“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, December 30, 2011

From 2007

Making the rich less rich is not socialism

I’ve become a reader of Floyd Norris’ blog over at the NYT. I’ve noticed, with some amusement, that any time a vague and distant hint arises that the rich in America might be oh, oh, slightly too… rich, the comments section is reliably flooded by screeds against socialism and for the American way.

It makes me long for a snappy way to point out that capitalism was not abolished in the U.S. in the fifties, nor was the Reagan tax cut on the wealthiest the second coming of Adam Smith in the eighties. What is funny about the rabid defense of the wealthy is that I imagine it often comes from the non-wealthy. It isn’t like billionaires are trolling blogs. But what they are defending is, of course, absolutely against their interests. It is the great American paradox: the almost saintly disinterestedness of the American householder in defense of systematic greed.

There are a number of ways to redistribute wealth down. Imagine, for instance, that unions had been strong enough, back in the eighties, to peg earnings to the ratio between upper management and the lowest paid functionaries in a company. Back then, the ratio was about 70 to 1 – today, it averages something like 300 to 1. If the unions had done this and the CEO level had succeeded in extorting the pay packages they had today, we would be living in a utopia in which the merest entry level receptionist would be taking home 150-200 thou. This would be excellent – except of course that corporations would no longer make profits. Instead, they’d be pouring all their cash into paying their workforce. Still, at the 70 to 1 ratio, upper management’s efforts to increase their compensation packets would have significantly pulled the earnings up of the entire workforce.

Unfortunately, when you don’t have powerful unions, you have to rely on the countervailing powers of the state. You have to work, then, to raise the taxation on the upper tier considerably. You have to do this not only because you need to pay for public investments, but because there is a macro good to great income equality. For one thing, it discourages economic activity that is, in reality, mere churning. Looking at the mortgage mess, one can see more and more clearly how the fantastic, Pirenesian structure of false economic activity has worked since 2001. It has allocated money not to the most productive, but to the most churnful. For another thing, more equality now means more equality latter. As the gap widens between the resources of the rich and the not-rich, it becomes exactly what we socially reproduce. Those non-rich who, for instance, decided that the death tax, otherwise know as the estate tax, was just terribly unfair to their children actually screwed their children terribly, because they are not leaving the kids fortunes, whereas the fortunate few are – thus aggravating the already unfair structure that separates rich from non-rich children. The cost of abolishing the estate tax is borne by the non-rich in such areas as trying to get their kids into top schools and the like.

But what most impresses me about expropriating a good share of the wealth of the wealthy is its environmental impact. As anybody with the eyes to see can see, the last twenty years have been years of great GDP growth in many countries. In fact, the whole Tom Friedman-esque economy is oriented towards steroiding GDP. Why? Because if you are going to have increasing inequality, growth is the way that the middle income sector – the vastly more numerous non-rich – can, at least, maintain their lifestyles. But GDP growth could also be called the Diminishing Environmental Return. DER is the natural result of overexploiting a system that is limited in many ways. Put up a zillion towers for cell phones, and you can say bye bye to songbird populations – make your McMansions of tropical wood, and strew them with the kind of wiring that gives you 24/7 instaconnectoinstamaticinstatubelivegirlsxxxxpronomatic action, and you can say bye bye to the environment of Sumatra. Down the intertubes it goes. It is an incredible waste of resources, which is the total result of the elite decision to grossly exacerbate the wealthiest’s share of the wealth. With a greater equality of income, of course, GDP doesn’t have to grow as fast. The drift of our current society into endless war, endless stupidity, an endlessly degraded public sector, the unwinding of all those hard fought democratic gains of the last one hundred years, is the direct result of a simple arithmetic ratio. To repair this – to go back to the managed capitalism, as Kuttner calls it, of the past – isn’t socialism – it is the self interest of the vast mass of American citizens.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

the forest and the address

Yes I'm lonely
wanna die

About the time Rousseau was meditating on the original men in the forest of St. Germane, in the 1750s, the French government was beginning to assign numbers to buildings in various cities. This was a two-fold process. According to David Garrioch, it was not only about assigning a number, but also about a great loss of names: the names of houses. For before the number address, houses were found by their name on the street:

“In the cities of early modern Europe the houses and shops almost all had names and signs. There were red lions and golden suns; names of ships, trees and plants; figures of history and myth; every conceivable saint.”

Garrioch questions a history that sees these names solely in terms of identifying marks. Firstly, the names could be, and were, changed; secondly, there was no system to the marks. There was no succession  of suns, for example. While they may have played a role in identifying the house or shop, the name or sign played more of a role in expressing something about the possessor of the house or shop, from the owner’s loyalties to the owner’s family:

“Yet the signs and house names, like heraldic symbolism, might have more than individual significance. They might act as links between generations, between the namer of the house or the fhounder of a dynasty and that person’s descendants. This is exemplified by the arms of Albrecht Duerer, the painter, which bore a door. The sign outside his father’s workshop in late fifteenth century Nuremberg had been an open door, an obvious pun on the family name, itself a traslation into German of the name of the village the family had come from, Atjos, meaning ‘door’ in Hungarian.” (Garrioch 33)

The Ancien Regime, we are learning, did not fall with the French Revolution. Even after the system of number addresses – first decreed in “military’ towns in France in 1768 – was normalized all over France, including Paris, in 1805, the house names and signs continued for a while. But that advance of numeration had an organizing effect on the city, much like the Prussian method of ‘organizing’ forests by culling certain species, taking out dead wood, creating allies between trees to allow for cutting, etc.

