“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Creating unhappiness, creating growth

"Keep your electric eye on me, babe
put your raygun to my head..."

Continuing from our last post re Stefano Bartolini's paper.

Bartolini’s model connects work, happiness and savings by hypothesizing that growth is a matter of exploiting two negative externalities, of which he concentrates on two types: “positional ones, and those which reduce the availability of free goods as final or intermediate goods.” In essence, that the promise of the affluence which is supposed to have been brought about by greater labor productivity and, especially, the increase in human capital, has not been borne out for reasons that are germane to the system itself. The system generates both an image of happiness and a pandemic of unhappiness. Bartolini wants to know why the savings rate does not effect the quantity of labor, why, that is, the amount of time spent working keeps going up, and why the satisfaction with one’s life is unaffected by increases over a certain amount of wealth. The latter begs the question that Geddes asks the John Houston character, the millionaire, in Chinatown: what more can you eat? How much better can you dress?

“The capacity of the hypothesis that relative income matters to explain the empirical
anomalies of growth theory should be intuitive. Individuals are induced to work hard
and to accumulate much by positional competition. The fact that the position of
people with constant incomes worsens if others increase their incomes is a powerful
incentive for the former to be interested in money.6 But, a general increase in income which leaves the relative positions unchanged cannot improve general well-being. In an economy of this kind the well-being of everyone cannot improve by definition.

Hence the hypothesis of negative positional externalities is consistent with
explanation of the happiness paradox. Positional negative externalities may be the
tertium movens which explains the empirical anomalies of growth theory.”

In a footnote, Bartolini explains those positional goods:

“The main precursors of the idea that relative position matters are Veblen 1899/1934 and Hirsh 1976. According to Hirsh, well-being in the rich economies depends increasingly on positional goods. The clearest definition of pure positional good has been provided by Pagano 1999, according to whom consumption by an individual of a positive amount of a positional good involves the consumption of an equal negative amount by someone else. Examples of pure positional goods are power, status, prestige. This definition implies that increased consumption of a positional good by someone produces a negative externality on someone else.”

While the notion of positional competition and measurement of wealth relative to position is not new, Bartolini’s second negative externality is much less explored:

“According to this approach, the theoretical and empirical difficulties of growth theory are due to the fact that it fails to consider that well-being and productive capacity depend largely on goods that are not purchased in the market but are furnished by the social and natural environment. The growth process generates extensive negative externalities which reduce the capacity of the environment to furnish such goods. These negative externalities may be the tertium movens of growth given the capacity of the market to supply costly substitutes for the diminishing free goods. If agents can purchase substitutes for free resources they will react to the decline in their well-being or in their productive capacity by increasing their use of goods purchased in the market. Negative externalities force individuals have increasingly to rely on private goods in order to prevent a decline in their wellbeing or productive capacity. In this way they contribute to an increase in output. This feeds back into the negative externalities, giving rise to a further diminution in free goods to which agents react by increasing output, and so on.”

A simple example of this comes to mind: the cost of a highway. A highway presents an obstacle to travelers without cars of a rare type: it is as if the state had imported high mountains into an area. The traveler, to get around auto-intended roads, is strongly inclined to get an auto.

Now, here is the bit that has so much relevance to the current election in France – but as much relevance to the past seven years of the moronic inferno in the States.

“The idea behind GASP (Growth As Substitution Process) models is that one way to motivate people to accumulate money is to create a society in which increasingly less can be obtained for free; a society in which opportunities to acquire well-being in ways which do not pass through the market become increasingly scarce, and in which well-being can therefore only be purchased.

According to this approach, the theory of growth based on accumulation and
technical progress is unable to explain the paradox of happiness because it tells only part of the story of growth – the story, that is, in which goods are luxury goods for one generation, standard goods for the next, and absolute necessities for the one after that. The history of economic growth is obviously full of examples of this process. But the other side of this story is that of free goods which become scarce and costly ones for the next generation and luxury goods for the one after that. Urbanization is widely associated with phenomena of this kind. A world in which silence, clean air, swimming in clean seas or rivers, or pleasant strolls become the privilege of uncontaminated places and tropical paradises is a world which tends to spend considerable resources to evade the unliveable environments that it has constructed. The periodic mass migrations known as summer holidays that one observes in the rich countries, or the fact that tourism from the rich countries has become an important resource for many poor ones, may not be indicative of higher living standards but rather a response to a deterioration in the quality of life.”

And finally, my last quote from Bartolini – although this rich essay has a lot of things LI will mine later:

“… in GASP models, the inability of growth to improve happiness derives from
an institutional problem, and not a biological or cultural one. The price system does
not receive signals about the importance of fundamental needs which do not pass
through the market. Individuals are unable to control resources crucial for their
happiness. The fact that money does not buy happiness stems neither from biology nor from culture; money is unable to buy happiness amid a pattern of growth with
excessively high social and environmental costs.”

