Archive for category Economy

Capitalism and Democracy are Incompatible

So you think capitalism is the best system to ensure democracy? You think the defense of “freedom” by “libertarianism” supports democracy? You think you know what Adam Smith was talking about by the “invisible hand”? Better take 15 minutes and listen to this.

 All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

–Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book III, Chapter 4.

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The Self Under Capitalism

I am reading a little book entitled, The Anarchist Revelation. It has me thinking about a number of things concerning the kinds of selves we are shaped to be under capitalism. In one passage, the book’s author, Paul Cudenec, discusses television and the role of advertising (as forerunner and adjunct to our “screen culture” today). What he says is familiar; you have heard this critique before. But if we can stand to hear the tv ads repeatedly, surely we can stand to hear an alternative view more than once. It is the capitalist system that praises novelty above every other criterion, never once asking if new is always better.

 Television, Advertising, Capitalism vs. Our True Identity

Elements of Cudenec’s critique include the following. When we are engaged, if that is the right word, with television, we are lost to ourselves. Citing Guillame Carnino, it is that “we become what we watch.” It is either an escape from ourselves or the active prevention of our becoming our true selves. The default position is immersion in a television (and now more broadly “screen”) culture, and opting out is no easy struggle.

In addition, television is 100% advertising, the shows being only a draw to the commercials, meant to make our minds receptive to the message. And what is that message? You need things. But capitalism works in a way opposite to the natural relation between needs and good. The system first produces the goods, and then it generates the needs. In fact, the system functions on the proviso that it can generate wants that it can turn into needs.

We thereby are molded into selves that are a function of external objects and stimulations – the objects and stimulations generated for us by the system. Cudenic complains that there is a lack of “real individuality.” What passes for individuality is just another persona produced by the marketplace. We are, as Cudenic puts it in the words of Joseph Campbell, “men who are fractions (who) imagine (our)selves to be complete.”

The market promises to satisfy all our wants, but in fact it operates on the principle of creating an infinite series of desires (masquerading as “needs,” of course) that cannot be satisfied. The satisfaction of desire would be the end of the capitalist system.Cudenic cites, as two examples of the absurdity of the generation of false needs, the fact that advertisers have convinced girls and young women to spend massive amounts of money for skin products meant to counteract the problems (if that’s what they are) of much older women, as well their having sold the notion that simply to take a walk one needs expensive gear in order to do it “properly.” All of this puts us on a never-ending treadmill of ultimately meaningless busyness and acquisition that prevents us from coming to be our real selves. Gustave Landauer (cited by Cudenic) put it this way:

Progress, what you call progress, this incessant hustle-bustle, this rapid tiring and neurasthenic, short-breathed chase after novelty, after anything new as long as it is new, this progress and the crazy ideas of the practitioners of development associated with it…this progress, this unsteady, restless haste; this inability to remain still and this perpetual desire to be on the move, this so-called progress is a symptom of our abnormal condition, our uncultured.”

There is an ever-expanding distance between ourselves and the reality of the world around us. Our meat simply “comes from the store” — we have no awareness of the process by which it arrives at our table. This disconnect doubles back on us, preventing us from having a true sense of our own identity.

 Some Reflections

There is much to be sympathetic with in this passionate critique — and I have only touched the surface, reflecting on just a few pages of this book. It is difficult to argue with this analysis, yet I wonder if there aren’t some subtleties that need to be brought to light. It is always tricky to try to sum up either human nature or the times in which one lives. Attempts often end up as caricatures, capturing some core truths but lacking a comprehensive balance. I found myself reflecting on a number of points:


What does it mean to say we have a “true” self that is being suppressed or blocked by the world system? What is that true self and how are we to discover it? If the capitalist system is truly totalitarian, as François Brune puts it, how is one ever even to recognize that one’s true self is in peril of being submerged? There must be some “space” for critical reflection, even in this all-pervasive capitalist system (or any other totalitarian regime). This also implies that we can at least catch a glimpse of or have an intuition about what one’s true self must be like, even under the conditions of the non-stop onslaught of advertising.But is it right to say that that self is an individual? There is a tendency for Cudenic (and maybe for most of us) to equate who we really are with a unique individual. But I wonder sometimes whether the idea of the “unique individual” is not, itself, a creation of the capitalist system. Does this idea not smack of that obsession with novelty that is elsewhere criticized in Cudenic’s account? If there turns out to be truth in that possibility, then we human beings are in a more complicated position than this account lets on. For what then is our true self? Is it really something unique? And, if not, how will we distinguished between a mass-marketed self foisted on us by the world system and a self-in-solidarity, a self-in-communion that inevitably draws its identity from others and which is, therefore, not unique? What if the anguish of the soul longing for uniqueness is not a revolt from consumer society, but just another manifestation of it, perfectly poised to be sold yet another solution-for-profit?I am simply raising the question. I am convinced that much of our identity is an off-the-rack model and that we are missing the chance to get at the marrow of life because of it. But I am concerned that we have uncritically adopted either a typically modern or post-modern view of the self. The former would see us first of all as isolated individuals. As such, the distinguish mark of each one of us is how we are different from each other, i.e., unique. If the latter, we see ourselves as an infinitely malleable “text” whose “true” nature is that it has no nature at all. Both views leave us well-open to the siren calls of the marketplace. There is nothing within either view that provides us with adequate resources to critique and resist. I could put it this way: this particular critique, which is by no means Cudenic’s alone, may, itself — despite its best intentions, have bought into the capitalist arch-criterion of novelty.


