was erected.5 Today, the plan of the Chinese Communist Party is to be open to the global market, but this process is imposed through planning that is possible due to the Stalinist base of the state.6  Furthermore, a great part of capital-intensive industry is still controlled by the state.

Finally, the experience of the USSR can be seen as a refutation of many of the precepts of marginalism. The USSR did suffer from inefficiencies and scarcities, and thus it could be said that it did not obtain the Walrasian equilibrium between supply and demand, but even then the country industrialized extremely quickly, destroying illiteracy, unemployment and turning into an industrial power. Finally, a great part of this growth happened when the majority of the capitalist world was sunken into a depression.

I do not want to justify the experiences of Asiatic countries and the USSR as examples that must be followed, I simply seek to show how myopic and incorrect economic orthodoxy is. Given its violent abstractions, it was incapable of grasping the roles of culture, state, and economy that a genuinely materialist and dynamic thought comprehends. Given these concrete nonlinearities, the counsel of Washington’s economists led many developing countries to inequality, economic contraction, and slow growth. The Anglo-Saxon technocrat linearized concrete reality in the economic periphery through coercion and the spillage of blood, in the form of military dictatorships and economic blockades.

the USSR showed a non-capitalist form of industrialization and development in action

IV

Until now, I have only focused on the linearity of philosophy and the social sciences. However, the same reductionist impulse can be found in some corners of psychology and genetics. This tendency is to reduce the destiny of mankind to microscopic variables – specifically biological ones – a  tendency manifests itself at various levels of intensity. In the field of behavioral genetics, there exists a legitimate scientific debate (erroneous, in my opinion, which I will explain later) about what is nature versus nurture. For example, there is a consensus that our psychology and behavior is partially inherited, where inheritance explains about thirty to fifty percent of our behavior.7 Yet, inherited variables do not necessarily have a biological origin, for example, cultural aspects can also be inherited. As a matter of fact, the most advanced techniques of behavioral genetics, such as thestatistical correlation of clusters of genes to intelligence, only find correlations of five to ten percent.8

Therefore, these studies have only been able to demonstrate a correlation with a percentage that, in the best of cases, is of fifty percent, but without being able to show that these inherited variables have biological origin. This limitation has not stopped scientists like Robert Plomin of proclaiming that our behavior is determined mostly by our biology, and that neither therapy nor environment can change this fact.9 A related argument is the divergence of behavior between different sexes, for example, the paucity of women in the mathematical sciences, that some psychologists correlate with biological variables.10

In a milieu outside scientific legitimacy, there exist extremists that give a radical and macro-economic twist to these statistical correlations. I have analyzed this style of argument in a previous article.11 Basically, the most extreme versions of this perspective try to explain socio-economic divergences between the core and periphery as a function of pseudo-biological variables such as intellectual quotient. These thinkers also blame poverty of certain demographics on genetics, arguing that certain races are less intelligent than others. These viewpoints are not orthodox and only exist in the internet periphery, or are uttered by a few scientists that aren’t accepted entirely in the community of scientific legitimacy.

Rather than arguing against these extremist-racists, which I have done in a previous article, I want to return to the debate of nature versus nurture.12 In my opinion, to grasp the problem as one of biological inheritance versus environmental attributes is an inadequate scheme. The human being is integrated in a nonlinear manner to its environment, where the biological parameters interact with the social and material geography of the world, influencing each other mutually, so that disentangling the interaction into isolated poles is probably impossible.

A contemporary advance that demonstrates these nonlinearities is epigenetics, where environmental parameters determine which parts of the genetic code express themselves phenotypically, and these epigenetic modifications can be inherited even when in theory they do not change the DNA. For example,  research has shown that stressful environments can impose epigenetic modifications on an organism.13

Some psychologists have begun to understand that the scheme of nature versus nurture is erroneous. For example, scientists in the field of child development have sketched how genetic and epigenetic factors interact with early childhood experience, and how this interaction leads to the structuring of neural connections and moulds the manner in which complex and mental activity is effectuated. In other words, these scientists developed a nonlinear theory of childhood development as a function where both biology and environment are coupled.14

In conclusion, in the same way orthodox economists cannot grasp the world system as a dynamic organism filled with historicity, for they submit it to dead and steady-state laws, those who try to explain the destiny of the human being as a simple function of biological parameters do not grasp the nonlinearities of Homo sapiens as a being embedded within its historical-geographic surroundings. In other words, these thinkers entertain false and vulgar materialism. A sophisticated materialism would grasp how the biological processes are interrelated with the environment, influencing each other. Nafis Hasan described these limits of biological determinism and presented dialectical materialism as a method of understanding nonlinearities.15

Genetic determinism is challenged by findings in the field of genetics itself

V

While the technicians have erred in abstracting the world under universalism, there are those who oppose this abstract realm by enshrining the particular and different. For example, activist and intellectual movements of the Left celebrate the microphysical and particular to oppose the centralization of capital and the American empire. In this type of thought, macrophysical properties that emerge from microphysical processes, and at the same time mould and constrain the microphysical, are not taken into account. In the case that these macrophysical-universal processes are considered, they are perceived as obstacles to freedom, and therefore, fragmenting them becomes imperative. This fetishization of the particular emerges in pure thought and also in political activism. Its origins can be pinpointed to the continental philosophy of the 20th century. Heidegger, at the beginning of the 20th century, rebelled against the abstract and calculating thought of the West in order to push forward a philosophy that emphasized intuition, the immediate environment, and the particular culture.

The great abstraction of the West, the desire to catalogue and describe entities in a systematic manner, was seen by Heidegger as an obstacle which prevented the disclosing of Being in a more holistic and immediate sense. Instead of tapping into truth through speculative-abstract thought, Heidegger saw the authentic being as rooted in the destiny of blood and soil – in the existential confrontation before Death.

Heidegger’s students informed the French philosophy of the second half of the 20th century. In the world of French post-structuralism, logical meshes did not constrain entities, but entities existed in a universe of fluxes, multiplicities, and difference. These processes in flux could only be investigated at the local level since, according to these philosophers, theory became unintelligible and unstable at the global level. For Foucault, local networks of power constrained knowledge. Derrida considered all conceptual infrastructure, such as science or Marxism, to be unstable. The universe of Deleuze was one of fluxes of energy, matter and signs, where unstable nodes could exist, but not universal laws.

However, the materialist, informed by natural sciences, knows that the laws that rule the universe are interconnected across various scales, and that macroscopic scales influence the microscopic scales and vice versa. For example, gravity, which distorts space and time, regulates cosmic scales, creating cobwebs of stars and light. In these cobwebs, spherical bodies of gas and rock pulsate, their perfectly round forms a function of the radial symmetry of gravitational force. However, the radius, temperature, and mass of these stars, planets or compact objects are caused by atomic processes that interact with gravity, such as the nuclear force between protons and neutrons, or the concentration of electrons. In this cosmic dance, the microscopic laws of quantum mechanics, and the macroscopic laws of gravity are in communication, influencing each other mutually. An authentic materialist assumes that humanity, including its collective spirit, is an emergent property of elementary particles such as quark and gluon fields, but at the same time, the social abstractions and material geographies created by mankind, such as the economy, urban spaces, and history, constrain the flux of these elementary particles. In summary, war, waged by Homo sapiens, develops the nuclear bomb that turns human bodies into vaporized carbon. Modern capitalism, that accumulation of human actions, emits photons and electrons that unite the whole world in a network of finance and communication.

This local thought also informs today’s politics. On the left, particularism manifests as the destruction of universal programmatism, like that embodied by the parties of the Second and Third International. Instead of internationalism and the struggle for the universal and socialist republic, localism, nationalism and fragmentary struggles are fetishized. An example of this phenomenon has been the European left, which sees the struggle against neoliberalism as manifested in secession from the European Union and in the affirmation of national sovereignty.

With liberals in the United States, sometimes this thought process manifests itself as the glorification of small businesses, the movement of organic farming, and the irrationalism against scientific medicine.

This reaction against universalism is understandable from a left perspective, for the bloody history of modernity is tied to empires that violated and pillaged the world with “enlightened” pretensions. Yet, materialist thought grasps that national sovereignty is illusory, for there exists a world economic system that traverses the borders of nation-states, and even if these states have the capacity to manipulate some endogenous variables in their territory, the destiny of these national economies is controlled by the tidal waves of the world-system, and the long and slow historicity that drags the corpses of dead generations. Given this reality, it is necessary to struggle against the world-system not only in a local and fractal manner but also with the creation of a global, sovereign machine that can channel the world-system for the benefit of all. In other words, it’s necessary to establish a worldwide socialist republic.

