The Meridian of Her Greatness

On The Great Transformation, suffering, and still using Malick stills for all of my blog posts.

meridian.PNG

Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation

I

Every so often, a piece thinker trips onto the global stage and says something like: “Sure, people say that they’re unhappy, and they say that it’s the economy, but GDP is steadily growing and a lot of those people are rich. So they’re wrong.” Then Donald Trump gets elected or some country ‘exits, and the slightly clammier thinker regurgitates their argument, but this time they punctuate it with: “You dicks.”

More nuanced thinkers add a few parentheticals (“2008”, “racism”, “coastal gains and middle drains“, etc.) but they retain the basic structure.

It’s important to understand something: They’re not wrong. They’re just insane.

The same thing happens on the left, this isn’t split across the French National Assembly. It’s something more like “current system” vs. “new/old one”, which does sound like “conservative” vs. “other”, but doesn’t match any such party we have.

Take Occupy. No, first, take this graph:

gdp per capita

Ok. The left is quick to point out inequality, or the fact that poverty still exists. Here’s the counter: though inequality might be a problem, it’s not clear that it’s the problem. Our society has made everyone richer by [expression for large multiplier here]. Boats and tides, something about rising-but-not-like-Bane-rising, etc. Man’s root state, after all, is not wealth but poverty. If we started with very little, and then capitalism made us all wealthier, is it really the devil if, while doing that, a few got wealthier than others?

This is a hard argument to counter, and one has to question the instinct to counter it. That graph and the common narratives – mass dissatisfaction, endemic poverty, social malcontent – do not work together. And yet we do observe such things – people are really angry. There’s something strange about telling a very angry person that they aren’t, in fact, a very angry person. The real problem is reconciling that anger with an economic motivation. “What if they’re just wrong?” Fine, phrase it this way: what’s the motivation for being angry then? It means the same thing with less presumptions.

So we have: Trump, Brexit, and Occupy. All of those threatened the status quo, all of them claimed economic reasons (more or less), and all of them had no way to deal with the graph above.

Here’s how one economist puts his colleagues’ position contra the critiques:

Nothing in the nature of a sudden deterioration of standards, according to these writers, ever overwhelmed the common people. They were, on average, substantially better off after than before […] and, as to numbers, nobody can deny their rapid increase. By the accepted yardsticks of economic welfare – real wages and population figures – the Inferno [of capitalism], they maintained, never existed; the working classes, far from being exploited, were economically the gainers and to argue the need for social protection against a system that benefited all was obviously impossible.

Critics of liberal capitalism were baffled.

Except that that isn’t about our time. The brackets are, respectively, “…before the introduction of the factory system“, and “the Inferno of early capitalism“. The description is of the Industrial Revolution and its contemporaneous debates. The author is Karl Polanyi, writing a history of said debates.

I really wanted that to be more of a gotcha, but Polanyi is just such a fucking dated writer. So, yes, finally: that’s from 1944.

Continue reading “The Meridian of Her Greatness”

Man as a Rationalist Animal

Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, and also some stuff about fundamentalist christianity

seeing like a state
On Seeing Like a State
I

Subconsciously or not, most of us presuppose malice behind failure. This goes doubly for historical failures, and quadruply for political failures. The daily form of this hisses about “corrupt politicians” (past and present), perhaps about “businessmen and special interests”. The more extreme forms fall into conspiracy theory. Often this is diagnosed as a form of pessimism, especially “pessimism about politics”. That’s wrong; it’s optimism.

The pessimistic view is this: “Everyone is just trying their best.” If the horrors of history are the result of ill will then we should take comfort. It may not always be possible to avoid evil dictators, but at least we know that human agency has some power. An evil person realizing their evil machinations implies that perhaps a good person can successfully realize a good plan. Stalin may have been mean and bad, but if we just get the right people in there (read: me), then surely The Good will result. But if everyone is just “trying their best” then none of this is assured. Indeed – something is so broken that our best intentions still produce misery. So… what happened?

Seeing like a State sets out to answer this question. Namely: why do we see large state schemes cause so much misery even when guided by good intentions and (seemingly) careful design? And that also explains its subtitle: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

If I had to give a one-sentence explanation of the book, it would be: “The effects of technocracy on a polity are almost always negative (Now with 100% more ‘why’!)” Of course, that argument is detailed across four-hundred pages, and nothing but the book itself can really capture that analysis – I’ll do  my best, but just read the book.