Part of this critique challenges the idea that our identities are best formed by the things that we have — more accurately, the things that we buy and consume. Aristotle already challenged this notion a couple of millennia ago, noting that happiness (which for him is not an emotion or a feeling but the fulfillment of what it means to be a human being) must be something other than the fleeting pleasures afforded by external goods. But Aristotle also noted that in order to be happy — even in his profound understanding of the term — one had to have a share of external goods.

Human beings are, among other things, creators. We make things. We use things to enhance our abilities to do more things. Thus it ever was. Cudenic criticizes, not without justification, the idea that we have to have superfluous things (preferably expensive things) in order to engage in the most simple, natural activities. Do I need expensive walking shoes, an expensive hat, an expensive walking stick simply to take a walk? Do I need them? No, of course not. People are walking all the time without them, and I can (and do), too. But is it not really more comfortable walking in a good pair of walking shoes? May I not walk much further in good shoes? Might that not keep me outdoors and away from the television? Wouldn’t a good hat protect me from sunburn, thus keeping me less likely to get skin cancer? Might a good walking stick take a little pressure off these aging knees? Is there not something in — dare I say it? — true human nature that seeks such improvements? Are we not naturally tinkerers and experimenters? I ask these questions because I wonder if the capitalist generation of infinite needs is as artificial, let’s call it, as the critique makes it out to be. Again, there is definitely something to the critique, to the insight that we are fooling ourselves if we think that accumulation of material things equals genuine happiness. We are wrong if we think we are solely what we own. We are not solely what we own, but we are in part what we possess.There is a sense of this critique which somehow sees us as disembodied. I am certain, of course, that neither Cudenic nor the cloud of other critics of capitalism would admit this. Still, I think it should be considered. There is an undercurrent in these critques that see us as somehow poluted, disfigured, and falsified by consumer goods. Consider this passage:

The possessions in which we invest so much value, from cars to washing machines, are, as scientist and writer Kit Pedler sees, ‘symbols of despair and failure: surrogates for achievement, which encourage us to live on the outside of our senses and actually diminish the quality of life.’ Carnino points out that ‘having, and no longer being, is the sole source of our desire,’ and there is a horrible sense of us having abandoned our own selves, our own destinies, under the hypnosis of mass exploitation.

Is my having a washing machine to clean my clothes a sign of my despair? Would I be more my true self if I took my pants down to the river, soaked them in the running (and no doubt at this stage polluted) waters, and beat them on a rock to clean them?I think we need to look at ourselves as materially extended beyond our own bodies. I am certain that there are risks involved in such a self-conception, but only because I am certain there are risks involved any time one tries to pin down what it means to be human.

 Provisional Conclusion

None of these questions should be construed to constitute a gainsaying of Cudenic’s critique. I find him to be, in fact, a kindred spirit (at least so far in the book). And, on that note, I remind us that this is not actually a review of this book (maybe later…). I was simply provoked to thinking this morning by some of the insights of this particular chapter in The Anarchist Revelation. In any case, I still am struggling with what is really going on in the capitalist culture, the system in which I am thoroughly implicated and enmeshed.

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On Capitalism

If the links I’ve posted recently give any indication — and they do — I am a critic of capitalism. I have some scruples, though, that keep me from going all the way with that criticism. Let me try to explain.  

  • First, I am not an economist. I have read broadly but not deeply on a variety of economic theories, and I have to confess to coming away rather more confused than I had hoped. Thus I cannot offer a solid opinion on the overarching mechanisms of the economy, since the theories I’ve familiarized myself with conflict, sometimes severely. So I have to admit to “going with my gut” with a number of my views here (not always advisable for a philosopher). But I’d also have to say that I am doubtful that anyone can provide a knock-down, irrefutable argument for one economic system versus another. There is an “irreducible complexity” to global and local economic systems, and different theories offer different tradeoffs. There is no utopian system forthcoming.  

