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Kim Evans Responds

Here’s is Kim’s correction of my mis-understanding of her project.

Dearest John,

Many thanks for the shout out! I’m intrigued by your account of my argument and your response to it—which has sent my head spinning (not in an unpleasant way). Here are a few initial reactions, and since you paint the scene with a useful mix of the personal and the intellectual I’ll respond in kind.

First, you have perfectly captured the gist of our not-wasting-any-time-with-chit-chat encounter: that by changing the original meaning of “noumena” from “that which is thought” to his own “things as they are, independent of observation,” Kant not only altered (detrimentally) the trajectory of thought in the modern era but also created the conditions for our enduring misreading of Plato. Ironically, Plato gets the rap for Kant’s dualism.

However, I did *not* say (as you report) that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” I’m sorry to be so fastidious on this point, but something I find preoccupying is how confused many people have become about concepts (or what it means to have the use of a concept) and concept formation. The confusion is largely due (thanks for nothing, Kant!) to the belief that concepts are formed in the individual theater of the mind. You are still reading Kant or operating out of a set of assumptions established for you by philosophers in the modern era (after the defining work of Descartes and Locke) when in the second half of your post you object to what you call my idealism or worry about the way that all this talk about concepts “confines humans within the boundaries of our languages.” This Kantian view of concepts (as an activity of mind) simply does not map onto the view we find in Plato’s writing. Plato calls attention to the world of forms in order to help us see how language actually works. And discovering how language actually works, according to good readers of Plato (like Wittgenstein) and good readers of Wittgenstein (like Bernard Harrison), helps us to see how a) the “meaning” of a word or linguistic expression—“whale,” for example—doesn’t come, as it were, from Nature and it doesn’t come from Mind; it comes from the role the world plays in language, and b) the meaning of a word can’t be divorced from the wide array of socially devised and maintained practices in which the speakers of language are engaged.  This should come as an enormous relief to anyone who wishes, as you do, to emphasize the central importance of practices in the formation of concepts. I could also say here that something you presumably like about Wittgenstein is that he both denies the existence of a referential relationship between words and things and at the same time dispels the view that language is self-referential, the meaning of its signs established by nothing more than the history of language. But for goodness’ sake let’s please finally concede that this is in fact the position of the classical realists and their best readers (like C. S. Peirce)—though this will presumably only happen when we get back to reading Plato’s dialogues instead of using him as a foil.

SO, to repeat, I did not say that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” After all, we’ve never had any problem grasping things! The matter that needs explaining is how we grasp thoughts (or the thoughts our words express, which all together make up what Plato called the noumenal realm) and also how the thought a word expresses is affected by or sedimented out of our undeniable placement in the phenomenal realm or world of empirical objects, forces, etc.

The formulation I prefer (and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, would like to be remembered by) is this one:

For Plato, the real world is the world of things signified by the signs in our language. 


The things signified by the signs in our language (“the living whale in his full majesty and significance” in Melville’s signature expression, when the sign is “whale”) are what Plato calls real.

What I like about this formulation is that it gets us away from all the garbled transcendentalism misleadingly associated with Plato but really pushed by philosophers in the modern era (for example all the talk about the “stability” of the forms) and back to the view, which is the view we get from reading Plato’s dialogues, that our concepts are in motion. (They are in motion because they are always being revised and added to, as you say, but this does not make them subjective. For Plato concepts are not private but public.)

Now, there is something else at work here that I think is worth remarking on. In your post you comment on your reading habits (that you only skim the news but prefer to read books, the longer the better) and you reference (with sympathy or shared feeling, I think) my remark that the sound of not reading is what we mostly hear. But then, after introducing my position (as found in my MLA talk, but given full development in my new book, One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed) you go on to spell out a difference you see between your position and mine on the grounds that what I say about concepts has not taken enough account of practices. But good god, man! As the author of a book about, precisely, the relationship between concepts and practices or the materiality of our conceptual lives (through the lens of Melville’s Moby-Dick, the most practice-aware study of concepts in all recorded thought!) I’m puzzled by your account. I can only imagine that you are not reading all of the book in which the view you characterize is laid out. This would be perfectly understandable, given the demands of life. Even the most intelligent and serious of readers learn to make use of reviews, rumors, and what they can glean from titles. (And speaking of reviews, I’ll paste below the first few paragraphs of one of the reviews of One Foot so that you don’t have to take my word for it on the question of my focus on practice.) But I am nevertheless interested in the likelihood of people not reading because not-reading seems to have become the means by which our profession keeps chugging along. Well, to speak more accurately, your profession, since as you point out I am no longer paid by anyone to be a reader of texts or to help other people undertake that work. Payment, as my latest labor of love suggests, is not necessary—though the want of it is profoundly uncomfortable & of course the kids suffer.