Recent research has shown that the numeration devised by the Revolutionary government had two functions: one was to fix a correspondence between the house and taxes, and the other was to fix the house on the street for police purposes. In fact, the Ancien Regime attempts at numeration often left the system of numeration as confusing as the system of names. The father of the modern system of addresses in France was a certain Ducrest, who submitted a memoir on the subject to Fouche, Napoleon’s minister of the police, in 1804.  In his memoir, he touted the system of numeration (for identity cards, houses, etc.) as an instrument of total observation, a police dream: “The objective of the project is ‘to be able to follow, so to speak, step by step all  citizens.”[Quoted in Vincent Denis, Entre Police et demographie, Actes de recherche en science social, 2000]

The great bonfire of the names of the nobles, which has always been seen as one of the most important symbolic moments in the Revolution, was paralleled by this other bonfire of the names – a slower one, granted. In Milan, the Parisian system of numeration by the street – instead of numeration by the city quarter – did not start until 1857. But the point is that it did get started.    

Evidently, to balance the forest against the address, which is symbolically pleasing, is not exactly accurate. And yet, it does give us, at least as far as we use this to understand Rousseau’s sense of the individual, a good starting point for understanding the nature of  Rousseau’s great objection to the social. It was, I think, an objection to its tendency to totality: its non-intermittance.

The thematic that brings this out is solitude. In an essay on the romantic writer as victim, Eric Gans adduces Rousseau as the prototype, quoting his remarks from the Reveries: “Here I am, then, alone in the world, with no longer brother, neighbor, friend, or society other than myself. The most sociable and the most loving of humans has been excluded from society by a unanimous consent.” Gans is quite right to interpret this as Rousseau’s claim to being a victim: the solitary and the victim are jointed together in one semantic field in Rousseau’s work, and, in fact, in society at large: to make solitary, to put in solitary, was, even in the 18th century, a form of torture inflicted on certain prisoners. At the same time, from Rousseau’s viewpoint, it was characteristic of the corruption of the society that he wrote to ‘improve’ that it could imagine solitude in no other way than as a punishment, even as it was beginning to imagine the individualism that corresponded to the private sphere of exchangers.

The thematic of solitude that winds its way through Rousseau’s autobiographical works is, as well, at the heart of the Discourse on Inequality.

The first human beings, in fact, are natural solitaries, according to Rousseau. He imagines their state as one in which the natural and the voluntary are joined in a life form that is pre-social. True, Rousseau’s grasp on this state goes in and out of focus, just as his periodizations have a tendency to become misty or contradictory as he wants to make this or that observation about the course of human socialization. Language and other collaborative human things – religion, for instance, and, importantly, division of labor – are absent at this point. The Discourse then provides a sort of kaleidoscopic analysis of how the social came about, which is equivalent to the rupture with the first, natural solitude and the first, natural sense of the self.

Since forests are my theme, here, it is interesting that one of the aspects of the emergence of the social and of inequality, for Rousseau, comes about with the fall of the forest:

“ So long as men are content with their rustic cabins, so long as they limit themselves to sewing skins together with thorns or with bones, to ornament themselves with shells or feathers, to paint their bodies with diverse colors, to perfect or embellish their bows and arrows, to carve fishing canoes or awkward instruments of music out of tree trunks with sharpened stones, in a word, as long as they apply themselves to what a single man can do, and to arts which have no need for the help of several hands, they live free, healthy, well and happy, as much as their natures allow; and they continue to enjoy with each other the sweetness of commerce. But in that instant where one man has need of another; in the moment that someone perceives that it is useful for one person to have provisions for two, equality disappears, property is introduced, work becomes necessary, and vast forests change into smiling fields that it is necessary to water with the sweat of men, and in which one sees germinate slavery and misery, which grow with the harvest.”

Rousseau is, perhaps, the first European thinker who can truly imagine backwards – but he requires a reader who can imagine backwards, too. It is easy to think of the primitive man of his description as a self-conscious individual. But this gets Rousseau’s conjectural history utterly wrong. He is, rather, an unself-conscious solitary. He does not know the contours of his individuality. His independence is a lack of need, not a principle. The individual of modern theory only emerges when the primal state of solitude is broken. The individual can be consciously independent, but in having that awareness of dependence and the social tie, even in rejecting it, the individual exists in a society which has taken a turn against primal solitude. The new solitude, the touchy solitude that emerges in a society that is organized according to division of labor, and thus of work, and property, is a different kind of human being:

“It is reason which engenders self-love, and reflection that strengthens it. This is what folds man back upon himself; that separates him from all that discomforts and afflicts him. It is philosophy that isolates him. It is by this means tht he says in secret, at the look of the suffering man: “perish if you want to – I’m safe.”

This, as Rousseau sees, is one of the hidden mottoes of civilization, a canon that nobody can afford to ignore – and survive.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

file under revolution

Joseph Stiglitz’s article in the Vanity Fair about the current Big Slump has been picked up and argued about by certain economists – Brad Delong and Nick Rowe for instance – in terms of whether it deviates from neo-Keynesianism or not. I'd argue that the more applicable background disagreement is that between Keynes and Marx.

