“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

Friday, May 07, 2010

Out of the mouth of the old order

“In 1619, male and female far servants (karler and piger) in Denmark who were dissatisfied with their wages or terms of employment could immediately be put into irons and sent to a public works or to a spin-house. Stavnsband, a compuslsory residence system for males aged between 18 and 36 (intended to secure the supply of soldiers and labour force), was extended in 1742 to cover peasant boys from eight years up, and two decades later the lower age limit fell further to four years.” [Centuries of child labour: European experiences from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, 55]

We forget how often our nineteen century ‘thinkers’ lived in the aftermath of the hot breath of the ancien regime, which had burned their parents and grandparents. This was especially the case with Soren Kierkegaard, who carried within him the anguish of his father, Michael – or rather, Michael as the boy Soren never knew, one of the karler, a shepherd boy who cried out in the harsh night and loneliness of the Jutland plain.

The divide between Western Europe and Eastern Europe in the 18th century was deepened by the fact that in the East, serfdom was strengthened, and continued to be the dominant mode of production for the agricultural sector, while in the West, serfdom was more and more reduced to a series of symbols, which were themselves under attack. Denmark stands out in this picture because – though by position and by its bourgeoisie – it should have been a western nation, its serf system kept getting harsher. Nearly destroyed in 1660 when the Swedes overwhelmingly defeated the Danish armies, Denmark reconstructed itself on the bones of aristocratic power. The king, siding with Copenhagen’s Bürger, took on ‘absolute’ powers and – as was the 18th century pattern – gradually commodified space and labor.

“The events of 1660 led to a radical transformation of the government of Denmark: the administration was modified and in all the general situation of the state found itself ameliorated. From the social point of view, this did not have all the consequences one might have expected. Assuredly the inequality between classes was diminished and the bourgeoisie came closer to the landed nobility. The noble lands ceased to be so much charged with taxes; the fate of the peasants were not modified at all; on the contrary, their situation worsened.” [Histoire générale du IVe siècle à nos jours, Volume 6 by Alfred Rambaud, 618]

Brandes book on Kierkegaard, one of the first major studies, rightly begins by emphasizing the relationship between Michael and Soren, which – like all intense family relationships – sucked in the surrounding history, and carved out a past for the child to carry:


Soren Kiekegaard was the child of old parents; he was born old, he grew up as an old-clever child, who began to brood over himself at such a young age, that it came to him in later life as if he had been neither a child nor a youth, that is, neither without a consciousness nor a care. “My unhappiness,” he said with one of those twisting phrases that he loved, “ was, both from birth and strengthening into my education: not to be an adult man.” He meant by this, that he was a spirit, a very inordinate and comprehensive expression, in order to say something particular about one individual. … in old barbaric times one might perhaps have found this all to unchildish kid to be a changeling, that the fairies had laid in the cradle.”

And so it happens that one shepherd boy in this culture that has long operated as a Moloch to such shepherd boys – one that has long made them the object of suspicion and accusation (literally – contemporary researchers have been surprised, mining the criminal archives of Europe, that bestiality outranks sodomy in those files, and the shepherd boy is often accused) – gets an opportunity. Much like a character in Balzac, he is the beneficiary of the attenuated but still active family network that connects the country to the city, the pious harsh Jutland peasant to the drygoods store in Copehagen. It was wool and the small colonial commodities (the song of sugar, spice, tobacco all over again – our familiar spirits) that made Michael Kierkegaard a relatively well off man.

But – according to his son – at the center of that story of upward mobility is a small boy cursing God on a Jutland Heath.

