there is more to a human being

Look Back in Anger: how John Osborne liberated theatrical language ...

We are homo economicus in a post capital malaise – a thick stew unlovingly conceived, with bitter ingredients, forced on us, and permeating everything.

We are naturally human, made to work and think as machines; naturally intuitive, forced into extreme rationality; naturally modest, made to be egotistic; naturally cooperative, made competitive; naturally sharing, made acquisitive; naturally collective, made individualistic; naturally imaginative, made rational; naturally curious, made means tested.

We have the formulations of who we really are – simply the opposite to those devised by the technocrats.  We need only to resist them and take on again the mantle of our true natures.

Our current disregard of non-economic motivations is even more surprising when we learn that less than a century ago, the Enlightenment’s “narrow rational programme” for individual happiness had already become “the butt of ridicule and contempt” – as the Austrian modernist writer Robert Musil observed in 1922. Indeed, the pioneering works of sociology and psychology as well as modernist art and literature of the early 20th century were defined in part by their insistence that there is more to human beings than rational egoism, competition and acquisition, more to society than a contract between logically calculating and autonomous individuals, and more to politics than impersonal technocrats devising hyper-rational schemes of progress with the help of polls, surveys, statistics, mathematical models and technology.

Welcome to the Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra

Comradeship and justice
April 18, 2020, 7:49 am
Filed under: brave new world, chronotopes | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Saving Hieronymus Bosch from the devil

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Our understanding of the medieval world is on the whole negative: long centuries marked by superstition, plagues, illiteracy, feudal bondage, and wars. We see it as a dark age bracketed by the relative brilliance of antiquity before and enlightenment after. The victors write history and much of what we believe about the medieval world was written in the 19th century to propagate this carefully crafted historical narrative.

The collapse of empire, the crusades, feudalism, and plagues are indeed dark, but there is a lot about the medieval world that is attractive: its mysticism, social life, art and architecture, and stories. Similarly, if we’re honest, there’s an awful lot to not recommend in the Western canon world we live in: its alienation, rationalism, instrumentalism, blind faith in humanism, reason and capital.

As an example, in the realm of work G. K. Chesterton noted that the medieval view was human and redeeming and our modern system decidedly debased:

The principal of medieval trade was admittedly comradeship and justice, while the principle of modern trade is avowedly competition and greed.

G.K. Chesterton, William Cobbett, 1926

Strange how the highly religious medieval world comes up with such modern concepts to organize the world of work: comradeship and justice; yet we, drawing on the grand rational traditions of ancient Rome and Athens, the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution, evolved a system of backwardness and superstition: competition and greed. We have high priests – robed flunkies – to flog this ignorant ideology; its influence is airtight, profound, omniscient, omnipresent. They use propagandas which are part of the air we breathe: Survival of the Fittest! Healthy Competition!

Tom Hodgkinson describes the outcome of our ‘enlightened’ dark age:

The theory is that competition leads to good quality and reasonable prices in goods. But the reality is the opposite: unfettered competition, that is, commercial war, and the endless expansion that necessarily goes with it, inevitably results in monopolies, as one giant company swallows up its failed competitors.

Tim Hodgkinson, The Freedom Manifesto, p84

That’s not enlightened. We’ve no doubt entered one of Dante’s circles, or the hellscapes of Hieronymus Bosch.

It would be unfair to not at least ruminate on the effects on life built on a commitment to comradeship and justice. As we’ve seen, there is a lot of poor scholarship that pushes a view of the desperate nature of the life of the Medieval peasant; no life at any time has been a bed of roses. But we know they held to these commitments and thereby built for themselves meaningful, faithful, and social lives. And we can too.


Here is a glimpse of a truly dystopian state of affairs within which we willingly live. It’s radically not free. We’re in it’s thrall, we neither see it, nor criticize it, nor act to dismantle it.

No in typical dystopian fashion we have come somehow to not only tolerate it but also to defend it and finally to enshrine it as a central tenet of our society.

It is the mad striving for status and achievement.

