Social noble lies

In the Republic, Socrates introduced the “noble lie”: governmental officials may, on occasion, be justified in propagating lies to their constituents in order to advance a more just society. Dishonesty is one tool of the political class (or even pre-political — the planning class) to secure order. This maxim is at the center of the debate about transparency in government.

Then, in the 20th century, when academic Marxism was in its prime, the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser became concerned with the issue of social reproduction. How does a society survive from one generation to the next, with most of its moors, morals and economic model still in place? This question was of particular interest to the Orthodox Marxists: their conflict theory of history doesn’t illuminate how a society is held together, since competing groups are always struggling for power. Althusser came up with “Ideological State Apparatuses”: institutions, coercive or purely ideological, that reinforce societal beliefs across generations. This necessarily includes all the intelligence agencies, like the CIA and FBI, and state thugs, like the Gestapo and NKVD, but it also includes the family unit (authorized by a marriage contract), public education and the political party system. “ISAs” also include traditions in the private sector, since for Althusser, the state exists primarily to protect these interests.

It’s rarely easy enough to point to a country and say, “This is the dominant ideology.” However, and here the Marxists are right, it can be useful to observe the material trends of citizens, and what sorts of interests people (of any class) save up money for, teach their children to admire, etc. In the United States, there is a conditional diversity of philosophies: many different strains abound, but most within the small notecard of acceptable opinion. Someone like Althusser might say there is a single philosophy in effect — liberal capitalism — getting reproduced across apparatuses; a political careerist might recognize antagonists across the board vying for their own particular interests. In any case, the theory of ISAs is one answer to conflict theory’s deficiencies.

There is no reason, at any time, to think that most of the ideas spreading through a given society are true. Plenty of people could point to a lesson taught in a fifth grade classroom and find something they disagree with, and not just because the lessons in elementary school are simplified often to distortion. Although ideas often spread naturally, they can also be thrusted upon a people, like agitprop or Uncle Sam, and their influence is either more or less deleterious.

Those outlooks thrust upon a people might take the form of a noble lie. I can give qualified support for noble lies, but not for the government. (The idea that noble lies are a right of government implies some sort of unique power for government actors.) There are currently two social lies which carry a lot of weight in the States. The first one comes from the political right, and it says: anyone can work their way to financial security. Anyone can come from the bottom and make a name for themselves. Sentiment like this is typically derided as pulling oneself up from the bootstraps, and in the 21st century we find this narrative is losing force.

The second lie comes from the left, and it says: the system is rigged for xyz privileged classes, and it’s necessarily easier for members of these groups to succeed than it is for non-members. White people, specifically white men, all possess better opportunities in society than others. This theory, on the other hand, is increasingly popular, and continues to spawn vicious spinoffs.

Of the two, neither is true. That said, it’s clear which is the more “socially useful” lie. A lie which encourages more personal responsibility is clearly healthier than one which blames one’s ills all on society and others. If you tell someone long enough that their position is out of their hands because the game is rigged, they will grow frustrated and hateful, and lose touch with their own creative power, opting to seek rent instead. Therefore one lie promotes individualism, the other tribalism.

Althusser wrote before the good old fashioned class struggle of Marxism died out, before the postmodernists splintered the left into undialectical identity politics. God knows what he would think of intersectionality, the ninth circle in the Dante’s Inferno of progressivism. These ideas are being spread regardless of what anyone does, are incorporated into “apparatuses” of some sort, and are both false. If we had to choose one lie to tell, though, it’s obvious to me the preferable one: the one which doesn’t imply collectivism in politics and tribalism in culture.

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Is Socialism Really Revolutionary?

A central feature of Karl Marx’s thought is its teleological character: the world walks inexorably towards communism. It is not a question of choices. It is not a question of individual decisions. Communism is simply the direction in which the world walks. Capitalism will collapse not because of some external force, but because of its own internal contradictions (centrally the exploitation of the workers).

