Comradeship and justice
April 18, 2020, 7:49 am
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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.


What other goals, principles satisfactions?
October 21, 2016, 4:42 pm
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Image result for office workers magnum photographs

Photo: Lise Sarfati

Modern people are commodities; disconnected from self, others and nature; their virtual only focus is exchange of personhood with other persons on the market. Life is subsumed in these market processes: packaging and moving personhood as a product, negotiating exchanges and consuming.

What of life, real life? What other goals, principles satisfactions?

Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit, considering his position and the situation on the personality market. He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from nature. His main aim is profitable exchange of his skills, knowledge, and of himself, his “personality package” with others who are equally intent on a fair and profitable exchange. Life has no goal except the one to move, no principle except the one of fair exchange, no satisfaction except the one to consume.

Erich Fromm

to get by or to thrive
April 12, 2014, 2:38 pm
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There are three kinds of people in a world set up for only two kinds: money people, service people and artistic people in a money and service world. No provisions are made nor needs required for the artistic in this world so if you’re artistic you are in a real limbo. But mere work and mere survival shouldn’t be enough; meaning counts a lot and artists contribute meaning. The choice is ours, to get by or to thrive.

From an article by Garry Gutting:

This talk of “a subject they love” brings us to the real crisis, which is both economic and cultural (or even moral). The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive. Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.

The Real Humanities Crisis, By GARY GUTTING




contemplating the order of things

There is life and good life. ‘Life’ is infrastructural and sustaining (concerned with labour and reproduction); and ‘good life’ is flourishing – the pursuit of justice, the common good, political and moral order. Good life needs life to support it, but to merely live life and to fail to make life good is … not human, says Aristotle via Charles Taylor below.

But consider now the balance or lack thereof of what we think and talk about in our world today. Infrastructural ‘life’ talk and energy (labour and reproduction) nearly eclipses ‘good life’ discourse. The economy, your job, family dominate while … well, when is the last time you heard anyone bring up the common good? Are we living sub human lives?

Some Aristotle via Charles Taylor:

‘Ordinary life’ is a term of art I introduce to designate those aspects of human life concerned with production and reproduction, that is, labour, the making of the things needed for life, and our life as sexual beings, including marriage and the family. When Aristotle spoke of the ends of political association being “life and the good life” (zen kai euzen), this was the range of things he wanted to encompass in the first of these terms; basically they englobe what we need to do to continue and renew life.

For Aristotle the maintenance of these activities was to be distinguished from the pursuit of the good life. They are, of course, necessary to the good life, but they play an infrastructural role in relation to it. You can’t pursue the good life without pursuing life. But an existence dedicated to this latter goal alone is not a fully human one…. The proper life for humans builds on this infrastructure a series of activities which are concerned with the good life: men deliberate about moral excellence, they contemplate the order of things; of supreme importance for politics, they deliberate together about the common good, and decide how to shape and apply the laws.

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, pp. 211-12, from Andrew Taggart blog post Sustaining Life is not the Good Life

from being to having to appearing

Here is the slippery slope states of being brought upon homo economicus – the economic man. From I am to I have to I appear to be. Is there another, more dematerialized reality yet to come?:

The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual “having” must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function. At the same time all individual reality has become social reality directly dependent on social power and shaped by it. It is allowed to appear only to the extent that it is not.

-Guy Debord “Society of the Spectacle”

the fullness of freedom

In 1944 Karl Polyani wrote about good and bad freedoms.

He described bad freedom as:

“the freedom to exploit one’s fellows, or the freedom to make inordinate gains without commensurable service to the community, the freedom to keep technological inventions from being used for public benefit, or the freedom to profit from public calamities secretly engineered for private advantage”

And good freedom as:

The market economy under which these freedoms throve also produced freedoms we prize highly:  Freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of meeting, freedom of association, freedom to choose one’s own job.

For Polyani the good freedoms are “by-products of the same economy that was also responsible for the evil freedoms.”

Then he wrote a prescription for a better future; one which is broader, more transparent and inclusive and ultimately more hopeful; one which twins freedom with justice:

The passing of the market economy can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom.  Juridical and actual freedom can be made wider and more general than ever before; regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all.  Freedom not as an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself.  Thus will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedoms generated by the leisure and security that industrial society offers to all.  Such a society can afford to be both just and free.

