Turning the Page on Locke: Private Property in the Coming Age

John Locke (1632-1704) left quite an intellectual legacy for modernity to brood over. He was a founding figure of the empirical age, arguing that all knowledge begins with the input of the five senses. (“Perception . . . [is] the first step . . . towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it” [1].) He applied this to psychology [2], arguing that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa or blank slate (a psychological theory that coincidentally supported the views of his Whig patron, Shaftesbury, who despised the old views of inborn superiority of rank and innate ideas about social hierarchy). Indeed, Locke says point blank that there are no innate ideas “as it were stamped upon the mind of man” [3]. And then of course there’s his political theory, with ideas about the government’s role in protecting life, liberty, and property [4], which would be applied by Thomas Jefferson 100 years later in the founding documents of the US. Jefferson, of course, cagily substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” [5], but it’s the “property” idea that concerns me here.

The same ideas that supported Locke’s epistemology (empiricism) and his psychology (tabula rasa) fed into economics. Instead of the old economic system based on landed hierarchies, suddenly you have “economic individualism” as the cornerstone idea. Each individual is a self-contained unit with a right to their individual property. For “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, ownership was the cornerstone of all social relations. Indeed, Locke argued that ownership over one’s own body is given in the very state of nature, and that all appropriation of additional properties is a natural extension of that relation. (“Everyman has a property in his own Person … [and] the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his … Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided … [and] mixed his labour with … [is thereby] his property,” [6].)

Thus we come to a world where social relations take the form of individuals accumulating and competing for property, and governments organically emerge in defense of “life, liberty, and property.”

If I may take what 18th-century wit, Henry Fielding, said of a certain philosophy of the day, and apply it to Locke’s theory, I might say it is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true” [7].

OK, I can’t quite make the claim that Locke is wrong, but I can raise the question: What if this cornerstone idea of modernity and capitalism, this idea about the primacy of personal ownership, is false? Or perhaps not false, but at least not logically necessary. What if it is but one way of looking at things, and a way that is perhaps no longer the most serviceable?

My alternative would start here. My interlocutor might grant me that the idea of ownership as the primary relation between oneself and one’s own body is speculative and not in any way self-evident. But, my interlocutor might say, the relation between a person and land or objects – there, ownership seems to naturally apply. Surely ownership is fundamentally a relationship between individuals and the things that they own, no? My counterargument is this: Ownership is not fundamentally a relation to self, nor is it fundamentally a relation to objects or natural resources. Ownership at its most fundamental is a relationship between people. “Mine” is a nonsense concept in isolation. “Mine” always means, a priori, “mine and not yours.” Or, one could perhaps narrow that still further and say that (“mine” = “not yours”), and that this is the fundamental equation of ownership. With all due respect to Locke’s contemporary Daniel Defoe and his Robinson Crusoe, an isolated individual cannot own anything [8]. That individual can use resources, can deploy them in the hunt for food and shelter, but cannot own them because there is no “mine and not yours” line to be drawn.

So am I just quibbling or are there consequences to this revision of the ingenious Mr. Locke? I tentatively suggest there are consequences. Once you see ownership and private property in this light, as relations between people and people, not between people and things, it can plant the seed for a new vision of how things could work.

Marx said that the capitalist world of commodity-values converts social relations into the “fantastic form of relations between things” [9]. With social identity thus alienated, we compensate by creating a wedge between “social” and “private” identity, and start to treat private identity as “real” identity.” But what if that world view is coming to an end? Under the pressure of income inequality and ecological imperatives, it seems capitalism must break or evolve into some new form. At least the prevailing definition of human identity and human fulfilment in terms of private identity and private property must break. If we can reverse the Lockean trajectory – instead of casting social relations into terms of private identity and private property, what if we recast identity and property into relations between people?

