coromandal


virtue offsets
February 3, 2019, 4:44 pm
Filed under: brave new world, departure lounge | Tags: , , ,

The Good Samaritan

In the age of neoliberalism and market fundamentalism, even virtue is put to work for the marketplace. In the same way that a big polluter can buy carbon offsets to assuage his guilt – and avoid paying for his great big pile of toxic externalities – he can donate to a charity. He can even donate to his own charity!

But there’s an even more effective way of offsetting your financial and environmental sins. Lo a great host of uber virtuous now circles the globe and deigns occasionally to descend among us mortals to hear confession, be the balm, assuage the guilt, and offer redemption for massive sins perpetrated against the earth and her people.

It’s a good deal. It doesn’t cost anything and it results in the preservation of an unsustainable status quo.

Here is an excerpt from Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal:

What I concluded from observing all this is that there is a global commerce in compassion, an international virtue- circuit featuring people of unquestionable moral achievement, like Bono, Malala, Sting, Yunus, Angelina Jolie, and Bishop Tutu; figures who travel the world, collecting and radiating goodness. They come into contact with the other participants in this market: the politicians and billionaires and bankers who warm themselves at the incandescent virtue of the world-traveling moral superstars.

What drives this market are the buyers. Like Wal-Mart and Goldman Sachs “partnering” with the State Department, what these virtue-consumers are doing is purchasing liberalism offsets, an ideological version of the carbon offsets that are sometimes bought by polluters in order to compensate for the smog they churn out.

At the apex of all this idealism stands the Clinton Foundation, a veritable market-maker in the world’s vast, swirling virtue-trade. The former president who stands at its head is “the world’s leading philanthropic dealmaker,” according to a book on the subject. Under his watchful eye all the concerned parties are brought together: the moral superstars, the billionaires, and of course the professionals, who organize, intone, and advise. Virtue changes hands. Good causes are funded. Compassion is radiated and absorbed.

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue-exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-graduated American professionals, their reassuring expertise propped up by bogus social science, while the unfortunate objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

Thomas Frank, Listen Liberal

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The eccentric, brilliant, and impractical
January 21, 2019, 4:51 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

Don’t Blink, Lisa Rinzler

The best four years of my middle aged life were spent reading English Literature as an undergraduate. I went on and did a professional degree, which in my mind wasn’t education at all and should be immediately removed from the university and put in a trade school where it belongs. I developed a lifelong love of the humanities from the short introduction I had to it, and know I owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who taught me for their role in introducing us to the histories, stories and ideas that make the foundation of our shared institutions, that nurture our collective imagination, and cement truth and beauty at the center of society and life.

I was aware at the time – the late eighties – of some of the cultural shifts that would a few short decades later completely alter the mission of the humanities. Third Way for instance was a term I learned during my undergrad as a bold bipartisan market based way forward. Exciting! However, no one could have known then the precision and speed with which neo liberal third way would hollow out the liberal arts education starving the core concepts of learning for it’s own sake, for the sake of shared humanism, to allow the imagination to flourish. This movement instrumentalized, quantified and monetized the universities, and the sacred heart of their mission was smothered. Deans, who used to protect the mandate of the colleges, now came in to raise money and, well, the body rotted from the head on down.

In the Baffler book No Future For You is a chapter on the liberalizing of the universities by David Graeber. He describes the result: administrative work has replaced study, research and teaching; administrators outnumber professors; corporate management techniques have led to competition instead of collegiality; study and teaching has been replaced by selling: books, grant applications, faculty, and the university itself; true creative work has been replaced by a sort of stenography. There are no new works of social theory and the eccentric and brilliant are denied tenure and languish in obscurity.

It’s time to declare: we want our universities back.

My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.

The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure.

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.

Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber, No Future For You, The Baffler



best as communities
June 10, 2018, 3:10 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,

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Our best practices – preached to us by economists, pseudo academics, market first gurus etc – to make everything more machine-like, rational and efficient, manifest what you’d expect: failed institutions.

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you missed one of the rungs in the ladder
June 9, 2018, 6:39 pm
Filed under: brave new world, chronotopes | Tags: , , , , ,

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In his essay Such Were the Joys …, George Orwell describes the claustrophobic social realities of early century England.

The social and class milieu was rooted in low church religion and upper class unattainability and snobbery, which cancelled each other: on the one hand: sex puritanism, hard work, academic distinction, no self indulgence. And on the other: anti-intellectualism, love of games, xenophobia, contempt for working class, fear of poverty,  materialism, power and leisure.

