The global economy doesn’t care about your local chicken farm pt. 2.

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In a previous post, I outlined the idea that a leftist nation-state, even in its the most unambitious, white-bread version, such as european social-democracy, is a doomed project in the wake of neoliberalism. A left wing nation-state in the middle of a sea of global capitalism will be castigated by market discipline, economic uncompetitiveness, currency devaluation, and capital flight.

I got a couple of reactions from that post. Some people argued that my appeal to internationalism was too abstract. Current  left-wing movements that wish to take power through the nation-state – such as Syriza, Bernie’s campaign, and Corbyn’s faction in the Labor Party, are the  existing choices. Waiting  for socialist movements to take power simultaneously so that we can even begin talking about a world, socialist republic is nihilistic.

Although nowadays internationalism seems like an abstraction, there is actually historical evidence of a concrete practice. Marx’s phrase of “the working class has no country” found its expression in three internationals – central, global organizations that claimed the loyalty of millions of people. The first two internationals, the International Workingman’s Association, and the Socialist International, appeared in the late 19th century, while the Comintern was created in 1915, in the wake of the second international’s betrayal of internationalism in WWI, when socialist parties supported patriotically their respective nation-states in the war. An obscure but interesting historical tidbit about  the Comintern’s loyalty to internationalism is reflected in the early Italian communist party. The Italian communist party in the 1920s referred itself as the “Communist Party in Italy”, rather that the later iteration that was called “Communist Party of Italy”, implying that they were merely the Italian section of an international Communist Party, which was embodied in the Comintern, rather than an autonomous, national party. The Italians took internationalism so seriously that Amadeo Bordiga, leader of the early communist party in Italy, demanded that the young USSR should be administered jointly by all the communist parties in the comintern.. Bordiga’s logic followed from the idea that marxists eschewed the nation-state, and instead, fought for a global, socialist republic. After Bordiga’s demand was faced with ridicule, he declared that Stalin was the gravedigger of the revolution.

I don’t want to dwell too much in the historical, because I actually believe there are very few lessons to be learnt from the past. However, what is important about the history of the socialist movement is that many of its protagonists took internationalism very seriously as a programmatic point. Even when the organizations themselves were tiny, such as the Marx’s early Communist League, internationalism was already a programmatic commitment. This programmatic commitment later on manifested itself as centralized, global organizations that had the loyalty of millions of people.

Now contrast this to the contemporary Left. There is a new generation of anti-capitalist movements in the developed world, some of them had made it to mainstream elections. Syriza, Podemos, and Melenchon’s movement, are some of these examples. Yet none of them take seriously the concept of internationalism – in fact, many of them wish to reinforce the sovereignty of the nation-state as a reaction to international capitalism – this has manifested itself programmatically through Lexit, a left-wing case for the abandonment of the european union. Bernie Sander’s campaign also expressed their opposition to open borders, using a workerist logic that argued that the influx of immigrant, cheap labor lowers working conditions for the native working class.

I find all these positions unacceptable, and a betrayal of the internationalist principles the old socialist movement was built upon. Not only these positions are unethical from the perspective of a socialist, but economically illiterate. Reinforcing immigration controls and switching to national currency might give the illusion to the sovereign nation-state of more control and maneuvering space to implement left wing policies, but it will not prevent the capital flight, the economic uncompetitiveness, the debt, and the general market discipline that these policies will trigger – e.g. see Greece or Venezuela for examples. In fact, due to the advanced stage of world capitalism, internationalism is much more necessary today. Given that the economy is much more globalized and interconnected now than in the late 19th century, it’s even more absurd nowadays to combat global capitalism by doubling down on the nation-state sovereignty. What’s very tragic is that even if current conditions favor internationalism – cheap plane tickets, the internet, and the prevalence of english – we seem to be much further ideologically from internationalism than ever before.

So what is to be done? I am just one person, and I cannot come up with a fine-tuned program for 21st century internationalism. However, I think a possible start would be that many of the existing socialist movements, especially those that had made it to the mainstream, take internationalism seriously again. Even lip-service will go a long way in placing globalist praxis in the mainstream discourse. Even if the organizational scaffolding for world socialism doesn’t exist, a programmatic aspiration amongst current existing socialists could trigger the collective imagination into producing concrete plans for the founding of a global, democratic socialist republic. In the case of the old socialist movement of the 19th century, such programmatic commitment to internationalism found a concrete, organizational expression in the internationals. It wasn’t that the old socialist movement found internationalism long after it was founded, rather, internationalism was a programmatic point since the beginning.

