Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Defense of Rational Politics

Featuring special guests Andrew Kliman, Steve Keen and Slavoj Žižek.

As someone who has spent a good deal of time studying the Technocracy Movement that emerged during the last Great Depression, I was strongly drawn to this brilliant and concise unintentional rallying cry for its fundamental concepts by economics professor Andrew Kliman in this podcast. I have transcribed it below:
"We do have a dearth of rationality. And I'm not trying to be snide or to be disrespectful, what I'm trying to say is, we live in a day and age, and I think even in Marx's day, he lived in a day and age in which a rationalist approach to politics is not very widely accepted or practiced. And I believe that that is a huge mistake. I believe that In most realms of life when it matters, people take a very sober approach - they look at the consequences of actions, they judge various alternatives in terms of their likely consequences, they get as much information as possible, they ask for advice, and so forth. And if you say, on the left in particular, that this is the kind of thing that's needed, and I would say that, and I would say that we need to appeal to people to take destiny in their own hands not because it's gonna be cool or empowering to them, but in order for us to have a future, which is a very rationalist thing to say, people tend to look at you like you're crazy when you say this. Whereas I think it's just crazy not to act like this, 'cause in any other thing where it matters, this is the way we act. We do, for the most part, act rationally. But we tend to compartmentalize what are called religious beliefs or spiritual beliefs and political things; we put them in a different compartment, for reasons that I have no understanding of whatsoever. Why should politics be based on a different way of relating to the world than the way we construct a bridge, or the way we cure a disease?"
The host questions whether the Left should appeal to both the emotional passions of their followers as well as construct an intellectual argument in order to address their ideas to a wider public:
"...Unlike much of what we get, which is very visceral coming from parts of the left [who are] very much focused on what do we do to inspire people and those kinds of issues, that those tendencies are one sided; they're missing what is part of all of us, is the rational element, and that the problem is to break down this idea that politics and the leap about the ultimate nature of reality that we call religion, they can be put in a seperate compartment and dealt with in a very different way than we deal with everyday matters otherwise. Most people are extremely rational when it comes to other everyday matters and when it comes to building bridges and when it comes to curing illness and so forth, so why not politics? It doesn't mean that you ignore the role of emotions, but it means that you don't operate totally on the basis of that...We need a politics that does appeal to reason, that does appeal to masses of peoples' minds and says, 'Look, the leaders of world and the system, it's not working for you, its not working even for it right now, and the left parties, with rare exceptions, and the left movement with rare exceptions, isn't coming up with any solutions to this; you have to be the solution. And to be the solution you can't just act, you know, with muscle, you have to act with your brain."
Why are poltics based on emotion? Why are they more like religions? Why don't we appreach solving social problems the same way we solve technical problems? This quote from economist Steve Keen from another podcast sums it up well, and bolsters the case for technocracy, rather than two (and only two) bickering parties seeing who can best stir the passions of their followers. The host points out that politicans don't really seem to understand the crucial issues of Peak Oil that society is facing:
"That's one of the difficulties, because, you know, the people who get attracted to politics fundamentally are narcissists. I mean you get some people who are truly driven by some idea of the greater good and so on, but there's a tendency...the narcissitic side of human personality is attracted to politics, and you don't necessarily get people who are deep thinkers. They're capable of being deep talkers, you know. They can appear...they can say the right words at various times, but the depth of understanding is quite limited. And I've had some of my colleagues who work actually in peak oil and energy theory have often said that they just don't believe that our political structures are capable of dealing with the complexity of the problems we face today. I think if you go back two thousand years, having a narcissist leading an army is a good idea, you know, 'Hail Caesar' works pretty well back when the only problem is fighting off the Huns or invading Gaul. But when you get to the level of complexity of society these days, you need people who really can think in a systemic way, and our political structures select people for the capacity to promote their personalities rather than to understand the system itself, so we may actually have to evolve our political structures to be able to cope with the type kinds of crises I think we're going to face."
Indeed, we expect intelligent, capable and well-trained professionals to manage every other aspect of our modern technological society (and  in fact subject them to extensive examinations and restrictions to ensure this), but why not in the most important realm of all - governance and decision making? Here we allow only greedy, ignorant and narcissistic lawyers advised by economists who are there to defend the needs of the investor class (indeed, the term technocrat has become debased to really mean economist nowadays). You hear slurs against "professional politicans" all the time. If you needed your appendix removed, would you listen to someone constantly belittling "professional surgeons?"