In any event I am brought back to something you said at the beginning of your post. I am extremely happy to be characterized by you as “a scholar of rare conviction and a thinker of even rarer originality,” and wouldn’t it be nice to think that this is the reason I am presently unemployed! My feeling is that the truth is more mundane and (to me) more unsettling. My last position, as you know, was Associate Professor of Literature and Philosophy at Yeshiva University, and when I am asked what happened there the best way I have of explaining is with a line cribbed from The Great Gatsby. I say I fell into the hands of careless people. ‘Careless’ is perhaps less damning a mode than many others (like ‘ill-willed’ or ‘frightened by originality’) but I think that when it is the mode taken up by professional readers and critics it can feel almost calculated—an engine of professional life rather than an obstacle to it. Isn’t that what Kant demonstrated, when in his Critique of Pure Reason his “unwarrantable” use of the word “noumena” (to quote Schopenhauer) both launched his own career and buried Plato’s own view under two centuries of misreading?

I’m sure I have made certain missteps, here—but oh, the pressure of a blog to respond quickly! I prefer the slowness of books. And shouldn’t books be read as deliberately as they were written? When did that way of reading end, and what will be the result?


Very much love, Kim

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2018.04.28 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

  1. L. Evans,One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed, Northwestern University Press, 2018, 210pp., $34.95 (pbk.), ISBN 9780810136120.

Reviewed by Gary Shapiro, University of Richmond

Recently there has been an explosion of Anglophone philosophical interest in Herman Melville. The author of Moby Dick, or the Whale (1851) was neglected until the Melville renaissance that began among literary critics and historians in the 1920s and that has grown steadily since. However, it is only recently that those working in the analytical philosophical vein have turned their attention to the writer. Others writing in English with a more continental orientation have produced several monographs and essay collections in just the last three years or so. These studies were preceded some decades ago by a number of European thinkers, such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Ranciére, and Giorgio Agamben. Evans’s book should be of great interest to those seeking a strong interpretation of Melville’s great novel and to those exploring the value of Wittgenstein’s thought for literary analysis.

Evans focuses specifically on Moby Dick. As her title suggests, she is interested in reclaiming Melville’s realism. In a larger sense, she joins in an effort to reclaim American literature for philosophy, a project identified most frequently, but not exclusively, with the work of Stanley Cavell. She advances a Wittgensteinian reading of the novel, claiming that Melville “in effect lays out a solution to the problem that has vexed philosophy since its inception — the problem of how we grasp thought” (118) or (just a bit more modestly) that he dissolves the Cartesian problem of bridging “the ontological chasm between nonspatiotemporal thoughts and spatiotemporally bound thinkers” (164). While Evans devotes about as much time to explaining her version of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, knowledge, and reality as to explicating and commenting on Melville’s text, she does offer a number of distinctive readings of the latter inspired by the former analysis. This book offers an original understanding of Melville’s realism and argues that, so understood, the novel is quite coherent, contrary to many critics who regard it as a poorly patched together combination of a realistic whaling narrative and a metaphysical tragedy.

