Winter weltanschauung

3 February 2010

In the District of Columbia significant quantities of snow fall only on the weekend.  Invariably it has receded enough by the following Monday for the drones to return to work.  Even the weather is anti-worker.

It rather makes me wonder if Marx ever took into account how bad the weather is when planning the Revolution.  I suppose he didn’t plan it, really. He wrote books. He was like the Jack Ryan of international communism, but the pre-Hunt for Red October Jack Ryan. Would this make Engels James Earl Jones? I need to get clarity on this.

(This is a nonsensical phrase. People at work say it to me frequently. I will one day reply, “Sure, let me just go buy a little clarity from the pusher two doors over,” and be immediately sacked.)

Imagine that you’re the proletariat.  I’m not, but let’s say you are.

Are you really going to wear that? The proletariat, while dirty and frequently ill-mannered, are generally impeccably-dressed in situations of great political tension.  Have you ever seen a picture of Churchill addressing a crowd?  Bowler hats all around.  You’re in jeans.  I mean it’s fine, I guess. I just – whatever, your call.

So imagine. Proletariat.  What are the sort of situations likely to awaken you from your vodka-induced class slumber?  Famine sounds good.  Mass deprivation of a basic service like heating or electricity.  A major mutiny, perhaps, or a rout in a war. Perhaps a general breakdown in communication caused by the loss of critical air, road or rail networks.

And when would something like this happen?  Winter.

That hot dog is the mass-man

See nobody’s ever become a communist on their own. Some kind of shit has to go down first.  Now if this shit goes down on a lovely spring day – say May 11th, because the end of the month can get a bit hot but the beginning can be rather rainy and of course you have to adjust the time for your own area, like when Al Roker kind of uselessly drones on about the weather and then goes, “Now what’s happening in your neck of the woods!” and you get real information. In fact, I’ve changed my mind.  I think Marx is like Al Roker.

So the electricity’s gone, communications are breaking down and Al Roker’s all like, “Hey, let’s overthrow Matt Lauer and seize control of the means of production.”  And I suppose it sounds like a good idea, because whenever anybody says, “let’s XYZ” it generally sounds good. But then you actually go to do it and it’s not. Sure I’d like to check out the new restaurant. No I don’t want to go to Silver Spring. But Al Roker’s all, “Hey, come on, Silver Spring’s not that far” and so we go, and I’m a bit grumpy about it.

But then it’s cold. Maybe it’s still snowing. And the wind chill! And there’s “the forces of law and order,” as I once heard them described by a Russian colonel serving in Chechnya, and there’s really a lot of them. And Al Roker’s like “They have sliders!” but by then you just don’t care anymore. That’s what revolution is like.

A case study. Take England. England has never had a Revolution that wasn’t somehow queeny (both in subject and participants). Why? Elections are almost always in May. Just at that moment when the sun is shining, you’re emerging from the gloom and you can’t believe how badly the ruling class has misappropriated the capital provided for by the labor of the masses, they give you a chance to choose! Maybe a frivolous choice, to be sure, but it takes the wind right out of your sails because you immediately feel like you’re doing something. Why go all the way to Silver Spring when there’s a Fuddrucker’s in Friendship Heights? I think it’s a Fuddrucker’s.

In America the strategy is different. Elections in November lock in the choice just as the winter’s hitting hardest and frustration’s building, and then we don’t actually change hands until January. Used to be March but, I don’t know, fabulous advances in winter coats or whatever. By the time spring hits the new people have barely had a chance to get started and you feel bad making a fuss and this time they really might make it work. (They won’t, but the proletariat is not known for critical thinking.)

Not much fun, especially when Poland turned out to be closed for the season

This is where Russia went wrong. Russia was getting in the dead of winter (February) and they were getting their ass beat by Germany and there was a shortage of food in the cities and vodka was outlawed by the not-very-thoughtful authorities. No more czar. They got a provisional government and by November they blew so hard that nobody could imagine tolerating them through another winter. No more provisional government.

China probably fits my example too. I’m kind of lazy.

I think the lesson is that America will never have a revolution because all of the cities are too cold and there’s never any reason to do it in the Spring. The only real threat comes from the expansion of Virginia and their inability to plow those tiny country roads. That way lies danger.

But now a look at what’s happening in your neck of the woods.

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Why we are a failure

2 February 2010

“If you mind your business, nobody will give you problems,” said a woman to me last week. “All they do is say ‘What the fuck that white boy doing here?’  By then, you’ll be gone.”

Indeed.