From Locke to Adam Smith to Marx to Thomas Piketty, we have been in the age of homo economicus, where homo sapiens are defined fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations. But is that necessary or is it just the signature paradigm of the 17th – 20th century? I won’t say 21st, because I think it is finally time for a paradigm shift out of the age of homo economicus. Increasing inequality (well-documented in Piketty as an intrinsic feature of capitalism, despite spikes and troughs [10]) and ecological imperatives require it. If we can reconceptualize ownership and private property into the fundamental social relations that they are, perhaps we can start to turn the ship. Perhaps we can redefine human identity and human fulfilment in terms that render the obsessive desire to accumulate private property for one’s own self into a historical curiosity. There are enough resources to go around. As Russell Brand points out in his cheeky anti-Establishment manifesto, Revolution, “a bus with the eighty-five richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth’s population” [11]. Stripped of the debilitating definition of human identity as private self and private property, a technology and a sharing economy in the service of something larger than personal gain might flourish – not that ownership will disappear, but it will be conceptualized differently. Instead of “owning” being an absolute relation between individual and thing, a removal of the thing from the field of social relations for oneself, owning would be seen as something provisional and embedded in social relations, an ongoing negotiation, evolving and flexible as our relations to others are evolving and flexible. This way of looking at things is not only possible but as the current cycle keeps turning, it will become more and more a practical necessity.

  1. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, II.ix.
  2. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, I.ii.
  3. Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, I.i.
  4. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap 7, parag. 87.
  5. U.S. Declaration of Independence.
  6. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap. 5, Parag 27.
  7. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book 15, Chap. 1.
  8. The Lockean sense of ownership Defoe gives to Crusoe is almost unintentionally comical as Crusoe surveys the island with “pleasure . . . to think that this was all my own . . . and [over it I] had a right of possession” (Robinson Crusoe, 1985 Penguin ed., pp. 113-14).
  9. Karl Marx, Capital, 1906 Random House ed., p. 83.
  10. Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century. The documentation referenced runs throughout the book.
  11. Russell Brand, Revolution, p. 8.

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Singularity good or bad

I recently read Zizek’s entries on singularity in The Philosophical Salon and have a few thoughts.

Singularity, as far as I can tell, refers to the networking of all our psyches so that we are all sharing one database of ideas, all our brains plugged (virtually) into the external brain, continually uploading and downloading our thoughts. It really just takes today’s thought and emotion recognition technologies a bit further and adds in the networking aspect. I think of it as a digital objectification of subjectivity, the cogntive correlative of the bio-mechanical hybrids proposed by transhumanism. (Disclaimer: I ponder these things strictly as an amateur, but even the experts on such a topic might want to track what we amateurs are thinking 🙂 ).

Sounds scary, but in one sense it’s just the natural evolution of consciousness. Think about it. Every new communication technology is a kind of brain extension, enabling us to take some of the knowledge stored in our head and store it outside in the community or in external spaces, where it can be retrieved later as needed by us or others.

Spoken language
Writing
Books
Printing press
Personal computers
Cloud-based networks
Singularity

If we wanted to follow the Marxist-leaning Zizek, we could coordinate this line with economic developments, as rapid changes in how information is stored and shared are no doubt interwoven with rapid economic changes. Language allows us to coordinate into agricultural activities, writing allows us to organize into city bureaucracies, etc.

More to the effect on subjectivity, we could see each of these stages as a kind of alienation of the subject, as the knowledge relevant to the subject’s existence becomes increasingly relocated outside of the subject’s own body. But all that “alienation” doesn’t seem so bad to us now. Language and libraries and personal computers — they seem to move us toward greater freedom, greater control over our personal lives, physically and intellectually.

So will the next horizon line – Singularity – play out the same? Will it appear in the form of alienation and dread but liberate us as did those previous technologies? Or will this one be different? Will the moment of singularity be the moment of collapse in the individual’s trajectory of liberation? One could certainly argue for the dystopic turn. What if singularity results in the elimination of privacy, so that our thoughts are exposed to the general consciousness? What if our thinking process elapses in the collective space, our thoughts visible to those around us, all of us wearing Google smart glasses on steroids. Would we allow such a thing? Indeed, we would probably beg for it, the same way insurance companies get customers to beg for more and more onboard monitoring devices to track their every habit, on the grounds that it “helps” the customer.

At the very least, it seems that the mind-sharing aspect of singularity would result in a degree of self-censorship that is alarming by today’s standards, perhaps alarming enough to break the trajectory of liberation associated with prior communication advances. Would each self be censored into a Stepford Wife knock-off? Or would there not even be a self to censor, if our thoughts form and grow in shared space, our physical bodies and brains merely energy sources for that shared space? Maybe The Matrix is a more apt metaphor than The Stepford Wives. 