  • Second, even some of us critics of capitalism can see some of that system’s merits. Indeed, even Marx and Lenin can be found approving certain aspects of the capitalist system, at least as they pertain to its role in the “inevitability” of communism (for instance, in the elimination of scarcity). A recent piece regarding capitalism’s role in combating climate change has to be read against the flood of evidence of capitalism’s responsibility for producing dangerous climate change. As this article aptly puts it, we may not be able to “crowd source” our way out of this mess.  

  • Third, I am highly dubious of centralized solutions to challenges of this complexity. To reiterate an ancient knock on socialism, nobody is smart enough to organize the economy from an armchair.  

  • Fourth, I believe in the power of freedom, including free markets. A central tenet of my criticism of capitalism is that it prevents there being truly free markets. The markets we have are oligopolies kept in place by the armaments of various nation states who have become the corporations’ lap dogs. They are anything but free. They are anything but rational. Remember there are two concepts of freedom: I can open up a chemistry lab full of chemicals and bunsen burners and so forth and let you have at it to your heart’s content. You are free to do as you will. But if you are ignorant, you will simply be free to blow yourself up. The lack of restraint is identical to your being captive to the severe consequences of your ignorance. But if you are extremely disciplined in learning how all that equipment works and how all those chemicals might react with each other, then you will be truly free — not to do any old thing you want, but to work in harmony with the reality of that lab in order to do beneficial things relatively safely. Our so-called “free market” seems to me only free in the first sense, having overall a reckless disregard for people and for our world. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical of overly-centralized power.  

  • I cannot at this moment offer a coherent alternative to the clearly problematic and, indeed, dangerous system we now have in place. Things simply must change. But, unlike our current president, I will not embark on a campaign that offers simply a slogan: “Change.” No. Hard work has to be done, and I should be responsible and play my small part. A new theoretical approach (literally, a way of “seeing” our situation) must be developed. I have no doubts that there are insights to be drawn from Marx, but perhaps also by Smith, and certainly by many others. But 18th and 19th century theories will not be adequate to 21st century problems.

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Ten Points for a Trade Union Strategy Against Climate Change | The Bullet No. 1039

 The climate struggle is about democratization of the economy and society, redistribution of wealth, the free use of our common knowledge

Ten Points for a Trade Union Strategy Against Climate Change | The Bullet No. 1039.

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More on the People’s Climate March

Here are a few links to article you might want to take a look at concerning the People’s Climate March that was held yesterday, September 21. 

The big question after an event like this is: What happens next? Will this march be a catalyst for change, and if so, what change should we hope for? Are there flaws in the strategy?

So have a look at what others who are asking these questions are saying:

Arun Gupta

 So we have a corporate-designed protest march to support a corporate-dominated world body to implement a corporate policy to counter climate change caused by the corporations of the world, which are located just a few miles away but which will never feel the wrath of the People’s Climate March.
Rather than moaning on the sidelines and venting on Facebook, radicals need to be in the streets. Join the marches and more important the direct actions. Radicals need to ask the difficult questions as to why for the second time in fifteen years has a militant uprising, first Seattle and then Occupy, given way to liberal cooptation. What good is your radical analysis if the NGO sector and Democratic Party fronts kept out-organizing you?

Cory Morningstar

 The oligarchs do not bankroll such a mobilization (via millions of dollars funnelled through foundations) without reason.
There is an agenda. The information that follows makes the agenda very clear and the only thing green about it is the colour of money. The term “green”, in reference to environment is, officially dead.

Lawrence MacDonald 

[on the strategy of “deliberative polling”]

Here is a cheat sheet on how to argue with climate deniers.

Here is a piece from the Wall Street Journal that raises some important (arguable) points. Consider the source (as in every claim in this discussion) but consider the questions, too.

(I may update this post as I find more articles of interest.)


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Yesterday, I wrote about the haters. Today, I’d like to say a few words on behalf of the lovers in this world.

As I write these words, my wife, Kellie, my sister-in-law Joan, and my nephew Jackson are all on their way to New York City to raise their voices in support of efforts to deal with our climate change challenges. These challenges are significant, and to handle them it is going to take a concerted effort on the parts of individuals, organizations, institutions, and governments around the world. No small task!

I am very proud of Kellie, Joan, and Jackson. They are taking time out of their busy lives and money out of their own pockets to join in a direct way this struggle for a better world for all of us. They are doing it for love — love of their families, love of their communities, and love of our planet-home. As the t-shirt Joan is wearing today says, Love is the only answer.  And so it is.