I’m not sure if actually working for government has yet fully deadened my interest in government. The two are actually pretty easy to keep separate, not least because, as a friend and fellow veteran pointed out recently, “Nobody who works in the government ever thinks about it.”

With the usual caveats.

My excursion into the industry of professional helping has been interminably brief and, on the whole, intolerably busy.  I suppose I didn’t take government to be the sort of place which left little time to catch one’s breath – or at least government at the sort of level attended by a 22 year-old of no particular credentials or repute. From my observations and understanding it’s not. Yet there are two sides to government.  The glam side – frenetic but easy and carefully circumscribed – are the people in Congress, the executive offices. You know: “the top.” The ones who made it and are “changing the world.”  Then there is the underbelly, where that fact is really, tragically, true.

The top half – although it is not a half but a tiny minority – live in a properly philosophical world. Most of them would hate this idea, but it is just that. The “big ideas” are invariably functions of values and the reconciliations of them, determinations based occasionally on conviction but more frequently on calculation of the basic questions of who is part of the club – “one of us” – and what that fact means. Decisions about taxation, schools, and the environment are not merely marginal adjustments to a basic framework but fundamental decisions about the shape of the world to come. These decisions are invariably thin – all decisions are – but unquestionably if ambiguously weighty.

The world which is my daily joy is far from that big blue sky.  Like a general who decides how the enemy is to be defeated but leaves the deed to others, so does a Mayor or a President and the people who trail behind them decide how the people are to be made wealthy or happy or good and send down the order. There are grunts far below responsible for realizing it in the shape of a idle march or a frantic siege.

This of course is the limit at which war illuminates the subject. Its task is quite simple – defeat an enemy.  You reduce a people to a level at which their own resistance becomes incomprehensible. The reason government is so difficult – and the reason every “war on” a social problem necessarily fails – is because it is in its likeness with war precisely its opposite. Government is the creation of a world in which giving up in the face of adversity is incomprehensible. Like war, it is a response to human terror. War attempts to turn it to use. Government attempts to banish it. Both end up being defined by it. The result for the latter is unsatisfying to an amazing extreme, because such upbuilding – even when ideally realized – is necessarily repetitive, incomplete and ceaseless. Creation is never permanent in the eay way destruction is.

I imagine that in a good number of places the business of government is not much of a struggle. In a close-knit community – what one might snootily call “rural” but which could be anyplace with the character of a village – the people are resistant to adversity by nature; in the sanitized suburb the mere whiff of adversity, while socially disgusting, is slightly romantic, the idea of poverty unpleasant but unthreatening and always surmountable. Problems here are more often a matter of the neighbors daring to intercede in my life rather than any violent disruption from the outside. It is not difficult to see why the number one concern to suburban life is crime, and why it’s so much less frequent when suburbs themselves are not a feature of that life.

And then there is the city. In the modern world the city has always been the problem. The reason is simple: people live in proximity like villagers with the interpersonal skills of suburbanites. It’s the perfect storm of “social decay,” “urban blight,” whatever you want to call it. It only really takes one addition – an admittedly hefty dollop of “want” – to bring to full heights human cruelty in its many forms. It is something we have become reasonably expert at in this country,  perhaps nowhere more than in the capital city.

But this is what makes the city so ripe and fascinating. (When you’re from the suburbs other people’s want is almost as sexy as the idea of your own.) The city is both the birthplace and graveyard of ideology. The city gave us both liberalism and Marxism, the two defining ideologies of our time, before promptly devouring its children like Cronus. It is a novelty to have an environment – at once so perfectly alien and so peculiarly human – both give and take away the last best hopes for organizing a world without one God. Never before has mankind been faced with a thing so bipolar and fraught. For in the city there is no escape. It will always make a lie of the well-meaning and zealous. Here philosophies mighty and petty are waylaid everywhere; hidden in the bushes and the alleyways they’re mugged and raped and killed by the dark forces of real life. All of the systems we have are built in reaction to the city, and they all are made worthless here. We are simply too many; we have too many ideas. Where is the space for the gudwara in Walden Pond?

This is where government comes in. We have it because philosophy fails. It is the awful compromise we make with ourselves, the deal with the devil that assumes problems will be taken care of so long as they are pushed as far away as possible, so that we might be spared the awful sight of the death of our ideas. But government is simply the tragedy of the failure of all our grand designs built into an awful whitewashed edifice. The people in this country who cry out with revulsion at the erosion of their freedoms are so laughable precisely because the government they hate is so puny and sad. Its programs are wasteful not out of malice or caprice but because, by their nature, they have to be.