Thus spake the amateur, in reference to technological/AI singularity, not so much to singularity in the Eastern/akashic record sense, although that might be an interesting tangent. But per that technological singularity, I suspect there are many in the world with similar amateurish thoughts. Maybe one of you techie readers can chime in and bring the hammer down on our collectively imagined dystopia before it’s too late.

P.S. Remember these?

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Hitchhiking Spain

Back in the Black Forest Hostel in Freiburg, I remember a young woman telling me that hitchhiking would be tougher in Spain. “No worries,” I said. “Spanish people love me.”

Then my  friend in Granada seconded the idea that hitchhiking Spain is difficult. “No worries,” I said. Etc. But when I hit the side of the road on the north side of Ciudad Real, looking toward Madrid, my spot at a traffic circle was good, but there I stood. Two hours. Four hours. Two cars did stop. The first was going in the opposite direction, into Ciudad Real, but kept trying to explain something. I could not understand his Spanish. Maybe he was saying that he was going to make some stops in Ciudad Real and then turn back toward Madrid. Maybe he was trying to sell me drugs. Who knows. We both gave up and he rumbled off toward the city center.

The second car was going my way but to a small village about 10 miles out. Taking any ride is an emotional boost, and I would have done it in Germany or the US. But I don’t know the ropes in Spain yet. And I had been warned by my two friends. The head won over the heart. Why go 10 miles out, gaining essentially nothing, and lose my spot, from which I could always walk 30 minutes to a train station? I stayed. The sun blazed like an Arizona sun. Except that the last time I hitchhiked Arizona I was in my 20s. Suffice it to say I am not in my 20s now. I walked the 30 minutes and took a train to Madrid.

Next try out, from Pamplona toward Barcelona, I avoided the main route through Zaragosa, a controlled-access toll road where I felt I could get stuck with no easy shoulders. I took the smaller highway, thinking that slow and easy is fine. Another traffic circle with a few options for drivers. An 18-wheeler stopped and brought me about a mile, but he was exactly right that the new spot, a service station with everyone going my way, was better.  Really, though, I think he wanted to practice his English. His dad had lived his whole life in very center of Pamplona, in the shadow of the cathedral.

In my new spot, I waited an hour or more. As usual, I bought a coffee and tried to chat up the staff. You want to have those guys on your side if possible.  Here, both workers were friendly. Cars pulled in and out occasionally. At least it wasn’t dead.

From the back of the parking lot, I was flagged over by another 18-wheeler. He had a load of ski lift equipment but space in the trailer for my backpack. It felt great to ride with 18-wheelers again. Back in the 1970s, there was a camaraderie between hippie hitchhikers and truckers that was life-affirming, these two groups with very different backgrounds and visions flowing together in a life on the road. Now, though, the bond is broken. Truckers in the US never pick up hitchhikers any more. Insurance companies have banned it and put cameras in the cabs. As usual, insurance companies drain the human element from everything they touch. Human relations are no more than financial scribbles on a balance sheet. When Marx said that under capitalism, human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things, I think of insurance companies.

My new trucker was definitely not practicing his English. He spoke some combination of Spanish and Portuguese. He said it was Spanish but I know enough Spanish to know better. He seemed to be saying that he was going to Jaca. Then we passed Jaca, and he seemed to say that he was going to Huesca. Then we passed Huesca and he took me into Lleida, stopping at a truck stop where he said we could get a huge buffet for 5 euros. And he was right. Just like the trashy, faux home-cooking, junk food buffets back home. Exactly what I needed before hiking into Lleida to find a dumpy place to stay.

So how hard is it to hitchhike in Spain? Inconclusive. Definitely harder that in Northern Europe. Definitely safer and less weird than in the U.S. But not easy. Pleasant enough, but not easy.

 Ciudad Real

Pamplona 

On the road

  Lleida 

Barcelona 

 

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Evil bastards

What do we do with evil bastards in literature? Not every work of literature includes them, but those that do seem to gain a particular purchase on the reader’s attention. Writers love to dream up evil bastards, and we love to enter the dream. But why are we drawn to representations of evil? Maybe because consciousness evolved as a practical adaptation, a problem-solving mechanism. If there’s a small flaw on a large canvas, we tend to zero in on the flaw. If twenty kids are playing nicely in a playground and one is misbehaving, all attention turns to the miscreant. Where there is no problem, consciousness relaxes; where there is a problem, consciousness engages in an urge to explain, to determine, to get our arms around the problem for future reference.