Evans comments acutely on a signature philosophical passage in Moby Dick that compares a whaling vessel hauling along two dead whales, one on each side, and so precariously balancing itself, to a thinker attempting to juggle Locke and Kant (chapter 73). Nominalistic empiricism competes with the transcendental a priori: is our knowledge limited to the things of sense, or do we possess concepts and forms of intuition that invariably structure our experience while rendering the noumenal world inaccessible? The narrator comments on the plight of those who “for ever keep trimming boat” as they compensate for a tilt toward one by hoisting up the other side. Evans endorses the narrator’s exclamation: “Oh, ye foolish! Throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right.” Melville, as read through Evans’s take on Wittgenstein, recognizes that our concepts are embedded in common forms of life, elements of a rich and complex network of habits, customs, practices, and institutions. The “living whale in his full majesty and significance” — a phrase that Evans repeats with increasing resonance — is not to be reduced either to a set of sensible experiences nor to the idea that a single person might form of the cetacean. The whale is the object of those forms of life practiced by whalemen who pursue, catch, slaughter, process, and are sometimes the victim of the leviathan.

Throughout, Evans engages in a running discussion with a number of Wittgenstein’s leading interpreters and commentators. She is particularly partial to Bernard Harrison’s explication of meaning as use and the concept of language games. Evans suggests a continuity which has not always been apparent between the “logical space” of theTractatus and the Investigations‘s focus on use. In clarifying this project, she observes — rightly, I believe — that it is misleading to reduce Wittgenstein’s meaningful “facts” to mere “things,” as the Pears and McGuiness Tractatus translation tends to do. Literary scholars inspired by (say) Cavell’s readings of Emerson and Thoreau should find these analyses, which are bolstered by discussions in the extensive notes, especially helpful. Philosophers who are in the current Wittgenstein loop may find them a bit repetitious, while others less conversant with relatively recent relevant discussions may be grateful for them……


Moral Envy and Opportunity Hoarding

One quick addendum to the last post—and to Bertrand Russell’s comment about how the traditionalist is allowed all kinds of indignation that the reformer is not.  What’s with the ubiquity of death threats against anyone who offends the right wing in the United States?  That those who would change an established social practice/pattern, no matter how unjust or absurd, deserve a death sentence is, to all appearances, simply accepted by the radical right.  So, just to give one example, the NC State professor who went public with his memories of drinking heavily with Brett Kavanaugh at Yale immediately got death threats—as did some of his colleagues in the History Department.  Maybe you could say that snobbish contempt for the “deplorables” is the standard left wing response to right wingers—just as predictable as right wingers making death threats.  But contempt and scorn are not solely the prerogative of the left, whereas death threats do seem only mobilized by the right.

Which does segue, somewhat, into today’s topic, which was to take up David Graeber’s alternative way of explaining the grand canyon between the left and right in today’s America.  His first point concerns what he calls “moral envy.”  “By ‘moral envy,’ I am referring here to feelings of envy and resentment directed at another person, not because that person is wealthy, or gifted, or lucky, but because his or her behavior is seen as upholding a higher moral standard than the envier’s own.  The basic sentiment seems to be ‘How dare that person claim to be better than me (by acting in a way that I do indeed acknowledge is better than me?”” (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory [Simon and Schuster, 2018], 248).  The most usual form this envy takes, in my experience, is the outraged assertion that someone is a “hypocrite.”  The right wing is particularly addicted to this claim about liberal do-gooders.  The liberals, in their view, claim to be holier than thou, but know what side their bed is feathered on, and do quite well for themselves.  They wouldn’t be sipping lattes and driving Priuses if they weren’t laughing their way to the bank.  Moral envy, then, is about bringing everyone down to the same low level of behavior—and thus (here I think Graeber is right) entails a covert acknowledgement that the general run of behavior is not up to our publicly stated moral aspirations.  So we don’t like the people who make the everyday, all-too-human fact of the gap between our ideals and our behavior conspicuous.  Especially when their behavior indicates that the gap is not necessary.  It is actually possible to act in a morally admirable manner.

But then Graeber goes on to do something unexpected—and to me convincing—with this speculation about moral envy.  He ties it to jobs.  Basically, the argument goes like this: some people get to have meaningful jobs, ones for which it is fairly easy to make the case that “here is work worth doing.”  Generally, such work involves actually making something or actually providing a needed service to some people.  The farmer and the doctor have built-in job satisfaction insofar as what they devote themselves to doing requires almost no justification—to themselves or to others.  (This, of course, doesn’t preclude all kinds of dissatisfactions with factors that make their jobs needlessly onerous or economically precarious.)