Stiglitz's argument, I think, is that the ‘economy’ or the international system of production is very well able to produce goods and services – but its increasing efficiency means that it can’t produce employment or higher wages for work. This is a sectoral dysfunction – it happened with agriculture in the 20s and 30s, and with manufacturing post 70s (that is, in the U.S.). The increasing efficiency over time thus works both to narrow the ability of other entrants in the field - it shrinks competitiveness - and it diminishes the need for labor. In other words, there is an asymmetry between this capacity for production and the ability of the population to absorb it by – crucially – paying for it. This strikes me as very much like the Keynesian position and the Marxian position vis-à-vis the chronic problem of market clearing faced by ‘free markets”, and predicted by equilibrium realists – people like Says, who believe that the market really is self-regulating, rather than booby trapped. Marx, however, says that the increasing efficiency will eventually bite the capitalist in the ass by lowering his rate of profit. The Keynesian doesn’t think this is true, and in the short term it certainly isn’t. The capitalist can benefit in two ways from the current system: he can benefit from the increased efficiencies all the way down the logistical line that cheapen his labor cost, and he can benefit from the free insurance given him by the government when a problem with ‘aggregate demand’ happens – free insurance that can take many forms, some of which have to do with allowing the tax payer to make tax free investments – in houses, in 401ks – some of which consists of guaranteeing monopoly – IP rights – and some of which is simply giving money to the capitalist on a grand scale as the last resort. For the Keynesian, then, all problems are short term problems and will be solved accordingly. The long term never arrives. For the Marxian, the long term does arrive occasionally – in true structural crises. The Keynesian being right depends, crucially, on the capitalist being able to paper over the cracks in the structure caused by efficiency through the government – but that, in turn, depends on the idea that these efficiency problems can be isolated within one sector and that the legitimacy of the government doesn’t come into doubt. Legitimacy doesn’t just mean the confidence of the bond market in the state, but – and this arises only in moments of abnormal structural stress – the confidence of the people in the state.
It strikes me that Stiglitz economic point is joined with the political point that he has been making a lot - that the confidence problem is not fundamentally in the bond market or upper management, but among the people. And this isn't some amorphous problem that one can ignore, economically, for if the people turn against the state provided insurance for business, businesses will be cast into the Marxian hell. Marx’s notion can be put very well in the dystopian proposition that, every once in a while, you can’t avoid the long term. Which is why the revolutionary part of Marx, which most Marxists now tamely discard, is, I think, central not just to Marx’s politics, but to his economic analysis.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Orwell and Hitchens

Hitchens made no bones about idolizing George Orwell. The result of that infatuation is that the names Orwell and Hitchens came together enough times that – as quantity turns into quality in the black magic of the press – it became a cliché that Hitchens was like Orwell. That he was our Orwell, or something.

You don’t have to read very much in the works of either writer to find that Hitchens is not at all like Orwell. Hitchens would have been incapable of writing Down and Out in Paris and London because he would have been incapable of being down and out in Paris or London. Orwell’s strength came from not only being able to imagine the “common people”, but being, existentially, as close to them as a Public School graduate can get – whereas Hitchens had no sense whatsoever for the common people. Hitchens’s sensorium was hooked up to the Byzantine elite, whether to despise them or to raise an elbow with them, depending on the various stages of his career.

Last night I went and read the great first chapter of Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, the booklet Orwell wrote in 1940. The first sentence of the booklet was cited by, among others, Kurt Vonnegut, who took from it his idea of how to write about war: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” The idea that the universal – the war – is trying to kill the particular – me – gets a workout in Catch 22. Of course, it gets a workout in the literature of war at least since Stendhal, but Orwell’s sentence sharpens it to a point. Even though it was not an anti-war point – Orwell was anything but a pacifist. He poured a lot of homophobic scorn on pacifists. He was not at his best writing about pacifists. Who is?

However, the sentence I want to take out of that essay comes from the first chapter, which surveys the “English genius”. “But in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order.” This is the Orwellian touch, the premise for his best writing, the insight that makes him, still, a fascinating writer to think with. Hitchens was completely oblivious to this fact. Hitchens writing, at its best, can help one penetrate the feeling in a novel, or the tone of a ‘set’ of political players, but he had no sense for the genius of the common people, and when he would set himself up as a generalizer about nations, regions, politics, etc., he was pretty much at a loss. He made up for this loss of tactile knowledge by moralizing. When moralizing about the doings of his own society, the governing class of the nations in which he prospered enormously, he was often on target. But as his moralizing took in larger and larger fields, it became less and less valuable. In the end, taking up the whole of the Middle East, he only showed, with an amazing stubbornness, that he knew almost nothing about the Middle East.

Orwell, on the other hand, was very uncomfortable in the role of ‘regional expert”. Famously, he quit the BBC in 1943 because his section, which was concerned with India, and his broadcasts made him very unhappy. Unhappy about the Churchillian assumption that the British empire was moral (Orwell disagreed) and unhappy, I think, that he was supposed to fabricate pundits knowledge (a sort of identikit knowledge coming from hasty reading of newspaper clippings) and spit it out when, of course, he could imagine India much better than that. He could imagine that Indians heard other things than the BBC, and were moved by other news than that printed in English papers. He even imagined that Indians might have interests that were opposed to his own, or to his politics. He recognized, in short, the genius of the common people as a different genius from that of the notables.

“The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One
thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc. etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.”  

Undoubtedly, Orwell had a jingoistic side where he would forget the doublesidedness of national cultures – the official and the common culture. But he at least recognized it when his nose was crushed up against it.