Whether you buy that intro or not, you might find it interesting to explore how fictional evil occurs as a problem we urgently want to explain, to learn from, to pin down for further reference. Below are a few templates for how to explain evil in its fictional deployments.

Social conditions

I might also call this the “materialist template”, and it is big in the age of realism. Evil is a result of historical conditions. Dickens novels might best exemplify this on the literary side, Marx on the philosophy side – human nature is neither good nor evil, but social conditions make it so.

Metaphysical/religious

Evil is part of the great cosmic struggle that is larger than any human life, an absolute that must be faced on its own terms. This model dominates not only overtly religious stories like Paradise Lost, but also heavily symbolic ones like Melville’s Billy Budd, where the human struggle of good and evil seems a shadow cast by some larger eternal archetypal or cosmic struggle.

Psychoanalytic/Freudian

Evil results from a deformation in the individual psyche, some repressed psychological trauma from the personal past that emerges in a destructive form. Poe’s psychopaths, for example: Montresor’s evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” is that of a mentally ill individual. There are no signs of poor social conditions or interventions of spiritual entities from some religious outer frame. There is just the nameless “injury” in Montresor’s personal past that rearranged his mind into that of a monster. (Note: If I were to separate a Psychoanalytic/Jungian version, I would fold it back into the metaphysical/religious. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, e.g., is essentially a  Jungian/archteypal quest, and any good and evil Milkman encounters along the way are not just realistic details in the life of a man but plot points in an archetypal struggle. Again, the Jungian/archetypal model is my metaphysical/religious model recast into the language of psychoanalysis.)

Existentialist

Here, evil is irreducibly inexplicable, absurd, too arbitrary to be explained via any diagnostic metric. When Meursault kills the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger, we might call this evil in its existentialist aspect. Indeed, it is so inexplicable that we can hardly call it evil. It may be that the existentialist world view, following Nietzsche, is better relegated to the territory “beyond good and evil.” Let’s try Shakespeare’s Iago. He seems to represent a version of evil that is unmotivated, unexplained by a bad childhood or poor social conditions or metaphysical/religious interference or any other rational explanation. He just expresses evil as a random and fundamental force. Of course, his evil is recontained in Shakespeare’s world – not before harm is done, but the moral framing in Othello is not existentialist in tone. There is a moral order to the universe that we can glean from the tragedy. So perhaps Iago shows evil in its absurd or irrational aspect as something that can be recontained in a moral universe, whereas Meursault shows evil in the same aspect but with little or no moral framing.

I could probably think of more, but that is enough to chew on for one day. Feedback welcome.

Bakunin’s Anarchy

Review of Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, 1873

Statism and Anarchy offers a collectivist anarchy, an anti-capitalist communal vision that emerges within the Marxist/socialist orbit but against Marx’s reliance on a statist transitional period. Bakunin sees an “anarchist social revolution” as “an elemental force sweeping away all obstacles. Later, from the depths of the popular soul, there will spontaneously emerge new creative forms of social life.” This sounds a little like the 1960s Age of Aquarius, but Bakunin remains, like Marx, economics-centric and reliant on violent upheaval over pacifist incrementalism. He is still in the age of homo economicus, per my fine previous blog on the topic.

The attacks on Marx’s “statist” phase for its inherent contradictions ring true. The so-called proletarian elite, “the Communist party, meaning Mr. Marx and his friends,” will be just like old elite statists. This is well-argued, borne out by history, and most coolly captured by The Who in the 1969 song, “We Don’t Get Fooled Again.”

But Bakunin seems to have his own contradictions to wrestle with. Unlike the Marxists on one side or capitalists on the other, Bakunin does not want to “thrust upon our own or any other people any scheme of social organization.” And yet he needs some kind of general superstructure. He even admits that “the principal evil which paralyzes the Russian people, and has up till now made a general uprising impossible, is the closed rural community, its isolation and disunity.” On the one hand, he seems in principle committed to total local autonomy, and yet without some larger superstructure, the local unit gets wiped out, as Bakunin himself complains in regard to experimental pacifist communes like New Icaria. As much as he reviles any stage of statist superstructure, it’s not clear to me that he has figured out a way around it, at least during some revolutionary transition phase, and then in perpetuity if his collectivist anarchy is not global and thereby free from external threats.