The podcast concludes with some very intelligent and relevant remarks from the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. I was particularly struck by his pointing out that capitalism is hardly a system without values; people will gladly sacrifice their family life, health, social relationships and well-being just to accumulate profits, expand production and innovate. What drives this rejection of human happiness and values? It can only be another, very different value system in and of itself:
"Capitalism is, and this I'm almost tempted to say what is great about it, although I'm very critical of it, Capitalism is more an ethical/religious category for me. It's not true when people attack capitalists as egotists, they don't care for... no! An ideal capitalist is someone who is ready again to stake his life, to risk everything, just so that production grows, profit grows, capital circulates. His personal or her happiness is totally subordinated to this. This is what I think Walter Benjamin, the great Frankfurt School companion [and] thinker had in mind when he said Capitalism is a form of religion. You cannot explain, account for a figure of a person that [is] capitalist, obsessed with expanded circulation, with the rise of his company, in terms of personal happiness. I am, of course, fundamentally anticapitalist. But let's not have any illusions here, you know."
And he has some things to say about Occupy Wall Street:
"What shocks me is that most of the critics of todays capitalism feel even emrarassed, it's my experience, when you confront them with a simple question, 'Okay, we heard your story. Protest, horrible, big banks depriving us of billions, hundreds, thousands of billions of common people's money. Okay, but what do you really want? What should replace the system?' And then you get one big confusion. You get either general moralistic answers like, you know, 'people shouldn't serve money, money should serve people.' Well, Adolf Hitler would have agreed with you, especally because he would say when people serve money, money is controlled by Jews and so on, no? So either this, or some kind of a vague Keynsian social democracy, or a simple moralistic critique, and so on and so on. So, you know, its easy to be just formally anitcapitalist, but what does it really mean? It's totally open. This is why as I always repeat, with all of my sympathy for [the] Occupy Wall Street Movement, its result was, I call it a 'Bartleby lesson.' Bartleby, of course, Herman Melville's Bartleby, you know, who always answered his favorite, 'I would prefer not to.' The message of Occupy Wall Street is 'I would prefer not to play the existing game.' There is something fundamentally wrong with the system, and the existing forms of institutionalized democracy are not strong enough to deal with problems. Beyond this they don't have an answer and neither do I. For me, Occupy Wall Street is just a signal; it's like clearing the table. Time to start thinking."
He goes on to point out that people saying capitalism is decaying and on its last legs go all the way back to before the French Revolution. He also points out that the twentieth century alternatives to capitalism miserably failed. How can you abolish the market without regressing into relations of servitude and domination, as in Eastern Europe? Žižek posits that now is the time think, not necessarily act, and to be careful about what we do. He finds encouragement in things like the health care debate in the United States, because they are debates about the fundamental values of society, and that in itself is valuable, whatever the ultimate result. He concludes:
"The beauty is to select a topic which touches the fundamentals of our ideology, but at the same time we cannot be accused of promoting an impossible agenda like 'abolish all private property' or what. No, it's something that can be done, and is done relatively successfully and so on. So that would be my idea - to carefully select issues like this where we do stir up public debate but we cannot be accused of being utopians in the bad sense."
I would heartily agree with this. In fact it, and I, am fundamentally conservative in Burkean sense*. I believe in practical, incremental changes, rather than some sort of utopian posturings about abolishing money, or the gift economy, or starving the beast, or other ridiculous things. The instituions we have today are fundamentally the result of decades if not centuries of development; throwing out the baby with the bathwater does more harm than good. That's how societies evolve -they see a problem, and they develop a solution to the problem. It's always a spit and bailing wire  approach and always has been. Utopians who think they can put into place an entire ideal system from scratch and get everyone to buy in have always failed, on the left and the right, and often end up causing untold misery and death. The only way you can get these types of societal-wide buy-ins is through authoritarianism, and it is also the only way you can prevent the system from evolving out of necessity. That's why we see the massive surveillance states springing up all across the capitalist world. Times change, and previous ideas don't work anymore. Yes, sometimes previous solutions lead to bigger problems down the line (like student loans). But you always have to react to the world as you find it with the resources at hand. And the idea that doing nothing and letting the market take its course is a viable solution is idiotic. It masquerades as non ideological, but is in fact the most extreme sort of ideology. The market is not an impersonal force; it's been a government project since day one, and has been routinely failing since day one also.