So I humbly ask for your prayers for Kellie, Joan, and Jackson, as well as all the other participants today in the People’s Climate March that their day might be peaceful, safe, and fruitful. A simple prayer for well-being is just one way to show them back some love for the love they are showing all of us today. (You can follow the action from a distance on Twitter — @Peoples_Climate and #PeoplesClimate.

I would also ask your prayers for the abolition of ignorance and willful stubbornness and human hybris. For such prayers to be answered, of course, it will take a miracle of epic proportions! But still, I pray and I ask you to do so, also. The abolition of ignorance would mean that those who deny the simple facts of climate chaos (and the real potential for devestating ecological, economic, and political disaster) must get their heads out of the sand, and in many cases, if you will excuse me, out of their asses and face up to these facts. May it please God, let such ignorance and the complicity it engenders to be abolished!

But, like the climate that is being whip-sawed, the solution to climate chaos is complicated. To be frank, it is not just a matter of recycling your newspaper (or of a simple calculation of the environmental costs of print vs. electronic production of newspapers).

First of all, it is a global problem requiring a global solution. As with any change which carries the risk of unintended consequences, no one wants to go first. On the one hand, we all seem to be followers in search of a leader, but on the other we no longer trust leaders. Most sovereign states and not a few individuals refuse to recognize the leadership of others.  In many ways, that is understandable. We tend to think that no one knows any better than anyone else what is going on and what to do about it. We realize that, often, we follow “leaders” at our peril. I am all for that vigilance.

And yet we are sheepish followers in so many other ways that we, ourselves, refuse to recognize or acknowledge. Most of the time we live our lives unreflectively, and we are at the very least uncomfortable with having questions raised about how we live and what we value. Many times, we are violently reactive to such questioning. We think however we live, whatever we desire, and whatsoever we do is natural, and therefore right. Indeed, we fiercely defend our right to do what we do — without considering whether what we do is right or wrong. Fatally, we have lost the very notion of right and wrong, however much we pay lip service to the idea.

These are strong claims. My guess is that you do not like hearing them. You do not believe this pertains to you. You are wrong, though. It pertains to all of us (including me).

The second element to the complexity of finding solutions to climate chaos is capitalism. Capitalism is the root of this evil (indeed, it is the root of many evils). The propaganda of the nation in which I live has brainwashed us citizens into thinking that capitalism is, again, natural, and that there is no viable alternative to it, and in fact all proposed alternatives are evil. All three of these claims are patently false. They are as false as climate chaos is true — factually, demonstrably, plainly visibly true. Only heads in sand or asses cannot see these facts.

No, I take that back. Some people can’t see the truth. Some people won’t see the truth (it’s too uncomfortable). However, there are those who do see the truth but do not want anyone else to see it. Why not? Because the false serves their own selfish (and false) purposes very well. This is the ism part of capitalism at work. Capital — some seed money and tools to create additional convenience, comfort, pleasure, or wealth, is a fine and perhaps necessary thing. Capitalism is not fine, and it is not necessary. As an analogy, science is a fine and necessary thing (“All men by nature desire to know,” says Aristotle in his Metaphysics), but scientism is not a fine thing, and it is not necessary. The trouble with the isms is the same in both cases. Capital and science serve at the pleasure of us human beings, but isms demand that we bow down before them (and those that wield those isms like weapons). The isms claim to be “natural” and answer all questions and solve all problems. But in fact they create problems we never had before. And the “solutions” they offer are really only more problems rebranded in an Orwellian marking ploy as “solutions.” They never offer real solutions because the solutions we need are those that uproot the isms all together.

So I pray that those acts of love today in New York City (and around the world) that are directed at the climate chaos challenge will also sow additional seeds of love that will take root and uproot the stifling miasma of the isms that are killing the planet. Today is also International Peace Day. Let us make peace with the planet as well as with each other. The only way to do that is to bring the freedom back to the fake-free markets of corporate (i.e., fictitious entities) capitalism and to recognize the ignoble lie of infinite desire that is the core of the capitalist system.