Now, 150 years after Marx and Bakunin, it might also seem like overthrowing a government is easy compared to dismantling the powerful multinational formations of capitalism. Autonomous anarchist collectives sound great, but how can they overcome these gigantic formations of wealth and power without aggregating themselves into something like a statist block with enough concentrated power to rattle those formations? The hippies perhaps struggled with this and lost. But might the grass-roots collectivist anarchy of the hippies, refueled by the decentralized energies of social media, come back again with greater force next time? May the Age of Aquarius be still rising?

 

Good anarchy and bad

Bad anarchy is like life in the state of nature described by 17th-century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes: “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Good anarchy is the Age of Aquarius vision of the flower children, who were fed up with the convention-bound thinking that had brought us the world of war, machines, and straightjacket moralities. “Rules and regulations, who needs them?” sang hippie icon, Graham Nash, in 1970, with bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young.

The risk, presaged by The Beatles (“Revolution,” 1968) and The Who (“We Don’t Get Fooled Again,” 1971), is that you might expect one kind of anarchy but you can’t be sure you won’t get the other.

(For my academic friends, thus Bakunin’s charge against Marx redoubles back upon Bakunin.)

Piketty’s Capital

Review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

So this is the book Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman lauds and billionaire apologists decry. No need for such drama, though. This book – a close reading of the historical trajectories of capitalism with special attention to things like growth and inequality – is no call to storm the walls of capitalism. Indeed it is a reformist attempt to save capitalism from its own excesses, to save it from the kind of sweeping revolution that Russell Brand heralds.

Of course, Piketty, unlike Brand, is a professional economist, more wonkish than visionary, and still working in the Adam Smith to Karl Marx tradition of homo economicus, which presents homo sapiens fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations (compare to the dramatic conclusion of my “Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius). But Piketty, with his line graphs and tables, his sorting of economic laws that are mathematically fixed from economic laws that are subject to political intervention, is like a hungry badger digging into the internal mechanics of today’s capitalism. At least he seems a good “inside game” player to liaise with our visionaries when the Aquarian revolution comes.

Indeed, in his appetite for detail, the hungry badger sometimes seems unsure of his audience. He wants to pitch to a general audience, which means high-level narrative instead of “showing your work,” but, always aware of the secondary (academic) audience, he gets bogged down for pages on disclaimers, caveats, apologies for methodological imprecision, etc., that really just bore the general reader. And although the stats and charts are great for the most part, here also he sometimes gets bogged down in the numbers. It reminds me a little of Darwin’s 200-page digression (or so it seemed) on the tail feathers of the rock finch in Origin of Species (a book that was otherwise quite compelling for the average reader).

What the wonkish Piketty can and does give us, however, is a layman’s way into one of the basic problems in the trajectory of capitalism: Since return on capital always outstrips growth (r > g), the tendency is toward greater inequality (the capital/income ratio increasingly favors capital). This inexorable feature of capitalism was temporarily obscured by the shocks of the 20th century (1914-1945 and a recovery period through the 1970s). This period was anomalous in two ways: (1) growth of 2-3% came to seem normal (Piketty’s centuries of data show that 1% is actually robust growth in long run); (2) those shocks and after effects reduced the role of capital/inherited wealth, so it seemed capitalism was on a “natural” track toward increasing meritocracy and diminishing importance of inherited wealth. Now that the shock waves are over, both trajectories have returned to normal – growth is coming down and will probably level out at about 1%, and the role of capital/inherited wealth is concurrently going back up. Some of Piketty’s points are debatable, but the overall argument is compelling and the urgency real.

So how do we check the underlying forces of capitalism now pushing toward a renewed importance for inherited wealth and increased inequality? State expropriation of private property has been tried and failed to deliver on its promises. National taxes on capital won’t work because today it is too easy for the wealthy to relocate resources. Only an annual global tax on capital will do the trick, according to Piketty, and that means greater financial transparency and greater cross-national political collaboration. So he may not see beyond the age of homo economicus, he may not see into a future where self-actualization is detached from purchasing power and from the age-old struggle for resources, but if he develops his thesis with the restraint of a reformer, these final recommendations reveal a little bit of the visionary idealist in Piketty after all.

Professionalism and Alienation

I recently heard (or perhaps instigated) someone at work talking about how proper attire promotes professionalism. My faithful readers will recall that I, as a fashion anarchist, have commented on Jeffrey Tucker’s suggestion that people should dress properly at work (Bourbon for Breakfast, Chapter 37).