I should say, too, that in this pamphlet Orwell makes several remarks about socialism and capitalism which, if printed without his name, would be taken to be by Lenin. For instance, this:

“What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism -- that is, an economic
system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit -- does not work. It cannot deliver the goods. This fact had been known to millions of people for years past, but nothing ever came of it, because there was no real  urge from below to alter the system, and those at the top had trained themselves to be impenetrably stupid on just this point. Argument and propaganda got one nowhere. The lords of property simply sat on their bottoms and proclaimed that all was for the best.
Hitler's conquest of Europe, however, was a physical debunking of capitalism. War, for all its evil, is at any rate an unanswerable test of strength, like a try-your-grip machine. Great strength returns the penny, and there is no way of faking the result.”

Orwell would have recognized the economic crisis we are going through as another test of strength, in which the reliance on private banking with insurance provided – in the trillions of dollars – gratis by the States as another physical debunking of capitalism. His solution should be mentioned, too:

Socialism is usually defined as "common ownership of the means of production".
Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption.
At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc. etc.) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it.
In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates
what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.”

Try getting those two paragraphs printed in any publication in America that routinely genuflects to the name, Orwell. As for this, which could well be applied to the current scene of pharaonic inequalities in the developed countries:

What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency,
class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of
government. British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies have to be committed in public. Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices,in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.”

In England now, of course, both parties are headed by half witted schoolboys, and the intelligent mechanics have seen their jobs offshored so that other halfwitted schoolboys could make a killing on the stock market.

But to get back to a comparison of the style of the two writers. Here’s a vintage piece of Hitchens’ prose before the apple soured, from a 1998 essay on the teaching of history in America:

“About four years ago I began to ask the teachers of my own children how it came to be that they could not tell Thomas Jefferson from Thomas the Tank Engine. In the preceding sentence, it is unclear whether I mean that the children didn't know unless I told them, or that the teachers didn't know unless I told them. The confusion is intentional. One instructor, at a rather costly District of Columbia day school, cheerfully avowed that she herself "had never been that much of a reader." Others, more candid, announced that history was a bit of a minefield subject and that "good examples" (like Pocahontas and, on a good day, Frederick Douglass) were the thing. Parson Weems himself could hardly have bettered the modern method whereby children get good reports in a subject that they have never studied in order that a tiny pump be applied to the valves of their fledgling self-esteem.”
I think this is very funny. However, it is very funny because, one notices, the common people are ignorant – the infant Hitchens’ teachers are more akin to the impossible servants of Boot Manor in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop than anything in Orwell – and it has just the nattering tone of complaint of the elites that hints at the turn Hitchens would take to fully Toryism a few years later. The shot, for instance, at the vogue for ‘self-esteem’ is blindly conjoined to a tone of an overwhelming self-esteem, which produces an inadvertent comedic moment – a moment when the author loses control of the material, which takes behind the scenes control of the author. 
Of course, the judges are always being judged themselves – Jesus, as well as Oscar Wilde, warned about that. Orwell’s humor is not funny in that Waugh like way – it is funny in the classic modernist way. The sentence about civilized men flying overhead trying to kill him de-routinizes war. This is the characteristic Orwell gesture, and the gesture of the great writers of his generation, who had inherited it from the formalist revolution at the turn of the century.  
So, for instance, this is Orwell on the teaching of history:
“When I was a small boy and was taught history -- very badly, of course, as nearly
everyone in England is -- I used to think of history as a sort of long scroll with thick
black lines ruled across it at intervals. Each of these lines marked the end of what was called a "period", and you were given to understand that what came afterwards was completely different from what had gone before. It was almost like a clock striking. For instance, in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages, with knights in plate armour riding at one another with long lances, and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance, and everyone wore ruffs and doublets and was busy robbing treasure ships on the Spanish Main. There was another very thick black line drawn at the year 1700. After that it was the Eighteenth Century, and people suddenly stopped being Cavaliers and Roundheads and became extraordinarily elegant gentlemen in knee breeches and three-cornered hats. They all powdered their hair, took snuff and talked in exactly balanced sentences, which seemed all the more stilted because for some reason I didn't understand they pronounced most of their S's as F's. The whole of history was like that in my mind -- a series of completely different periods changing abruptly atthe end of a century, or at any rate at some sharply defined date.”

In one sense Orwell’s paragraph seems much simpler – Hitchens’ depends, for its business, on a lot of fancy referential footwork, from Parson Weems (who is a pure reference – surely Hitchens has never read Parson Weems biography of Washington, but he doesn’t have to – it stands in as an exemplar of didactic history heromaking) to Thomas the Tank Engine. Its texture comes out of a certain association of ideas that makes Hitchens the superior teller – he has the references under his fingertips, and the teachers don’t. This relationship is, purposely, up-ended in Orwell’s paragraph. Although in a parenthetical aside Orwell does tell us history is taught badly in England, he spends the rest of the paragraph displaying his own naivete. The references that are associated with him are cartoonlike, and Orwell himself, at least as a boy, didn’t understand all the references – for as a boy, he mistook a typography that printed s’s as f’s as reflecting the way people spoke. In other words, Orwell shows himself getting it wrong – he is the butt of his own joke.

I think this comparison tells us a lot about the virtues and vices of the essay styles of Hitchens and Orwell. The people who give us the cliché that Hitchens was the Orwell of our time have as little knowledge of Orwell as Hitchens has of Parson Weems – Orwell, here, has been made into a one-dimensional marker. This is a shame, since Orwell truly is a great essayist, the only English equivalent I can think of for the great Sprachkritiker on the Continent (Bloy, Peguy, Tucholsky, Kraus, etc.).