This is my job: spaghetti tactics. You throw it at the wall and you see what sticks, but what you’re throwing at the wall are not programs but people. Living and breathing, with names and hopes and stupid clothes and bad breath and four kids at the age of 22. You make a program and you do not give it to them but give them to it, and see how many it “saves” – whatever that means. And then you make a new one and do it again. And again. And again. And again. Eventually, you hope that everybody gets stuck to – with – something. That you save everybody.

Of course you don’t. The city is laughing at you and your feeble attempts to save the world, always. Every program fails people, including mine; some people are failed by all programs. They stick to nothing, and the tragedy is that in the end you’re not surprised. They’re not the kind of people you want to help. It’s easy to get my liberal hackles up against the abandonment of the decent, the hard-working, the “unfortunate”; but what about the people who are lazy and obnoxious, the ones who don’t want to be helped or if they do will never let you close enough to do it? What about the ones the civil servants, well-meaning as we always are, look straight in the eyes yet cannot see?

This is the problem with government. It’s so personal.

At the end of last year I took a class on Marxism. Philosophy, of course, so there’s always an air of inevitable pointlessness about it; but at the very end of the class I got the professor’s hackles up because I asserted boldly that if there was a difference between Marxism and liberalism I didn’t see it. Marxism is at best the other side of the liberal coin, the equal and opposite reaction its unique failures had to engender; at worst its a simple correction of it inappropriately couched in apocalyptic terms.

Take the program I work in. It could just as easily be compared with the best sort of New Deal initiative as with the workshops of the Paris Commune. The objectives are much the same either way: to take someone who has nothing, not in terms of resources but in terms of skills, or qualities, or consciousness, and engaging in that so characteristic upbuilding. In the process it’s hoped that a measure of personal power and the ability to similarly draw up others is imparted to them. It is to draw them into society. The objective is, through wholesome and empowering work, to be de-alienating. This is something at once perfectly liberal and perfectly Marxist – a reconciliation of devout opposites.

But there are some people. I’ve met them, talked to them, listened to them rant. They’re loud. They’re angry. They’re bitter but yet entitled. They have no skills or pretension to skills; they want for everything but want nothing. They are always unpleasant to deal and no effort is sufficient to make them fit. Their antics are tolerated for months on end, they’re brought in, talked to – and, when it’s finally too much, unceremoniously dropped.

But they’re someone’s – aren’t they?

What does Marxism have to say about them that liberalism doesn’t? A liberal would have called them the “residuum” or “undeserving poor,” would say they’re lazy and have no work ethic and would have to shrug his shoulders and say: some people can’t be helped. A Marxist would call them the “lumpenproletariat,” uninterested – as they surely wouldn’t be – in the virtues of collective action because of their contentment living off the fat of the state. He’d say they’re blind and mired in false consciousness and – at length – some people can’t be helped.

But what happens then? You can’t just ignore them. They’ll still be there. Part of the reason they are there is because you ignore them. They don’t fit into your system, or any system; so now what? When do you make that great leap to say – they are human no more? And how do you know when that leap happens not because of the people but because of your system? This is the leap that both liberalism and Marxism, in the end, find themselves forced to make. Neither are ever shy.

I think this is why civil servants don’t think. It’s hard, day after day, to stare into the faces of the person you don’t like and can’t help and don’t think anybody can – and to follow the fact to its logical conclusion. It’s hard to see from the inside the way your grand ideas are brutally parodied by your work. For in a city people are paid to decide if you matter. This is the bargain. I am paid to sort lives into useful and unuseful piles, and dispense with them as quickly as possible. There are many others like me. And we do this – I do this – for the same reason they keep coming to us: a paycheck. I too need; I too want. And so not because I am powerful but because this role lays bare my own powerlessness do I sort lives as I see fit. Maybe I do it with more or less charity; but it’s a thin kind of charity.

And someday I’ll leave, as quickly as it would take to wonder what the fuck that white boy was doing there anyway. I won’t have had a good answer. Today I didn’t when with an affected air of smug satisfaction I listened to fifteen people describe eloquently and rightly how I’m failing them, led on by two people who themselves did far less and knew no better. They didn’t mean it personally – but the problem with government is that it is personal, to each and every one of us, because it is the living manifestation of the terror that comes from our own social bankruptcy. It is a bundle of all the failure we cannot admit and survive, a great church which – for a tithe – hides away the crimes we commit against each other. For all the spaghetti that stuck there will be some that got away. Maybe some other me, secreted away in a similarly dingy building somewhere else, will catch them. But not all. Some will get away, and sit there, and by their existence laugh at our philosophies which are no more different than two sides of a sheet of paper.

Until the next throw.