Now, if I were to criticize Bartolini, it would probably be on the happiness decline. I am not sure that he is right that happiness is on the decline, so much as the composition of happiness has changed in way that are disastrous for our human relationships. But that would be another story for another time.

The Rupture will not be Televised

LI has been pondering the slogan of Sarkozy, the Frankenstein candidate for President in France. Sarkozy has been calling for a ‘rupture’. This might sound like an odd thing for a conservative to do, but, since the 80s, there's a ponce conservative fashion for using those leftist terms associated with ‘revolution’ and revamping them in terms of reaction, much like some rich collector buying antique cars and making them road useable.

In reality, at this point in the developed economies, there are no longer a lot of unknown models. The last two hundred years have given us an ensemble of economic policies, and it isn’t too hard to put in one’s parameters and predict results. It is hard, on the other hand, to imagine another all encompassing economic policy. LI thinks that this will be the conceptual roadblock to really dealing with the environmental affects of the treadmill of production over the next thirty to fifty years. Sarkozy’s rupture is simply applying as much Thatcherism as he dares to create a typical neo-liberal boom in France – one that concentrates the benefits of growth in the wealth of the upper income percentiles, and that spreads affluence further down the percentiles by easing credit and by substituting upward job trajectories for wage raises. The advantage of this kind of growth is that the wealth it creates is extensive enough to expand the seeming base of goods shared by all – the image of prosperity, in other words, connects to a certain extent with the reality of prosperity. Credit is not a fiction. It is a real driver. And it fits well into the notion that greater income comes not from increases in wages, but rising through the ranks. A system that is built like this can’t, in the end, afford a large manufacturing sector. One of the prices of Sarkozy’s “rupture” is de-manufacturing. The Anglo-sphere is all about de-manufacturing.

There is an interesting article by Stefano Bartolini that deals with growth using a Polanyi-style scheme of analysis. It bears the rebarbative title (by which I mean a title fit for a cannibal's barbecue) “Beyond Accumulation and Technical Progress: Negative Externalities as an Engine of Economic Growth .” The abstract, however, hearteningly poses questions that economists generally feel are icky, and that LI feels are exactly the point.

“The traditional explanation of growth based on the primum and secundum movens of accumulation and technical progress, faces two major empirical anomalies. Why do people work so much i.e. why do they strive so much for money? The growth literature provides no answer to these question, nor to the further and very important one of why people are so unhappy. Moreover, finding a joint answer to the two questions seems particularly puzzling. Why do people strive so much for money if money cannot buy happiness? I argue that the solution to this 'paradox of happiness' can be provided by including in the theory a tertium movens of growth: negative externalities. These externalities can be of two kinds. The first are positional externalities, i.e. those due the fact that individuals may be interested in relative not absolute position. The second kind of negative externalities are those which reduce free goods. Some recent models, both evolutionary or with optimising agents, show the role of these externalities as an engine of growth. This approach emphasises that the growth process generates extensive negative externalities which reduce the capacity of the social and natural environment to furnish free goods. In these models individuals have increasingly to rely on private goods in order to prevent a reduction in their well-being or in their productive capacity due to decline in social and natural capital. This generates an increase in output which feeds back into the negative externalities, giving rise to a self-reinforcing mechanism whereby growth generates negative externalities and negative externalities generate growth. According to these models, growth appears to be a substitution process whereby free final (or intermediate) goods are progressively replaced with costly goods in the consumption (or production) patterns of individuals. From the point of view of this GASP (Growth As Substitution Process) models the two anomalies of growth theory are two sides of the same coin. People strive so much for money because they have to defend themselves against negative externalities: they work so much in order to substitute free goods with costly ones. But an increase in income does not improve their happiness because it involves a process of substitution of free goods costly ones. Some implications for environmental economics are drawn.”

Tomorrow I am going to comment a little more about this paper, which is very relevant to the issues before the French public in this election. One more quote to shore that up – my French readers will surely appreciate the relevance of this graf in Bartolini’s paper to the headlines in the papers:

“In short, the result of perpetual growth seems rather vulnerable to inclusion of a work/leisure choice in models. The plausible mechanisms emphasised by endogenous growth models which ensure a non-decreasing marginal productivity of capital over the long period are insufficient to generate perpetual growth. In order to generate it, individuals must work and accumulate i. e. must be interested in money, more than endogenous growth models predict. According to these models, in fact, individuals react to a long-period increase in labor productivity by enjoying life more than is necessary to ensure perpetual growth. This is as regards the theoretical problems.”