Its popularity means that many other bloggers have attempted more detailed analyses. These two are particularly good: a Ribbonfarm piece by Venkatesh Rao, and the more critical Slate Star Codex review by Scott Alexander. The SSC review, in particular, goes into a lot more detail than I will. (FN: On the economic side, J. Bradford Delong writes a some-what skewed (but good) analysis, which is here corrected by Crooked Timber.) Finally, if you read anything, here’s James C. Scott’s own overview of Seeing Like a State.

The plethora of reviews also means a plethora of criticism. This is helpful: I don’t want to describe the book but explain its import, and contrasting analyses are better for that than a cursory retelling. But since explaining the book is going to take a lot of time, I’m going to have a whole other post replying to criticisms I’ve seen levied.

Continue reading “Man as a Rationalist Animal”

Introduction, and Baudelaire

yes, I’m aware that this manages to say both nothing and yet all too much

goya the dog

I

I’ve tried and failed to write several essays (one on ethics, one on consequentialism specifically, and one on adaptive traits in religion) at this point. I needed certain tools to explain my point of view, ones in books that I haven’t written about.

I tried to write the essays without referencing these writings. They became incomprehensible. Worse: they were boring.

It’s time, then, to clear the ground.

The next [number] of posts will be about four books. Theoretically, there should be five posts – one per book and then a conclusion – but things don’t always go according to plan.

These four books represent the external side of modernity. This is not an authoritative account of the books themselves, nor of “politics”, nor of “human beings.” It’s an attempt to establish a baseline of communication. In that sense, they do make up something like an “ideology”, with two notable differences: 1) I take all four of them to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. 2) None of them examine the underlying causes, the internal structures, whatever those are (whether metaphysical or theological or psychological).

So far as I know, none of the works explicitly draws on another. One can take that in several ways: It’s possible that they managed to arrive at similar conclusions, which I take to be a strong indication of some truth. But it’s also possible that I’m contorting their meanings to fit together. I don’t much mind either way – the reader is advised to read the books themselves regardless.

The four books which present the political or ethical aspects of nihilism are these:

Seeing Like a State – James C. Scott
The Great Transformation – Karl Polanyi
The True Believer – Eric Hoffer
The Culture of Narcissism – Christopher Lasch (and here and then here)

This list (and the accompanying introduction) will, of course, become a table of contents in the future.

Continue reading “Introduction, and Baudelaire”

How to fail.

concerning the fearless girl statue

 

 

I

Here’s a story that looks like it’s about feminism but isn’t: Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl statue goes up, internet loses it.

First take. Girl Fucking Power.

Second take. Corporate feminism through and through. State Street Global Advisors commissioned the statue, SHE is a Nasdaq symbol, not a pronoun. They’re using feminism for advertisement. Capitalism is still evil, etc.

First viral piece of the lousy mess, Greg Fallis’s seriously, the guy has a point:

 

Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., responded by creating Charging Bull — a bronze sculpture of a…well, a charging bull. It took him two years to make it. The thing weighs more than 7000 pounds, and cost Di Modica some US$350,000 of his own money. He said he wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people”. He had it trucked into the Financial District and set it up, completely without permission. It’s maybe the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence.

[…]

Unlike Di Modica’s work, Fearless Girl was commissioned. Commissioned not by an individual, but by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. That’s serious money. It was commissioned as part of an advertising campaign developed by McCann, a global advertising corporation. And it was commissioned to be presented on the first anniversary of State Street Global’s “Gender Diversity Index” fund, which has the following NASDAQ ticker symbol: SHE.

 

Third take. The power of the image is more important (round two). Second viral piece. Caroline Criado-Perez’s On Fearless Girl, women & public art; or, no, seriously, the guy does not have a point. 

No, Greg. Just, no. Like many other men, Di Modica may not realise that rampant male-dominated capitalism already is a symbol of patriarchal oppression, already is an aggressive threat to women and girls all around the world, but that doesn’t make it any less the case. […] But to be clear: rampant unchecked capitalism is a symbol of patriarchal oppression whether Di Modica likes it or not.

I don’t wish to be pedantic here, but in order to represent “the strength and power of the American people,” Di Modica chose a bull. A male cow. He chose to represent the American “people” with an animal that is perhaps above all others considered a byword for male sexual aggression. And my god the balls on that thing. I think we can be fairly certain how Di Modica visualises power and strength — the phrase “grow a pair” comes to mind. Let’s be clear: this statue never represented the strength and power of American people. It represented the strength and power of American men. Fearless Girl does not therefore change the meaning of Charging Bull. She makes it explicit. And for that, I love her.