I’m glad to see that during my absence literally tens of people have found their way to my blog.  Today, that included people searching for “furry rape” and “Van Hool Portugal.”  Well done, sirs.

There’s a great deal I’d have liked to have written about, but I’ve been distracted by the hateful business of maintaining my hateful existence (on a level of income which I have the sneaking suspicion is far more than I need but far less than I require). So perhaps one or two notes on the past month:

1) I am greatly pleased that the loss of Martha Coakley means I won’t have to hear from Bob Menendez for awhile.  Perhaps the Senator from MTV is unaware (or perhaps it’s his counterpart from the film Casino that’s allergic to listening) but in order to motivate people to defend a majority it’s important to do something with it. This is even more important when rather than defending an actual majority you’re attempting to hold a completely arbitrary number that’s going to be fucked up by Ben Nelson anyway. (I have just quoteD from Fox News. Occasionally they do get the sense of things right.)

They'll never take our health ca-oh

It’s rather like the film Braveheart. Remember when they’re fighting at Falkirk, and the infantry are slaughtered when the noble cavalry just trot off at the crucial moment?  That was health care. Somehow it shouldn’t be hard to figure out why in the next battle the infantry won’t fall over themselves to rescue their lords and masters.

2) That having been said, I never thought 2010 was going to be as good as everybody assumed – and now I don’t think it’s going to be as bad.  Think of it what you will but our electoral system is well-insulated from popular anger. Systems matter.  So far, precious little has changed, whatever the result of a quite-inconsequential by-election.  Ask British Labour how much by-elections change.

3) On a related note I am coming, alarmingly, to think that Glenn Beck is asking the right questions. Terrible answers, to be sure. But right questions.

4) Chip Corbett sent me this article for comment.  2000 words later I’m still working on it. Suffice it to say, however, that once I got over my gentleman-and-scholar’s indignation over the death of the liberal arts I couldn’t help but laugh at the whingeing – wonderful word, no? It’s whining with a more aggressive spelling – liberal arts people who didn’t understand why nobody wanted to study them anymore. It is in fact because nobody wanted to study liberal arts in the first place but before it was necessary as part of the process of buying your way into a higher social class. (This is the point of college unless you’re already part of the upper class, in which case the point is basically gay sex.) I even had a long-winded but sadly appropriate comparison with the 19th century British officer corps. I can expound on this in conversation.

Long story short: people don’t want to study liberal arts – especially philosophy – not because their heads are filled with some airy capitalist stereotypes but because those stereotypes have never been truer than they are now. To quote scripture: physician, heal thyself.

5) I don’t care what anyone says, and I realize this is a distinctly minority opinion. But the only academy award that Inglourious Basterds will win, or deserve to, is Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz.

Incidentally, Christoph, if you’re reading this – like, I don’t want to be weird. But I think we’d be really good friends. We could get an apartment. Or something. Call me.

6) While I’m a bit disappointed that Ke$ha turned out to be white, it does make sense given her association with Flo-Rida and of course my enthusiasm is undampened. This may make me a bamma. If so, I’m fucking Obamma.

7) All joking aside, Obama is also a bamma.

8 ) It’s really too bad that there isn’t a national conference of clotheshanger manufacturers in Washington in early February.  I think it would do a lot for their collective visibility.

9) Brett Favre is really annoying when he does this:

This is not unlike the other 23 hours of his day; however it’s doubly-irritating that the song has approximately 12 words and he still fucks it up. This is not unlike another notorious fuck-up

I think the moral of the story here is get your facts right or you’ll end up being raped by a furry on a Van Hool bus to Portugal. (A suggestion which will almost certainly result in my being a target for a Keith Olbermann special comment.)  How ironic that tonight the purveyor of that violence will be Saints.

Intarnets law?

4 October 2009

I’ll be honest.  I don’t spend a great deal of time being thankful I’m not British.  Quite the contrary.

Witness, then, a novelty.

Voters will be given the power to rewrite laws under Tory plans to transform the way parliament works by importing a popular scheme championed by Barack Obama in last year’s US election.

[…]

Under the Tory plans, a parliamentary bill would be introduced in the way it is now. The first and main debate – the second reading stage, in which the broad principles of the proposed new laws are debated on the floor of the Commons – would be held in the normal way.

But once MPs have held this debate, the bill would be thrown open to voters before it is considered line by line at the committee stage. A website would allow voters to comment on and rewrite the broad principles of the bill, and individual clauses.

Contributors would rank comments so the most popular suggestions appear at the top. This is similar to mixedink, which allows voters to argue for and against various policies and suggest their own ideas.