Now to tackle the tangent idea that a dress code promotes professionalism. First, if professionalism is meant in the narrow sense of an individual’s competence to complete the tasks at hand with rigor, efficiency, and integrity, the fashion anarchist wins this one easily. Obviously, my engineering or accounting or design skills are not affected every time I change clothes.

If professionalism is meant in the general sense – the sense that it is generally easier to maintain professional relations where people are dressed professionally – this is a little trickier. On this level, I say good riddance to professionalism, which has been a scourge on human contact for some 300 hundred years.

The Age of Bourgeois Capitalism, which began in roughly the 18th century, could also be called the Age of Professionalism.  In the previous age, the frame of reference for human relations was the landed hierarchy of commoners, gentry, aristocracy and various subsets. Doctors and lawyers and such were generally commoners, subject to much mirth and ridicule in the literatures of the day. Even where respected, their professions (or one might call them “occupations” in that pre-professional age) conferred no class status. As bourgeois capitalism replaced landed hierarchies as the defining scaffold of power, the “professions” came to confer the kind of class status we see today, with grandmas encouraging grandkids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers (and not, on good authority of Waylon and Willie, cowboys, those residual personae of the land). The old frame of reference for human relations in the landed order – things like de facto respect for those above you in the hierarchy and generosity towards those below you in the hierarchy – was replaced by the public sphere paradigm to “behave professionally.”

“Professional behavior” presupposes human connections that are less vertical and more horizontal/democratic, and that may well be a step forward toward the ideal of a human community of mutual fulfillment, but it comes at a cost. The cost is alienation. Human relations becomes the “business of human relations.” When Karl Marx says that under capitalism “human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things” (Capital, Vol. 1), this can be applied on the social as well as the economic level.  Human relations become a little bit icier. The other person is objectified, which enables us to treat him or her as an object in some market-driven game and not as a concrete human being. One scene in The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, screenplay Coppola and Mario Puzo) nicely encapsulates human relations in the Age of Professionalism. Tessio has betrayed Michael and now realizes that Michael has discovered the deed and set him up to be killed. Tessio, knowing the end is near, tells Tom: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” Tom replies with some pathos, “He understands that,” and then goes forward with the hit. Lift the veil on professionalism’s polite exterior, and this is the model of human relations you have underneath. It brings everyone one step closer to the version of human identity manifested in the “officials” of Kafka’s novels, who epitomize ad absurdum the sloughing off of all human responsibility in the execution of the office.

The alienation that takes place in the Age of Professionalism indeed gives us another reason to look to the Luddite/technophobe point of view. In particular, the technophobe distrust of mechanization may raise valid points about the impact of technology not just on labor markets but on human relations generally. If professionalism takes a subjective toll on the fullness of human relations, new technologies, without moral steerage, can give a kind of exoskeleton to the process of alienation, abstracting us from the human warmth and human consequences of our actions. The person who pushes a button in Nevada to launch a drone strike on a Pakistani village and then stops by Walmart on the way home probably does not see his actions the same way as one who had to stand toe to toe and push the steel blade into his opponent’s belly.

Now for the optimistic conclusion: In our collective reach for higher ideals, professionalism has served its purpose, weaning us away from hierarchies that were antithetical to the fullest form of human relations and giving us a basis for something more democratic and fully reciprocal. But we have paid a cost in terms of the objectification of, and alienation from, our fellows. It’s time take the next turn, put professionalism to bed, and reinvest full humanness into our relationships, even into our relationships in the workplace and with remote clients and customers. And one way to start that slow tectonic shift is to gently undermine the professionalism paradigm by bringing, so far as we can manage it, a little fashion anarchy into the workplace.  It might look funny, but it beats becoming characters in a Kafka novel.