VI

Not only is linear thought incompatible with the truth of a palpitating and living universe, but it cannot imagine a world of a flourishing humanity, for linear thought considers the current dark state in equilibrium and eternal. This attitude inhibits the march toward the splendid city that will give light, dignity, and justice to all human beings (Neruda). We not only require an infinite patience for the future dawn, but also a deep comprehension of the nightmare of the past. Yet, technical barbarism conceals the weight of the past generations, for it sees the human being as an individual agent surrounded by a canvas emptied of history and geography. This tendency will always end in reaction, for the laws of its world are inert and, therefore, fundamentally conservative.

To be a radical is to be a non-linear thinker. The problems of the present are embedded in a complex system, for the historical and economic laws that regulate this world are the same laws that cause global warming and financial crisis. Therefore, a radical and socialist solution requires a total program that transforms the nexuses that connect the present calamities. Furthermore, the socialist knows that the present world system is dynamical, with only a couple of centuries of existence, for in a more remote past, coinage, the waged worker, and the commodity were not totalizing. Ironically, treating a system as nonlinear, opaque, and dynamic, converts its destiny into something transparent, capable of being channeled for the benefit of collective flourishing. In contrast, those barbaric intellectuals that theorize capitalism as something transparent and eternal, with genes and hormones as the machinery of this spurious destiny, chain humanity to the domination of elites and venal interests.

Spherical flames with two ambient pressures. In image b) instabilities are developing in the surface of the flame. Image from C.K. Law, published in Matalon, M. (2009). Flame dynamics. Proceedings of the Combustion Institute, 32(1), 57-82.
  1. Bruton, H. J. (1998). A reconsideration of import substitution. Journal of economic literature, 36(2), 903-936.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Lee, C. H. (1992). The government, financial system, and large private enterprises in the economic development of South Korea. World Development, 20(2), 187-197.
  5. Aglietta, M., & Bai, G. (2012). China’s development: Capitalism and empire. Routledge.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Plomin, R., & von Stumm, S. (2018). The new genetics of intelligence. Nature Reviews Genetics, 19(3), 148.
  8. Ibid.
  9. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/in-the-nature-nurture-war-nature-wins/
  10. Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of personality and social psychology, 94(1), 168.
  11. https://colddarkstars.wordpress.com/2017/09/01/the-univariate-mind-of-the-far-right-crank/
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. https://cosmonaut.blog/2019/01/01/eugenics-2-0-how-dialectical-materialism-can-end-the-nature-vs-nurture-debate/

 

Critique of the Masculine Program

This article was originally published with my friends at Cosmonaut.

I

This will be a study of the phenomenology of man. I am not very well versed in the theory of gender, but I may have a perspective to share since I am both interested in the social structures that surround me, and also an immigrant from the periphery, where masculinity exists in a more concrete manner than in the global North. In the latter, the manhood of taverns, honor, and brotherhood has been replaced by the abstract virility of the administrator, banker, and the assertive intellectual. Although this tendency of transforming the masculinity of combat and war into the essence of a lawyer or powerful executive exists in all corners of the planet, it is denser in the wealthier countries. In other words,  the alpha males of the free market have impeccable skin and ten-percent body fat, yet their power derives from abstract numbers in bank accounts. However, the masculine program still persists, even if it has changed form.

The masculine program could be defined as the program of the warrior. In many societies, especially Western ones, men were taught the principles of war in a cultural and formal manner. When neither the police nor the professional soldier existed, every man was a potential warrior, a person capable of wielding violence to defend his property and to kill in the name of the lord, king, or emperor. The warrior program has survived in contemporary masculinity – the modern man still aspires to be a good warrior – a good performer of stoicism, domination, and violence. However, these values are realized in a sublimated manner – the warrior now exists in the office as a manager, or on the directive board of some bank; the ancient words of Marcus Aurelius and Sun Tzu end up imposed by suits and phone calls, even if once upon a time they were enforced by the sword.

But not all men end up as managers or millionaires. The majority of them are workers or unemployed – beings dominated by someone else, by the boss, the cop, the social worker, and the fat man in the tavern. In other eras, even the lowliest of peasants had potential access to domination, through the glory of war. However, “lawful” masculine violence is institutionalized in the police and the military, which contain a very reduced number of people. Furthermore, the sublimated form of the warrior program, for example in the figure of a CEO of Silicon Valley, can only be realized by a small number of bourgeois individuals and professionals.

Then, for the majority of men, the only two ways of dealing with the warrior program are simply to not emulate it, or to apply it in an unlawful manner, reducing the warrior to a criminal that beats up their partner or becomes part of a gang. Therefore, we have a problem – man, who has been socialized as a warrior, turns into a being that can only channel the rageful parts of the libido, such as aggression and domination, while the other parts of his sexuality, such as that which converts two subjects into one being, are repressed: intimacy, vulnerability, love, and mutual respect. That’s why I want to write a bit about this phenomenon, exploring the way in which the masculine program asphyxiates the libido, withering it within a mould that does not quite fit in modernity, where the desires of the ancient warrior become sublimated in the office, sports, or in self-destructive violence.

It’s interesting to witness how men try to elaborate on that program, in this desert of computers, video games, and Prozac pills. Recently, I was a witness to this same process, where a community tried to extract the content of this program, uttering it in propositions. The place of this remarkable event was a thread on Facebook, where a person asked their community of cybernauts the question: “what is a positive masculinity?”. There were dozens of answers; the 4chan racist, the anime nerd, and the internet Marxist discussed the heroic values that supposedly melded: “not fearing death”, “bravery”, and “combat abilities” – abstract positions that tried to codify the essence of man. But these precepts were so abstract that they were completely separated from the concrete life of these people, men that are office workers, other students, some who lived with their parents. These utterances couldn’t be anything other than symptoms of alienation, in the same way the neurotic thinks about catastrophe and death even while living in a rich suburb and holding three degrees.

This event on facebook caused me to have an epiphany – the categories behind that malaise that I’d felt for so many years became intelligible. I began to ask myself how many men actually feel comfortable under their skin, experience those precepts in their blood, without having to think of them in an abstract manner. Most men must shrink their heart so that it can fit in the straightjacket of virility because, in a world of spreadsheets, electromagnetic waves, and hunched desk jockeys, the spilling of blood becomes ephemeral. Since not all men can be bosses or millionaires, that warrior spirit ends in mental malaise, domestic violence, or fascism.

II

I am a man from the third world. I was born in a city where more than ninety percent of people are Catholic, and where divorce was rare and taboo. In this society, I was socialized as a man. I learned that that camaraderie, responsibility, honor, and violence are the programmatic content of masculinity. I had to participate in rituals that filled me with virility. I remember when I fought on the school’s playground because some of my classmates made my life miserable, since I was tall and fat, yet shy and peaceful – in other words, the perfect target for those who wished to satisfy their sadistic desires for domination. I defended myself with violence, for it was the manner in which a man, who is essentially a warrior, proved his worth before other men. This truth was relayed to me by other men whom I loved, such as friends or family members. When I avenged my honor and the others knew, my heart was filled with glory. Yet, the physical fight was not a natural impulse for me – I had to premeditate the violence that made me so uncomfortable.

I do not think that the contradictions that lay within me, that discomfort before the imperatives of masculinity, were only experienced by me. I believe the majority of men do not fit completely into the mould. This can be seen in the rage, alcoholism, and suicide that has always plagued men – that death drive that has destroyed so many men through drugs and explosions of violence. We may satisfy certain aspects of masculinity, such as our identification with the masculine body, with a certain fashion sense, sexual tastes, and hobbies. However, the precepts of the ideal man – the principles behind the stoic and honorable warrior, were merely aspirational.

It was not until the day I experienced sexual love where I began to realize the psychic damage that masculinity had caused me. It was not until my mid-twenties when I was able to experiment with emotional and sexual intimacy. All those years I had lived without experiencing that sensation of unity, the extension of the ego beyond the boundaries of my body, its fusion with another ego in order to create one spiritual object. The moments I had lived with other men, even if they sometimes attained emotional intimacy, could never reach the climax of the physical game – unification became stillborn.