Friday, April 27, 2007

What they said - the Bush occupation plan, Oct. 10, 2002

Every once in a while, one needs benchmarks. Here's a benchmark. Here is a story from October 11, 2002, about what the Bush administration planned for Iraq. Contrary to the new shiny revisionism of the warmongers (Hitchens, Perle, Ajami, etc.), the Bush administration announced what it was going to do in plenty of time for its war supporters to know what it was going to do.

This is the war they supported.
Their butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth stances are actually cynical we-lied-to-cram-the war-down-your-throat-and-they-lied-to-us laments.

Notice, also, the con job of pretending that this was about WMD. The idea that there would be a major effort to find WMD was intrinsic to how the war was sold. Of course, after the invasion, the idea of spending a year making a major search for WMD was given the same status as the search for the tooth fairy or for Santa's reindeer.

"THREATS AND RESPONSES: A PLAN FOR IRAQ
Foreign Desk; Section A
U.S. Has a Plan To Occupy Iraq, Officials Report
By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT
1380 words

WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 -- The White House is developing a detailed plan, modeled on the postwar occupation of Japan, to install an American-led military government in Iraq if the United States topples Saddam Hussein, senior administration officials said today.

The plan also calls for war-crime trials of Iraqi leaders and a transition to an elected civilian government that could take months or years.
In the initial phase, Iraq would be governed by an American military commander -- perhaps Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of United States forces in the Persian Gulf, or one of his subordinates -- who would assume the role that Gen. Douglas MacArthur served in Japan after its surrender in 1945.

One senior official said the administration was ''coalescing around'' the concept after discussions of options with President Bush and his top aides. But this official and others cautioned that there had not yet been any formal approval of the plan and that it was not clear whether allies had been consulted on it.

The detailed thinking about an American occupation emerges as the administration negotiates a compromise at the United Nations that officials say may fall short of an explicit authorization to use force but still allow the United States to claim it has all the authority it needs to force Iraq to disarm.

In contemplating an occupation, the administration is scaling back the initial role for Iraqi opposition forces in a post-Hussein government. Until now it had been assumed that Iraqi dissidents both inside and outside the country would form a government, but it was never clear when they would take full control.
Today marked the first time the administration has discussed what could be a lengthy occupation by coalition forces, led by the United States.

Officials say they want to avoid the chaos and in-fighting that have plagued Afghanistan since the defeat of the Taliban. Mr. Bush's aides say they also want full control over Iraq while American-led forces carry out their principal mission: finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction."

At the time this was published, LI pointed out that the Bush plan was a pipe dream.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

one of the great isolatos




She enters history like the protagonist of an 18th century picaresque novel:

‘One evening in the month of September 1731, a girl nine or ten years old, pressed, as it would seem, by thirst, entered about twilight into Songi, a village situated four or five leagues south of Chalons in Champagne. She had nothing on her feet: her body was covered with rags and skins: her hair with a gourd leaf; and her face and hands were black as a Negroe’s. She was armed with a short baton, thicker at one end than the other like a club. Those who first observed her took to their heels, crying out, ‘There is the devil.” And indeed her dress and colour might very well suggest this idea to the country people. Happiest were they who could soonest secure their doors and windows; but one of them, thinking, perhaps, that the devil was afraid of dogs, set loose upon her a bull dog with an iron collar. The little savage seeing him advancing in a fury, kept her ground without flinching, grasping her little club with both hands, and stretching herself to one side, in order to give greater scope to her blow. Perceiving the dog within her reach, she discharged such a terrible blow on his head as laid him dead at her feet. Elated with her victory, she jumped several times over the dead carcase of the dog. Then she tried to open a door, which not being able to effect, she ran back to the country towards the river, and mounting a tree, fell quietly asleep.”


This is from the English translation that was commissioned by James Burnett, Lord Monboddo. Monboddo is one of those bit players – he had a reputation for eccentricity, built upon his massive multi-volume books that extended the Edinburgh enlightenment’s story of progress as the essence of history to natural history. Monbaddo, famously, thought orangutans were another species of human being – which was not really as odd as it seems, given that Linnaeus himself carved out a special category for wild boys and girls, homo sapiens ferus. And Monboddo had a strong suspicion that people might be born with tails. Or at least that is the legend, which makes Monboddo a crazy Scots Rousseau, crawling around, Nebuchadnezzar like, on all fours.

Michael Newton, in Savage Girls and Wild Boys, devotes a chapter to the Burnett-Memmie Le Blanc story. You can also find Julia Duthwaite’s essay, Rewriting the Savage: The Extraordinary Fictions of the "Wild Girl of Champagne” here As Douthwaite points out, the whole story of Memmie is wrapped in mystification, including the supposed memoir, written by her friend, Madame Hecquet. Madame Hecquet could be the daughter of Dr. Hecquet, who was famous earlier in the century, or she could not exist at all. She could be, and was suspected to be, a proxy for Charles de la Condamine. In Newton’s account, the translation of Hecquet’s work was done by William Robertson, James Burnett’s secretary, in 1765. When Burnett met her, through the offices of Condamine, Memmie Le Blanc was making her living as a curiosity – although in some sense she was still a nun. Burnett, curious as always about primitive man, must have been steered to Memmie, since the Hecquet book, according to Newton, was not selling – in fact, it was part of Memmie’s act to sell copies of it.