I have a question for the hapless Mr Hague, who has the misfortune of floating this trial balloon: have you ever been on the Internet?

Seriously.  The difference between an actual policy debate and that which you’re likely to find through such a “popular legislative process” is like the difference between Glee and, well, an actual high school a capella group.  Don’t believe me?  Go onto the comments pages of The Guardian, or Politico, or indeed the one or two occasions somebody I don’t know has commented on this blog.  If you believed what you see on the internet not only would you not want the people to make law, you wouldn’t want them to vote for the ones who do.

I feel a little bit of indignation bubbling up in you already.  What an anti-democratic argument!  Well, maybe.  But then the internet isn’t really democratic.  In the UK, as I’ve written before, things have gotten a lot more virulent even than America, but the question still remains: why do these evil corrupt Congressmen or MPs get to make our laws?  Because we keep choosing them.  They may be unresponsive, lazy sexual predators with their snouts planted firmly in the trough, but they are ours.  Both in theory and in practice there’s nothing stopping anyone from choosing somebody different. To go further there is no excuse.

But people on the internet – by whom are they chosen?  Who decides that they are “the people,” that they speak for some unrepresented segment of the population?  Precisely no one.  They choose themselves, and the reason indeed that they are so often ignored is precisely because of a chronic inability amongst much of the blogosphere to follow basic rules of civility and reason, much less digest complex topics like the cod quota or the politics of disarmament.

But of course this follows from a misunderstanding of “the people” that the political class, in its rush to cater to the Internet Generation, has all-to-quickly developed.  There is no People, at least not in terms of some vast group of unrepresented and unserved proletariat bubbling over with untapped ideas and revolutionary passion.  In both Britain and America there used to be groups such as these.  Something was done about it.  (And by legislatures bereft of these excluded masses.  Funny that.)

Measures like this are really just a reaction to general apathy towards the political process, not the exclusion of some mysterious silent majority.  In their effect they are not only dangerously populist but dangerously anti-democratic as well, in that they threaten to transfer under the guise of enhanced popular sovereignty a law-making power that previously was enjoyed by the people only through the representatives all had the right to accept or reject.  On top of this now will be placed a class of “law-makers” no one asked for and nobody wanted.  Good intentions being what they are, you put yourself on the receiving end of a downmarket House of Lords – the Senate meets the Sun.  (This really isn’t fair.  In the House of Lords there’s at least someone to check and make sure you’re not mad.)

Of course, one might reply, anyone can participate.  Those who do cannot be held responsible for those who do not.  True perhaps, but that is to elevate the theory at the expense of the practice.  If there were such a system, in which people could alter legislation, online, at will, and assuming in Wikipedia-style fashion anyone could, who would actually do it?  Not everybody.  Not the people without access to computers and/or the internet (in the US at least 20%, according to the International Telecommunications Union; I couldn’t find UK statistics but it’s probably comparable or higher; broadband penetration is far lower).  Higher proportions – far higher – for the poor, blacks, etc.  Scratch most of those who work full-time or more.  Mothers with children are probably out, especially if they’re single parents (of either gender).  Tinkering with legislation won’t pay the mortgage.

YOUR NEW GOVERNMENT

YOUR NEW GOVERNMENT

So who will be left, besides these groups too “apathetic” (i.e. struggling) to care?  The wealthy, the bored, and of-course-I-know-best political obsessives who are too reserved, selfish or extreme to actually seek office for themselves.  (Read: me.)  I don’t doubt a few decent people will trickle through – but I don’t doubt they’ll trickle back out again, most of them.  The effect will be that the best-off, most-driven and frequently most-extreme people will take advantage of the opportunity to wreak havoc on the legislative process.  They will be little dictators each and every one.

The example of Wikipedia is instructive.  From its roots as an open source encyclopedia, it has gradually resolved into an organization with permanent staff, a bureaucratic structure that includes courts to resolve disputes between editors and a model heavily-dependent on a few very devoted and profligate senior editors, trusted through their experience and seniority to protect the vast store of information from the ever-present prospect of vandalism.  At least with Wikipedia I can still, if I like, go in and make productive changes.  With the law there’s no such chance: once it’s done, it’s done.  There’s no “work in progress” about it.

This is not to defame the prospect of models like open source governance.  It is promising.  But it is also young.  And this is true of the whole Internet – it moves far faster than even the most youthful and adaptable of its users (and certainly moreso than the legislators tasked with putting it to some political use), and law as an institution depends on consistency far more than adaptability or representativeness.  It’s far more important than you can count on the law than that it be modern or include you in its construction.  Most murder laws were written under an incomplete franchise.  That doesn’t make them bad laws.