Criado-Perez is undeniably correct about one thing: the statues’ meaning as art is not to be judged solely by their origin. She’s the only one to make this point explicit, but note that Fallis agrees with this. Everyone agrees with this, and everyone loves the Fearless Girl despite her silver spoon.

Allow me to offer a contrary position: I hate the Fearless Girl, and the only thing that will help women is the origin. SHE is a threat, not an advertisement. SHE comes from a passive investor, which means that SHE isn’t talking to you. SHE is talking to firms, and SHE says: “Hire women or we’ll withhold money.”

She, on the other hand, the part we’ve agreed is “Girl Fucking Power!”, is an embarrassment.
Continue reading “How to fail.”

Scraps 1: Collapse/Jane Austen/Spengler/Cowen

Scraps and puzzles. Riddle: everything below is talking about the same thing. How?

1. 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed

I

~1250 BC is the standard archaeological date for the Biblical Exodus, if in fact an exodus occurred. Most material evidence we would expect of such an event is lacking.

To get to the collapse in 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization CollapsedEric Cline has to give an overview of the major Bronze Age civilizations. He casually mentions the following detail: While we don’t know if Exodus as real big Exodus happened, we do know that there was extensive Semitic-Egyptian interaction. There’s evidence of a Semite vizier to the pharaoh, and it’s unlikely that you’d get such a figure without some sort of storied history. Aper-El, the vizier, held his post in the 14th century during the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhentaten. Since I’m not particularly  pious, I feel free to pick and choose my biblical chronology as it suits me. That places him at roughly four generations before the proposed exodus, the traditional period between Joseph and Exodus (ignoring that the Bible says each of those is about 100 years). There’s more:

Akhenaten was, infamously, the pharaoh who tried to make Egypt a monotheistic kingdom. During his reign, Akhenaten abolished worship of all gods except for Aten. No matter how one thinks of Aten, the image of a single Semite working as vizier to a Pharaoh who then, for reasons no one can quite figure out, becomes a hardline monotheist, is too fecund of an idea to ignore. One can imagine a particularly rambunctious bilblical literalist seizing on this factoid to weave a grand tapestry – Joseph in the palace of Akhenaten, preaching the word of proto-God, and the mad pharaoh rearranging his kingdom based on Joseph’s powers.

I’m not a biblical literalist and I want to.

II

Also in 1177, the theory that the destruction of Troy took place much earlier than anticipated, and possibly twice. That… sort of goes a long way towards explaining why you have military descriptions from totally different time periods just floating around the Iliad. At the same time, if they preserved that, why wouldn’t they preserve at least some vague notion of the Hittites having hired them?

Probably not useful as literary theory. Possibly interesting as actual history. Continue reading “Scraps 1: Collapse/Jane Austen/Spengler/Cowen”

Mumble on linguistic relativity

I

Linguistic relativity is the theory that language affects thought. This is generally against the idea that humans have a common manner of ratiocination which different languages simply express with different sounds.

In its strictest form (as in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), linguistic relativism is fascinating, almost certainly wrong, and quite possibly crazy. Strong linguistic relativism hypothesizes that speakers of different languages have radically different phenomenological experiences. Imagine a language that has no past tense – strong LR suggests that the speakers would then have a different relation to time itself (perhaps none?), that their experience of time would be without history in the way we imagine it. This sounds like a strawman, but it’s precisely what Whorf claimed about the Hopi. Cf certain vulgar readings of Wittgenstein.

In a weaker form, LR implies that certain ways of thinking will be different due to different languages. The weaker form is… confused. No one is sure how strongly, or in what way, language will impact thought. In other words, a very uncharitable interpretation would be that weak LR is only a vague retreat from LR, one which leaves the field open to anything until it can be proven wrong.

This assumes that weak LR theorists don’t have a proper theory of what changes. They want to say that languages impacts quite a lot, but when pressed retreat to “language is different in some way”. This creates the impression that they don’t actually know what language would change. But the emphasis here is wrong: the issue is that they have no theory as to what is common to human cognition, and hence it appears that they’re just grasping at whatever they can. This is often colors, because for some reason colors are the go-to example for hard problems in phenomenology. Either way, that’s an academic distinction but probably helpful to mention for what follows. If we figure out what is common, then we can imagine what is open to variance.

Accept every proposition here and here. Then: Continue reading “Mumble on linguistic relativity”

Follow-up on aesthetics and information.

only makes sense with the first piece in mind/still clarifies less than I would have hoped

This is a further explication of a few things I introduced in my last essay. As such, it probably won’t make much sense without that/is not meant to stand as an actual essay. Continue reading “Follow-up on aesthetics and information.”