Monboddo wrote the preface to the translation of the Memoir. He makes a bee line between Memmie as a Man Friday and Memmie as the Lockean specimen, the subject who had, by good fortunate, befallen some subtraction on the path to human development – the metaphysician’s freak, in short. The preface is genial, and even gives Memmie’s Paris address, for those wanting to see her and put a penny in her box. Monboddo concedes that “the vulgar will be entertained with this relation much as they are with the history of Robinson Crusoe; but to the philosopher it will appear matter of curious speculation; and he will draw from it consequences not so obvious to the generality of readers. He will observe with amazement the progression of our species from an animal so wild, to men such as we. He will see, evidently, that though man is by his natural bent and inclination disposed to society, like many other animals, yet he is not be natural necessity social, nor obliged to live upon a joint stock, like ants or bees; but is enabled, by his natural powers, to provide for his own subsistence, as much as any other animal, and more than most, as his means of subsistence are more various.”

This fascinates LI – for isn’t it the devil of the spirit of capitalism that it is a system which forces men out of the autarkic state, in which all is barter for immediate use, or home production, into the world of monetary exchange – while at the same time defining his essence as being able “to provide for his own subsistence, as much as any other animal” by himself? The economic man, who stands, like Robinson Crusoe, at the very beginning of the labour process, contains this primordial twist like the sons of Adam contain original sin. And that twist comes out of the figuration of that inseparable and damned couple, the colonizer and the native, the European and the savage. So to have a savage retrace the original colonization is, to say the least, interesting.

And that is the story of Memmie, at least as Monboddo sees it. Born, he speculates, among the Huron (who he knows from the tales of an erudite traveler – although this account is contradicted, somewhat, by Monboddo’s insistance on the whiteness of Memmie’s skin), she was captured, while in a canoe, by a ship of unnamed Europeans, her face was blacked, and she was sold as a slave somewhere in the Carribbean. A white Indian in blackface, she was re-embarked for unknown reasons in a ship that foundered on the French shore. She escaped, and helped her girlfriend, a Negro girl, escape. Here things get murky. This black girl was seen when Memmie was first spotted, and there are some odd hints that Memmie might have beaten her to death and eaten her – but then again, there is an account that she sheltered her and the girl got sick. She is out of the picture by the time Monboddo meets Memmie, that's for sure. In any case, what we have here is a game of substitutes of an ingenious kind – the white for the Indian, the Indian for the black, Friday for Robinson Crusoe, Europe for the deserted island. For a moment, history goes, if not backwards, at least in a sort of spin.

More in a future post

ps – oddly, Robinson Crusoe never marked me. I assume I read it, or some abridgment, when I was a boy, but I don’t have the memory of it that I have of Gulliver’s travels. So I’ve been reading it this week, and finding it very surprising. The most surprising thing is the echo I catch of Kafka’s The Burrow. I’ve looked about and found some references to Defoe in the Kafka literature, but it is always about the island in the Penal Colony. But more impressive, to me, is Robinson Crusoe’s alternations between spasms of labour and spasms of fear – in particular, after he spots the imprint of a naked foot on the beach – and the same alternation experienced by the creature in the burrow. That creature attributes his ceaseless scrabbling and his moments of collapse to the need to defend himself:

“I have to have the possibility of an immediate exit passage, for in spite of all my watchfulness, can’t I be attacked from some wholly unexpected side? I live in the innermost part of my house in peace, and in the meant time, slowly and quietly, the enemy is boring towards me from somewhere.”

Crusoe has similar feelings.

“But now I come to a new scene of my life. It happened one day,
about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with
the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain
to be seen on the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I
had seen an apparition. …

When I came to my castle (for so I think I called it ever after
this), I fled into it like one pursued. Whether I went over by the
ladder, as first contrived, or went in at the hole in the rock,
which I had called a door, I cannot remember; no, nor could I
remember the next morning, for never frightened hare fled to cover,
or fox to earth, with more terror of mind than I to this retreat.

I slept none that night; the farther I was from the occasion of my
fright, the greater my apprehensions were, which is something
contrary to the nature of such things, and especially to the usual
practice of all creatures in fear; but I was so embarrassed with my
own frightful ideas of the thing, that I formed nothing but dismal
imaginations to myself, even though I was now a great way off.
Sometimes I fancied it must be the devil, and reason joined in with
me in this supposition, for how should any other thing in human
shape come into the place? Where was the vessel that brought them?
What marks were there of any other footstep? And how was it
possible a man should come there?”