I want this rural background, since the next threads – mostly about Kierkegaard and boredom – are going to be very urban. We forget that rural sorrows and terrors are carried to the city as much as the city reciprocates with spices and money.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Pareto and the libertarian myth of the just Other

In his General Sociology – I’m using the French version – Pareto writes of two categories of “new” man in the ranks of the governors. The one consists of those who spend nearly as much as they gain, and the other is “constituted by those who take away from their gains not only the amount needed for supporting their great expenditures, but still more, what they have constituted for their patrimony.” And he observes how the modern economy works in Italy: “in Italy, one can observe that almost all the great, recently constituted patrimonies come from government concessions, the construction of railroads, enterprises subvented by the state, tariff protections, and that in this way a number of people have elevated themselves to the ranks of first honor in the state.” (1471)

Although Pareto is the idol of the classical liberal school a la Hayek, his observation rings much truer than Hayek’s fantasy that there existed a golden liberal period in which the great fortunes were constituted by some pure operation of grace in the private sphere, ‘without Government interference.”

Of course, Pareto believed these new men were violating his optimization principle – which is why he could call down upon them the wrath of the economist, rather than the moralist, scorned. But from the political point of view, Pareto starts a unique and little followed critique of democracy by pointing out that democracies don’t, in fact, interrupt the process by which the governing class operates to aggrandize its position. Here, I think, our experience makes us think that Pareto must be right. As – to use the terms of Donzelot – capital lost its place as the distributor of all the world’s evils in the 1970s, and was succeeded by the “state”, an international democratizing movement sprang up, flowered, and, in the 2000s, experienced its decadence: for it was in the 00s that we discovered that bringing democracy to others had to be done, regrettably, by strangling it at home. And thus was completed the second moment of a-politicization of state functions: first, in the 90s, the state suddenly had no business ‘interfering’ in business; and second, in the 2000s, the citizens had no business in ‘interfering’ with the executives right to make and continue war. The disempowerment of the people was accompanied by a politics of scandal that intensified the feeling around meaningless symbols and incidents, crimes with no real scope, the chance remark captured by the open mike, etc.

Pareto’s idea of what might be called the position creep of the governing class is expressed like this:

“We see that, in sum, whatever be the form of the regime, the men who govern have on average a certain tendency to use their power in order to maintain themselves in place, and to abuse it in order to obtain advantages and particular gains, that sometimes they do not distinguish from the gains and advantages of party, and that they almost always confond with the advantages and gains of the nation. It follows from this: 1, that, from this point of view, there will not be a great deal of difference between different forms of regime. The differences reside in the background, that is to say in the sentiments of the population: there where the latter are more or less honest; 2 that the uses and abuses will be all the more abundant as the intromission of the government in private affairs is the greater; in the degree to which the matter to be exploited is augmented, what one can take away is augmented too; in the U.S., where one wants to impose morality for the law, one sees enormous abuses, errors which emerge where this constraint does not exist, or exists in the lesser proportions; 3 that the governing class tries to appropriate the goods of others not only for his own usage, but also for sharing them with the governed class which the governing class defends, and which assures the power to do so, be it by arms or ruse, with the support that the client gives to the patron; 4 that most often, neither the patrons nor the clients are fully aware of their transgressions of the rules of morality existing in their society, and that, even if they perceive it, they easily excuse it, be it that in the end, others do the same, or under the commodious excuse that the ends justify the means.” (1474-1475)

Pareto’s mixture of logic and history here is surely peculiar, as – if we concede that he is correct – it would seem to put into question just what are the ‘goods” of “others”. They would seem, in the end, to result from previous generations of government in which the same logical force applied. And so they are sanctified as private goods after a decent interval has dulled our sense of them as public thefts.

Around this corner, of course, we come to the idea of how those private goods are earned synchronically – and to Marx, with the idea of surplus labor value.