Your master’s in a bullshit field doesn’t give you the right to rule.

zac-nielson-113313Western societies aspire to be ruled under meritocratic principles – that the president, the congressman, the dean of a university, and the manager of McDonalds’ are employed to rule and give orders based on their expertise. Good examples of this phenomenon are the polemics around Donald Trump. During the electoral campaign, Trump’s lack of expertise was often contrasted with Hilary Clinton’s impressive resume. Clinton graduated from the best schools, and had a long career in politics, such as her tenure in congress and also as secretary of state. Obama’s expertise was also frequently compared with Trump’s – Obama was a lawyer from Harvard, ands also an editor of a prestigious academic journal. Although I’m writing about presidents, the same meritocratic principle applies in many administrative and managerial positions of variable prestige, both in the private and public sphere.

This valorization of expertise is historicized. That is, it wasn’t always that rulers justified their dominance through expertise. For example, kings had a divine right to rule, regardless of how capable they were. High ranking military positions were inherited through noble pedigree. Although meritocracy has existed for thousands of years, for example, bureaucratic posts in ancient china were given based on the results of a very hard, standardized test, this logic wasn’t universal. The ideology of expertise probably has at its root the historical success of the natural science in the context of Capitalism. The capitalists found that by using mathematics, engineering, and studying in controlled environments the natural laws that govern the Universe, they could make more widgets per second, more efficient engines, and generate more profit.

Today we have a whole cadre of order givers that justify their positions of power with a master’s in business administration, a PhD in international relations, graduate school in economics. Some paper-pusher in Ontario can decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of human beings because they got a master’s degree in public administration. Their claim to power is justified by the congealed knowledge of their credentials and work experience. Yet, what if that knowledge isn’t real? Maybe the subjects they studied are hard to extract authentic knowledge from. Perhaps, our limited instruments, models, and cognition place hard constraints on the subject matter. In other words, the phenomena they claim expertise on are  so complex and sprawling that finding the causal links between the  different sub-parts of the system is so daunting that very little meaningful information can be acquired. Because of the lack of authentic knowledge, a fake knowledge is created to pad the field so that sufficient information exists to manufacture expertise. A very good example of this phenomenon of fake expertise is the economist. A figure reviled by many, blamed as the chief priest behind the current neoliberal turn of capitalism. Their expertise was called into question in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008. Their failure to forecast these crises is seen as evidence of the bullshit status of their credentials.

Why some subjects can generate more authentic knowledge than others, or at least are perceived by society at large to do so? For example, the majority doesn’t called into question the knowledge of a physicist. The main reason is that many of the more prestigious natural sciences are built upon the careful study of simple, controlled systems that can be described by clean mathematics. A common joke made by physicists is that physics is the study of harmonic oscillators – simple oscillatory systems such as the pendulum, a spring that compresses and stretches, a pebble oscillating in a cereal bowl, the creation and annihilation of particles. Much of the formalism in physics is built upon these simple, equilibrium systems which can be described by elegant mathematics. However, fields dealing with the affairs of human beings, don’t have have the privilege of such simple systems. Instead, the systems that are dealt by subjects like economics, are highly complex, nonlinear, and not in equilibrium, which makes them unpredictable and subject to shocks that can cause extreme consequences. Complexity implies that different parts of the system are coupled in non-intuitive ways and they influence each other in manners that many times are intractable. Furthermore, systems dealing with humans, such as economics are not deterministic – human beings are not billiard balls that can be tracked by specifying their initial velocity and positions, the human universe is not one of clockworks. This makes many human systems mathematically intractable. In fact, economics often times tries to emulate physics by studying simple, equilibrium systems. However, there aren’t simple, economic systems in the same way simple, physical systems exist.