This policy, like most attempts to shoehorn the internet into law-making, is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in an attempt to figure out where your sphere went.  It is the wrong solution to the problem of disengagement and inclusion.  Want the public to get back into politics?  Empowering a few frothing obsessives is not the answer.  Try public holidays on election day – public holidays in general.  A reduction of the work week so people have more time for politics.  Or subsidized child care.  Mandatory overtime.  Compulsory voting.  All very scary and socialist ideas probably.  But at least they have the benefit of being fair and of appealing to what is, in fact, the people, rather than those of their number who are indolent, obnoxious, and bored.

If you live in the Western world and have at any point crossed paths with a television set, you’ve probably seen, heard or rioted against this classic Kanye West moment:

(N.b. In order to prop up Viacom’s flagging market share this grainy, shitty video will probably be removed in fairly short order. This means you’ll have to do their own research. I trust you.)

Now it would be easy to simply dismiss Kanye as a gay fish, but I won’t.  I’m a sensitive man who understands the soul of the frustrated, lonely multi-platinum recording artist.  Indeed, I dare say Kanye’s story is not as  superficial as it seems. He’s not just some nutty overpaid radio star. Oh no, my friends. Kanye’s doing something here. Something big. Something, dare I say it, historic?

I must tell you first about a favorite philosopher of mine.  His name is Soren Kierkegaard.  His first name is spelt with that fucked-up Danish ‘o’ and I don’t have the patience to look up the alt-code.  But you get the idea.untitledLittle Soren was a strange child – needless to say.  There was a sense of brilliance to him, tinged distinctly with creepiness, perhaps inspired by his selfish siblings who insisted on dying of unpleasant 19th century diseases while Soren was young.  Except his brother. He became a bishop. It’s enough to fuck anybody up.

But eventually little Soren’s parents died and he now had both a solidly middle class upbringing and enough disposable income to avoid real work – as any true philosophical genius must.  And so he set off to make his great works, which challenged the assumptions of his society – and eventually all the world.

Starting to sound familiar?

Try this on for size:

“He writes because for him it is a luxury that becomes all the more enjoyable and conspicuous the fewer who buy and read what he writes.” – Kierkegaard, Either/Or

“I wanna make popular music, but I want less fans.” – Kanye West, Vibe Magazine

Kanye helpfully said that quote while I was in the middle of a second reading of Kierkegaard. It was thoughtful of him. I think it might have been fate.

Because you see, it got me thinking. The work from which that quote was taken, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, was a really obscure attack on the philosophical mores of the time. He charged that it allowed only two ways of living life: engaged “aesthetically” in drinking, carousing, whoring and other assorted douchebaggeries; or “ethically,” which consists of getting married, being bourgeois and dying old with children. But Kierkegaard said no!  There is a third option. In his case it consisted of Jesus, but this was the sort of Jesus in whom belief and love are accepted as absurd and cherished for it. Kind of a bad ass Jesus.

Both you and Coach Carr need to step away from the underage girls.

Both you and Coach Carr need to step away from the underage girls.

In order to communicate this point Kierkegaard wrote stories, not works of philosophy, and made his point through characters of his own creation – all of whom were thinly-veiled puppets himself, buried deep within still more obscure twists and turns. The person referenced by the quote above was one of these, Johannes the Seducer, who busies himself by trotting around Copenhagen stalking, meeting and then seducing underage girls before he unceremoniously dumps them at the end of a six-month period. (Consumer protections have always been strong in Denmark, even if statuatory rape laws have not.) The book is about Johannes’ relationship with Cordelia, a 16 year-old girl. You might be forgiven for mistaking this character for Kierkegaard, who had his heart broken by… a 16 year-old girl.

Johannes the Seducer, Kierkegaard’s doppelganger, acts a lot like Kanye does. Kierkegaard did, too, at least in his youth. Both were devil-may-care; both stirred unending controversy in the media for their public comments; both, despite protesting about wanting fewer readers, could barely contain their word vomit. (Kanye shouts in that blog of his; Kierkegaard published constantly, including a postscript five times longer than the book it followed.)  Both have issues with their treatment of young girls. And both, of course, are deeply concerned about finding their place in a world in which they don’t quite fit, a world with nothing to believe in. Kierkegaard was never really accepted by anybody, or read outside of Denmark before 1900; as for Kanye,  as late as 2005 some of his plastics still said Kayne.

This is how I cracked the code, you see. Kanye is not just an out-of-control narcissistic superstar. He is not just the out-of-control narcissistic superstar. But he’s not doing it simply because he has everything a person could ever want and still finds himself empty, unsatisfied and alone. I mean, he’s not Michael Jackson. (Too soon?)