These passages precede a long description of Crusoe’s stratagems in creating a wholly disguised place to hide. As in The Burrow, working in panic is expressed by a confused sense of time. Where Crusoe has accounted for his time up until this point with as much exactitude as he has accounted for his tools, his firearms, his goats, his crops, and all the troublesome implements he has to make himself. But after seeing the footprint, it is a little difficult to understand the passage of the years. Similarly, the creature in the burrow, building out its tunnels, sometimes starts up from sleep and begins to work madly:

“… than I hurry, then I fly, than I have no time to calculate; for I just want to carry out a new, wholly exact plan, grasp arbitrarily what I find with my teeth, slink, carry, sigh, moan, stumble and only some irrelevant alterations of the present circumstances, that seem to me so very dangerous, will satisfy me.”

Perhaps the echoes are to be expected – Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is so diffused in our culture that he is pretty much everywhere that you want to find him. Still, the parallels are striking.

Let them eat cake

LI heartily approves of the bill passed in the House today that ties the budget for the War to benchmarks that will never be met. Of course, this is the bill Bush is going to veto, but the bill itself isn’t as important as setting a new benchmark of the permissible. The reaction among the D.C. elite, this morning, is hysterical – read, for instance, Broder’s column. Oh, no, don’t hurt your eyes by actual reading – I’d suggest skimming it. It is a stern call to demote Harry Reid for saying the sky is blue, the earth is round, and the U.S. is losing in Iraq. Reid is the Democrat’s Gonzalez, according to Broder. This is surprising. Here I thought Broder thought he was a secret Al Qaeda agent.

A long time ago, in 1988, Joan Didion, covering the presidential election, wrote a series of articles about how the “narrative” was crafted. The narrative is the news story as it is manufactured, vetted, and transmitted by the media panjandrums. It is full of compromises for this interest or that one, but in general you can take it as a given that it will be a corporationist, warmongering, racist and sexist confection, a shit cake that the news media brings out with big smiles and a candle on the top, so proud - dig in, working class America! – get all the peanuts into your mouth, son! And generally the narrative works. The rich get richer, the middle gets all bug eyed from their shopping opportunities, the poor look for self-medication. But there is always the possibility that the narrative will get out of their hands. The Iraq narrative has done that. The way the stories in the Washington Post are written today, their headlines, the inclusion of a Joe Lieberman op ed along with the hit piece on Reed – it is all about a narrative that is coming apart in their soft little hands, and they don’t like it. They don’t like it one bit.

Fuckers.

ps – this has been a glorious week for warmonger apologias. Paul Berman’s was a stirring cry in the forum at Dissent (you will never believe it, but he addresses it to… the liberal-left. Like all the warmongers who stick sternly to the Leninist playbook, he is addressing an imaginary convention of the 20th international at all times - he can almost see the workers caps on the comrades heads, row on row). For Berman, it is a matter of keeping steady through the storm and strife, bearing ever onward the torch of democracy in the Middle East - alas, the prose does give off a refrigerated chill, as though it had been on the bottom shelf, in the back, behind the leftover beans, since 2004. TNR published what Fouad Ajami’s review of Ali A. Allawi’s The Occupation of Iraq, a book that was also reviewed as the acme of vindication by Hitchens in Slate. Ajami makes one good point: that the invaders knew nothing about Iraq:

“It was hard, practically impossible, to bond with the place. Shiism was not waiting to be deciphered or understood; Moqtada Al Sadr had no time, and no desire, to explain the origins of his worldview, his noble pedigree, the high clerical tradition of his family, to the American journalists in the bubble of the Republican Palace. It was enough for him that his devoted followers knew the magic of his lineage. The reclusive Ali Al Sistani, in his modest home on a lane in Najaf's souk, kept the invading power--and the press that came with it--at bay. In one of my favorite anecdotes of Iraq, an American diplomat of considerable sway asked an Iraqi interlocutor what the term hawza meant--the word for a Shia study group and academic circle. "It's amazing," the Iraqi academic answered. "You send a huge army to this country, but you don't know the most rudimentary thing about its life."


This is a thing we reiterated over and over in the run up to the war and in the first year of the occupation: we were messing in a culture that we knew nothing about – from what Iraqis like to eat for breakfast to what jokes they find classic. Overwhelming ignorance, on our part, was mistaken for a tabula rasa on theirs.