Hitchens is simply another kind of writer, from another family tree – the Tory wits. I was about to say, crossed with Shaw’s prefaces, but no – that isn’t really so. The Tory wits cultivated a style that had its roots in nursery room humor, when the children of the house were under authority figures –the nanny being the great target – who, at the same time, were subordinate to them (as they well knew) in the great scheme of society. Thus, the anti-authoritarianism is directed most cuttingly against authorities who are really secondary to the money and power that keep Vanity Fair going – the proxies, those who have achieved their positions only with a mixture of industry and asslicking. Of course, Hitchens was not to that manor borne, but he made the chameleon’s choice early on to mimic it, and in the end, he had re-created himself as an English nob as well as Waugh re-created himself as a scion of old Catholic nobility.

A pity that the American audience did not, after all, get the references.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitchens RIP

Hitchens once jokingly explained that terrorism, in American Govspeak, is an incoherent term that means anything from combatant to “swarthy opponent of American foreign policy.”

That was in the eighties, when Hitchens had a grasp of the linguistic cunning that makes for the politics of reaction. In the 00s, when Hitchens became famous, that grasp had slipped. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Hitchens ruined his prose when he, too, decided that terrorism is defined by “swarthy opponent of American foreign policy,” for in that decision he both rubbished his own ability to understand the nexus of power and definition that makes for propaganda, and he became one of the fruitier of the right’s propagandists, an atheist Bob Novak. Slate, at the moment, is in official mourning for Hitchens, who was a columnist there after he jumped ship from the Nation. This is rather like John Wilkes Booth donning mourning for Abe Lincoln. Slate’s infinitely meretricious reporting-plus-punditry presented just the sort of gaseous, inside the Beltway conventional wisdom (which, in an audacious P.R. move, the editors dubbed contrarianism) that killed Hitchens’ prose. His “Fighting Words” column was written in the same style that an owl digests its prey – everything is quickly swallowed, and then the bones are spit out. Thus, Hitchens would survey some vast subject that he was manifestly uninformed about – Iraq, for instance – and he would then emit a number of parenthesis long bellows, vaguely connected by his personal experience, which was all Lawrence of Arabia without Arabia, the man of action without the action. The symbol of the contradiction was  Hitchens being waterboarded for the celebrity mag, Vanity Fair. As a young writer, Hitchens would surely have enjoyed the reduction of the issue of torture to a photo op next to the story about Angelinia Jolie's wonderful bosom; but of course, in the D.C. where Hitchens was most at home, the sensibility that understands the difference between photo op and action has long vanished.
That D.C. found its voice in Hitchens.  Some of his most stirring columns were, in fact, in defense of chicken hawkery among those who, with great sacrifice, guide the foreign policy of the great American empire. One of them, Paul Wolfowitz, who, after being wheeled from one job he was incompetent at – in the State Department – to another job he was incompetent at – at the World Bank – was removed from his sinecure after insisting the institution pay for his mistress too, was lamented in truly pitiful tones by Hitchens, who by this time had imbibed the views of Doctor Strangelove about the need for elite males to have on had a steady supply of nubile females. But Wolfowitz was only one of the indefensibles that Hitchens buddied up to in his last years, a roll call that includes Kurdish gangsters, lowbrowed Cheneyites from the Hoover institute, and, of course, Ahmed Chalabi, the perfect 00s freedom fighter, with a biography that combined instances of Enron-like fraud with instances of peculating U.S. Government funds to an extent that would have been considered bold by Halliburtan.

Perhaps it was the contradiction between holding himself up as a moral entrepreneur – for Hitchens’ later political columns were rank with his own virtues – and keeping such evidently immoral company that did in the writer in Hitchens. There were traces of that writer even in the book on Clinton: but the writer definitely died after 9/11. Hitchens survived him and flourished in the moronic inferno of Bush’s America. He succumbs on the day that America withdraws its troops from Iraq. Surely he would have endorsed his hero, John McCain’s description of that withdrawal as a dark day for American foreign policy – it will make it that much harder to march to Teheran.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Merit and dreams

(from here)

I looked, last night, for a passage in Cioran where, as he discusses what he sees as the decline of Europe into bourgeois comfort (he is writing in the fifties), he makes a passing remark that we are all equal in our dreams. I couldn’t find the exact words, but as I remember the passage, he is speaking literally: while our waking lives may be structured by numerous and overwhelming inequalities, there is neither wealth, fame, nor competition in dreaming: we dream alone. And in this sense, radical egalitarianism is not a political credo so much as a natural historical fact about human beings. A good third of our lives, our lives when asleep, are equal.

Cioran does not go any further with this idea; but it seems to me that it deserves more than to die in that undiscoverable passage, another philosophical “crack” that one forgets. Rather, I think it gives us an angle on the strange career of egalitarianism in our time.

I would develop the idea by matching it with a passage from another great essayist, Roberto Calasso. In an essay on Karl Kraus’ war on public opinion, Calasso puts  his finger on another radically equalizing moment in modernity: that of public opinion.

Calasso links the rise of public opinion to the Enlightenment, in line with a recent trend among historians who have found a use for the notion of the public sphere to explain certain traits about the 18th and 19th century in Europe and the U.S. Calasso, however, is after a tension between the Enlightenment utopia of the tabula rasa, able to “endure the total abrasion of meaning produced by an all consuming nominalism”, and the emergence of public opinion. If the Republic of the tabula rasa led to a constant reign of virtuous terror, the epistemological search for the tabula rasa led to a contradiction. For in fact, Calasso claims, the public mind is neither blank nor inhabited by Descartes innate ideas – rather it is inhabited by opinions. And of opinions, the opinion is: “One opinion is as good as another: The abyss yawns in this commonplace as in every other.”