Graeber’s argument in Bullshit Jobs is that there are not enough of the meaningful jobs to go around.  As robots make more of the things that factory workers used to make and as agricultural labor also requires far fewer workers than it once did, we have not (as utopians once predicted and as Graeber still believes is completely possible) rolled back working hours.  Instead, we generated more and more bullshit jobs—jobs that are make-work in some cases (simply unproductive in ways that those who hold the job can easily see) or, even worse, jobs that are positively anti-productive or harmful (sitting in office denying people’s welfare or insurance claims; telemarketing; you can expand the list.)  In short, lots of people simply don’t have access to jobs that would allow them to do work that they, themselves, morally approve of.

Graeber’s point is that the people who hold these jobs know how worthless the jobs are.  But they rarely have other options—although the people he talks to in his book do often quit these soul-destroying jobs.  The political point is that the number of “good” jobs, i.e. worthwhile, meaningful jobs is limited.  And the people who have those jobs curtail access to them (through professional licensing practices in some cases, through networking in other cases).  There is an inside track to the good jobs that depends, to a very large extent, on being to the manor/manner born.  Especially for the jobs that accord upper-middle-class status (and almost guarantee that one will be a liberal), transmission is generational.  This is the “opportunity hoarding” that Richard Reeves speaks about in his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders.  The liberal professional classes talk a good game about diversity and meritocracy, but they basically keep the spots open for their kids.  Entry into that world from the outside is very difficult and very rare.

To the manner born should also be taken fairly literally.  Access to the upper middle class jobs still requires the detour of education–and how to survive (and even thrive) at an American university is an inherited trait.  Kids from the upper middle class are completely at home in college, just as non-middle-class kids are so often completely at sea.  Yes, school can be a make-it and a break-it, a place where an upper class kid falls off the rails and place where the lower class kid finds a ladder she manages to climb.  But all the statistics, as well as my own experience as a college teacher for thirty years, tell me that the exceptions are relatively rare.  College is a fairly difficult environment to navigate–and close to impossibly difficult for students to whom college’s idiolects are not a native language.

So two conclusions. 1.  It is a mixture of class resentment and moral envy that explains the deep animus against liberal elites on the part of non-elites—an animus that, as much as does racism in my opinion, explains why the abandoned working class of our post-industrial cities has turned to the right.  As bad as (or, at least, as much as) their loss of economic and social status has been their loss of access to meaningful work.  Put them into as many training sessions as you want to transition them to the jobs of the post-industrial economy, you are not going to solve their acute knowledge that these new jobs suck when compared to their old jobs in terms of basic worth.  So they resent the hell out of those who still hold meaningful jobs—and get well paid for those jobs and also have the gall to preach to them about tolerance and diversity.  2.  It is soul-destroying to do work you cannot justify as worth doing.  And what is soul-destroying will lead to aggression, despair, rising suicide rates, drug abuse, and susceptibility to right-wing demagogues.  Pride in one’s work is a sine non qua of a dignified adult life.

Name Change

Thanks to an alert reader, I found out today that there is a blog out there with the same name: Public Intelligence.  It’s a right-wing conspiracy blog, especially obsessed with pedophilia.  Truly ugly stuff.

So I have changed the name of my blog in order to avoid all confusion.  And to make sure that Google searches for my site don’t lead people to the other one.

From now on, this blog is called McGowanBlog.  The url remains the same:


The New Spirit of Capitalism

I am 270 pages into Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism and hopelessly behind on the list of topics raised by the book that I’d like to write blog posts about.

The book is nothing less than an attempt to update Max Weber for neoliberalism.  What is the spirit of capitalism—the ethos that provides justifications and motivations—for the individuals who live and work under capitalism’s current regime?  The argument, then, like Weber’s is that economic determinism is not sufficient for an explanation of why prevailing capitalist practices change.  The move from Keynesian welfare-state capitalism to neo-liberalism is not solely motivated by a response to shifting “objective” conditions: i.e. the 1970s oil shock, globalization, the new digital technologies.  Boltanski and Chiapello by no means ignore those factors, but insist that “spiritual” changes in mind-set and ideas of justice and of the “good life” also play a role.  Concretely, they argue that “critiques” of capitalism have an impact—and that capitalism shifts its practices to respond to and disarm those critiques.  Capitalism, in other words, must align itself, at least to some extent, to the desires enunciated in critique if it expects to find willing adherents, productive and engaged workers.  A capitalism that simply exploited workers outright without offering any plausible justification of its practices (in terms of claims that those practices are just and redound to the common good, and in terms of personal satisfactions that it can offer individuals within a capitalist society), they claim, would be unsustainable.