Although men’s friendships reciprocate the anger, camaraderie, and sometimes even love, the tactile game does not exist beyond homosexuality or sports. Then, for the majority of men, the real dissolution of the ego with that of another subject only appears in heterosexual relations. A person like me, that grew up shy and fat, and lived behind screens and with my nose inside a book, did not have a concept of ego unification, because I very seldom had sexual intimacy. I was isolated in the prison of my brain, finding everything beyond the phallic ego unintelligible. Given my isolation in the phallic universe, only cultural artifacts that embodied the warrior program attracted me. I read books on stoicism, listened to music that glorified the ancient era of warriors and gods, and consumed a  television diet filled with cowboys, detectives, and fighters. But once I had access to another ego through intimate love, I was able to enjoy more sensual music, loosen my shoulders before the assaults against my masculinity, and appreciate poems that dealt with issues beyond death or nihilism without feeling hurt or embarrassed.

III

I cannot pretend that I have never felt the seduction of power, that I have never derived enjoyment from the humiliation of my enemies, and inclusively sometimes of my friends. The problem is that I have only been taught the pleasure of aggression and domination, without learning to enjoy and understand the other aspects of the libido. Yet, the core of the libido must be polymorphous, for the existence of BDSM has taught us that within a situation of trust and play, the human being can enjoy in a primordial manner many contrasting faces of power, from submission and domination, to libidinal equality. Yet, men are only socially equipped to enjoy power, and in this modern world of abstract systems that dominate us beyond the concrete orders of the boss, it’s impossible to maintain complete control.

Many powerful men entertain more sadomasochistic fantasies. Cities with the highest concentration of executives also have the largest density of sex dungeons and dominatrices. The different tendencies of the libido seek to unleash themselves in the concrete, outside of fantasy, yet men are only programmed to use that dominating and violent part of the libido, which in the past could be unleashed in war and sport. Yet, little by little, modernity shrinks the percentage of men that become warriors, for there are fewer soldiers, more bureaucratic control, and the relations of domination become too abstract to be combated in a physical manner. Therefore, the aggressive libido is unleashed against oneself and others, sometimes exploding in massive violence such as school shootings or terrorist attacks.

I have mostly spoken about man as an individual and his repression. Yet, there is a sociological dimension to this warrior program. One of the persons that diagnosed this psychological malaise was Wilheim Reich. Reich wrote a fairly famous book called The Mass Psychology of Fascism that tried to diagnose fascism as a political expression of the sexual repression suffered within the authoritarian family. For him, fascism was caused by a combination of (i) anxieties rooted in the trauma of the infant before the structures of the authoritarian family, and (ii) the political channeling of the aggressive impulses, such as the death drive.  

This anxiety comes from the fear of freedom engendered by the strict rules of the family; fascism channels this fear of liberty and difference through means such as propaganda, racism, or sexism. Fascism offers a cure for this anxiety through the totalitarian state, even if this comfort is merely immediate and short termed. The aggressive impulses, such as the death drive, are channeled through military marches, war, and that catharsis of turning into a worm before the omnipotent leader. Finally, fascism channels libidinal aggression against its enemies, through means such as assassination, war, and terror. But in spite of the desire for the order of the fatherly figure, or for violence against the other, fascism channels rebellion against authority. Fascism emerges as an illusory opposition against the established order. For example, in the decades of the twenties and thirties, fascism unleashed itself against the young democratic republics of Europe.

This analysis of Reich’s can be applied to the 21st century since there is a reactionary current amidst the youth of the west, where the old ideas of neoliberal conservatism are replaced by a pseudo-rebellion that has revived white nationalism and encouraged misogynists. Since the West has not taught men how to channel the loving and unifying aspects of the libido, reaction ends up becoming a release valve for young men that do not know of love as a totality, who unleash their sexuality in camaraderie and violence against the other.

I do not pretend to argue that reaction, such as fascism, is simply derived from the socialization of men into warriors. There are material causes rooted in class structures and economic crises, and also in reasons of an ideological nature. However, these ideological and socio-economic causes conspire against the masculine libido, tying it to the constrictive warrior program, while at the same time diminishing the opportunities for war-like violence. I believe the socialist program should emphasize this problem – not as a condemnation of men as individuals, but by recognizing that the social order causes their malaise since it does not permit them alternative ways of expressing libido. Some alternative forms of libidinal expression are homosocial love, submission, emotional vulnerability, and a sensuality that transcends sports or homosexual relations. Today, reactionary ideologues try to impose the warrior program with pseudoscience, like misreadings of evolutionary psychology, manipulating the sexual insecurities of young men. We socialists must argue that such “cures” offered by reactionary intellectuals do not offer either liberation or happiness – the true antidote for this malaise is the abolition of the warrior program.

The Instability of Modernity

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The attack against modernity is  a cliche at this point. Even if once upon a time that critique was in the domain of reactionary intellectuals and apocalyptic sects, now it simply forms part of popular culture, embedded in  movies, music, and video-games. Recently, I opened a book by Ernesto Sabato, a surrealist writer of the 50s. The first paragraphs describe a world where humans have turned into cogs of the capitalist machinery and slaves of instrumental reason. Although this proposition may have sounded very profound and original for the 1950s reader – it made me close the book.  I didn’t stop reading because his viewpoint was incorrect or stupid, but simply because I would learn nothing from that book, for I have encountered that perspective throughout most of my life, through the internet, television, and contemporary thinkers.

However something that has been transformed into a permanent topic of conversation is trivialized, being converted into the unexamined chatter of “they”. The critique against technic and the enlightenment is not anymore a novel observation – not like it was in the first half of the 20th century, when it was first developed by Heidegger and the Frankfurt School. This position is simply a fossilized point within any superficially “anti-systemic” perspective, whether its from the far  right or left, or from a popular music band. Given the state of this critique, it is necessary to re-analyze its premises, since its ossified form has led to the obliteration of the objects of criticism: namely the triumphs of the Enlightenment. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, since the merits of the Enlightenment were considered beyond questioning, it was necessary to excavate the dark side of the technic, that logic of scientific domination that has transformed human labor and the Earth into an accumulation of commodities  Yet, once again, we must reconsider the successes of the Enlightenment in lieu of the dominance of anti-technic arguments.

 

To clarify the discussion I will briefly define what I mean by the technic. I do not refer to technology itself, given that it has existed in an artesanal form since before civilization.  What I mean instead is a scientific-technical totality (both social and “instrumental”) used to abstract the universe into discrete entities that can be studied in a fundamental manner, entities subject to universal laws. The technic also facilitates the manipulation of entities through science and coordination for utilitarian ends (e.g. engineering, logistic, etc). This totality incorporates technology, but it cannot simply be reduced to the neutral application of science. We can locate the origin of this conception of  the technic in the 17th century, with the Enlightenment and the thought of Newton and Descartes. The technic is not only used to understand and manipulate the natural world, but also society, through logistic, psychology, and coordination (e.g. marketing, industrial engineering, public administration).

I will not attack this anti-technic perspective in its totality, for I don’t think it’s completely flawed. Only a technocrat or white supremacist would have the guts to defend modernity like something completely positive. Modernity brought the holocaust, the atomic bomb,  and the rape and pillage of the americas. Information technology has given rise to a state of surveillance that would kill of jealousy the secret police of Stalin and Hitler. The rationalization of the natural world so that it can be exploited by logistics and technics is leading to global warming, a process that would not only kill hundreds of thousands due to hurricanes and heat-waves, but would come with incalculable socio-economic devastation.  There’s a reason why science fiction projects worlds of evil computers and ecological destruction – this recognition of the dark side of the technic is rooted in the marrow of western culture. Before the empirical evidence and sentiment of this era, it would be irresponsible to hide the crimes of our technical society. Finally, like Heidegger once argued, the technic has concealed that qualitative part of truth that is not quantifiable, such as the poetic dimension of a forest, or social structures that are invisible to calculation, but that still  scaffold the power differentials between classes, races, genders, etc.

Many socialists of more positivistic nature would argue that this critique isn’t about the scientific-technical society, but about capitalism. They say that technology and science are neutral, and that they can be used for pro-social ends as much as for destructive ends. Science could be used for the good – for the construction of a sustainable world, with automatization and cybernetics applied for the emancipation of society from toil, hunger, and in a distant future, for the liberation of humanity from the limits of an organic and mortal body.  But this viewpoint gives an ahistorical role to science that not even the old thinkers of the Enlightenment expounded. Science, as we understand it, is not simply a continuity that begins with the prehistoric origin of tools and human curiosity and ends in the present. Modern science emerged and evolved in combination with capitalist development. The technic as defined in the beginning of this essay, has only existed for a couple of centuries. In contrast to modernity, the technologies invented in more ancient epochs were not coupled with an all encompassing perspective that treats the universe like a machinery that can be manipulated for utilitarian ends, but simply emerged through trial and error. This conceptualization of the cosmos is linked with the abstraction of all social relationships, such as the transformation of peasants and artisans into an homogenous proletariat that can be subject to the coordination of a technical-logistic rationality. This rationality was described in the first chapter of “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith. The destruction of the community and its organic unity and its replacement  by price signals and coordination was not simply a neutral process of abstract problem solving, but the creation of an efficient machinery destined for capital valorization.