Though we willingly live with it, and help to sustain it by our complicity, there are outside forces that greatly benefit from maintaining its destructive effects. These insidiously indoctrinate parents who in turn put undue pressure on their children.

The towns are enshrouded in a dense fog of striving, competition, anxiety and depression.

Surely there is a way out, from dystopia to freedom, through a rejection of the reductive, economic, manipulative society, to a new paradigm that facilitates thriving in every phase of life.

Given what we know about recent changes in the American sociocultural environment, it would be a surprise if there weren’t elevated levels of anxiety among young people. Their lives center around production, competition, surveillance, and achievement in ways that were totally exceptional only a few decades ago. All this striving, all this trying to catch up and stay ahead—it simply has to have psychological consequences. The symptoms of anxiety aren’t just the unforeseen and unfortunate outcome of increased productivity and decreased labor costs; they’re useful. . . . Restlessness, dissatisfaction and instability—which Millennials report experiencing more than generations past—are negative ways of framing the flexibility and self-direction employers increasingly demand. . . . All of these psychopathologies are the result of adaptive developments.

Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris

tyranny of managerialism and the privatization of results

Image result for for profit universities contemporary photography

You will: write proposals, be judged, anticipate and deflect criticism.

You will not: do research, follow your curiosity, solve problems.

You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. . . . It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.

Jonathan Katz, astrophysicist

The privatization of research results:

You will: jealously guard – as you would personal property – your findings, make findings difficult to access.

You will not: share in convivial competition.

Industrial Revolution British economics was distributed between high finance and local crackpot inventors and researchers, and was highly successful. After 1945, the US and Germany fought over who would replace Britain as world power, and starting with the atom bomb in the 1950s, built our current, stagnant, technological, government funded economy.

In the natural sciences, to the tyranny of managerialism we can add the privatization of research results. As the British economist David Harvie has reminded us, “open source” research is not new. Scholarly research has always been open source, in the sense that scholars share materials and results. There is competition, certainly, but it is “convivial.” This is no longer true of scientists working in the corporate sector, where findings are jealously guarded, but the spread of the corporate ethos within the academy and research institutes themselves has caused even publicly funded scholars to treat their findings as personal property. Academic publishers ensure that findings that are published are increasingly difficult to access, further enclosing the intellectual commons. As a result, convivial, open-source competition turns into something much more like classic market competition.


Giovanni Arrighi has noted that after the South Sea Bubble, British capitalism largely abandoned the corporate form. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had instead come to rely on a combination of high finance and small family firms—a pattern that held throughout the next century, the period of maximum scientific and technological innovation. (Britain at that time was also notorious for being just as generous to its oddballs and eccentrics as contemporary America is intolerant. A common expedient was to allow them to become rural vicars, who, predictably, became one of the main sources for amateur scientific discoveries.)

Contemporary, bureaucratic corporate capitalism was a creation not of Britain, but of the United States and Germany, the two rival powers that spent the first half of the twentieth century fighting two bloody wars over who would replace Britain as a dominant world power—wars that culminated, appropriately enough, in government-sponsored scientific programs to see who would be the first to discover the atom bomb. It is significant, then, that our current technological stagnation seems to have begun after 1945, when the United States replaced Britain as organizer of the world economy.

Of Flying Machines and the Declining Rate of Profit, David Graeber, The Baffler

non zero sum game

You can win and lose in music or cooking, as crazy as that seems. In order to win, others must lose, in the American way, developed by the emotionally stunted, and everyone takes the risk of losing in the belief that someday there will be a big win. Of course there never is.

For Thomas Hobbes social existence was a war of all against all, zero sum. For him competition is an ideal not a problem.

But there is also the cooperative paradigm, the non zero sum game, in which the rising tide floats all boats. It enables strength, sustainable lives, health, freedom.