But then Ajami gets tangled up in the contradictions of telling us how great this book is by Allawi – not the former prime minister, but a man who, apparently, was on the same party line as that old, unpopular scoundrel, Chalabi. Contradiction one: after bemoaning ignorance of Iraq, Ajami begins by writing that Allawi had been exiled from Iraq at 10 – in 1958. Nearly fifty years out of the country? Ah, but those ten year old impressions make him a cultural expert. Two: Ajami reproaches Ayad Allawi’s prime ministership with corruption – while saying not word one about the notorious Chalabi. I guess Ajami’s idea is that cover-ups are allowable among friends. But it makes the review appear highly ridiculous. Three is an out of date sociological approach to Iraq that makes the highly problematic divide one between the desert and the city: Back and forth, Iraqis oscillated between the desert and the town. "The sense of the impermanence of the source of their values drove Iraqis into developing their noted schizoid qualities," Allawi observes. "The desert could actually or metaphorically encroach on the city, while at the same time, the city could tame the desert by harnessing the country's waters and cultivating its soil." The struggle between town and country took on a special deadly meaning here, for it lay across the fault line between the Sunnis and the Shia. In Wardi's classification, the southern part of the country, the heartland of Shiism, was a settled urban world, while Sunnism, with its nomadic and tribal culture, was based in the western steppes of Iraq.” This is quite correct – in 1958, when Allawi left. But just as the template for the U.S. has changed considerably since 1958, so, too, has it changed in Iraq. And speaking of out of date observations, we finally staunchly plant the flag of 2003 all over again: “It is true that the carpetbaggers and the profiteers have returned to Baghdad, and it is true that decent men and women have fled to neighboring lands, as waves of Iraqis once fled the terror of Saddam Hussein. It is certainly true that the sectarian violence in Iraq is excruciating, and a threat to all prospects of decency. And yet it is not nightfall that has descended on Iraq, but a savage and uncertain dawn. In those reams of sentences that reporters and travelers and outsiders have brought with them out of Iraq, my favorite remains that of a professional woman who declared that under Saddam Iraqis lived in a big prison and now they are in the wilderness--and that she prefers the wilderness. Ali Allawi rates this war as one of America's "great strategic blunders." That may be, but all is not yet lost. The "neo-conservatives"--a bête noire of Allawi--may have simplified Iraq's truth, and some of them may have given up on Iraqis and despaired of them and said of them the most uncharitable things; but at least they held out the promise of Arab liberty, and broke with the notion that Arabs have tyranny in their DNA.” Ah, those who opposed the invasion because they thought Arabs are genetically programmed for tyranny – all ten of them – are royally shown up by this sweeping and heartfelt prose. The rest of us are left not only untouched, but irritated, once again, by the refusal to come to grips with the meaning of the American invasion of Iraq. Instead of the bogus desert and town and come into my tent at midnight, my pretty sociology, a nice class analysis should be substituted here. That analysis would show that the Americans went into Iraq not only ignorant of Iraq, but without any consciousness of the middle class that is the natural ally of the U.S. The Americans didn’t even make that mistake in Vietnam – although they came close, by irritating the Buddhists. At the moment, America has no natural allies in Iraq. This is the debacle side of the debacle. And Ajami’s secularist are besmirched not only the by massive incompetence and cowardice they displayed, but, even more, by turning a blind eye to people like Chalabi, who – if justice had been done long ago – would have heard about events in Iraq on his prison radio, in Jordan. Ajami doesn't refer once to a much better book by a man who is equally conversant with Arabic and who actually went out and talked to real Iraqis, instead of those on the Governing Council who had a good deal on a London flat: Nir Rosen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Bear boy from Lithuania




One of the effects of Descartes and Locke on philosophy was to produce a search for more and more deprived figures, automatons who'd undergone major subtraction and didn't dream of electric sheep – the man born blind, the deaf mute, the boy marooned with the tutor. It is the philosophical equivalent of playing can you top this. Or the minimalist tendency that made Beckett explore the smallest sentences, and Perec see if a story could be told without the letter ‘e’. Condillac came up with the wonderful idea of a statue with only one faculty – that of smell – in the Treatise on Sensations, and uses it to build up the sensations, one by one, unconsciously reproducing the Ur-welt of the Vedas – although of course, because we employ a language that arises out of our full set of senses, and because we operate with the senses all operating at once (I see these words on the screen, I have headphones on listening to the Rice University Post-punk show, the pressure of one bare foot is felt on the other, there’s the usual industrial/apartment nothing is there to smell smell), the artificiality of this way of talking about sensations leaves its marks. In this universe of deprived figures, we get - in chapter 7, third part - the man discovered in the forests of Lithuania.

Interestingly, Condillac introduces this chapter by admitting that the statue, as he has constructed it, might not reflect at all. The reason is: the statue might have to work to survive. To nourish himself. The dulling effect of work on reflection isn’t really questioned, although it is an interesting paradox, left us by the Enlightenment, that the perfect system of affluence, which involves the perfect and total system of labour, comes to us with the warning that you can have the labor or you can have the reflection – you can’t have both. A little fairy tale for us nomads of capitalism, the implications of which have been superbly ignored by philosophers on the whole, and so drifted down to be bounced around in the currents and capillaries of popular wisdom.