Technocrats justify their positions of power by claiming expertise in the system of human beings. Yet, this system is highly complex, non-intuitive and difficult to describe. Therefore, the authentic knowledge that can be acquired is limited and heuristical. Thus, the limited authentic knowledge that is acquired is padded with artificial, just-so stories, in order to create sufficient information and metrics to generate an “expertise” that can be accumulated. This in turn creates a filtering system in a slack labor market. Although realistically, many of the applicants can perform satisfyingly in the job, the lack of job vacancies forces the creation of an expertise that erects a guild-like system to regulate the labor market. Thus, the faker the expertise, the more important the pedigree of the fake degree becomes – an engineer from a state university can be hired anywhere, given that engineering knowledge is authentic and easily standardized, while an MBA is useless unless it was acquired from a selective, prestigious university.

The victory of Trump scared liberals because they interpreted it as a twlight of reason. However, they are mistaken – its not reason voters reject, but instead, the rule of fake experts. Voters revolt against the plots of scattered points and crude lines that are weaponized against them. They spoke against the kilograms of white policy paper used as scientific justification for the destruction of pensions. They fought back against the obsolescence of human workers and their replacement by strange machines. They revolted against the hubris of the president, a modern, constitutional monarch that justifies their rule with an Oxbridge degree rather than by divine appointment.

Although this revolt against technocracy is monopolized by the right, it offers the Left an opening. If the expertise behind professional order givers amounts to little more than bullshit, then it seems most human beings are well equipped for political power. If there is no such thing as a science of order giving, then institutions can be more democratic and participatory. Lenin was right when he said cooks can govern.

The global economy doesn’t care about your local chicken farm.

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Once, an economist friend told me that they have a term for quacks, and its called “marxism.” Indeed, a common rightist trope is that leftists don’t understand the economy. The social programs leftists advocate, such as public housing, life stipends, and universal healthcare, are seemed as economically unsustainable.

I do think there’s some truth in this. Leftists are so obsessed with winning elections and taking power at all costs within the confines of the nation-state that they become blind to global economic forces. Perhaps the starkest, recent example of this phenomenon was the failure of Syriza at Greece. Syriza was an outspoken anticapitalist party, with many of the groups forming the coalition having the sort of leftist pedigree that exist only in the fringe in the rest of the developed world. They ran on an anti-austerity campaign and they won the national elections in 2015. What happened next? In the face of imminent financial doom, Syriza ended doubling down on austerity. In the Greek case, groups that had “communist” in their name ended up as managers of capitalist crisis, delivering the unadulterated program of neoliberalism, a platform that will leave old people dying penniless, and young people unemployed, sick without access to life-or-death medication.

Simpleminded analysis will find Syriza as traitorous. The harder wings of the left will say that Syriza was doomed since the beginning, since revolution is not a matter of simple electoral victory. Yet, even the hardest of the hard lefts, with the most ambitious programs for economic and social restructuring, will have faced similar dilemmas. That is because capitalism is a global system. The basic goods that sustain any nation-state are the product of a division of labor and a logistical network that spans the whole globe – minerals that are used in electronics are mined in Africa, hydrocarbons that power the factories that make vaccines are extracted from Canadian ground. This gives rise to a global economy that uses the abstractions of stocks, bonds, debt, and currency to mediate the distribution of technology, labor time, and natural resources necessary to sustain any sovereign nation-state. The rules of this global economy are studied by mainstream economists, rules that the Right claims the Left doesn’t understand. Any national, left wing movement will inevitably  face off the blind, idiot god of international capital, and most certainly, be consumed by it.

However, the insight that marxists have is that the economy is ultimately an emergent property of social relations. Debt, inflation, and unemployment are not physical laws that arise from the symmetries of the Universe. This human element is lost in the mathematical formalism that is popular in academic economics. What happens is that, in the current balance of class and political forces, capitalism reigns victorious socially, ideologically and politically in almost every corner of the world. It is this ideological and political triumph that sustains the abstraction we call the global economy. It’s the fact that international capitalists will only exchange the barrels of oil, bags of rice, and computers necessary to sustain society for currency that leads to the economic laws that would castigate a leftist, sovereign state. It’s the belief from the vast mayority of workers that bosses, money, and waged labor are the natural state of humankind, that supports the abstractions of stock, debt, bonds and currency.

Leftist economic illiteracy does not arise from unfamiliarity with the mathematical formalism derived by economists. It’s the lack of global vision that betrays their ignorance. In the face of the global onslaught of capital, leftist imagination is mired with provincialism. The fetishization of the small, local, and familiar over the vast unknown. The racism that privileges national labor over immigrant labor. The belief that the nation-state is natural and that a leftist program should act within its confines. The urgency to take power through elections at all costs through the Bernies, Corbyns, and Syrizas in the hope that an anti-austerity, sovereign nation can exist within a global economy that will squash such state through economic attrition and capital flight.