The Devil’s Aphorisms

These are selected re-posts of my Facebook status quotations, but some of you may recognize the title nod to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, so I’ll start with a quote from that fine work:

“Man has no Body distinct from his Soul: for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age” (Blake)

“Break a rule when it doesn’t work” (Chicago Manual of Style)

“Who knows, the world might wake up and burst into a beautiful flower” (Jack Kerouac)

“Set your heart upon your work, but never on its reward” (Bhagavad-Gita)

“Christ is God externalized” (Karl Marx)

“Forge of blue metal, nights of still combats / my heart revolves like a crazy wheel” (Neruda)

“Where there is no echo … there is only silence” (Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves)

“The sea is like music; it has all the dreams of the soul within itself and sounds them over” (Jung’s letters)

“The lights of the impure, illusory six realms will shine: the soft white light of the gods, the soft red light of the jealous gods, the soft blue light of human beings, the soft yellow light of the hungry ghosts, and the soft smoky light of hell-beings. These six will shine together with the pure light-rays of the four wisdoms. At that moment do not grasp or be attracted to any of them, but stay relaxed in a state free from thought.” (Tibetan Book of the Dead)

“You can only protest effectively when you love the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself” (Baba Ram Dass)

When you look into your hand, you can see thousands of generations before you and thousands of generations after you … All our ancestors and all future generations are present in us. Seeing this, we will know what to do and what not to do. (Thich Nhat Hahn)

“There is no way to peace; peace is the way” (A. J. Muste)

“Religion is like a banana skin. And spirituality the banana itself. The problem with this era is that people have thrown away the banana and are holding on tightly to the banana skin” (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar)

“When the average American senior is squeaking by on only $19,000, we shouldn’t be subsidizing millionaires’ yachts with $140,000 in tax breaks every year” (Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus Chairman Judy Chu)

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”
(Henry David Thoreau)

Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius

Re: the argument against ending the tax cuts for the wealthy because “it’s their money,” not the government’s (and the corollary that to think otherwise is to be a vile socialist)

It doesn’t require a socialist to argue as billionaire investment banker Warren Buffett does — that the wealthy are far better off than they ever have been, are disproportionately benefiting from the productivity of the nation, and can chip in a little more as they used to do. However, my position goes beyond Buffett’s and perhaps beyond socialism, or at least beyond Marx’s version of socialism. To see how profoundly dangerous my world view really is, see below (but please don’t assume that one has to be as radical as I am to advocate letting the rich keep their full tax cut on the first 250k and pay Clinton-era rates on what falls over that).

1.      Private Property and the Age of Capitalism

The capitalist notion of private property as the fundamental basis of political economy, which is presented as a kind of “natural order,” has only really emerged in the last few hundred years. To be sure, there was private property prior to that, but the realm of private property was a kind of second-tier ownership, a veneer covering the world we all shared. Consider the UK, the very cradle of capitalism. Traditionally, land was fundamentally common grazing land. A rare spot or two may be set aside for the king. And vast areas might be – not owned really, but held for the king by the Duke of Cornwall, the Duke of Northumberland, etc. But in practice, it was pretty much commons. Then the initial seeds of capitalism were sown, of all places, in the field of agriculture. The enclosure movement. The old norm of common-use land (albeit with exceptions and conditions) yielded to a new norm of “all land is essentially private property.” Common rights disappeared in village after village, and a new class of landless workers was created.

A great philosopher, I forget his name, said that in every age, the ideology of the dominant class presents itself to all classes as the “natural order.” So during the precapitalist landed order, based on patrilineage and aristocratic tiers, the idea of a “Great Chain of Being” was successfully promulgated through all classes of people as the eternal, natural order. Pretty much everyone at every station in life bought into it, except for a few lonely radicals.

As economic power passes from the landed order to the capitalist order, the paradigm for the eternal, natural order changes in ways that suit the new dominant class. The view of the cosmos changes from an organic view to a mechanistic view. (Isaac Newton will lock this world view in for at least a couple of centuries – one could argue that this is still the dominant view, or one could argue that Einstein’s theory of relativity is a fundamental shift – a shift perhaps commensurate with the rise of multinational corporations as a new kind of decentralized power that replaces an older, more nationalistic form of capitalism.)

A second paradigm shift with the emergence of bourgeois capitalism over landed aristocracy is in the realm of private property. The enclosure movement was already gaining speed when Locke wrote his treatises on government. But Locke, by making private property the cornerstone of the social order – indeed, the cornerstone of human identity – gave emerging capitalism its master narrative – the “discourse” through which it becomes presented to all as the eternal, natural order. Just as decades of impressionistic speculation about evolution suddenly all came together under the powerful gaze of Darwin, and similar decades of speculation about the unconscious were pulled into a powerful, coherent master narrative by Freud, so “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, provided a powerful, coherent discourse for socioeconomic trends that were forcing a paradigm shift at the end of the 17th century.