I don’t know exactly what History classes are like in other countries, but in basically all my academic trajectory I was bombarded with some version of Marxism. Particularly as far as my country was concerned, the question was not whether a socialist revolution would happen, but why it was taking so long! Looking at events in the past, the reading was as follows: the bourgeoisie overthrew the Old Regime in the French Revolution. At that time the bourgeoisie were revolutionaries (and therefore left-wing). However, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a constitutional government, the bourgeois became advocates of the new order (and therefore, reactionary, or right-wing). Socialists have become the new revolutionaries, the new left, the new radicals.

This way of seeing history has a Hegelian background: there are no absolutes. History moves through a process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. History’s god is learning to be a god. I’ve written earlier here about how this kind of relativistic view does not stand on its own terms. Now I would like to say that this way of looking at history can be intellectually dishonest.

According to the historical view I have learned, there is no absolute of what is left or right. One political group is always to the left or to the right of another, depending on how much this group is revolutionary or reactionary. Thus, the bourgeois were revolutionaries at one time, but today they are no longer. But what happens when the Socialists come to power? Do not they themselves become reactionary, defenders of the status quo? According to everything they taught me, no. The revolution is permanent. My assessment is that at this point they are partly right: the revolution must be permanent.

Socialists can not take the risk of becoming exactly what they fought at the first place. In practice, however, this is not the case: the Socialists occupy the posts of the state and begin to defend their position and these positions more than anything else. That’s what I see in my country today. In practice, it is impossible to be revolutionary all the time, just as it is impossible to be relativistic in a consistent way. I have not yet met a person who, looking at the red light, said “but to me it’s green and all these other cars are just a narrative of patriarchal society.”

Politics is unfortunately, for the most part, simply a search for power. Even the most idealistic groups need the power to put their agendas into practice. And experience shows that once installed in power, many idealistic groups become pragmatic.

Socialism is not revolutionary. It is only a reaction against the real revolution that is capitalism defended by classical liberalism. Classical liberalism says: men are all equal, private property is inviolable, exchanges can only occur voluntarily and no one can be forced to work against their will. Marxism responds: men are not all the same (they are divided into classes), private property is relative (if it is in the interest of the collective I can take what was once yours) and you will work for our cause, whether or not you want to. In short, Marxism is a return to the Old Regime.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Who’s who in Hamburg’s G20 protests
  2. But, if Marxism is not inevitable, it is nothing. Ronald Reagan, with his abiding fear that the Evil Empire would spread without intervention, was, in this sense, a much better Marxist than David Roediger could ever hope to be.
  3. It’s business as usual between Turkey and the EU
  4. So far there is not much sign of the fresh dawn that IS’s downfall should bring.
  5. Hell Makes the News

Around the Web

  1. Paupers and Richlings: Piketty’s ‘Capital’ by Benjamin Kunkel (h/t Mark Brady)
  2. The neoconservatives have ramped up their attacks on Rand Paul. This means his foreign policy ideas are winning out, of course. Neoconservatives have also begun blaming libertarians rather than liberals for the failure of their Iraq war campaign
  3. Liberals and libertarians have been finding common ground in the US House of Representatives
  4. What does the BRICS bank mean? From Dan Drezner
  5. Want to solve the border crisis? Give free drugs to addicts. This is from Marc Joffe, and includes a very thoughtful analysis of charter cities and how they can help improve the institutional problems that would still plague Central America even if the drug war were to end
  6. Help! I’m a Marxist who defends capitalism

Slavery and the footnotes

I came across this old essay on slavery by economist Gordon Tullock (h/t Tyler Cowen) and what struck me (aside from an excellent presentation of the economics of slavery) was this footnote on the inevitable dissolution of Marxism (this paper was written in 1967):

It may be that the dissolution is not the first step toward the total elimination of this powerful religion, but merely a breaking away of the talmudic encrustation of the true scribes and pharisees of the Second and Third Internationals. Such a development is not uncommon in the history of other religions. My personal opinion is that the disintegration which we now see is more fundamental, however, and I doubt that Marxism will survive the century as a living faith.