If capitalists have global political projects, such as the ones dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, why can’t leftists have their own global political programs? Why is it so hard to imagine a global movement, for example, that lays the foundations for a world, socialist republic? Only a global political project can even begin to theorize how to domesticate the global economy so that it doesn’t destroy old people’s pensions in Greece, factory ceilings don’t fall on workers in Indonesia, and immigrant laborers in Canada aren’t reduced to indentured servitude by tyrannic visas. After all the rules that regulate borders, finances, the stock market, and ultimately the nation-state, are social constructions imposed by the political triumph of capitalists, not deterministic and mathematical properties derived from natural science.

A PhD in wokeness.

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Late capitalism has given rise to experts in diversity and wokeness. Professional bureaucrats, activists and academics, delineate what discourse is racist or sexist, and what is authentically black, mexican or feminine. Their expertise lies in the realm of the symbolic – what structures in language, pop culture, or in a speech, are problematic. Witness the explosive polemics around the phenomenon of Rachel Dolezal, whether her blackness is authentic, what is her coordinate point in the constellation of privilege, how woke or unwoke are certain sentences she utters. Because many of the axioms that delineate the authenticity and wokeness of certain social phenomena are rooted in subjective experience, these specialists appeal to their authority as members of a specific minority, which gives them the expertise to navigate certain racialized and gendered experiences. Because the truths about marginalized minorities are contained within subjective experience, an epistemic barrier exists in the discourse – sometimes some things are racist or sexist because the specialist in wokeness says so and white people cannot possibly access  that knowledge. Because the task of accounting for the experiences of all marginalized minorities is almost impossible, this experts represent a compression of information – we can just appeal to the specialists in gender studies to know whether Hilary Clinton is a feminist and Bernie Sanders a misogynistic bro.

The first thing to notice about these experts, is that they are not elected. Instead, their authority in representation comes from a labyrinthine process of credentials and self-promotion – the right PhD, the correct list of publications, the access to the relevant dinner parties and networks. It is the upper echelions of class society, with their constellation of pedigreed universities, high traffic websites, and prestigous publications that grants them that authority. This experts almost always come from privileged backgrounds, for the skills and cultural capital necessary to become a master in discourse, to be able to write think-pieces, publish articles in peer reviewed journals, or appear in TV, requires credentials, grooming, and many times a financially comfortable and well-connected family. The diversity expert fits in the logic of liberalism, for liberalism is blind to class society, and instead treats the problem of racism and gender as one of representation – that is, we need to have more brown CEOs and politicians, women in suitpants, and expert in wokeness with exquisite credentials. The second thing to notice is that much of this discourse  remains symbolic, instead of addressing the material structures  in  capitalism that give rise to this power differentials.  Witness for example, this recent circle-jerk in wokeness, where a professor of security studies, in other words, someone who ensures that the military’s torturers and assassins are sufficiently multicultural and woke, is praised for cussing off  the social leper and glorified blogger  called Richard Spencer. Yet Richard Spencer’s neonazism  remains moistly quarantined in image boards and basement dweller subcultures, while Fair is a bootlicker of the material forces that turn brown people into craters abroad.

The rise of the diversity expert fits right into the continuity of white supremacy. The western capitalist state, mired with a blood soaked and colonial history, has always innovated in ways to deal with the tensions that arise from power asymmetries between different racial and ethnic groups. Its mode has always been that of representation – bringing a select few of the colonial subjects to the imperial court. In the previous centuries, these representatives were kings or band leaders – the settler state would accommodate and “buy off” some of the most privileged and powerful colonial subjects to ease tensions between oppressed minorities and the white supremacist state. Later on, in the 19th century in the United States, political machines and the rise of the irish political boss provided the required representation. The diversity experts is a continuation of this lineage, transformed in appearance, but not essence, by the civil rights movement and the rise of post-structuralism.