No. Kanye is in fact out to teach us all a grand lesson. Kanye is in the process of creating from his very own self a living embodiment of the philosophy of Kierkegaard, one that will make Kierkegaard’s own seem petty and silly and in the process shake our very world to its core.

First he attains his greatest success and greatest controversy. He’s young, insecure, desperate to set his place in the world. (Why else his madcap declarations about already being in the history books?) He does everything wrong and nobody likes him even as they recognize his brilliance. But it can’t go on forever, can it?

Him... or Kanye?

West 52, Monkey 48

He’ll have a change of heart, settles down. Pumps out some kids, maybe gets himself elected to Congress? (Don’t you even tut like it’s at all improbable. People in England elected a monkey.) He’s calmed down, got respectable. But he’ll still be missing something, as will we all, deprived of random outbursts of his lyrical genius and social insanity.

That’s when he reaches the third stage – the religious stage. But this isn’t the 1900s, is it? Maybe this isn’t anything like what Kierkegaard wrote. Maybe it won’t involve Jesus at all. I don’t know. Who can know what a genius like Kanye, who has by now transformed his entire life into a very living a work of philosophy and art, the greatest of all time, will develop when the glorious climax of his life explodes into our consciousness? Will he bring upon us an entirely new philosophy? A new religion? Will he, indeed, reveal himself as the Promised Return of Christ himself?

None of us can know where this onrushing epiphany will lead, or indeed when it will happen. None of us can dare to predict. But we can have faith – dear friends, we can know that it will someday come! Because the sheer tonnage of excellence that Kanye revealed last night, the depth and breadth of his long and tortured road into our very souls, cannot be foreseen any more than it can be denied. He is doing something great – just as he has always said. And we’ve never listened!

Kanye will teach us. He will teach us because he loves us… and he loves us because he loves himself.

Amen.

The ethics of belief

23 August 2009

The Guardian‘s comment is free section has a series of essays going.  They’re works put together on some of the seminal works in philosophy by what appear to be the top scholars on them and the subject of all of them is belief.  (Specifically, how to believe, what justifies belief, etc.)  Heidegger, Hobbes, Hume, Nietzsche and the Acts of the Apostles are all finished, with the Dialogues of Plato up next. 

Hats to Erfani for putting it up there.

There was a brief write-up on Huffington Post two days ago of an article about the exclusion of economist Joseph Stiglitz from the Obama Administration. It came with a response by Paul Krugman on his Times blog.  I’ve surprisingly managed (and perhaps sadly) to make it through four years of college without having to get at Globalization and Its Discontents, so his exclusion is perhaps less grating to me than to Krugman.  But I found Krugman’s notion that Stiglitz represents the exclusion of an entire universe of thought – namely “progressive economics,” which I think a fair paraphrase – to be a rather provocative one. It’s a very funny notion that is derived from the fact that economics is – and always has been – a schizophrenic discipline.  It doesn’t know precisely what it wants to be. It ends up not being very much at all. And yet…

Economics was originally a philosophical discipline.  (Adam Smith was termed a philosopher before “economics” was coined as a term.  The first person to apply economics is supposed to be a man called Thales who decided to sweep away the illusion of philosophers as airy thinkers and give hope to generations of students full of useless ideas by using reason to corner the market on olives for a year.  Fat lot of good it did.)  It was at about the same time as the decline of a philosophical tradition called British empiricism.  In the 16th century the great debate was whether and to what extent people were born with knowledge or learned what they knew from experience.  Logic and mathematics were especially troublesome, since they seemed to just make sense.  The British empiricists believed, broadly, that only experience could teach us anything and that we were born only with a blank mind and our senses.  Their opponents with the rationalists, a continental group that believed we’re born with a sense of reason and experiences are only a series of events we tie together.  This triggered a dispute that continues to this day – and, not coincidentally, fractured on religious and national lines.

British empiricism did not survive as a system of knowledge, but with a temporary truce occasioned by Immanuel Kant (the pronunciation of whose name it is very important to treat with care) it survived into Adam Smith’s time.  And indeed the principles of empiricism and its successor analytic philosophy are all over economics – the rejection of certainty and of principles prior to experience, the preference for logic and mathematics above ethics and ontology (the study of “being”), and the rejection (ironically) or “irrational” impulses such as emotion.  Both became popular in Britain and the United States as they became the workshops of the world (and indeed the natural offshoot of classical economics, capitalism, has always been most popular in the Anglophone world.)  And in this capitalist heartland both economics and analytic philosophy continue to thrive.