I am not utterly convinced.  Sheer economic need is a powerful motivator—and when combined with powerlessness can lead people to acquiesce (however reluctantly) in a social and economic system that can also recognize as oppressive.  There is every evidence that slaves in the American South hated the conditions under which their lives were lived, but failed to rebel because rebellion seemed futile.  They didn’t like the life they had, but recognized no realizable alternative to it.  Surely many in the world today experience their lives similarly.

But—and this is the great strength of this remarkable book—any large-scale change in social (think of changing definitions of marriage), political (think of the transition from monarchies to democracies), or economic (think of the transition from Keynesian to neo-liberal regimes) practices will be accompanied by lots and lots of words.  Those words are the ideological explanations/justifications of the shift: why it is necessary, desirable, deplorable, to be resisted, to be assisted.  Boltanski and Chiapello (in ways I full-heartedly endorse) want to use the term “ideology” as a completely neutral designator.  An ideology is simply the discursive justification of, along with an attempt to understand, a particular social formation.  Whether that ideology is true or false, plausible or risible, is a separate matter.  All sides to the issue will produce their ideological account of it.  They want to reserve judgment to a second stage of evaluation.  At the outset, all ideologies are created equal; all are aiming for the same thing: to justify and motivate.

So, for today at least, let me just focus on one concrete example of their approach at work.  Trade unions.  Without a doubt, there has been an aggressive assault upon unions by the forces of neoliberalism. Equally without a doubt, the decline of unions has been an almost completely unmitigated disaster for under-skilled and under-educated workers.  What B and C call the “casualization” of work—and what more recent writers have begun to call the “precariat”—has been enabled by the destruction of unions able to pose a credible threat to employers’ undermining job security.

At its most moralistic and nostalgic, leftists bemoaning this shift will locate its ideological component as the shift from collectivism to individualism.  (Often, of course, this is identified as a particular sin/failing of Americans.  But B & C document the same shift in France.)  Union workers understood that they held their fate in common.  They steadfastly refused to jettison their “solidarity.”  But a new selfishness has allowed a “divide and conquer” strategy on the part of the evil capitalists to win.

Such denunciatory readings of the situation fail, however, to capture the ways in which individualism is plausible and motivating.  Any teacher who has asked students to do “group work” knows the problem.  I also encountered it in concrete terms when I managed a staff of seven at the university.  Because my staff existed within a “step system,” the best workers could not be rewarded with a pay raise, since all employees who shared a certain job designation/description received the same pay.  The inevitable result was that my best workers were constantly looking for new jobs as a means to getting a higher salary, while my mediocre workers stayed put.  I could not keep good staff.  It made perfect sense for those who could to seek higher paying jobs.

In other words, worker solidarity only makes sense when there is a very large group of workers who are all essentially doing the same work, with the same level of skill required.  Even there, annoyance (or worse) directed at the incompetent or the lazy will arise.  But in any organization where there are many different skill levels needed, where a path for advancement to a higher level job is relatively open, solidarity doesn’t only lose its appeal.  It doesn’t even make much sense.  I am not a worker on the factory line today and expect to be one come thirty years from today.  Rather, I am in a position that I assume that I will grow out of—and do not want to be tied down to someone who is content in the position I also, for this moment, occupy.

Certainly, we can bemoan the worker’s ambition, the mindset that has her focused on how she will advance over her lifetime to better jobs than her current one.  But can we really say she would be better off without that mind set?  Do we really want to tie her to one job for life?  With all my leftist sympathies, I couldn’t possibly advise my young, ambitious staff to do anything but continue to look for paths to advancement.  I had no right to stand in their way in the name of an ideal of worker solidarity.