Of course, once one concedes that these 4 moments occur under every regime, throughout the existence of human society, we are less inclined to find the moral argument for not appropriating the goods of ‘others’ to the governed class – that mass of clients. And given that the making of wealth so often is the result of government concession – Pareto’s examples can be multiplied a thousandfold in today’s world of inflated and bogus IP – the virtuous others become such a shrinking part of the total that they are like the legendary hidden dozen just men that keep God from punishing the world – an invisible mass in the world’s visible masses.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Pareto and petit bourgeois nietzschianism

“His belief in man's freedom of thought and action, whether in the marketplace, in the press or in the university lecture halls remained unshaken till the end of his life. His economic liberalism was similar to that of the classical school; he upheld the freedom of markets, defended the merits of a free competitive system and was responsible more than any other economist for turning economics into a positive science, devoid of ethical considerations.”

Such is the summing up of Pareto’s work by one of his modern admirers, Renato Cirillo. The last phrase, with its combination of the petit bourgeois and Nietzschian grandiosity, is meant seriously. But of course it is nonsense: you do not uphold the ‘freedom of the markets”, or think that “freedom” even has a meaning in relation to ‘markets’, unless you are jammed full of ethical considerations, unless they dictate your whole view of the social hierarchy.

Pareto optimization, or “efficiency”, has been enfolded in the neo-classical tradition as something like a law of economics – or at least that branch which deals with ‘welfare”. Now it may seem that efficiency has little to do with needs and satisfactions except as, at best, a measure of the number of steps involved in performing an action. But efficiency has been elevated from humble origins far above the other conceptual gods by the economists, who have found in it a mantra to defend every kind of inequality and turn the tables on the carpers. The classical formulation of the Pareto axiom is this, from Alan Peacock and Charles Rowley: “if any change in the allocation of resources increases the social welfare of at least one person without reducing the social welfare of any other person, then this change should be treats as improving total social welfare.”

It is a dog’s body of a formula, but of course one can see at a glance that – skipping lightly over the exploitation of labor, which we will now pretend never happens and has nothing to do with value – from a neo-classical point of view, this is nearly heaven. To justify the enormous fortunes of the wealthy on the grounds that they somehow earned it runs into the absurdity of ‘earning’ millions for sitting at a desk and making decisions, or for having come up with a nifty device once upon a time in one’s youth, etc. Far better, then, to derail the whole critique by boldly claiming that the rich not only harm no one, but improve the total social welfare every time the dividend check comes in the mail.

Pareto’s own formulation of this maxim is heavily mathematical, which is, of course, another strike in its favor. Mathematizing relations is a very handy way of avoiding the conceptual analysis of same.

Otherwise, of course, this oracular pronouncement seems unlike to help us understand almost any real situation of “allocating” resources.
Let’s go for the first and most obvious problem, which is the presumption that the social welfare is defined in terms of positive gains. As anybody knows, though, this is simply not a general rule for life. In fact, it is often the worst rule to follow. If the allocator of ice cream at the party allocates me a bowl and my friend, Mr. Cardiac Arrest, a bowl, his social welfare would be improved if I stole his bowl of ice cream. Such situations of limits and overindulgence, writ large and small, are all over our “social welfare”.

Which, of course, gets us to questions of the allocator. The allocator is a strange beast, having no self interest of its own, but begin able to read exactly what the self-interest of all individuals in the collective are. Even the neo-classicals back away from this idea – which is why they prepose the much more wooly idea that interest and aggrandizement of goods is the same. Of course, this shreds into little synchronic strobe lit bits the true temporal dimension of the social. That x get wealthy and I don’t may, at time 1, seem to be no skin off my nose – but it is one of the funny things about wealth that you acquire it to acquire power. Wealth is as much a part of a position vis a vis others as it a quantity of purchasing power. This means that there exists a distinct possibility that, at some time in the future, the wealthy man will use his wealth to raise the bar to entry for the non-wealthy man.

How, of course, is our magic allocator to know this? The neo-classical solution, of course, is to pretend that this allocator is dumb to such things, and make a virtue of that dumbness. It is dumb because the future is uncertain! This distributor of cards, this dealer behind the curtain, turns out to be, of course, the market. The, as they like to say, “free market”. And furthermore, we are to believe that this free market is exquisitely sensitive to our needs and wants. Like a tongue tied beau, it woos us with poetry. The market’s poetry happens to be prices.