To be socially acceptable one had to live on the interest of a sizable family endowment. It was virtually impossible to attain upper class status from the middle class: best case was a middle manager civil servant, but more likely, after a lifetime of hard work, an office boy.

Today we have indifferent boomers, a majority who can’t retire, lost millennials, the precariat, giggers etc. Was Orwell’s time any different from our own?

The various codes which were presented to you at Crossgates – religious, moral, social and intellectual – contradicted one another if you worked out their implications. The essential conflict was between the tradition of the nineteenth-century ascetism and the actually existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age. On the one side were low-church Bible Christianity, sex puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for “braininess” and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and, above all, the assumption not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible. At the time I did not perceive that the various ideals which were set before us cancelled out. I merely saw that they were all, or nearly all, unattainable, so far as I was concerned, since they all depended not only on what you did but on what you were.

Very early, at the age of only ten or eleven, I reached the conclusion – no one told me this, but on the other hand I did not simply make it up out of my own head: somehow it was in the air I breathed – that you were no good unless you had £100,000. I had perhaps fixed on this particular sum as a result of reading Thackeray. The interest on £100,000 a year (I was in favor of a safe 4 per cent), would  be £4,000, and this seemed to me the minimum income that you must possess if you were to belong to the real top crust, the people in the country houses. But it was clear that I could never find my way into that paradise, to which you did not really belong unless you were born into it. You could only make money, if at all, by a mysterious operation called “going into the City,” and when you came out of the City, having won your £10,000, you were fat and old. But the truly enviable thing about the top notchers was that they were rich while young. For people like me, the ambitious middle class, the examination passers, only a bleak, laborious kind of success was possible. You clambered upwards on a ladder of scholarships into the Home Civil Service or the Indian Civil Service, or possibly you became a barrister. And if at any point you “slacked” or “went off” and missed one of the rungs in the ladder, you became “a little office boy at forty pounds a year.” But even if you climbed to the highest niche that was open to you, you could still only be an underling, a hanger-on of the people who really counted.

George Orwell, Such Were The Joys …, p 31



The difference between man and animal is one of degree and not of kind

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Image: Henri Rousseau

I walked into the bathroom to see what my dad was doing. He was drowning Pixie’s pups because no one in Visag would take them. They looked  up desperately through the clear water and bubbles. He set their limp bodies aside and later buried them in the yard. This was wrong, but I had almost no emotion. My dad was so assured of the issue of animals and I believed him. We ate meat at meals and we were taught that animals are dumb, and the people who worship them, Hindus, were wrong to do so. Pixie herself, who I still love after all these years, was euthanized and buried in the yard when we left the country.

I put out traps in my apartment during the winter when the mice come in and start to bother me. This was before I found out there are more humanitarian ways of getting rid of them – moth balls work, they hate the smell. Once, I found a mouse caught in a trap behind the TV and he was still alive and terrified. The wire had pinched his lower body but not the vital organs. I worried how long he had been there. I picked him up and filled a bucket as my dad had done and drowned him. The same thing happened: he looked up at me as he expelled his last breath. I was more emotional; I believed the assurances of my father less and felt the pain of the mouse more.

Darwin said humans are different from animals ‘in degree not kind;’ significant difference but fully related. And since he said it, we have basically believed the opposite, that animals are completely different and fully inferior. We believed the opposite so we could conquer and use animals and not feel bad about it. We did the same with slaves, they were mere chattel.

What inconvenience would result, and what new world emerge, if we began to think as Darwin did? A recognition in the eyes of a mouse his short life is ending with regret, longing and pain. The extension of the human condition to include the animal kingdom. As Barnes says below, a revolution in how we live and organize the planet – or allow it to organize us.

Carl Safina, a professor of nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, New York, wrote:

“Suggesting that other animals can feel anything wasn’t just a conversation stopper; it was a career killer. In 1992, readers of the exclusive journal Science were warned by one academic writer that studying animal perceptions ‘isn’t a project I’d recommend to anyone without tenure’.”

It is odd that scientists, who claim to work only from data, and philosophers, who, like Wittgenstein, might speculate without anything as sordid as data but still love a good bit of logic, operate on the certainty that, while all placental mammals are put together in the same way physiologically, one of them is somehow completely different from all the other 4,000-odd – so different that we don’t even need evidence to prove it. Are we talking about the soul here? I ask only for information.