Not being busy reflecting, Condillac considers that our statue might have fallen in with beasts and spend all day poking around for food: It is even likely that in place of conducting himself in accordance with his proper reflection, it learns from the animals with which it leives most familiarly. It will walk as they do, imitate their cries, munch on grass or devour those of which it has the strength to seize. We are so strongly inclined to imitation that a Descartes, in its place, would not learn to walk on its feet: everything that he saw would suffice to keep him from it.”

Such is, it seems, the fate of a child of about ten years of age who lived among the bears. They discovered him in 1694, in the forests which are contained in Lithuania and Russia. He gave no sign of reason, walked on his feet and hands, had no language, and formed sounds that did not resemble any aspect of man’s. It was a long time before he could offer some words, and still he did it in a very barbarous manner. As soon as he could speak, he was questioned on his first estate, but he could remember no more than we can remember what happened to us in our cradle.”

Ah, that amnesia of the infant, here transferred to amnesia of the beast! I will return to this, but the point I want to make in this little post is that feral children are in the corners and crevices in the Enlightenment – if you poke around for them, they are, surprisingly enough, just on the horizon. Condillac’s reference to his statue eating grass might, in fact, be a reference to the sheep boy discovered by Rembrandt’s friend, Nicholas Tulp, in Ireland – Tulp is the doctor in the Anatomy Lesson. The sheep boy, raised by sheep, supposedly baaed and ate like sheep. A hard thing for the human digestive system to reconcile itself with, really.

I’ve referred to this site before – it is superb. The feral children site. Check it out.

the american world view: drivel yesterday, drivel today, drivel tomorrow

The Washington Post, in its drive to turn its Georgetown party set editorial page into a veritable worldview, hosted two enlightening forums yesterday. One was headlined, Is France Doomed? A bold headline indeed, given the state of these here states, with the zero savings rate, the negative foreign investment - first time since the depression - the dandy Bush war we have lost while floating the cost of it through the friendly services of the Japanese and Chinese central banks, the ace prison population absorbing the unemployed, etc., etc. But, remember, France has the best health system in the world and the French have a 35 hour week – two reasons in themselves to suspect that the country is a sinking ship. The beauteous yawps that were let loose under that headline were amusing to read, but to get the full flavor of WAPO’s worldview, LI also read the discussion of Boris Yeltsin’s death, a Q and A with the foreign correspondent, David Hoffman, who covered Yeltsin in the early nineties who – you are not going to believe it, boys and girls! – turns out to be a firebreathing advocate for Milton Friedmanish economics. Just the kind of guy who'd give his unbiased two thumbs up to shock therapy. He was given to such nonsense as this:

“washingtonpost.com: You mention the privatization of Russian industries under Yeltsin, something Putin largely has undone. Is Russia better off with or without the oligarchs who built up empires after the fall of communism?

David Hoffman: Putin has only partially undone the privatization, and it will be impossible to reverse it entirely. The most important point is this: a lot of history shows that states and governments are lousy managers of capitalism. They should set rules but not run companies. Anyone who ever saw a Soviet state-owned factory, or one in China, or anywhere else will get the idea. If you look at the Russian oil companies about 2002, when a big study was made of them, it was fascinating: those that had been totally privatized had the best oil production, profits, etc. Well, now Putin is going back to state ownership of hydrocarbons -- oil and gas. He wants to build "state champions," like Gazprom. Well, history shows that state champions is an oxymoron when it comes to capitalism. It doesn't work.”

Yeah, you can’t build state champions. I do wish the Asian tigers had just listened to the common sense of people like Hoffman. In other news, Toyota surpassed GM in car sales to become the world's largest auto company today.


However, LI isn’t writing this post to playfully shoot our elephant gun at the Dumbos of the Washington Press – we’ve taken it down to shoot our old friends, the Dumbos of the war mongering set. So many things have flowed from the razing of Fallujah in 2004, all of which were so easily predictable that LI mentioned them at the time that war crime was being perpetrated by American forces. The latest idiocy of walling off Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad is revelatory of the dead end of the American strategy that began when American troops razed Fallujah, killed the males there in the ages between 13 and 65, erected concrete barriers around the city, and instituted Big Brother surveillance. At the time, Fallujah was touted openly by the military as the wave of the future.