In my own experience in the classrooms of powerful and plebeian universities alike, Marxism has indeed disintegrated into virtually nothing. Marxism has, rather, become a sort of an embarrassing older uncle that professors chuckle about in a manner that is more reminiscing than bitter. They all realize that Marxism led to very bad things, but they are unable to acknowledge that capitalism – Marxism’s Other – has brought about peace and prosperity for untold billions.

It would be wise for us, therefore, to continue to focus on this dead religion. Deep-seated beliefs are hard to let go of, even after these beliefs have been shown – theoretically and empirically – to lead to horrors of the worst kind. “Yes,” the embarrassed former adherents grudgingly admit, “communism has failed miserably, but socialism has not. It has not even been tried, and besides, it is capitalism that is responsible for the world’s ills today.”

This is not obstinance. This is deceit, plain and simple.

So how do we go about combating obvious deceit (rather than the sophisticated theories of 20th century Marxists)?

I think the answer is to just debunk their examples on a case by case basis, in as public as a forum as you can muster. Famines in east and central Africa, for example, have often been attributed to capitalism because of the policies of the World Bank and IMF. Libertarians ought to agree with most of this, and then simply point out that the World Bank and the IMF are central planning agencies designed, created, and supported by governments in the West. Once this fact -which is not quite as simple as it appears – is acknowledged, you can go from there and take a public choice route, an Austrian route, or even a populist libertarian route to explain why capitalism is not responsible for famines.

Wars, genocides, ethnic cleansing campaigns, etc., can all be explained (and eliminated) if libertarians focus on the role of the State in all of these ills rather than on the theoretical or empirical weaknesses of socialist explanations and proposals.

The Myth of Common Property

An Observation by L.A. Repucci

It has been proposed that there exists a state in which property — whether defined in the physical sense such as objects, products, buildings, roads, etc, or financial instruments such as monetary instruments, corporate title, or deed to land ownership — may be owned or possessed in common; that is to say, that property may be possessed of multiple rightful claimants simultaneously.  This suggestion, when examined rationally and exhaustively, is untenable from the perspective of any logical school of economic, social, and indeed physical school of thought, and balks at simple scrutiny.

In law, Property may be defined as the tangible product of enterprise and resources, or the gain of capital wealth which it may create.  To ‘hold’ Property, a Party, or private, sentient entity, must have rightful claim to it and be capable of using it freely as they see fit, in keeping with natural law.

Natural resources, including land, are said to be owned either jurisdictionally by State, privately by party, or in common to the natural world.  If property may be legally defined only as a product, then natural resources may be excluded from all laws pertaining to legal property.  If property also may be further defined by the ability of it’s owner to use it as they see fit, in keeping with Ius Naturale, then any property claimed jurisdictionally by the State and said to be held in common amongst the citizenry must meet the article of usage to be legally owned.  Consider Hardin’s tragedy of the commons as an argument for the conservation of private property over a state of nature, rather than an appeal to the economic law of scarcity or an appeal to the second law of thermodynamics ,

In Physics:  Property may be defined as either an observable state of physical being.  The universe of Einstein, Kepler, and Newton rests soundly on the tenet that physical bodies cannot occupy multiple physical locations simultaneously.  The laws that govern the macro-physical world do not operate in the same way on the quantum level.  At that comparatively tiny level, the rules of our known universe break down, and matter may exhibit the observed property of being at multiple locations simultaneously — bully and chalk 1 point for common property on the theoretically-quantum scale.