2.      Gary’s Conclusion: Two Visions

So if “private property” is not the natural relationship between people and resources, but merely the relationship between people and resources that controls the present age, do I believe private property should be eliminated?

Short Term Vision

I am all in favor maintaining private property in the foreseeable future. But recognizing that there is nothing “natural” or “eternal” about this paradigm liberates us to rationally re-think the relationship between people and resources. (One thinks of that great passage in Frederick Douglass where his biggest problem was convincing his fellow slaves that slavery was not the natural and necessary order of things.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a Bolshevik or Castro-like seizure of resources. My immediate ideal is much, much closer to the socialist/capitalist democracies of Western Europe– and “immediate” is actually ambiguous. One cannot skip steps and leap to the Western European ideal before the cultural and material infrastructure is in place. Not even looking at foreign countries, New Orleans is less ready for that ideal than the Northeast, and my local votes in New Orleans would be comparatively more conservative than if I were up there. However, once you see that the “private property” paradigm, like all paradigms, is historically determined and not an eternal part of nature, you can step back and re-envision the building blocks of how we see the world. Our GDP is $15 trillion a year. Let’s say that’s the sum total of our productivity as a nation. Of all the wealth generated by this productivity, the top 1% sucks out about 21% for its own use. Is it their money? I can see why one might say that. But at least consider the counter view. That’s the slice of our collective productivity that they are taking home. The vast majority of infrastructure, labor, and other economic formations were in place before they came along. They didn’t print their own money; they didn’t personally generate the productivity; they merely did their part in the collective enterprise of generating productivity. In the case of CEO salaries, let’s say that their part involves a higher level of expertise and risk. I think it’s fair that they make 10, 20, say 42 times as much as the average worker (as in 1980). But can they really suck out 354 times the average worker’s salary (2012) on the grounds that “it’s my money.” I think that’s excessive. Or if they continue to suck wealth out at that accelerated level, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they put a little extra back in on the percentage that falls above a certain cap. You may convince me that they deserve 42 x the average worker’s salary, or that their tax rate should only go up on the part that falls over that 4200% line, but the evil socialist in me will not accept that it’s “their money” until you can show me that they generated it without drawing on any pre-existing infrastructure, labor, or other economic/cultural formations.

Long Term Vision

Does private property survive my long-term vision?

I take no position on that. Future generations will be better equipped to make that call. I can only recommend keeping private property into the foreseeable future.

For the full long-term vision, the hippie world view deep in my brainstem (perhaps in the form of LSD residue) is key. The hippie vision was much more revolutionary than Marx’s vision. Marx was a man of his time. Since Adam Smith, homo sapiens was recast as homo economicus. Homo economicus is the foundation of classical political economy and perhaps still the dominant paradigm of human nature. Marx did not break from this. He was all about economic redistribution, but it was still all about economics and who gets what share of the pie. The radicals of the 1930s were still in this pattern. The radicals of the 1960s, however, envisioned human nature in a fundamentally different way — in a way that would transcend homo economicus. In some ways, the “cultural” liberals of the 1960s were very strange bedfellows for the “economic” liberals rooted in the 1930s and the trade unions. The economic liberals, like Marx, were looking for a revolution within the age of homo economicus – a centennial kind of revolution. The cultural liberals of the 1960s were looking for an Age of Aquarius somewhere past the horizon line of homo economicus – a millennial kind of revolution. Private property may survive such a paradigm shift (for all I know), but it couldn’t survive as the primary relationship between people and resources (or the primary end of human relations, as it seems to be for homo economicus under capitalism). The idea is that the species has technologically evolved, or very nearly evolved, to a point where the production and distribution of resources can easily accommodate the entire world population, were it not for the intransigent barriers of politics and the primacy of private property as a paradigm for self-actualization. This means that the time is right for some whole new paradigm to emerge. Astronomers for centuries (possibly millennia) have said that between 2012 and 2026 the Age of Pisces will pass into the Age of Aquarius (technically one constellation passes a certain point relative to another constellation, but I don’t know the details). And of course we all know about the Mayan calendar. The end is near, brothers and sisters, but it ain’t what you think it is. The Age of Pisces is over.  A new wave of hippies is coming. Brace yourself.

(For expansion and follow-up, see From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism.)