However, the various tendencies of the technic are not simple and unidirectional. Although critics attack the technic for its homogenizing violence, and its subsumption of the particular under the universal through the force of abstraction, since the technic privileges the “scientific” narrative over others (e.g. religion), these critics are victims of their own “post-structuralist” abstractions. A more rigorous and charitable analysis of the technic would see it as an unstable, contradictory system. The power of scientific-technical abstraction  isn’t only used to convert humans and forests into piles of labor and lumber that can be dissected and manipulated. This tendency undoubtedly exists, and it represents a drive towards domination, but there are also emancipatory tendencies, both ideological and material. For example, the radical wing of Enlightenment, represented by the likes of Spinoza, considered the technic as an instrument for establishing a democratic and egalitarian society, a weapon against popes, kings, and lords.

Since the technic does not require divine revelation to be accessed – but simply uses the rational capacity of any human being – it becomes emancipatory. The physical laws of Newton and the geometry of Descartes, were discovered through  calculation, abstraction, and analysis, which are mental capacities universal in all human beings (Kant); these discoveries weren’t revealed through divine revelation, such as the content of religious texts and the divine rights of kings. If all humans have the capacity for calculation and reason, and if the optimal social order can be excavated by the technic, in the same way engineering can be used to create the most optimal machinery, then the consequences of this argument is that all humans, with their autonomous reason, can participate in the political and social administration of the social order.

This defense of the technic outlined previously was of an ideological nature. However, there is also a material defense of the technic that was originally outlined by Marx, but that was then confirmed empirically by the trajectory of western europe. The rationalization of the european peasantry into free laborers that are not attached to the land, dissolved the agricultural patriarchy. Before, the peasantry was constrained by the land, the youth were completely submitted to the power of the parents and the feudal lord. Specifically, the youth had to inherit the land from their parents, and for marrying they required a dowry that also came from the parents, furthermore the youth had to swear fealty to feudal lords.

This emancipation of labor from the land also brought the structures that scaffold gender rights in modern liberal democracies, which while imperfect, were an advancement in western europe. This decline of the lords’ power, based on the increasing concentration of ex-peasants in the cities and towns, and the emergence of industrial capital, also caused the transference of power from rural areas to urban centers, were workers, embedded in the industrial infrastructure, became indispensable to the circuits of capital since the fixed capital of industrialists would lose value without the manipulation of workers. Since workers were embedded in the logistical mesh of the economy,  they were able to acquire democratic rights since the workers turned indispensable (Endnotes). Furthermore, the historian Geoff Eley argued that the vigorous expansion of democratic rights at the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, was triggered by workers’ movements – movements that would have not emerged if the technic hadn’t transformed the peasantry into proletarians, since that rationalization integrated workers into the political and logistical meshes of the city.

All these tendencies, one in the direction of domination, and the other in the direction of liberty and democracy, do not converge in a common course but instead create instabilities. In physics, an instability means that a system can move in many directions, without the properties of the system revealing a favoritism for a particular trajectory. For example, in the case of a ball at the top of a perfectly symmetric hill, random perturbations like the wind can push the ball in any direction along three hundred thirty six degrees, with every trajectory equiprobable. In the technic the same instability exists. Some  directions point towards democracy, enlightenment, a world of leisure, health and education. Other tendencies of the technic point to opposite directions, such as the surveillance state, scientific racism, the atomization of all communities, and the extermination of all life.

All these trajectories of the technic aren’t simply a function of something external, in accordance to what the positivists say when they qualify the technic like something neutral, but actually emerged from the internal dynamics of the system- a tendency towards calculation, universalism, and abstraction. But this negative narrative about the technic, that drive that brought the extermination of six million jews through industrial-scientific means, and is bringing about the cooking of the Earth, while accurate, is only one tendency amongst others that emerge from an instability. The same instability  also brought the democratic rights of workers, the decline of child mortality, the haitian revolution, and the destruction of the agricultural patriarchy in europe, the latter a process that also brought gains in gender equality.

The technic has various potentialities, one that dominates and kills, and the other that illuminates and liberates. However, a society obsessed with the technic, such as modern capitalism, will always push that instability towards the trajectory of domination. Capitalism found a vehicle for its own manifestation in the technic, for a society organized by price signals will always tilt toward the violence of the calculation. The properties of the human being that cannot be abstracted into a number become unintelligible – such as social and psychological needs. The technocrat only sees GDP growth, and the boss can only calculate surplus value. This aspect of the technic that only sees in forests and human energy stores, was demonstrated by Heidegger, who argued that the technic obscures and blocks the other aspects of the truth that are not quantifiable. However, he forgot to add that this aspect of the technic is only one potentiality, that tendency embedded in capitalism, given that a society ruled by money, a quantitative substance, will only exploit a narrow calculus at the expense of other more holistic aspects of the technic that may have emancipatory qualities.

This deconstruction of the technic as a totalitarian force requires a socialist synthesis. Socialism is the descendant of Radical Enlightenment, that tendency toward a world where humanity uses reason to create a free and democratic society, where social needs are satisfied by the economic order. The highest manifestation of the socialist technic emerges in the planned economy, under a world workers’ republic. However, socialists also argue that not everything can be abstracted into numbers, for social and psychological needs are not entirely intelligible to calculus.

Marx had described this qualitative aspect of the technic, for the rationalization of the human being within a division of labor  dissects the body and mind, turning them into something automatic and alienated. Therefore, a socialist synthesis, while using the technic to plan a rational economy,  must also yield a specific magisterium to the more spiritual and qualitative aspects of the human being. For example, in capitalism, one of the main objectives of national policy is GDP growth. However, in a socialist society, growth of productivity and efficiency wouldn’t be a priority, for there would be other objectives related to the flourishing of human beings.  Many of these objectives cannot be subsumed into equations and rational dissection, but requires a space outside the technic. Socialism should therefore be a synthesis where the technic enhances other more qualitative modes of life, instead of just subsuming them under quantitative abstraction.

For a scientific economy (part I): planning, not the free market, made the West wealthy

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The economy is a complex system – a system pulsating with billions of agents that interact between themselves, sometimes along planetary scales. From these interactions, that at first glance appear random, emerge properties and laws subject to certain quasi-deterministic logics. These emergent laws were studied for the first time by the old political economists of the 18th and 19th century, like Smith, Ricardo, and Marx. One of these emergent laws is the existence of certain resources that are considered “free”, but are extracted without their value reflecting in price. For example, the domestic sphere, which contains house cleaning, child rearing, and cooking, is “free” since this labor is not remunerated and isn’t reflected in prices. In other words, the domestic sphere is invisible to the price system, even when this labor is necessary for the reproduction of the worker and therefore, for the reproduction of capital.

A similar phenomenon is reflected in the treatment of the environment by capital. Marx once argued that the the value of a commodity is a function of the labor quantity employed in creating it. If we use this idea, then the value of lumber, oil, and water simply reflects the labor spent in extracting, processing and transporting these resources. However, the natural resource in itself, without being processed by such labor, has no value. We could say then that these resources are “free” for capital – opened to absolute plunder provided there is access to enough labor power. Therefore, the domestic and environmental sphere are unintelligible to capital – this unintelligibility is a law that emerges from random processes of billions agents – such as firms, workers, consumers, etc., without those agents being conscious that their coupled actions give rise to these laws. This was Hegel’s observation, who referred to this emergence as the “cunning of reason”, since even though the passions of different human beings are varied and contradictory,  they somehow end up coalescing into an intelligible motion of history.

This problem, of the invisibility of the earth system before capital, has become one of the most important political-economic problems of the last couple of decades, since this unintelligibility  of the environment before price signals has pushed the planet to the brink of devastation. In its spontaneous state, the price does not reflect the ecological damage that the extraction and use of certain natural resources infringe on the planet. In conventional economics, this damage is referred as “externality” since its information is not reflected in the price. Economics usually recommend that these “externalities” are transformed into internal variables, through the intervention of the state. Particularly, these conventional economists recognize the existence of emergent phenomena springing from capital that are destructive, and require public planning so that the ecological damage becomes intelligible to the capitalist system. Yet this intelligibility is applied in an external manner, it does not emerge spontaneously from the market, but from the conscious planning  of the state, through the volition of scientists, politicians and judges.