If this is democracy, Iraqis are right to violently reject it; in fact, Tom Paine doesn't have to turn over in his grave, for this is democracy like a high school production of Guys n Dolls is Broadway. The vaunted elections, as we know, were contrived in the spirit of clubhouse farce. They were held, remember, as soon as the constitution was illegally approved. The illegality stemmed from the very rules adopted to govern the process. The elections consisted of the presentation of party names to the Iraqis, with the keebosh put on campaigning on such issues as ending the occupation. The result of the election of vague party tickets was a shuffling of dupes and strawmen at the top, the better to direct the grift. Maliki, the ersatz leader of Iraq, can’t even apparently order the American troops to stop building a concrete wall in his own capital city; meanwhile the Americans are told by their embedded newsjocks that the GI name is so jokey, “gated community”, that it naturally becomes headline fodder. Pity, a name like sealing off the Sunni scum, or Sunni untermenschen imprisoned, awaiting final solution didn’t creep into the American journalistic parlance. The wall provides this wonderful message to the Sunni: resist or die.

In late November, 2004, as LI pointed out at the time, the assault on Fallujah basically magnified and helped create violent tensions between the Sunni and the Shiite. It was supposed to. There is no doubt that the internicene war going on in Iraq at the moment, in which lamblike America is ‘in the middle’, got its start when lamblike America engaged in razing Fallujah, importing death squad tactics from the old days in El Salvador. Lamblike America did what it could to ensure that the political leadership of the Shi’a – a group idiot D.C. warmongers thought were in the warmonger pocket, save for the ever arrestable Muqtada Sadr – was give the green light to trample on the Sunnis. It was a tension in Iraq that had not resulted in civil war in eighty years, even as Saddam persecuted Shi’a religious leaders – but that the Americans put their fuckin boots on it with all their might, being occupiers with little knowledge of the country they occupied, and of course being led by the Bush gang.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Royal!!!

Not a bad day in France. LI was prepared for the worst. We have watched in agony as Segolene Royal seemed to deliberately piss away a win. Our own candidate was probably Buffet the vampire hunter – Marie-George Buffet from the PCF, don’t you know, the woman denounced as a Stalinist by the ever obnoxious Onfray – but in the end, if we lived in France, sheer fear of Sarkozy would have driven us to the Royal side.

The second round is going to be different. I hope that Royal concentrates for real on giving a picture of just what Sarkozy is offering. It is a watered down neo-liberalism that will cause the usual type of economic boom and bust – with all the proceeds going to the top, and the usual dissolving rat race by the middle and the bottom to give themselves wage raises through sheer borrowing. We’ve seen this all too often before. It only beckons as a good model because, on the whole, the people who benefit most own own own the media. All of it. Royal ought to speak out for a robustly Keynesian approach to counter the utterly awful Sarko, and talk about government expenditures in terms of what brings the highest social return. So she should speak out about putting more government money, not less, into vital services, particularly education. If compromises must be made to make labor markets more “flexible” – for instance, to remove some of the burden of hiring people for short term positions – they can only be made in the context of a greatly expanded educational sphere – one that would, as in the U.S., absorb many of the unemployed. I think what the Netherlands and Sweden have done in this regard might well be looked at.

As for France’s position in the world, Sarkozy is a crazy Bushophile, but I fear Royal would be a French Tony Blair. There’s nothing one can do about that. More (unsolicited, unheard) advice from this blog – figure out that the vote against the European constitution meant no to expanding the EU blindly, no to rule by central banks, no to the attack on labour, and that these aren’t domestic but international issues. The EU has a chance to offer a model of affluence with social justice, and it should be steered in that direction.

I’m unhappy that Sarko won the first round, but he won much less grandly than many had predicted, and Royal did a lot better. So – here she is! (in a youtube production that is a moony tour of Royal’s dentition to the melodious strumming of cheesy seventies arena rock! at least it made me laugh.)

ps – LI should have cast away childish things long ago – but, childishly, we were shocked by the awful reporting and commentary in the Guardian about the French election. It is a true reflection – the pro-Sarko bias – of Blair’s legacy, God help us. The newspaper has a blogger in Sarko’s camp; it has lined up four or five commenters on the French election, all but one of which have sung the Sarko song; and in general, refused to comment on the story line followed in the anglosphere of Royal falling apart. In fact, the 25 percent was much better than was predicted by this pack of Pecksniffs. If Royal loses, the loss will not be – as the Guardian so hopefully puts it – a mandate for Sarkozy. It will be a close election, followed by the regionals, and the destruction of France’s social welfare network, so ardently hoped for by the Thatcher-Blairist set, will, LI is pretty sure, be indefinitely delayed. As the Iraq war taught us, the media will rush like rabid lemmings towards any cliff that the worst stock option dregs point them to, and ask questions only at as the splat point grows overwhelmingly large to their rodent-like peeps – but one forgets just how bad and creepy the filter is until ‘socialism’ becomes something more for these fuckers than a distant polemic.

But if you want to read a reasonable analysis of the election, go to Michel Noblecourt here.