That particular abyss has been plumbed extensively by the great pessimists – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Leon Bloy, Kraus - and Calasso himself, who all share the theme first announced in Plato’s dialogues, which is that opinion is a bad epistemological object. However, I have never been convinced by this argument and its arriere pensée, which is a contempt for the people. My impulse, on the contrary, is to take hold of another piece of the great Platonic whale – the idea that doxa, in the chain of being, is halfway between the real – the ideas – and the unreal – their images, or the physical world. That doxa exist only halfway puts them on the same plane as dreams. In this way, public opinions are part of the great public dreamlife. Now, one might object that opinions aren’t the same as dreams, and I’d agree to an extent. The difference is made by waking. However, one should not overestimate waking. In a formal sense, waking is a break with dreaming, but it is so only to the extent that consciousness succeeds in substituting its strong sense of externality for the insulation of dreams. In fact, of course, we carry that insulation about with us in our ordinary life, a depthless pocket that we become uneasily aware of when we drop something in it – the typo, the address we forgot, bad luck and fuckups, a whole day’s worth of silent muttering and inattentions.

It is against this psychological and existential background that one should examine the last instantiation of the Enlightenment utopia, meritocracy. The version current in America is tht disparities of wealth and income should correspond to disparities in merit. Some students did the homework and got As, some didn’t and got Fs.

This, it should be said, is a curiously childish way of seeing the world, and could only have been developed in that Asperger’s paradise of a discipline, economics. To return to Plato again, what this idea does is shift the focus entirely from the thing done to the external reward for doing it. In so doing, the thing done is curiously emptied of all merit on its own, all glory. The perfect meritocracy would be one in which the thing done requires a highly developed amount of skill, and is absolutely pointless. Thus, it should be correspondingly awarded with showers of external reward. This is an exact representation of the current financial services sector, at least in its higher reaches.

But if we reverse the values and forces in play, here, we might find room for both merit and egalitarianism. Or at least that was the dream entertained by the most solitary of men in the forest of Saint Germane in 1753. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

water pistol Juntas

When looking at the story of capitalism and the rise of the European powers, it is striking to see forms of organization appear on the periphery before they migrate to the center. For instance, the work discipline of the factory in 19th century England seems to replicate forms of work discipline created for the sugar 'factories' in the West Indies of the 17th century. In 19th century England, the work discipline was imposed on 'free labor', and in Jamaica, it was imposed on slaves. Yet, if we look away from the changes implied by this transformation of the working agent, we see a continuity of form, or at least the production of an organizational form that can be transposed.  And, unlike serf labor in Central Europe, for instance, this slave labor is relatively free of the codes that define its rights and hedge in the transmission of property and title by the owners.

A similar movement from the periphery to the center seems to be happening in the counter-revolution that is now occuring in all developed countries. What happened to the LDCs in the 80s - the less developed countries - is now being served up to the Developed Countries. It is an interesting mix of fiction and terror.

The eighties are the 'lost decade' in Latin America because they are the decade in which the program of the Washington Consensus, as it came to be know, were imposed on Latin American counties. The weapon by which they were lashed into this madness was debt - combined of course with the military regimes that had been put in place in the sixties and seventies as part of the U.S.'s cold war strategy. And the result of the WC was a major drop in the living standards of the majority of the population, and an end, almost, to growth. While the 50s and the 60s saw tremendous growth in Latin America, and an uneven but perceptible distribution of more wealth to the wage and working class, in the 80s this stopped dead. What emerged in the nineties were 'good countries', like Mexico, that devoted the government to obeying the banks, notably IMF. The IMF model, however, suffered a severe blow when Argentina refused to go along with the usual medicine in 2000, and the U.S. grip on the region began to loosen.

Well, the Washington consensus has migrated, at last, to the developed world. The whole world is now being held up by bankers holding waterpistols to our head. And this threat without a real weapon - for no developed state really needs to obey the bankers, who after all have no police force to arrest it (unlike the Latin American states, where the U.S. could whip up a junta in a heartbeat) - is, to the general amazement of the non-numb among us, being obeyed to the last tittle and jot. 

In the 80s, the police were, in effect, the developed nations. However, beginning, perhaps, with Bush in 2000, the Developed Nations have given birth to the smokeless coup. This coup does not involved armed might - it involves merely taken unelected institutions, such as a court of a central bank, and making them the center of a completely undemocratic seizure of political power, on behalf of the wealthiest people on earth. There aren't, we should remind ourselves, too many wealthy people. And yet the police of every Developed country on earth have been toiling away for wealthy people and locking up demonstrators, cracking down on any demonstration of discontent, and raiding any leaks of information inconvenient to the establishment. The resistence to all of this has been tame beyond reckoning. The self-policing extends all the way up through the discourse - nobody who writes for a major paper or magazine, or who broadcasts, ever couches the new Washington Consensus junta society in terms that would offend your average civics class teacher. 

What would such terms be? Well, for instance, we would start saying: who is all this money owed to? And: can't we simply upset those bankers by taking away their money, one two three, without a by your leave. If sovereign debt is such a problem, we could easily raise the money to pay it by slapping, say, one hundred percent taxes on all bond transactions, and we can use that money to buy the bonds. And absurd solution to an absurd political situation - not an economic one. The question of debt is a question of class. The political class and the financial elite are one, united, and they drive our politics in ways that advantage the financial elite, who use money loaned them, by the governments, to loan money back to the governments. Oh, not directly - rather, by propping up the financial service sector's enterprises, we prop up the places where the bodn dealers work and trade.  