If expertise is delimited by subjective experience and access to discourse is constrained by credentials, cultural capital, and writing skills, then the specialists of diversity can only be experts in the diversity of the professoriat. Under this dynamic, the female tenured academic will call the precarious worker that didn’t vote for Hilary Clinton privilieged, and the New York Times journalist will contrast their authentic blackness with the one of Rachel Dolezal. Meanwhile, the mass of queer, female, brown and black workers will exist in the limbo outside this spectacle, speaking, eating and acting in ways the expert in wokeness will  find sexist or racist, in the same way the medieval aristocrats found the manners of peasants and proles barbaric.

The Earth is not abstract.

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Capitalism abstracts the dead and the living into a market value. Incommensurable objects, like a an apple or a doctor’s appointment, are abstracted into quantities that represents their values in the market, and in that case, are rendered interchangeable. This process is usually not planned;  capitalist value  is a spontaneous and  emergent property from the sumtotal of all interactions between consumers, workers, and capitalists.

However, not everything can be abstracted. There are processes where no monetary renumeration is involved but are required for capitalism’s survival – one of them is domestic labor. If mothers went on strike and refused to take care of their children, society would collapse. Some of these processes can be partly abstracted into value, for example, the maid and the nanny. However, a large amount of these activities must be done for free, because society cannot afford to pay for them. The sphere of free domestic labor is treated as infinitely available.

The Earth-system is similar to domestic labor in that it cannot be fully abstracted. Hydrocarbons are some of the cheapest sources of energy, yet carbon emissions are threatening to cause  a violent change in the thermodynamic state of the Earth. Even if global warming could melt the polar caps, annihilate whole species of organisms, trigger monsoons and draughts, and perhaps, ruin humanity, the watt produced by diesel engines is less costly than the watt created by photo-voltaic cells. The death of the great coral reef will not be mourned by a stock market crash.

Capitalism is blind to the planetary boundaries that it must not cross. Technocrats propose to make the boundaries visible to capitalism by pricing the ecological cost of carbon emission. They say that the magic of the market will transfigure the carbon price into a green energy revolution.  Technocrats argue that the market  will be much more efficient at curtailing carbon emissions and innovating renewable energies than centralized planning.  There are some obvious faults in this strategy from the perspective of a Leftist. Essentially, these measures  try to “force” capitalism to do something that is alien to its inner logic – that is, abstracting these ecological damages into a price, when  historically capitalism was (and is) blind to ecological costs, treating the Earth-system as an unpaid externality.  This blindness is what   led to our present climate predicament.

Yet, even if we were charitable about carbon pricing as a realistic and efficient way to deal with global warming, there is a  problem of knowledge. The information that goes into this carbon pricing can only reflect what scientists currently know, with their imperfect models and instruments. But the Earth-system is complex and vast. Our limited instruments and models cannot register with certainty all the possible beams, walls or gears that can break within the Earth-system and must be accounted for.

The accounting of the planetary boundaries will always be slow and imperfect compared to the rate at which the Earth could transform cataclismically, A function that converts ecological cost to price will be dangerously incomplete, limited by the slow speed of scientific research, and the rate of propagation of  recently discovered ecological cost into monetary price. Recently,  scientists argued that the melting of the polar caps could release  ancient virii and bacteria that laid dormant for thousands of years in the ice, a possibility that hasn’t been fully accounted for. This is just another nonlinear, feedback process that defines the current planetary boundaries. Will the rate of scientific discovery of these boundaries and the velocity of its propagation into a  carbon price be faster than the rate of social ruin?

The problem of knowledge, coupled with the inability of capitalism to abstract ecological damages into price, compounds into a technocrat’s nightmare. It turns out that forcing a square peg into a round cog is a nontrivial task.  Other large issues that are rarely discussed in the laymen press are the logistical problems of carbon pricing. Some of  the possible logistical difficulties are:  the man force necessary to enforce  emission limits and fill spreadsheets, the level of compliance and synchronicity required from different opposing factions trying to outcompete each other,  and  finally,  unforeseeable ways the gargantuan project of trying to domesticate capitalism into playing ball with the Earth-system could go wrong.

However, despite our limited instruments and imperfect models, we know about the strong correlation between capitalism and global warming. After all, humanity is tens of thousands of years old, and it wasn’t until the last century that human activity threatened the disruption of the Earth-system’s equilibrium. Instead of engaging in futile attempts at codifying all the possible planetary boundaries into a numerical value of price, changing the social relationships that brought us to ecological volatility will be a better place to start.