Continue reading

February 16, 2012, 9:31 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , , ,

Math time.  Equations are given so no need to memorize them.

The first equation – from Umair Haque’s article on measuring the economy from the Atlantic, which I have excerpted below – is the standard measure of economic strength used universally by economists today.  It describes an idea of economic health using a fairly simple mix of some basic concepts:  consumption, government, investment and trade.

We live in a market age and we are all more or less conversant with these terms.  We’ve seen the idea represented by this very base equation come to occupy a central place in how we organize our society.  These are the terms of our market society lingua franca.

Continue reading

global center of economic gravity
June 10, 2011, 12:36 am
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The global center of economic gravity has shifted east over the past 30 years (black dots), and could well shift even farther east over the next 30 years (red dots).

World’s center of economic gravity shifts east, Danny Quah

moral absolutes
April 14, 2011, 7:52 pm
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I just came from a second hand book shop where two men – a father and son, maybe – in baseball caps and tees, blew into the back room where the fiction is to find a copy of the Fountainhead.  They were on a mission.

Six months ago on the L line I managed to restrain myself from tearing a copy of Atlas Shrugged out of the hands of a young reader.  My plan was to enact a teachable moment:  selfishness is good, I have selfishly taken your book, live with it.  It’s a missed opportunity that I have added to my list of life’s regrets.

Twenty years – more – ago I got into the habit of asking the book buyer at the campus bookstore where I had summer jobs, which book to read next.  When I asked her about Rand, she said, with a tight smile, “if you’re a 12 year old boy.”

It’s amazing how this adolescent, ideological, bitter crackpot fully captured the imagination of a nation and an age.  The clearest route to her current influence is no doubt through men like Greenspan and Friedman who brought her with them in their ascent to top posts in academia and government.  In their age – which may now be waning – cynicism and moral clarity were easy sells.

Jonathan Chait summarizes the Randian world view in this paragraph from his essay Wealthcare in TNR.  In this crazy world the rich are being punished by the rest of society who, by a moral law of the world, have failed to succeed in their own lives and deserve their fates.  It’s grace-less and harsh and, more to the point, absurd, a moralistic and ignorant fantasy.

Here is the paragraph from Wealthcare:

In these disparate comments we can see the outlines of a coherent view of society. It expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms–that taking from the rich harms the economy–but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue. It denies any basis, other than raw force, for using government to reduce economic inequality. It holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus concludes that when government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth. And it indulges the hopeful prospect that the rich will revolt against their ill treatment by going on strike, simultaneously punishing the inferiors who have exploited them while teaching them the folly of their ways.

WealthcareJonathan Chait, The New Republic

zombie ideas
December 13, 2010, 5:07 pm
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A to do list for today.  First write down all the ideas that don’t work, then publicly confront them.  Simple.  Easy peasy. Anyway, someone took the time to make the list below, so the hard part’s already done.  Some are:  that markets decide, that wealth trickles down, that private is always better than public.  Those are the living dead still marauding and loitering around .  Now for step two, to confront.  I suppose it makes sense to come up with some replacement ideas too.  Of course, the big tent idea is to manage risk – the risk of zombie ideas taking over our lives.

Despite the financial crisis, we have yet to have a real national conversation about the ideas that got us into the mess in the first place. Those ideas–Thatcherism/Reaganism/the Washington Consensus/market liberalism–still walk about amongst us, deprived of life but able to exert supernatural force on politics. They include the Great Moderation–the myth of unparalleled macroeconomic stability since 1985; the Efficient Markets Hypothesis–the myth that markets determine fair investment prices; the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium–the myth that macroeconomics should be derived not from economic aggregates but from microeconomic models; trickle-down economics–the myth that what helps the rich will ultimately help the poor; and privatization–the myth that anything government does can be done better by private companies. The great failure of the last two years is that none of these zombie ideas has been confronted head-on by our political class. Risk and uncertainty must be rethought for the twenty-first century: “A social democratic response to the crisis must begin by reasserting the crucial role of the state in risk management.”

Zombie Economics: How dead ideas still walk among us, John Quiggin, LSE