This need of gubernamental intervention to tackle the problem of climate change shows something very important: the emergent laws of the market not only cannot solve the problems of existential dimension facing the human race, but these same emergent laws often enlarge the problem, for example, the tendency of capital to perceive the environment as a storage of free resources that can be ransacked. This observation is more profound than the idea that capitalism is guilty of all the problems of modernity, which is a proposition that often is pronounced in a reflexive manner, without much thought. The principal problem of capitalism is that it is not designed for the direct resolution of problems – capitalism is a system that, as a first approximation, emerges from the random interactions of billions of consumers, firms, and workers, without the behavior of the system being the result of someone’s volition. Specifically, emergent phenomena and laws, that originate in the random behavior of billions, control the destiny of the system, laws that will not necessarily result in favorable consequences, and that in reality, can impact society in a destructive way. Not only can these laws be destructive, but simply there is no human will that legislated them, instead, they emerged spontaneously from aleatory processes.

The incapacity of the market to resolve the fundamental problems of society is well known by the state’s functionaries, and this is the reason why much of the infrastructure required for society uses public planning. Some examples are roads, railways, medical services, the police, and education.  Many markets owe their existence to technology and methods developed by the state, since only the state is capable of absorbing the large financial risk and has the will to spend the necessary capital to springboard certain industries. For example, the oil industry in Alberta, Canada could emerge thanks to Peter Lougheed’s government investing in the required  technology and research so that the oil industry is profitable, industry that today is the most important of that province. This fact is interesting since it contradicts the usual “right wing” attitude of Alberta, one of the most conservative provinces in Canada.

If at first glance, planning appears so superior to the market, why is then the free market the economic orthodoxy? In spite of the existence of a class system, why did capitalism enrich certain countries such as Great Britain, Netherlands, and the United States? The defendants of capitalism, even if they admit it is not a perfect system,  can point at certain advantages the market brought. In the core economies,  during  the twentieth century there was an exponential jump in the quality of life for even the poorest individuals. It can also be said that the countries that “invented” capitalism, such as Great Britain, United States, Netherlands, and Germany are  some of the wealthiest countries in the world. The socialist bloc, even if it brought immense material gains to the population, raising millions from poverty, could never surpass the capitalist west in production and riches. Not only did the socialist bloc fell, encouraging all reactionaries to proclaim the supremacy of the market, but some of the “socialist” countries are materially fairly miserable, such as North Korea or Venezuela. Finally, many see China as proof of the supremacy of the market, since this country’s economy is rapidly growing after they opened up to the global market. All these facts are frequently used to justify the greatness of the market and attack the socialist project.

Without doubt there are countries that adopted the doctrine of the free market and keep being miserable, such as the majority of peripheral countries. Yet, the arguments of neoliberals must be dissected – we must find that secret of capitalism that brought it to the resolution of certain technological and social problems, which gave the advantage to the so called “first world” countries. This problem is important since as we said, the atom of capitalism is the aleatory interaction between agents, such as firms, consumers, etc, not a unified and conscious problem-solving will. However, even when there is no “plan”, capitalism invented the diesel engine, modern medicine, made of certain countries immensely rich, and lead to longer life expectancies. We must discover the reason why the Smith’s “invisible hand”, could resolve certain problems that benefited so many people.

One of the developments that brought capitalism to its almost total triumph is instrumental reason. We will define instrumental reason as that technic that uses scientific rationality for some end. For example, instrumental reason can be applied to public health, using research, medicine and logistics to neutralise  some epidemic. The end of instrumental reason is axiomatic: in the case of capitalism it’s often profitability, where the rationality of marketing, engineering, and logistics is applied. Many philosophers and sociologists will argue that instrumental reason emerged with capitalism. But there is a contradiction here: we have mentioned that the phenomena of capitalism are not legislated by conscious volitions, but emerge spontaneously from the stochastic and granular interactions of agents. Yet, at the same time, we have argued that capitalism emerged coupled to instrumental reason, that scientific rationality that must be applied by a conscious will to accomplish some intelligible end.  Furthermore, with capitalism emerged bureaucratic rationality, something Weber was obsessed about. How can a system that apparently emerges from disordered interactions give light to to a rationality that requires conscious human volition?

The answer is that Instrumental reason wasn’t the result of conscious wills that sat in a table and discussed its creation, but emerged spontaneously from class struggle. This was the thesis of Robert Brenner, marxist historian. In the sixteenth century there was an agricultural revolution in the British countryside, where scientific and technical methods were applied to reorganize production, such as animal husbandry, or the centralization of infrastructure to create a more efficient production chain. In order to reconfigure production in a more scientific and efficient manner, it was necessary that the lords stripped the peasantry of their lands and converted them into waged workers.  In consequence, it became possible for the lords to centralize and manipulate the land through scientific reason, investing in infrastructure and training the peasantry with more advanced skills required for a more scientific agriculture and animal husbandry. These advances were motivated by the growing absorption of lords under the logic of the commodity, where it was necessary to produce crops in a more quick, efficient, and cheap manner, in order to be able to survive the brutal world market.

Brenner argued that this agricultural revolution did not appear in the other regions of Europe, such as France, or Poland, since in the case of France, the peasantry had such a high level of organization and autonomy that it was impossible for the lords to break them and atomize them into waged workers. In the case of Eastern Europe, the lords were so powerful and the peasantry so dominated that the creation of a waged class was unnecessary. In this region, the lords dealt with the growing mercantile competition by simply hyper exploiting a peasantry that did not have the means to defend itself. Therefore, it was the specific balance of class forces that brought the agricultural revolution that converted Great Britain into a world power. We could say then that Great Britain invented instrumental reason as used today – where the unquestionable end was profitability, and the rational means were the technical reorganization of the countryside.

If we take Brenner’s thesis seriously, then the economic supremacy of certain capitalist countries was formed by the technical reorganization of their societies for the end of creating commodities more cheaply and efficiently.  Yet for Brenner, this technical jump does not appear spontaneously out of the existence of commercial relations, such as the process of buying and selling commodities, but only emerges if the configuration of classes permits it, and only in specific industries. From Brenner’s observation, we can perceive the weaknesses of the pro-capitalism arguments of the orthodoxy: the source of wealth of specific capitalist countries was subject to certain exogenous restrictions: in the case of Great Britain it was the balance of class forces between lords and peasants. This thesis is incompatible with Smith’s theory, who saw technical reorganization as an endogenous process of the market.

Once certain capitalist sectors developed instrumental reason, then the State began to wield this process, and applied it for other more macroscopic ends. The foundations of this state were established in the french revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, where secular reason replaced the arbitrary deliberations of the nobility with the will of the people, where human beings, by their free will, legislate laws that emerge from rational discourse.  This was was Hegel’s fevered dream, where Reason, the essence of the true God, manifests itself in the kingdom of this world as a secular and rational State. In this new order, the proto-capitalists converted the small landholdings of the peasantry into proto-factories, centralized under the sun of reason, and broke communities into atomized proletarians that can be integrated into a logistical mesh.

Once agricultural capitalists unleashed instrumental reason into society, the state began to apply it to more ambitious ends, since this reason as wielded by capitalists was constrained and distorted by the small scales in space and time of profitability. First, the french revolution applied this reason in a political manner, where this rationality was used to deal the final blow to the lords and kings. But then, the state began to use science and the technic for concrete ends, developing large public projects that the private sector could never develop by itself, such as railways, electric grids, and public plumbing, coordinating thousands of workers across the continent. The socialists of the second international, who marvelled before public planning,  demonstrating the irrationality of capitalism – for it was absurd to let private companies take advantage of public infrastructure and coordination, necessary ingredients for the survival of capital. It was simpler to submit the private sphere in its totality to public planning through the socialization of firms.

However, the incapacity of capitalism of resolving certain social problems, coupled with the flourishing of instrumental reason in early capitalism, demonstrate that capitalism’s technical triumph wasn’t necessarily a function of the free market, but instead, of the class struggle, where the lords destroyed the old forms of life of the peasantry, and replaced them with the atomized worker. Once the proletarian is unchained from their relationship to the countryside and the patriarchal household, then instrumental reason can integrate them to a scientific and coordinating logic. This scientific logic that enriched the countries that developed capitalism first, was not the market. Instrumental reason only emerged when the peasantry was stripped of their old forms of life rooted in soil and honor, and their labor power centralized under larger scales to produce commodities more efficiently. In other words, the technical supremacy of “first world” countries was unleashed by processes that are exogenous to the market, such as the class struggle between lords and peasants.