And it is precisely that—the feeling that there is only one obvious response, only one ethical path—when faced with a situation that defines a “spirit.”  Theoretically supportive of unions, I could intellectually understand the basis of the step system under which my staff operated.  But practically, on the ground, as a matter of practical reason (in precisely the Aristotelian and Kantian sense), I could only recommend behavior that undermined that system.  That’s what it means to say there is a “new spirit” in town.

Neoliberalism as Reactionary

Yesterday’s post worried the question of (in Lear’s words) whether there is “any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts”?  Seeking the answer in psychology, in some persistent, albeit not universal, set of motivating impulses (ambition, the quest for status, envy, and resentment) is one way to go.

Another possibility is to refuse to personalize things in that way—and to look instead to structural causes.  That path is suggested by Hardt and Negri’s insistence that neoliberalism is reactionary.  (I am reading their latest tome, Assembly [Oxford UP, 2017].)

Here’s my reconstruction of the argument: The Keynesian welfare state compromise worked well enough from 1950 to 1965, but the social upheavals of the sixties revealed the deep discontent produced by capitalism even in its most benign form.  Neoliberalism—starting with Reagan and Thatcher—was a direct move to reign in the students, union workers, and other malcontents who had shaken things to the core in the 60s.  Turning the economic screws down tighter went hand-in-glove with various strategies to diminish democratic input, heighten the power of elites, and demonize both dissenters and those who agitated for continued and even increased welfare (such as provisions for health care).

This analysis has more than a little plausibility going for it.  Oddly, it is not accompanied in Hardt and Negri (who, when all is said and done, are Marxists) with an economic analysis focusing on the economic woes of the 1970s.  Certainly, it is true that today’s conservative economists are continually refighting the wars of the 70s, where inflation is the dragon to be slain—despite the fact of almost non-existent inflation for over twenty years now.  Similarly, the zombie of the welfare queen and, more generally, of the undeserving poor has proved unkillable—perhaps even more as the danger conservatives must continually work against than as a figure in the public imagination.  Neoliberalism is the set of nostrums meant to control the hungry masses who are coming after the plutocrat’s and the nation’s wealth.

Ironically, of course, the traditional fear that in a democracy the masses will plunder the public treasury has been turned on its head over the past forty years in America—and around the globe.  It is the rich, through privatization primarily but also through the state abetting more predatory business practices, that has plundered the collective wealth of the nation.  Hardt and Negri are good on this score, even if their way of describing it—namely, as “extraction of the common”—is rather different than mine.

In short, don’t look for the evil in men’s hearts—or even for the errors their passions lead them into.  Look instead to whom they identify as their enemies, what they understand as the threats to their well-being.  It’s a conflict ridden world—and the key is to see where and how the lines are drawn.  Then identify on which side someone stands.

Still, what happened in the 1970s beyond the counter-revolution against the radical forces of the 1960s?  What produced inflation accompanied by stalled economic growth—the combination that led to the belief on the part of many elites that the largesse of post-war Keynesian state was no longer sustainable?  Yes, there were tax revolts etc., just the niggardly refusal to pay the bill any longer.  So we could say that cutting off the funds led, predictably, to a recession caused by a lack of demand—in other words, a classic capitalist downturn.  When you don’t pay the workers enough, when you extract excessive profits that immiserate the many, you end up with a crisis of over-production and need to shut down the factories for a while, which means laying off the workers, which impoverishes them even further, and thus deepens the crisis because demand is depressed even further.  The classic viscous circle.

But that doesn’t explain inflation, which (just as classically) occurs when too much money is chasing too few goods.  Inflation should be the result of under-production.  Except—and here comes the rub. The other source of inflation is the result of open, globalized trade relations as contrasted to the kind of closed system analysis that explains inflation through under-production.  Inflation in a globalized system occurs when the national currency no longer buys as much on the world market.  The “oil shock” meant the American dollar went into the tank.  In 1972, a three week visit to England and Scotland (not counting the airfare) cost me $200.  Yes, I was doing it on the cheap, but still . . .  Another three weeks in England in 1978 cost me $1200.  The change in the almighty dollar was that drastic and that fast.