From Benjamin Barber:

It is much the same with entertainment. Our most successful shows, themselves in a competition for survival with one another (sweeps week!), pit ­on-­camera competitors against one another in contests only one can win. The eponymous show Survivor is the Darwinian prototype, but the principle rules on all the “reality” shows. On American Idol, singing is the excuse but winning the real aim. In the winners’ world of television, nothing is what it seems. Top Chef is not about excellence or variety in cooking, but about winning and losing. Project Runway turns a pluralistic fashion industry that caters to many tastes into a race (with clocks and time limits) in which there is but one winner. The competitive culture hypes winners but is equally (more?) fascinated with losers. “It is not enough that I win,” proclaims the ­hubris-­driven American competitor, “others must lose.” And Americans have shown themselves ready to become big losers in order to be eligible to become big ­winners—­however remote the odds. We are a nation of gamblers willing to tolerate radical income inequality and a large class of losers (into which we willingly risk being shunted) for the chance to ­win.

That tension is hard to maintain, however. The two modes of being inevitably become the source of rival theories of politics and society and, as a consequence, two distinctive approaches to human identity. When we contemplate nature as a kind of parody of human warfare and anarchy, as Thomas Hobbes did, our social existence becomes a “war of all against all.” According to this model, we live in a ­“zero-­sum” world where one man’s victory must be another man’s defeat. We either have to sacrifice our liberty to secure tranquility or live well through rivalry and conquest. The price of attenuating competition is always high, even when it is deemed necessary for survival (as posited by social contract theory). In our very impetus to move, this view argues, we cannot help but collide with others. In collision, we cannot help but experience others as limits on our own freedom. The preservation of freedom demands competition, while any restraint at all on competition, even mere civility, becomes an unfortunate limit on ­liberty.

This celebration of radical competition has, of course, been contested by theorists such as ­Jean-­Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and John Dewey, who have treated competition more as a problem or pathology to be overcome than an ideal to be realized. In the cooperative paradigm, the world is understood to be a ­non–zero-­sum game in which we can win by helping others win. We are psychic as well as material beings and can ­co­exist in common space with similar beings, even become stronger by doing so. Mutual aid and common ground are extensions of our common being and make possible healthy and sustainable lives. Freedom becomes a feature of our cooperative interaction with others rather than a symbol of our rivalry with or independence of them. We are free not when unconstrained but under constraints and norms we choose for ourselves. And we are free together, not ­alone.

The Lost Art of Cooperation by Benjamin Barber

smart Finns

How not to educate.

It seems the Finns are the envy of the world for their successes in education.  Which isn’t remarkable on its face; when you study systems using metrics someone has to come out on top.  What is remarkable is that the ideas that the Finns hold dear for educating their kids are almost to a one, the opposite of the ideas we Americans believe to be important.   I’ll take the risk of oversimplifying and describe the difference – see the article below – as: they believe in educating all equally, where we believe in making our kids compete to achieve.

I assume much of our belief system comes from what I’ve begun to understand is market fundamentalism.  The American sciences of management and marketing have gone viral and are infecting areas of life that they are not designed to mix with.  In America, CEOs are writing education policy.

The article excerpted below makes it quite clear that the policies at play in America are not working.  So the evidence is out there, now to hope that it gains traction.

I’ve broken out some of the ideas in the following two paragraphs, and excerpted a quotation from the article below.

American system:  long hours, exhaustive study, rote memorization, test constantly, track performance, rout out ‘bad’ teachers, reward ‘good teachers, foster competition, involve the private sector, let people choose their school.

Finnish schools:  less homework, more creative play, no standardized tests, no sense of accountability,  distrust of competition, no lists of best schools, cooperation, equality trumps excellence.

Here is the excerpt:

Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model — long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization — Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.

Continue reading

ripping off skin
March 24, 2009, 8:05 pm
Filed under: departure lounge | Tags: , , ,

[-, diane arbus, rachelle mozman]

Here is an excerpt from Jane Alison‘s beautiful, painful book The Sisters Antipodes.  The book is a memoir of what it takes to survive a betrayal – when she and her sister were little, her parents met another couple, also with two daughters, and swapped partners.

The book is also about transcience – her step father was a diplomat and they moved between Australia and the United States.  In this excerpt, she describes how personal achievement becomes critical when all you have in your life that is stable is yourself.