So, in light of Zizek's statement above, here are just a few ideas for the debates:
  • Public Banks - North Dakota already has one.
  • Universal Health Care - we already have it for people over sixty that delivers health care for a fraction of the cost of for profit systems (which is why it's trying to be killed). Medicare for all solves the problem overnight.
  • Univeral Basic Income - the Alaska Permannt Fund distributes the profits from the states' natural resources to every citizen. Some people even live on it.
  • Modern Monetary Theory has an extensive theoretical formation which can be accessed at New Economic Perspectives.
  • Free Higher Education is already provided throughout Northern Europe. We've already expanded access to free education many times before.
  • Shortened work weeks and work sharing would solve many unemployment and other problems. These are already being experimented with in Northern Europe.
  • Germany does a far better job of matching people with the real demands of the industrial job force, rather than tossing them overboard into the water after an arbitrary point to sink or swim and expect skills to magically line up with what the economy needs by osmosis.
  • Traditional Neighborhood Development is an alternative to sprawl and express busses and bike lanes provide solutions to transportation problems in various cities around the world.
  • Worker owned cooperatives already exist, for example, Gar Alperovitz has written a book about them. The Mondragon Company in Spain and Organic Valley in Wisconsin are but two examples. 
  • Believe it or not, most transactions still take place outside of the money economy (mostly through relatives and families). The gift economy never went away.
  • The open source movement provides a model for software development, and a model for development of other collaborative tasks.
  • Collaborative consumption businesses like ZipCar and AirBnB are flourishing.
All of these ideas function now, including some already within the United States itself. This is why we should focus our efforts on getting the word out about these ideas before trying to change things from the top down, which will not work.

Finally, from the Steve Keen interview cited above, this exchange is very revealing about the problem with economics as it is traditionally practiced, once again providing a justification for technocracy based on rational scientific values and production for necessity, rather than running governments centered around speculative money/debt financial relations:
SK: "Again, one of the enduring myths of neoclassical economics is that you can explain output as the product of labor and capital input plus technological change, and they don't have energy in their thinking whatsoever."

KMO: "So not only does neoclassical economics not include banks, money and debt..."

SK: "They don't include energy either. And I had this classic experience just in the United Nations meeting in Bangkok just recently where I was working with ...one of our research groups in Austrialia and making the case that you have to include energy as an independant input, because ultimately that's where profit comes from; we're exploiting the energy of the sun, the energy of the entire universe that's nascent in nuclear power and hydrocarbons and biomass and so on. That's where we're really managing to do production from. And this neoclassical economist came back at me and said, 'look, you know, we produce energy by combining labor and capital.' And I said, no we don't, we exploit what is already there. If you believe you can produce energy by using labor and capital, you believe in a perpetual motion machine."

KMO: "We access..."

SK: "We access what is already there; we cannot make it. That's the law of conservation of energy and matter. That realism that comes from an energy aware thermodynamic perspective is completely lacking in neoclassical economics, which is why again they can't see any problems about peak oil and global climate change."

KMO: "The oil industry and the energy sector generally...defines the act of accessing those energy resources underground as production. They call that producing energy, rather than extraction."

SK: "Yeah, it's extraction of energy. If we had that realism then we'd...again a large part of why we make mistakes as we do in economic policy and energy policy and so on, we don't actually have a realistic model of what's going on. So if you actually get people to see it from a realistic, thermodynamical point of view, then we know that we're extracting free energy. That's the source of production and the source of growth. We're necessarily creating more waste. We completely circumvent this whole, you know, global warming, global skeptic argument. By saying necessarily, if you're going to have production, you're going to be generating more waste than you generate refined goods out of production, so that is a necessary element of the real world. And then you say, in that case, looking at it, the most important thing is to get that energy out as efficiently as possible; what's our current efficiency levels? You change your whole focus away from denying the problems you create and say, 'okay, if we must be choosing them how do minimize them,' but that mindset is just not a part of political thinking. And I don't think it will be until after such time as we hit crisis levels and then reverse engineer where we should have been in the first place."

* The best short description I have ever read of this comes from J.M. Greer, who writes:
"In the Anglo-American world, conservatism had its genesis in the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who argued for an organic concept of society, and saw social and political structures as phenomena evolving over time in response to the needs and possibilities of the real world. Burke objected, not to social change—he was a passionate supporter of the American Revolution, for instance—but to the notion, popular among revolutionary ideologues of his time (and of course since then as well), that it was possible to construct a perfect society according to somebody’s abstract plan, and existing social structures should therefore be overthrown so that this could be done."

1 comment:

  1. "That realism that comes from an energy aware thrmodynamic perspecitve is completely lacking in neoclassical economics"

    The priests of the cult just cannot do that: that would inexorably ruin the theoretical base of the Capitalism.

    ReplyDelete

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