Therefore, those countries that couldn’t destroy the processes that root the individual into a spatial coordinate, did not transcend their material backwardness when they adopted capitalism. This was because traditions and communal constraints did not let capitalists and politicians abstract completely human beings from their spatial roots and convert them into an atomized mass that can be manipulated by scientific coordination.

A skeptic could use the experience of the old socialist bloc to protest against my argument, since in these countries, supposedly scientific reason was applied through planning. Yet, these states were never able tos surpass in wealth and technical prowess the capitalist west, and their foundations were so unstable that many states could barely survive through the duration of a human life. Moreover, some of these supposedly planned economies remained materially miserable, such as North Korea. However, this argument is defective, for at this point in time, all national economies are embedded into a world capitalist system, where notwithstanding the alleged existence of scientific planning, the law of value that operates internationally would starve any country refusing the market. All states are embedded in an international division of labor, and ultimately, the computers, vaccines, and engines required to build a hospital can only be imported from rich countries through dollar transactions.

The existence of this antagonistic world order does not mean that these socialist societies did not have endogenous dysfunctions, such as a lack of democratic rights, corruption, and bureaucratic hierarchies. However, the political problems of these countries, including their authoritarianism and corruption, were caused in part by the aggression of the political-economic world order.  For example, the dysfunctions of the USSR, such as stalinism, emerged in part as a reaction to an aggressive west, since the USSR had to industrialize in a fast paced, disjointed manner in order to create a war machinery that can be used to defend themselves against the “capitalist” west. Furthermore, In many of these socialist countries, forms of life endured that predated modernity, sabotaging instrumental reason, since those pre-modern structures enabled the survival of the patron and the client at the expense of the collective. It’s very probable that the alleged inefficiencies and inflexibilities of planning are not inherent, but related to the  the antagonistic nature of the capitalist world order, and the antiquated forms of lives embedded in many of these countries. Wealthy capitalist countries did not necessarily enrich themselves only through the market, but through the destruction of the peasantry and the application of instrumental reason – in other words, through planning.

We conclude the first part of this essay. The second part will deal with the necessity of socialist planning to combat climate change.

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The Rise of the Right Wing Is Not Due to the Working Class Because Workers Don’t Vote

juan-cavalleiro-241522

A common and mistaken assumption among radicals is that right wing parties win because of ideological trickery and lies. In other words, that the electorate does not understand their own class interests, and are bamboozled by smooth talking politicians.   For example, a popular idea about american politics is that poor whites tend to vote against their own interests, as there is the preconception that they are part of the electorate of Trump and the GOP. Just recently in  Ontario, Doug Ford, a millionaire, won the  provincial elections under a very vague platform that included lowering taxes and “anti-elitist” rhetoric, very similar to Trump’s “drain the swamp” antics. Some pointed out the contradiction of the wealthy Ford running under an anti-elitist platform – seeing it as a form of ideological articulation and nothing else.

In general, there’s been a rise of the right wing in elections across the the  developed West. A couple of high profile examples are Trump, Brexit, and the recent German elections. Furthermore, fascistoid parties that took power recently in some european countries, like Hungary and Poland.  Superficially it may seem that these parties are the “will of the people”, since they won by an algorithmic majority in democratic countries. For leftists this may seem hopeless, as it could be interpreted that we lost the ideological battle, and that much of the Left’s traditional demographic (e.g. workers) have fallen into reaction.

I find that these sentiments begin with the wrong (and liberal) idea, that the body of citizens are an amorphous, classless set of individuals that must be “won over”  so that they do not turn right wing. Another iteration of the same argument is that many voters are going against their “own interest” by voting for the right wing. For example, the common archetype of the poor rural white that votes Republican.

The worst aspects of these assumptions are in the mainstream of the Left, especially social democratic parties and “center left” parties.  Since the electorate at first glance seems to swing conservative, many social-democratic parties have swung to the right to win back some of that electorate. An interesting example is the rise of the  center-left NDP (New Democratic Party) in Alberta, one of the most conservative provinces of Canada.  Many of the militants in the federal NDP are against the construction of new oil pipelines, for fiscal and environmental reasons; yet the Albertan NDP has taken a pro-big oil stance in order to appease the seemingly conservative Albertan electorate. I am sure that the shift towards austerity politics of many of the mainstream social democratic parties is also related to the tailing of a supposedly conservative electorate.

However, once we start looking with nuance at hard data, rather than simply taking a phenomenological algorithmic majority for granted, we will find that the rise of the right wing isn’t really just a matter of false consciousness or ideology, but has a real class basis. In other words,  today’s electoral choices fully emerge from the class interests of much of the voting base. This is simply because many of whom fit the marxist definition of proletarian, that is someone that owns nothing except their own labor, are not voting. It’s well known that lower income makes it more likely that someone will not vote.    In fact, there is a correlation with income inequality and low political participation.

Another interesting trend is that voter turnout in the developed world is steadily declining. This correlates with the increase of income inequality, the rise of the right wing, and yes, the decline of the Left.

Let us look at the United States as a particularly dire but interesting example. The reason why voters choose politicians that want to cut social programs and enforce austerity, is that the same politicians often promise more tax cuts, a restructuring that would benefit people from higher tax brackets, who happen to be the people that vote.  Surveys have found that nearly half of non voters in the US make less than 30k in income. If you zoom into the lifestyle of a large percentage of 60k+ households – a life that may include mortgages, workplace insurance, fat credit lines, and segregated neighborhoods were race and income cut along zip code lines, voting patterns make sense.  I imagine that the last person that would benefit from rent control, centralized school funding, and welfare is going be an office manager that holds home equity and sends their kid to piano lessons.

These voting patterns are also interesting from a political economy perspective.  Much of what passes as class analysis in the more popular iterations of marxism usually only looks at workplace relations, and whether someone collects a salary as opposed to being a capitalist. Yet, one of the ways the liberal democratic state culled  working class militancy is through the introduction of cheap credit, which suddenly made much of the traditional working class into “property owners”, because they now own house equity. Specifically, the skilled layer of the working class  and professionals became petit-bourgeosified (synonimous to small land holders). In other words, this middle class, even if some of them collect a salary, stop being proletarian in the marxist sense (a class that owns nothing except their labor power) and turn into small property owners.   In the american case, this was also related to racial dynamics, where a white middle class entrenched itself in segregated zip-codes, with housing associations that monitor the evenness of lawns in order to mantain property values. Furthermore, zoning privilieges are also a way of gatekeeping resources for  their childrens’ social mobility – for example, through public schools that are only attended by rich people

The existence of a petit-bourgeosified middle class and upper middle class, who are isomorphic to small land holders, can only manifest in the era of finance capital, as their lifestyle is sustained by fragile debt that leads to financial fragility and secular decline.  According to Minsky (who has been recently adapted to macroeconomic models), financial fragility emerges from banks and other financial institutions lending too much money in boom periods, which inevitably leads to financed enterprises that fail to be profitable. This generates a bubble  that later on bursts, creating business cycles and dislocation between financial sector and the real economy. Furthermore, as mentioned in my previous post, the financialization of capital correlates with the decline of productivity across virtually almost all industries, so only finance capital instead of the “real economy” can sustain these small proprietors. So it is no surprise that there is almost a clientelistic link between these small proprietor, middle class whites  and the most reactionary elements of capital, as the latter buys them off by giving them racialized financial leverage that is not available to poorer, racialized sectors.

No wonder why left wing  tendencies and social democratic parties have declined, and the ones that survived, shifted rightwards. For  they all aim to convince “likely voters” who tend to be  petit-bourgeosified middle classes whose class interests are aligned with tax cuts and fiscal austerity, in contrast to lower income individuals that do not vote as much, and who would benefit from wealth redistribution programs. 

Instead of aiming for likely voters, leftists should create a genuine socialist party that fights for the working class and the poor.  The key for socialist hegemony is politically activating unlikely voters, e.g. racialized, working class and poor individuals, rather than trying to pull the heart strings of a middle class. This strategy will not yield  easy wins in the ballot box, for the likely voters tend to be conservative. Instead it would require a strategy in the long run where socialist hegemony is created amongst unlikely, low income voters. 