Moving a lot as a child means you keep starting over from nothing, proving yourself again and again.  It’s like being a thin sandy solution and, by fierce will, making that solution congeal around you.  And the more you move to alien places the more often you have to do this, like being dropped into acids that dissolve you each time.  Personal traits need to be asserted in each new place, which means contests must be waged and won.  If you’ve worked hard to become anything – fastest runner, best skater, funniest girl, anything – these terms have melted into your skin, become your skin, and must be preserved.  If you stay in one place, your standing and self are only threatened when a new, outside girl appears.  But if you keep being new; and your name is new and must be practiced, embarassing, on dotted lines; and your father is new, although it’s never clear whether you should write down both fathers or add the word step or just pretend he’s really yours; and your nationality is new, to be checked in the right box, not the wrong one, as if you had no clue what you were:  Then the attributes that are truly yours – fastest, best, smartest – are crucial.  To take them away is like ripping off skin.  So on top of the split and the jealousy it engendered, all the moving and remaking made us bitterly competitive as a matter of course.

Jane Alison, The Sisters Antipodes

laziness practiced and perfected

(Balthus, Vee Speers, James Lavadour, Roger Ballen)

Stilinovic is an artist from Croatia.  For him, thought, amnesia, indifference, non-activity, pain, stupidity and futility are virtues.  We must practice these things and perfect them.  Or we will end up as mere producers, promoters and competitors.

As an artist, I learned from both East (socialism) and West (capitalism). Of course, now when the borders and political systems have changed, such an experience will be no longer possible. But what I have learned from that dialogue, stays with me. My observation and knowledge of Western art has lately led me to a conclusion that art cannot exist … any more in the West. This is not to say that there isn’t any. Why cannot art exist any more in the West? The answer is simple. Artists in the West are not lazy. Artists from the East are lazy; whether they will stay lazy now when they are no longer Eastern artists, remains to be seen.

Laziness is the absence of movement and thought, dumb time – total amnesia. It is also indifference, staring at nothing, non-activity, impotence. It is sheer stupidity, a time of pain, futile concentration. Those virtues of laziness are important factors in art. Knowing about laziness is not enough, it must be practiced and perfected. Artists in the West are not lazy and therefore not artists but rather producers of something… Their involvement with matters of no importance, such as production, promotion, gallery system, museum system, competition system (who is first), their preoccupation with objects, all that drives them away from laziness, from art. Just as money is paper, so a gallery is a room.

Artists from the East were lazy and poor because the entire system of insignificant factors did not exist. Therefore they had time enough to concentrate on art and laziness. Even when they did produce art, they knew it was in vain, it was nothing.

Artists from the West could learn about laziness, but they didn’t. Two major 20th century artists treated the question of laziness, in both practical and theoretical terms: Duchamp and Malevich.  Duchamp never really discussed laziness, but rather indifference and non-work. When asked by Pierre Cabanne what had brought him most pleasure in life, Duchamp said: “First, having been lucky. Because basically I’ve never worked for a living. I consider working for a living slightly imbecilic from an economic point of view. I hope that some day we’ll be able to live without being obliged to work. Thanks to my luck, I was able to manage without getting wet”.

Malevich wrote a text entitled “Laziness – the real truth of mankind” (1921). In it he criticized capitalism because it enabled only a small number of capitalists to be lazy, but also socialism because the entire movement was based on work instead of laziness. To quote: “People are scared of laziness and persecute those who accept it, and it always happens because no one realizes laziness is the truth; it has been branded as the mother of all vices, but it is in fact the mother of life. Socialism brings liberation in the unconscious, it scorns laziness without realizing it was laziness that gave birth to it; in his folly, the son scorns his mother as a mother of all vices and would not remove the brand; in this brief note I want to remove the brand of shame from laziness and to pronounce it not the mother of all vices, but the mother of perfection”. Finally, to be lazy and conclude: there is no art without laziness.

Work is a desease – Karl Marx.

Work is a shame – Vlado Martek.

–The Praise of Laziness, Mladen Stilinovic