Throughout the years, people have sought to isolate and identify humanity’s USP, and every time they have done so, they discover that some animal – some non-human animal – has it, too. All the barriers we have erected between ourselves and other animals turn out to be frail and porous: emotion, thought, problem-solving, tool use, culture, an understanding of death, an awareness of the self, consciousness, language, syntax, sport, mercy, magnanimity, individuality, names, personality, reason, planning, insight, foresight, imagination, moral choice… even art, religion and jokes.

It’s all in Darwin, but we have spent getting on for two centuries ignoring or distorting the stuff he taught us. In The Descent of Man, he wrote: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” If you accept evolution by means of natural selection, that must be true.

Why, then, are humans so resistant to the idea? We can find the answer in human history. For many years it was important to uphold the notion of the moral and mental inferiority of non-white people, because without such a certainty colonialism and slavery would be immoral. And that would never do: they were so convenient.

To change our views on the uniqueness of human beings would require recalibrating 5,000 years or so of human thought, which would in turn require revolutionary changes in the way we live our lives and manage the planet we all live on.

And that would be highly inconvenient.

Simon Barnes, Why humans need to rethink their place in the animal kingdom: Books by Elena Passarello, Peter Wohlleben and Lucy Cooke explore our relationship with wildlife, The New Statesman



ressentiment

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Ressentiment is the emotion of the outsider looking in – to what? – with envy and powerlessness. It’s ascendant among the ranks of the precariat and gigger.

It’s an emotion that results from secularism, meritocracy, egalitarianism and market fundamentalism, ideologies which strip away social bonds and leave us each to struggle – nobly – on our own.

Ressentiment manifests in the outsider as envy, fascination and revulsion; and in the insider as vanity and narcissism.

The outsider is envious of the insider who is an empty shell. The insider, steeped in schadenfreude, hates. The outsider struggles to differentiate himself from peers and friends, and learns to love his abasement.

Rinse and repeat.

Here is Pankaj Mishra on the Age of Anger:

Ressentiment – caused by an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness – is not simply the French word for resentment. Its meaning was shaped in a particular cultural and social context: the rise of a secular and meritocratic society in the 18th century. Even though he never used the word, the first thinker to identify how ressentiment would emerge from modern ideals of an egalitarian and commercial society was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An outsider to the Parisian elite of his time, who struggled with envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection, Rousseau saw how people in a society driven by individual self-interest come to live for the satisfaction of their vanity – the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself.

But this vanity, luridly exemplified today by Donald Trump’s Twitter account, often ends up nourishing in the soul a dislike of one’s own self while stoking impotent hatred of others; and it can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby individuals feel acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection. (As Gore Vidal pithily put it: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”)

 

Welcome to the Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra



Hume: the governed

The governed resign control of their lives to the people who govern. So it is the opinion of the many – that they remain powerless – by which the powerful maintain their control.

There are two kinds of opinion: opinion of interest and opinion of right. Opinion of interest means the population at large believes in the advantages of goverment. This opinion gives a sitting government security. Opinion of right is the right to power and right to property.

Why so easy for the few to govern the many? Why turn over how you think and what you like to governors so easily?

Government is established and maintained by controlling the the opinion of the governed.

Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The soldan of Egypt, or the emperor of Rome, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion.

Opinion is of two kinds, to wit, opinion of interest, and opinion of right. By opinion of interest, I chiefly understand the sense of the general advantage which is reaped from government; together with the persuasion, that the particular government, which is established, is equally advantageous with any other that could easily be settled. When this opinion prevails among the generality of a state, or among those who have the force in their hands, it gives great security to any government.

Right is of two kinds, right to Power and right to Property. What prevalence opinion of the first kind has over mankind, may easily be understood, by observing the attachment which all nations have to their ancient government, and even to those names, which have had the sanction of antiquity. Antiquity always begets the opinion of right; and whatever disadvantageous sentiments we may entertain of mankind, they are always found to be prodigal both of blood and treasure in the maintenance of public justice. There is, indeed, no particular, in which, at first sight, there may appear a greater contradiction in the frame of the human mind than the present. When men act in a faction, they are apt, without shame or remorse, to neglect all the ties of honour and morality, in order to serve their party; and yet, when a faction is formed upon a point of right or principle, there is no occasion, where men discover a greater obstinacy, and a more determined sense of justice and equity. The same social disposition of mankind is the cause of these contradictory appearances.

David Hume, 1777