A minimum program for a party of the working class and the poor could contain some of the following policies:  (i) nationalization of real estate (except the infrastructure built upon it), (ii) a job retraining program for the casualized, unemployed, or low wage workers, (iii) a robust public healthcare infrastructure, (iv) abolition of temporary “work visas” and instead full citizenship for all immigrants, and (v), restructuring of educational infrastructure so that funding depends on “head count” rather than zip codes, including free upper education and student stipends. These positions are only some tentative examples, and this minimum program should go hand in hand with the long term maximum program of a world workers’ republic, and the replacement of market mechanisms with world economic planning. 

Much of the platform of a workers’  party will be opposed by the small proprietor middle class, since it is diametrically opposite to their interests  – for example, real estate nationalization is in contradiction with home ownership.  However, the large underclass that does not vote, and the segment of the working class that does go to the polls, should be able to be won over by a program that considers their immediate class interests.

The outlook for a workers’ party is moderately optimistic. As the pauperization of millennials, who are poorer than their parents, and the recent financial crisis have shown, the lifestyle of middle class small proprietors inflated by financial debt is unsustainable.   Therefore,  the base for a future workers’ party is secularly increasing.

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Crisis Theory: The Decline of Capitalism As The Growth of Expensive and Fragile Complexity

It’s an empirical fact that the economy experiences business cycles, in other words, oscillations between booms and busts.  Furthermore, many argue that the economy is experiencing a secular decline. For example, productivity across all industries has decreased since the 1970s. What ares the mechanisms behind these instabilities and also decline?  What would an accurate theory of economic crisis look like? 

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 7.55.01 PMSource: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/wp22_baily-montalbano_final4.pdf

I believe that capitalism is both unstable and vulnerable to business cycles, and is also experiencing secular decline. The source of these trends are  feedback mechanisms that are structural to capitalism that encourage the growth of fragile and expensive complexity (logistics, rent-seeking, finance, etc) due to the pursuit of short-term profits.  Furthermore, this complexity becomes increasingly separated from the human labor (see Marx on labor theory of value) that creates wealth indirectly or directly (e.g. the factory worker, the doctor, the teacher, etc.),  which means a larger ratio of overhead versus wealth creation. The growth of expensive complexity in the long run means both declining productivity and fragility to the business cycle.

I will first review some of the theories that already exist to explain this secular decline and also the nature of business cycles. Then I will present my own crisis theory that addresses the weaknesses of the other existing models.

The mainstream economic approach to the business cycle is  modelled through the so called Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium model (DGSE).  In this model, mainstream economists assume the world economy is more or less in equilibrium (e.g. markets clear, and agents’ utility functions maximize) until a random shock appears, for example, a sudden rise in oil prices.  The nature and the source of the shock are irrelevant in this model – the DGSE approach only dictates that random shocks are an economic reality. Thus the task of the economist reduces to  studying how the structures of the economy amplify/dampen and propagate the shock.  For example, after the 2008 crash, economists began taking seriously how aspects of the financial sector may amplify these shocks (they call these financial frictions). It appears mainstream economists only have achieved a consensus on business cycle modelling but not necessarily on the secular decline of the economy.

Hyman Minsky was an important heterodox thinker that elaborated a crisis theory, and also recently became widely cited because of the 2008 crash.  Minsky  argued that crisis emerges from endogenous activities in the financial sector. Minsky explained that in booming times, banks and other financial institutions become “euphoric” and begin lending and also borrowing  large quantities that in bust periods they would find too risky.  Given that these financial actors   are overconfident, a speculative investment bubble develops. At some point, the debtors cannot pay back, and the bubble bursts, creating a crisis.

The more orthodox of the Marxist approaches to crisis  is  referred famously  as the theory of the tendency of  the rate of profit to fall (TRPF). According to Marx, capitalism experiences a secular decline in the rate of profits as work is automated away by machines, and therefore less workers are employed, which means less human labor to exploit. As production becomes more optimized, machinery  and raw material absorb more of the costs of production, and less workers are employed due to rising productivity. In marxist analysis, profit comes from exploitation of workers, that is, from paying workers less than the value created by the hours they worked. So in marxist analysis, as machinery automates more of the labor, the rate of profit also declines.  According to Marx, in a hypothetical scenario where all labor becomes automated by robots, the capitalist wouldn’t profit at all!

Finally there are some crisis theories were more heterodox marxist models and pseudo-keynesian theories converge.  Thomas Palley recently compared Foster’s Social Structure Accumulation theory (SSA) to his own theory, Structural Keynesianism. Both Palley and Foster argue the decline of economic growth is related to a stagnation of wages. If wages are stagnant, the aggregate demand necessary for growth is unmet, because workers don’t make enough to purchase commodities.  They argue that this  economic stagnation is related to the neoliberal growth model adopted since the 1970s. According to Palley, the  only mechanisms that kept the economy from crashing were the overvaluation of assets, and firms filling the hole in aggregate demand by taking on more debt. However this excess of credit lead to financial instabilities that eventually  crashed the economy  in 2008.

In my opinion all these approaches are flawed. For one, the mainstream approach under-theorizes the sources of fragility and the secular decline in the rate of profit. It is true that much of the crises/business cycles have to do with the fragility of the capitalist economy to volatility,  which is explained by mainstream models.  However, an important part of the story is why the capitalist system is fragile to these shocks. In fact, mainstream economists showed their ignorance with their inability to forecast the effects of the 2008 recession.  After the crash,  mainstream economists implicitly conceded to the heterodox arguments of Minsky that the financial sector creates fragility. For example, only after  the crisis did mainstream economists include in their DGSE models the financial instabilities mentioned by Minsky.  Furthermore, it appears mainstream economics doesn’t really have a theoretical consensus on the secular decline of capitalism.

The problem with the Minskyan approach is that it is severely limited – for one, it only identifies one source of fragility, which is the financial sector. It also does not theorize why the financial sector is “less real” than for example, the manufacturing sector – which Minsky implicitly assumes when he blames fragility only to the financial part.  Because of Minsky’s limited theorization, he also fails to explain the secular decline of the rate of profit, content with only explaining the business cycle. 

The greatest flaw of the  “orthodox” Marxist approach is its dependence on pseudo-aristotelian arguments. The TRPF model  is based in a logical relation between very specific variables, which are the costs of raw materials and machinery (constant capital), the costs of human labor (variable capital), and the value extracted from the exploitation of human labor (surplus value). This spurious precision and logicality is unwarranted, as the capitalist system is too complex and stochastic  be able to describe the behaviour of crisis as related to a couple of logical propositions. One has to take into account  the existence of instabilities and shocks, as the mainstream economists do. However, Marx still had a key insight which is that the aggregate wealth of the world must be sourced in human labor that produces use values. The source of wealth comes from dentists doing dentistry, and construction workers doing  construction work, not from the dentist trying to make money by trading in the stock market. Furthermore, Marx identified that there is a secular trend in the declining rate of profit, which is missing in other contemporary accounts.

Finally,  Palley’s approach seems to be too politically motivated. To them, the stagnation of the economy is related to issues of policy – of statesmen adopting the “wrong” set of regulations/deregulations. If politicians were just “objective”, and followed Palley’s set of ideas, then crisis and decline could be averted! To  Palley, the neoliberal phase was a matter of certain “top-down” policies rather than endogenous/spontaneous fragilities and instabilities that are inherent to the capitalist system. In my opinion, it’s impossible to disaggregate what is political and what is inherently structural in the secular decline of capitalism, since the whole world economy is more or less neoliberalized at this moment so there is no alternative to compare it at the present. So it seems to me that it’s a just-so story that is projected from the present to the past and impossible to prove empirically. 

One of the issues I have with the “left” theories of crises, such as Keynesian and Marxism, is that they don’t take instability, uncertainty, stochasticity, and complexity seriously. Instead, proofs and discussions are reduced to aristotelian logical chopping related to a few variables. In the Keynesian case, it’s aggregate demand, in the Marxist case these variables are surplus value, constant capital, and variable capital.  A system that pulsates with tens of billions of people is reduced to the logical chopping of a few variables. Instead, we must device a more holistic view of the capitalist world-system, taking into account its nonlinearities and fragilities.

The theories outlined above contain  parts of the truth, so we can use some of these elements to synthesize a model of crisis that contains the following: (i) economic fragility to instabilities and shocks,  (ii) endogenous sources of this fragility, (iii) a theory of the secular decline of the rate of profit. The concepts ultimately uniting these three points are fragility/nonlinearities and increasingly expensive complexity. For example, Minsky, by addressing the fragility in the financial sector, also implicitly points to a theory of  degenerative complexity, where the financial sector acts as a complex, expensive, and fragile  overhead that exists over the “real economy”.