To meet the challenge of climate chaos, we must first face the fact that it is real and threatening. Then we must admit that the economic monstrosity that is consuming the globe is at the root of the problem and work to uproot it. But we must go further and reconsider the very notions of work and wealth. Any basic understanding of capitalism includes the idea of the intense pressure for efficiency leading to profit. Efficiency and profit: are these really the goals of our labor? Although they have real world effects, both are abstractions. I pose just two questions for your consideration. First, if you were to enjoy your labor (because you chose it, it is creative, and you reap the benefits of it yourself), why hurry or try to get it over with quicker? Second, why can’t your labor and anything it produces be their own reward? If you can imagine satisfying answers to these questions, you will have rejected central tenets of capitalism. Of course, such satisfying answers would slow the world way down, and life as we currently experience it (if indeed we can catch our breath long enough to experience it) would evaporate. Such a transformation of wage-work into meaningful labor, however radically disruptive such a change would be (and it would be severe!), would very likely contribute to diminishing substantially our climate threats.

Are we willing to do this? I doubt it, quite frankly. Yet I fervently pray we will give it a try and be patient with each other as such change plays itself out. Except for the “one-percenters,” perhaps, we’d all be much happier in days to come.

To find the courage and the resources for such a transformation, you have to look inside yourself. Not the capitalist-consumerist generated fake-self that is a function of the current system, but your true self. And that means finding your true self. And that means finding a way to find your true self. We lack that way, for the most part, and so the prospects for finding our true selves are dim, and thus the solutions we need are unlikely to be immediately forthcoming. That is how hard our problems are!

It is a matter of a certain kind of faith. They say that faith is lacking today, but I disagree. I find that most people today are fervent believers. Alas, the object of their faith is a lie, a false god, an idol. What most of us worship is the beast, the monstrosity of capitalism. And capitalism has no more loyal adherents than those who are religious in the usual sense of that term. I admit, I’ve become seriously disillusioned with the religions (plural) of the world, mainly because of the stupid, mean-spiritied, and violent things they lead so many to do. Religion is conservative in the attenuated sense of that term, meaning only bound to the status quo (“It’s god’s will.”). That’s why capitalism loves religions.

It does not love religion (singular), however, because religion in that sense is not just another consumer good to market and sell or social networking club to join. Religion, in that sense, is about the transcendent, that which cannot be packaged, that which is not for sale. Religion, in that sense, recognizes that there is eternity as well as quarterly accounting statements and daily stock reports, and all makes sense only in terms of the eternal. Religion in this sense is, paradoxically, both a powerful and a weak thing, both a dangerous and a salutary thing. It is powerful in that it drives people who sense the transcendent to live and love not only for themselves and for today. It is weak in that uncontrollable and uncontrolling. It does not lend itself in any necessary way to be wielded as a sword or as surgical knife. And it is therefore dangerous for the same reason: it is easy to be mistaken about it, to think it is something that can be mastered and used for one’s own purpose. Yes, people do use “religion” as a club to beat others, but this weapon is not really religion, which is a weak force. The religions of this world are a masquerade, an often dangerous one. Real religion is salutary. It compels us to find our true selves, to find the real truth and meaning of our lives.

To deal with our climate issues, we will need to recover real religion. We will need to rediscover that we are bound to something that transcends the quotidian concerns of capitalist consumerism, that we are and ought to be in its service and not in the service of the priests of Baal of the current economic system. Because — again paradoxically — to be in the service of a transcendent weak force is to be free indeed; to be in the service of capitalism is to be a slave, watching from our chains as the planet is ever-more rapidly degraded.

So I pray we find this God…or let this God find us willing to be transformed, to have a change of mind and heart. To learn to love our world, our neighbors, and our true selves. That love would be true religion.

But I’m a realist, and it’s hard to be optimistic. If you’re reading this, you’re probably “doing well-enough” — maybe even very well. You look out your window and see the weather looking more or less like it always has (as if weather and climate are synonyms). You can’t or don’t see the problem, so for you there is nothing to fix. This little plea of mine is some left-wing claptrap that Fox News has sufficiently “debunked” for you. If all that’s accurate about you, I can hardly expect you to make changes or even want to make changes. But I say we’re like the frog in the pot of water that is slowly being heated. It’s all good…until it isn’t. But then it will be too late.

So maybe it doesn’t matter to you after all. But take a good look at your kids and your grandkids, and think again. Please. Make a change for love’s sake.

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Some more ideas about work

…if we’re going to debate the meaning, importance, dignity, and existence of work, we should be a lot more careful what we mean by the concept.

More from Peter Frase’s “Workin’ It.”

So let me try this, by asking: why should anyone be upset if some workers take advantage of Obamacare to reduce their working hours, or even drop out of the labor force?

More from “Why Do You Care How Much Other People Work?

In that light, the viability of a solution like the guaranteed basic income—and whether it can be made palatable to Americans for whom work ethic is a prized national value—ends up coming down less to politics than to the fundamental question of how we see the role of work both in the lives of individuals and in society as a whole.

More from “Should the Government Pay You to be Alive?

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