The eventual response to this shift in America’s position in the global economy was to outsource manufacturing to other lands and to have America concentrate on finance capital rather than industrial capital.  Neoliberalism—and its imperatives—can’t be understood without taking this transformation into account.  Here, again, Hardt and Negri are useful.  And maybe even help to answer a puzzle that goes back to the hard hearts of our Republican legislators.

The puzzle is a familiar one: if capitalism depends on consumers to fuel continual growth (i.e. if capitalism is always in need of new markets or in ways of exploiting existing markets more efficiently), then why does capitalism, especially in its neo-liberal and globalized form, seek so relentlessly to drive down wages.  It’s the opposite of the Henry Ford principle of paying his workers enough so they could buy his cars.  It takes the soft-hearted liberals from FDR to Bernie Sanders to save capitalism from the fate Marx predicted for it.

BUT . . . maybe the logic of finance capital makes that view of things a misunderstanding of the forces currently in play.  Finance capital is not seeking profits from people buying produced goods.  Instead, finance capital finds its profits in ROI (return on investment).  Think of how private equity firms work.  They swoop in to buy up a company, they then use those company’s assets to take out loans, and then (in many cases) drive the company into bankruptcy because of that high debt.  The game here is not to get people to buy things.  They just need people (usually other financial institutions) to buy debt.  The profits are the result of “extraction,” as Hardt and Negri say.  So long as someone places a value on something, that thing can be leveraged—and money made.  Who needs consumers?  Who needs the people?  It’s just a self-enclosed world of financial dealings, only related in incredibly abstract and distant ways to anything “real.”

This might seem far-fetched, but Hardt and Negri offer a great example: gentrification.  Properties in the most desired cities—New York, Vancouver, London, San Francisco etc.—spiral upward in price not just because people wish to live there, but also because they are seen as both safe and incredibly lucrative investments.  Money just chases money, with nothing “real” (except perhaps the “upgrades” to granite countertops and glass brick showers) changing.  Of course, such spirals lead, inevitably, to bubbles and collapses.  An odd term: bubble.  Because you can’t know it’s a bubble because it isn’t a bubble until the moment when confidence collapses, when the hive mind decides everything is overpriced.  Overpriced in relation to what?  There is no measure, no standard, beyond that mysterious collective sense of what is sensible.  Of course for most of us—those not in 1% or 5%–“sensible” prices were left behind four or five years ago.

Critiques of speculation as disconnected from anything real are as old as the Tulip craze and the South Sea Bubble of the 1700s.  As is the use of debt—both taking it on and forcing it upon others—to gain wealth.  (If we believe David Graeber, debt goes back 5000 years.)  What seems to distinguish neoliberalism is the orientation of capitalism (and of the political, legal, and social institutions that enable it) away from production of goods and towards the profits to be made through finance.  In other words, financial speculation was always there—but social and political policy was not constructed to aid and abet it since the conventional wisdom remained that the production of goods was the primary road to wealth—both personal and national.

Trump offers a good case for how hard it is to think about this shift.  The man never produced a single thing in his life, yet seems to think that wealth comes from the production of goods.  He even seems to think that he has produced some things.  In any case, his rhetoric is all about restoring prosperity through a return to industrial capitalism.  But most of his actions (his anti-immigration policies are an exception here) are directed toward enabling finance capitalism.  In other words, the full import of the shift hasn’t registered yet for many people.

A full-scale economic determinism, then, would tell us not to look for motives for hard-heartedness within the Republicans, but look instead to the changed nature of capitalism to explain their actions. Causes are external, not internal. The masses—defined here as those with no money to invest—are no longer relevant to prosperity, so should be ignored on that account.  And if democracy can be contained, then the masses need no longer be feared either.  The legislator will prosper by knowing who his true master is: not the voters, but the plutocrat.

So, for the determinist, neliberalism is reactionary in another sense: it is a reaction to this shift from industrial to financial capitalism.

Life and Death

The Senate passed, by a vote of 89 for, 9 against, a 700 billion dollar defense bill yesterday, giving the Trump administration more to spend on the military that it had asked for.  At the same time, that august body contemplates (and is within one or two votes of passing) a bill that would take away health care from millions.  Truly, we have a political system in love with death and remorseless in its attacks on life.