We can use Taleb’s definition of fragility to make the concept more precise. Taleb mathematically defines fragility as harmful, exponential sensitivity to volatility. For example,  a coffee cup can withstand stress up to a certain threshold, above that, the cup becomes exponentially vulnerable to harm, as any stress higher than that threshold will simply shatter the cup. The reason why fragility is a nonlinear property is that the cup won’t wear  and tear proportionally to stress. Instead the cup will sustain the stress until a certain  threshold is reached, and then suddenly shatter. So in other words, the cup reacts exponentially to stress, with stress below a certain threshold inflicting negligible damage. 

Similarly, the capitalist world system probably has many thresholds, many of them currently unknown. This is because the capitalist world system is complex and nonlinear.  It is complex because it is made of various interlocking parts (firms, individuals, governments, etc.) that form causal chains that connect across planetary scales. It is nonlinear because the behaviour of the system is not simply the “sum” of the interlocking parts, as the parts depend on each other. Therefore one cannot really study the individual components in isolation and then understand the whole system by adding these components. In other words, interdependence  of the units within capitalism makes the system nonlinear. Furthermore, nonlinear systems are frequently very sensitive to change in its variables, where surpassing certain thresholds can make the system exhibit abrupt changes and discontinuities that often manifest as crisis.  This abrupt changes caused by the crossing of certain threshold is a common mathematical property in nonlinear systems.  Fragility therefore correlates with nonlinearities, abrupt jumps/shocks, and complexity. 

However it is not enough to say that the capitalist world system is fragile because it is nonlinear. The point is that the capitalist world system structurally generates feedback loops that lead to the accelerated creation of endogenous fragilities.  The frenetic pursuit of short-term profits in increasingly competitive contexts leads to the creation of fragile, nonlinear complexity. This is because a firm must invest in more expensive research, infrastructure, and qualified personnel to generate innovation that leads  profit in the short term, as many of the “low hanging fruits” have already been  plucked. So capitalism leads to a random “tinkering”  by firms and institutions to produce profit, by often adding ad-hoc complexity. This complexity make generate short-term profits, but is expensive in the long term.   Joseph Tainter tries to measure the productivity of innovation by looking at how many resources go into creating a patent. For example,  here is a plot showing how ratio of patent per GDP  and per R&D expenses has declined since the 70s:

 

mfig008Source: https://voxeu.org/article/what-optimal-leverage-bank

Another marker of increased expensive complexity is  how many people are required to create a patent:

mfig009Source: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/sres.1057

A very common and studied example  of this nonlinear complexity is the financial system.  The financial system is an example of growth of complexity in order to aid the profit motive.   Cash flows are generally too slow and cash reserves too low in order to cover the capital required to start firms, or to add a layer of complexity required for more profitability, so agents must resort to acquiring credit and loans. In other words the financial system acts as a fast, short-timescale distributive mechanism for the funnelling of resources to banks, firms and individuals that require quick access to capital in spite of low cash flows.   Without the financial system growth would be much lower because access to capital could only be facilitated through cash flows. However, as Minsky noted decades ago and mainstream economics emphasizes now,  the financial system is extremely unstable, complex and nonlinear, and therefore fragile. Here is a figure that shows for UK banks how much the “leverage ratio”, which is roughly the ratio between debt to equity of banks, has exponentially grown from the 1880s to the 2000s – in other words, banks depend on loans/credit in order to have fast access to capital.

MilesFig1 (1)

Source: https://voxeu.org/article/what-optimal-leverage-bank

The addition of complex overhead as inversely proportional to growth has been empirically verified for various parts of capitalism. Here are some examples: the cost diseases associated with industries like education and healthcare, the admin bloat in education and healthcare, the  stagnation of productivity across virtually all industries including manufacturing, the stagnation of scientific productivity in spite of exponential growth in the number of scientists and fields, etc.

Furthermore, capitalism encourages rent-seeking and expensive complexity, even if there are no benefits in wealth production for the economy in general. For example, this rent-seeking scenario is probably the case for admin bloat at the universities.  In the case of this admin bloat, there is a transfer of wealth from society to certain sectors of the university, but there is no obvious economic benefit for society in general. This is in contrast to traditional, profitable industries were profit leads to capital valorization through the reinvestment of that profit.

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As noted in a previous post, there is also a secular degeneration of science with the secular decline of capitalism. To summarize that post, as informational complexity grows at a faster rate than empirical validation and knowledge production, an informational bloat of unverified scientific theories gets created. An obvious example is the complex bloat of theoretical physics models that predict all sorts of new particles, in spite of the fact that the Large Hadron Collider, a multibillion dollar experiment, failed to confirm any of them. So you have a whole layer of professionals that are just experts in unverified/degenerative theories, and these professionals collect large salaries in spite of not contributing to economic nor epistemic growth.  Another example of a degenerative profession is economics. Judging from the stagnating productivity across most industries, we can probably assume that these caste of degenerative professionals is rampant across all corners of capitalism. This caste of degenerative professionals and “degenerative” experiments add expensive and fragile complexity to capitalism.

F1436560-42DD-4C21-BB80930F45E22220Source: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/is-science-hitting-a-wall-part-1/

Finally, as complexity grows, there is an increasing dislocation between abstracted logistical, degenerative, and “scientific” complexity and the human labor that creates the wealth.  A very good example is finance. To paraphrase and elaborate on what Taleb said, the wealth of the world is created by dentists doing dentistry, and construction workers doing “construction work”, not by the dentist trying to become rich by trading their savings in the financial market. This is where Marx becomes relevant – for the wealth of society comes from human labor, not from the transfer of wealth through administrative and accounting tricks, or through the circulation of financial instruments. This bloated complexity is required for the functioning of capital  because of financial, accounting, and logistical constraints.  Much of this complexity acts as an overhead for the world-economy that is required for the survival of capital itself, but this complexity does not necessarily create socially necessary wealth. An example of the fragility of this separation between wealth creation and complex abstraction is the existence of speculative bubbles.  Due to the overconfidence of the financial industry, assets are often overvalued and at some point their value collapses, as the dislocation between the real and financial economy becomes unsustainable. This financial instability was discovered by Minsky and that now is understood by mainstream economists, who incorporate it in their models.

Here we begin to sketch a theory for the secular decline of capitalism.  First there is a secular increase of fragile, nonlinear complexity driven by ad-hoc tinkering of firms/institutions in order to pursue short term profits at the expense of fragility. Furthermore much of this  expensive complexity is due to rent-seeking, where specialists trained in degenerative methods that add no obvious knowledge/efficiency self-reproduce and multiply, like string theorists, economists, university admins, healthcare admins etc. In the long run, all this added complexity that is created for short term profits becomes increasingly expensive, leading to even slower productivity growth  (GDP growth per labor hour).  Part of the lowering of productivity is the increasing dislocation between human labor that produces wealth and an abstracted layer of researchers, administrators, managers, etc. Furthermore not only there is a secular decline of the economy, but there are also increasing fragilities and instabilities, as the bloated complexity is very nonlinear, given that it couples agents across planetary scales, such as how the financial industry transcends national economies. So the world economy becomes increasingly more vulnerable to shocks, due to nonlinearities (caused by interdependencies) that lead to  abrupt changes. These instabilities and fragilities give rise to the so called business cycle.

In conclusion, a socialist theory of crisis should begin by looking at the economy as a whole, taking into account its instabilities and fragilities. In my opinion, the methodologies of the various Keynesian and Marxist schools are wrong because they pretend to have identified a couple of important variables (e.g. aggregate demand, organic composition of capital) and then logically derive a theory of crisis through these variables. However, because the economic system is extremely complex and nonlinear, these theories probably amount to just-so stories, since the mechanisms behind the instabilities in capitalism are probably very varied (and many of them unknown),  and therefore  cannot be pinpointed to just specific sources. Instead, a better approach to a crisis theory is  to analyze how capitalism creates  endogenous feedback loops that lead to fragility, due to generalized and socially unnecessary nonlinearities and complexites. This nonlinearization and complexification is imposed in order to pursue short term profits, at the expense of long-term productivity. Moreover, another important issue is how a large part of this complexity becomes increasingly dislocated from wealth creating labor – such as the dislocation between administrators and professors, or the financial sector and the real economy.  

I am confident many of the theories presented in this article can be both quantified and verified against empirical data in a much more rigorous way than done here. But alas, there isn’t an eccentric millionaire backing this research program😞.

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