But herein lies the problem: people don’t treat economics as a philosophy.  They treat it as a science. This is true as much of economists as of laypeople – as these articles, “High Priests and Lowly Philosophers: The Battle Over the Soul of Economics” and “Post-Autistic Economics,” suggest.  The message, approached in radically divergent manners in each article, is that economics as a discipline has been susceptible to co-optation by economists who advise on areas far outside their specific “technical” expertise, using their supposed understanding of the market to push a certain agenda. This turns not on the study of but faith in economics.  In the former the critique is of economists of the Neo-Keynesian school; in the latter it is of neo-classicists like Hayek (i.e. the right). In both cases a false air of certainty is assumed to promote what is essentially a system of ideological beliefs.

This is an entire novelty. In no “hard science” is ideology such an overwhelming issue as it is in economics, and in no hard science are those questions of ideology so irrelevant to the esteem in which the discipline itself is held.  (Can you imagine any Sokal Affair in economics, any similar rebellion against the presence of ideology period?)  None of the social sciences have effectively emulated economics’ grip on the public consciousness, either, though they are just as politicized and bitterly divided.  Political scientists, scholars of international relations, anthropologists etc. all deploy extensive models and statistical sets to make their points, but all are received with a patient nod and relative indifference to the public and the political class.

This is as it should be: ideas should slowly percolate through society to ensure that impurities are removed.  Yet economics has successfully removed this social filter, so any economist can – and will – go on television and pronounce loudly about The Way Things Are.  Worse than merely reserving unto themselves a privileged position in the debate on economic issues – which in the modern era have become all issues – economists have attempted and largely succeeded at removing them from the public sphere entirely.

Gone are the days when President Truman lamented the lack of “one-armed economists.” Instead we patiently and expectantly receive their pronunciamentos and, unlike any other intellectual discipline, they are separately polled about issues of public policy.  They get access that intellectuals in other fields could never dream of to the corridors of power. And their “expertise” effectively subverts not merely the rigor of their own discipline but the proper place of the market itself as subordinate to society. It is hard not to compare the economistic class to the religious leadership in Iran: they allow debate – as long as it does not deviate from the basic structure of the state (in this case, post World War II era market capitalism). Certanly this is not true of all. But it is true of enough of them.

It is in this context that Krugman cries out for “progressive” economists: essentially he seeks economists who will perhaps not take quite so slavish a line to traditional dogma and who will be effective at publicly backing up their assertions with some degree of certainty in the same way of the rest. He is lamenting an ideological hole in what is supposed to be an investigative and deliberative “scientific” discipline, built around careful examination of lived experience rather than endless speculation. This is the grand irony: the origin of economics in iconoclastic, atheistic and experiential British empirical philosophy has come full circle to brook a demand for exemplars of this sort of a priori certainty. Economists fell into just the trap that always plagued philosophy: assuming that their sense of reason was not simply better attuned but different from others’.

But economics is not different. It’s not a science. It is a “lowly philosophy,” and as the economic students at the Ecole Superiuere and elsewhere protested, much of its recourse to arcane models and Byzantine mathematics is designed not to enlighten but to obscure and facilitate endless appeals to authority: it is a sophistry on a grand scale. And despite the efforts of occasional Socrates figures in the economic community fighting this priestly class we have found ourselves in this situation, one in which our illusions have been shattered as comprehensively as at any time since Watergate – or indeed the Holocaust.

What we believe has been proved a lie: that economists knew has been proved a lie. This is the same phenomenon politicians suffered in the US and Britain after the 70s so earnestly documented by Adam Curtis in his documentary The Trap. A basic tenet of recent political history has been the monetarist assumption that politicians, like everybody else, are self-interested and not to be trusted. Somehow pointing that out seems to have exempted economists from the same assumption in the public mind. No longer. As usual the political class is bringing up the rear in this realization, but they too will come around. Then what of the temple and all its priests?

So no, thank you, Paul.  I’d not like a progressive economics.  Not, at least, until economists understand – or are made to understand – exactly what the capabilities and limitations of their discipline are.  It is bad enough to be confronted with specious vodou practitioners attempting to sell me a dogma thoroughly distasteful to me based on the fact that I cannot understand them: I positively refuse to commend the sale of my own beliefs utilizing the same disingenuous tactics. If Obama is going out of his way to avoid employing “progressive” economists, I’m glad. I hope desperately that his administration will not be guided by the advice of any economists, anymore than they would let decisions be made for them by a panel of lowly philosophers. At least philosophers know who they are.