Even granted that something like “a market” can be extracted from the thousands of real markets in existence in this world – which, I confess, I doubt – the idea that the market is extremely smart and extremely dumb at the same time is curious. In fact, as one of Pareto’s commentators sheepishly admits, Pareto just assumed Say’s law – that markets always clear. Say’s law is the black sheep of neo-classical economics – it dare not speak its name, but – of course – it is believed with the ardor of true love among their ranks.

To be continued

Sunday, May 02, 2010

From need to efficiency

In the Idea of History, R.C. Collingwood wrote: “so far as man’s conduct is determined by what may be called his animal nature, his impulses and appetites, it is non-historical; the process of those activities is a natural process. Thus, the historian is not interested in the fact that men eat and sleep and make love and thus satisfy their natural appetites; but he is interested in the social customs which they create by their thought as a framework within which these appetites find satisfaction in ways sanctioned by convention and morality.”

Christopher Berry, in his book, The Idea of Luxury, quotes Collingwood in order to set up a contrast with Marx, who, Berry contends, is generally given credit for ‘historicizing’ needs and satisfactions. For Berry, what needs to be understood, before one makes the contrast work, is the distinction between basic and instrumental needs. The need to eat, for instance, might make a man go forth from his house in search of food, but if the man lives in a small town in Iowa in 2010, he will undoubtedly use his car and go to a grocery store or a restaurant, in the process putting himself in contact with the entire global system of, for instance, the supply of petroleum. The latter may be merely instrumental to the former basic need – but the instrument can be so necessary that the basic need will be unmet if the instrumental need is unsatisfied. Every earthquake shows that what is fundamental and what is secondary can be overthrown and reversed in the wink of an eye.

For Marx’s views on the subject, Berry quotes the classical passages in the German Ideology. Marx, who knew dialectics like a great gambler knows cards, certainly saw the abstract antithesis between need and satisfaction, and the thousand social resolutions that this antithesis set in play. Yet Marx set his face against philosophical histories that shuffled around categories as if there were no circumstances. Collingwood, following the classical bourgeois code, dissolved circumstances into ‘thought” – the thought that creates social customs; whereas Marx traced circumstances into thought, and in so doing opened the ‘basic’ needs to history.

To be open to history, for Marx, meant to be function in some mode of production.
Within neo-classical economic theory, the needs have been submerged in a vocabulary of efficiency – but of course need and satisfaction linger, here, just below the surface. Philip Mirowski has described the marriage of political economics and models derived from nineteenth century physics, which was both an attempt to make economic scientific and a way of translating what Mirowski calls folk psychological concepts, and Marx would call ideological ones, into terms that seem mathematically sound and unquestionable. Efficiency, seen as the correspondents in human society to the notion of “least action” in physics, has served the purpose of displacing the utopian opening that emerges when economics is put in contact with the discourse of needs, even if that utopian opening remains on the level of “unscientific socialism”, since it is evident that the economic system under which we labor, capitalism, has produced a class of owners whose needs are met with such overwhelming means, and a class of laborers whose needs are met with such parsimony and lack, that one wonders how it could possibly be a just system.

Thus, it is a rather shrewd turn to move the conversation to the question of efficiency. Efficiency has a value neutral sound. Moreover, its measurement and definition remain in the hands of a priesthood. So much so that it is sometimes hard to unstick oneself from the ideological determination of efficiency and ask questions about the efficiency of the system as a whole. For how could one ever say that a principle of least action is obeyed in a system in which the satisfaction of the need to eat depends on, among other things, the return on investment for the petroleum company extracting oil from a Nigerian swamp? Instead of promoting a least action principle in shortening the number of action steps between need and satisfaction, Capital tends to do just the opposite, multiplying to an almost miraculous extent the degrees between need and satisfaction.