This from Tolstoy’s late essay (1900), “Thous Shalt Not Kill”:

“That nations should not be oppressed, and that there should be none of these useless wars, and that men may not be indignant with those who seem to cause these evils, and may not kill them–it seems that only one small thing is necessary.  It is necessary that men should understand things as they are, should call them by their right names, and should know that an army is an instrument for killing, and that the enrollment and management of an army–the very thing which kings, emperors, and presidents occupy themselves with so self-confidently–is a preparation for murder.”

If only it were a question of calling thing by their right names!  Not that I underestimate the will to obfuscation, the will that led us to rename the Department of War the Department of Defense.  I have a hard time describing–and dealing with–how dispirited I currently feel about the state of our nation and our world.  Must humans be worshipers of death?

Unorthodox Reflections on Charlottesville

New York Times article, with video, of shot fired during the Charlottesville rally.

As everyone has commented, the right wing marchers in Charlottesville were heavily armed, thereby making a mockery of any notion of free speech in the public square.  Dahlia Lithwick in Slate has that angle nicely covered.

I want to focus in on the fact that, so far as I can discern, the only shot actually fired that day is the one captured in the video embedded in the New York Times article.  That’s a miracle.  Impressive, really.  All accounts suggest that was some fairly strenuous fighting going on.  Yet no one pulled the trigger, except that one guy, and he fired into the ground.

That’s relevant to my current obsession with the impediments to violence and, from the opposite side, with what incites violence.  All the evidence suggests (the best place to review this evidence is Randall Collins’s book, Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory [Princeton Universioty Press, 2008]) that the impediments to violence are very strong.  Famously, studies done after World War II discovered that in most cases 75% of troops in combat never even fired their weapons.

My supposition is that people need to be authorized to commit violence–except in cases where they are responding directly to violence against them.  And even when authorized–as the World War II case shows–the reluctance to be violent is still a strong impediment.

Clearly, the right wingers don’t think of themselves as reluctant to use violence.  Maybe that’s bluster, and maybe that’s true.  Collins suggest that there are virtuosos of violence just as there are virtuosos in other endeavors.  But my suggestion is that even the virtuousos need to be given permission.  Violence always must justify itself against the assumption that it is wrong.  It must have a story to tell about why it was necessary.

So my thought is: the Charlottesville show of force was a message.  We are armed and we are ready to resort to force if you do certain things, i.e. take down Confederate monuments.  So one question is: what actually would move all these right-wing militias to the actual deployment of force.  They are clearly threatening force, but what would actually move them to use it.

This is also why, it seems to me, these militias are addicted to arcane, hair-splitting interpretations of the Constitution.  They need the law to be on their side to justify their resorting to force.  That is certainly how the two Bundy escapades worked.  They provided themselves with crackpot legal justification.

If we think back to the street fights in 1930s Germany, we have a case where violence from both sides was one instigator, but also where the state quite simply unleashed the thugs.  Similar instances (in Egypt for example or in China during the Cultural Revolution) can also be cited. The violence against blacks in the South was socially sanctioned from 1870 to 1965–and Kennedy’s reluctance to intervene in the early 1960s allowed Southerners to still count on the fact that local justice systems would wink at their violence while their social cohorts would approve of it.

That, of course, is why Trump is so dangerous.  He hasn’t gone so far as to designate certain people enemies of the nation, but he hasn’t exactly embraced the equal right of everyone to be here (to put it mildly).  Still, he hasn’t openly endorsed violence, even as he has winked at it.  What he has done so far is enough justification for the outliers and loners, but not enough to swing the militias into concerted action.  In short, we have not seen any organized violence as of yet, although we have had these organized rallies that are built around the threat of violence.  If we reach a point where the courts refuse to prosecute, watch out.  (Just as the courts’ absurd interpretation of the 2nd amendment has given us people parading with assault rifles on our streets.)

Is there really something, some political event, that would push the militias into action? That possibility is certainly less remote than left-wing violence in the contemporary US.  But it still seems pretty remote to me.  The two Bundy stand-offs were the closest we’ve gotten there–and they never came close to being wide-spread movements.