Currency:  The attempt to simultaneously possess and use currency as defined above would result in praxeologic market-hilarity in the best case, and imprisonment or physical injury in the worst.  Observe: Two friends in common possession of 1$ walk into a corner shop to buy a pack of chewing gum, which costs 1$.  They each place a pack on the counter, and present the cashier with their single dollar bill.  “It’s both of ours!  We earned it in business together!” they beam as the cashier calls the cops and racks a shotgun under the register…

The two friends above may not use the paper currency simultaneously — while the concept of a dollar representing two, exclusively owned fifty-percent equity shares may be widely and innately understood — the single bill is represented in specie among the parties would still be 2 pairs of quarters.  While they could pool their resources and ‘both’ purchase a single pack of gum, they would continue to own a 50% equity share in the pack — resulting in a division yet again of title equally between the dozen-or-so sticks of gum contained therein.  This reduction and division of ownership can proceed ad quantum.

This simple reason is applicable within and demonstrated by current and universal economic realities, including all claims of joint title, common property law, jurisdictional issues, corporate law, and financial liability.  A joint bank account is simply the sum of the parties’ individual interest in that account — claims to hold legal property in common are bunk.

The human condition is marked by the sovereignty, independence and isolation of one’s own thought.  Praxeological thought-experiments like John Searle’s Chinese Room Argument and Alan Turing’s Test would not be possible to pose in a human reality that was other than a state of individual mental separation.  As we are alone in our thoughts, our experience of reality can only be communicated to one another.  It is therefore not possible to ever ‘share’ an experience with any other sentient being, because it is not possible to perceive reality as another person…even if the technology should develop such that multiple individuals can network and share the information within their minds, that information must still filter through another individual consciousness in order to be experienced simultaneously.  The physical separation of two minds is reinforced by the rationally-necessary separation of distinct individuals.  There may exist a potential hive-mind collectivist state, but it would require such a radical change to that which constitutes the human condition, that it would violate the tenets of what it is to be human.

In conclusion, logically, the most plausible circumstance in which property could exist in common would be on the quantum level within a hive-minded non-human collective, and the laws that govern men are and should be an accurate extension of the laws that govern nature — not through Social Darwinism, but rather anthropology.  Humans, as an adaptation, work interdependently to thrive, which often includes the voluntary sharing and trading of resources and property…none of which are held in common.

Ad Quantum,

L.A. Repucci

Is President Obama the culmination of American Marxism?

I recently tried my hand at prodding Jacques to blog more often about Marxism and Marxist thought. As an immigrant from a country with a strong Marxist tradition and – more importantly – with his educational background (Stanford’s sociology department in the late 60s/early 70s; arguably the time period with the most sophisticated understanding of Marxist thought ever), I think he provides readers with a nuanced and sharply critical glance into Marxism, something that is very tough to do. Alas:

Brandon: Thanks for the suggestion and for the incense. However, the charm of blogging has much to do for me with following whatever my inspiration whispers at any one time. Once in a while, it lands on Marxism, not often. When it does, it’s often in the context  of conversations in French with French speakers. (You may have noticed something on my blog called, “Le dernier Communiste.” )

To the extent that I am impelled to do the needful rather than the natural, I direct my steps to whatever I think I do well and that is also in demand. In general, I am not sure waking up Marx for the benefit of young Americans is useful or much in demand. Almost no one in America calls himself a Marxist anymore . (There were many when I was young.) The people who would have been Marxists in 1974 call themselves “environmentalists” today.  Aside from this, I suspect
that the Obama administration is the result of wet dreams by Marxists of my generation but I don’t know how to talk about it. It’s just my sense of smell telling me.

I make a mental note of your expressed demand for Marxist critiques. In the meantime, feel free to pillage whatever you find on the subject in my blogs.

Oh, I’ve pillaged. His knowledge of Marxism is too important for me to ignore it. You can find Jacques’s thoughts on Marxism here. Jacques is also working on his memoirs, and you can find excerpts of those here (it’s also located on the top right side of the blog’s navigation bar).

As far as President Obama being the culmination of American Marxism, I think Jacques is woefully wrong. However, I also think Jacques’s assessment of Marxism in the US today (it’s irrelevant) is spot on. There is a recent, well-written essay in Dissent by a political scientist at Columbia arguing that the Obama administration is simply kowtowing to a neoliberal (and, by extension, racist) agenda, and this, I think, suggests that my suspicions are correct.