The debt issue is, then, one of those fictions that bear such weight because they serve the interest of a certain power. It isn't that the establishment doesn't believe in its fiction - much as the Aztec priest definitely believed that it was necessary to cut out the heart of a prisoner to appease the gods and continue the course of the world, the elite believe it is necessary to cut out the heart of the middle class to appease the abstract God of Debt, to whom we owe so much. My solution is the radical one of the Lord's prayer - in which we have prettified and made metaphoric the common sense suggestion that we forgive debt every day. Debt. Which is as material as the feeling of the edge of a coin. Forgiving debt is the heart of civilization. And - in this age of the internet, where all that is money has become bytes - it is divinely easy to do it. It is always the sovereign who actually enforces laws to force debters to pay creditors. When the power of the sovereign is calmly and cooly taken from the hands of the people and invested in the hands of ex employees of Goldman Sachs, they switch sides - from being the borrowers for the people, they become the creditors for the banks. 

This is, obviously, going to be a lost decade for the Developed countries. But I'm hopeful that the new Junta order will be, at best, short lived. The arithmatic that counts is not how much debt is owed, but the ratio of the creditor population to the debtor population. I'd keep my eye on the latter, for, given the logic of the counterrevolution we are seeing, the time is approaching when the the banker's water pistol will be jerked out of his hand and turned upon him. And, magically, in that moment it will become a real pistol, with a heft and insistance that will change the power relationship all, all at once.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Jamie Dimon actually thinks he is successful

James Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, said in a speech to stockholders yesterday, "Acting like everyone who's been successful is badand that everyone who is rich is bad,” he said. “I just don't get it."  

It is hard to know what to respond to first: the fact that he is clueless, or the fact that he thinks he is successful.

Rich, yes he is rich. But rich is not the same as successful. Often, rich is the opposite of successful. Rich is the symptom of a system that has allocated its resources illogically, responding to the kind of power differentials that are at the heart of rentseeking and monopoly. On Dimon's scale, Idi Amin was successful. Even in the narrow field of bank management, Dimon has been anything but successful. As the head of JP Morgan Chase in 2008, Dimon's leadership essentially led the bank to the brink of bankruptcy, and it would have gone over if  if the Fed hadn't thoughtfully chosen to 'loan' it emergency money to the amount of 391 billion dollars - at 1 percent interest or below. Here's a nugget from Business Week:

"JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon told shareholders in March 2010 that his bank used the Fed's Term Auction Facility “at the request of the Federal Reserve to help motivate others to use the system.” He didn't say that the New York-based bank's total TAF borrowings were almost twice its cash holdings or that its peak borrowing of $48 billion came more than a year after the program's creation." 

In other words, if we judge success by an ability to operate as an insider and a parasite on a national scale, he's successful. If we judge success as, well, running a bank that contributes to the wellbeing of society and the creation of wealth, he is the very opposite of successful. He is rust. He is mold. He is the element that creeps and crawls, bores and bites, and turns wealth into dust. As Jeremiah, who had an eye for the Dimon type, put it:  "As the partridge sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not; so he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool."

Anyway, let's look into the bones of his comments. He then announced that, according to his calculations – made no doubt with his fingers crossed behind his back -  he is paying 50 percent of his income in income taxes, state and federal. But one has only to look at his Business week profile – which is different from his Forbes profile, such are the 75 ways to see a CEO’s compensation package -- to see that his real income is in stock options. According to Forbes, he has a cool 58,968,234.00 that are currently exercisable. According to Businessweek, he has 31,089,284. The Forbes profile doesn’t include the happy little bonus he got of 5 million dollars, but both sources agree he did make a million dollars in salary. What does this mean? Well, remember that it means, firstly, a tax writeoff for JP Morgan – sweetly enough, Congress has decided that companies can write off the expense of stock options they grant to their execs against their corporate taxes. How convenient! And then it means that when Dimon wants to exercise his options, and he does it after waiting the approved period, 2 years,  he will pay an astonishingly low 15 percent on the amount.  But will he really pay that amount? Or will he exercise his options in such a way that they are run through the increasingly popular tax haven system, so as to avoid hits to the millions and millions for running a bank that exists simply because Lord Bernanke the Lesser looked upon it and decided lo, it was good - and created some money ex nihilo and loaned that money to it.
So mark it down: Dimon, after being bailed out by the government,  is complaining that 3 million dollars (an improbable sum, but lets pretend that his casual remarks correspond to his  accountant’s results) is going to be taken from his six million dollars, and at some date the government will even take 15 percent from his 20 million in stock options, leaving the poor man with a mere 21 million + dollars for 2011. 

One can not call this phenomenon successful, save in the way that freaks and frauds that beguile a gullible audience are successful. Mark the man for what he is: like a partridge that sits on eggs that will not hatch, he is a fool, a deadbeat, a loser with a bonus, another plutocratic mediocrity.

Here's another observation from Jeremiah about the end of systems in which creatures like Dimon experience success:

Because my people hath forgotten me, they have burned incense to vanity, and they have caused them to stumble in their ways from the ancient paths, to walk in paths, in a way not cast up;

16 To make their land desolate, and a perpetual hissing; every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished, and wag his head.

17 I will scatter them as with an east wind before the enemy; I will shew them the back, and not the face, in the day of their calamity.


Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Forest Books

“All European culture – intellectual not less than material – came out of the woods.” Werner Sombart, Moderne Kapitalismus, Vol. 2

The symbolic key to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of inequality is found in the circumstances of its writing, as Rousseau described them in the Confessions:

“In order to meditate at my ease on this great subject, I made a tripe of seven or eight days to Saint-Germain with Therese, and our hostess, who was a good woman, and one of her friends. I count this excursion among the most agreeable ones of my life. The weather was beautiful. The good women took upon themselves the trip’s expenses and organization. Thérèse enjoyed herself with them, and I, without a care, I spent happy hours at mealtime, and for the rest of the day, plunged into the forest, I searched, I discovered there images of the first time, of which I proudly traced the history. I put my hands on the little lies of men, I dared to strip their nature naked, follow the progress of time and things which defigured them, and comparing man with natural man, show them, the true source of their miseries in their so called perfections. My soul, exalted by these sublime contemplations, was elevated to the side of the Divinity; and seeing from there my likenesses, followed, in the blind route of their prejudices, that of their errors, of their sorrows, of their crimes, I cried aloud to them in a feeble voice that they could not hear. Foolish men, who ceaselessly complain about nature, learn that all your woes come from you yourselves!”

The return to the forest makes the Discourse one of the great European forest books. In the vastness of its scale – that of universal history - Rousseau’s book resembles another book that also begins in a forest: “Midway through the journey of life/I found myself in a dark wood/for the straight way had been lost”. Dante’s story encompasses universal history as well, but it is not seen as such – rather, it is seen as a cosmological story, unfolding the great Biblical, classical and Christian events in the afterlife. In Dante’s beginning, the sign that the straight way had been lost is the dark wood; in Rousseau’s, of course, the sign that the straight way had been lost is outside of the forest of Saint German.

In Charles Olson’s reckoning with Moby Dick, he begins by highlighting the material importance of whale hunting to the economy of the United States in Melville’s time. An exhaustively materialist reading of Rousseau’s Discourse could, perhaps, due with an introductory treatise on the importance of forests to the economies of France and other countries in Europe in the 18th century. As Jean Nicolas’ sweeping history of peasant rebellions in that century makes clear, forest rights were no longer the central issue in village jacqueries – but in the 17th century, they clearly had been. Even so, wood, along with clothing and food, stood at the center of European life in Rousseau’s time. Nor was Rousseau the last of the writer’s of forest books. We think of certain classic American writers as creatures of the wood – Cooper, for instance, and, supremely, Thoreau. But as I have pointed out before, Marx, too, begins his real career by entering a forest – or at least entering into the issues that swirled around forest property rights, as he saw them being reshaped in Köln.

Wood theft, according to the two scholars who have studied it in the German context (Blasius and Mooser) was one of the central crimes against property in the 19th century, from the 1830s to the 1860s – over about a generation. Marx’s five articles about the laws concerning wood theft are not, then, about an eccentric issue. And, as much as wood “theft” is an issue in the history of crime, it is also an issue in the creation of property –which is how it opened Marx’s eyes, as much as they were opened in his classes in property law at the University of Berlin. It is here that we find Marx dealing with the kind of enclosures that were central to Polanyi theory of the Great Transformation. Private property was not, on this account, merely guarded by the state – the still reigning liberal myth. Rather, it was through the state that private property was defined. To separate the state from the private sphere is to move from historic fact to ideological myth. Why that myth is important is another matter. What Marx saw happening was important in the way he came to see understand class, rather than remaining with Stand – a word that is hard to translate. Status, station, estate – those are the English equivalents.

In 1858, in the preface to the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economics, Marx wrote: “My major was jurisprudence, that I nonetheless only took up as a subordinate discipline near philosophy and history. In 1842-1843, as the editor of the "Rheinischen Zeitung", I was embarrassed for the first time to have to discuss so called material interests. The Rheinische Landtag’s treatment of Wood theft and the parceling out of land properties, which opened up an official polemic between Herr von Schaper, at that time the president of Rhein province, and the Rheinischen Zeitung over the situation of the grapegrowers, debates finally about free trade and tarrifs, gave me a first occasion to deal with economic questions. On the other hand the good will to go further into this further made up for a lot of special expertise, and a weak philosophically colored echo of French socialism and communism could be heard in the Rheinischen Zeitung.”

I find it significant that these three European writers, setting out to write, on the broadest of scales, the history of human civilization, begin in the forest. Surely this must be an intersigne, an exchange happening in the basement below universal history, where all the dealers in codexes are busy cutting them up and mashing them back together. One way to look at Capital – a bleak way, granted – is that it is the first European book to envision a world completely out of the woods, a human world which has put the woods behind it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

a note on perfection - Foigny, Rousseau

Foigny’s Terre Austral is a utopian Robinsinade before Robinson was conceived. Like Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyage to the Moon, it mixes satire with libertine philosophy – of a kind – in such a way that text continually questions its own register. The narrator, Sadeur, who has the bad fortune to have been born a hermaphrodite in Europe, saves himself from shipwreck and lands in Australia – the land that is the polar opposite of Europe – only to discover a society of hermaphrodites who strangle those children that are born abnormally – that is, with one sex only. Somehow, these hermaphrodites have also perfected a form of parthenogenesis, which has the effect that every member of the society can enjoy a perfect solitude, save for the love they bestow upon their children. All, in this society, are equal. All are also naked.

The narrator is, of course, shocked at these things, and in turn shocks the Australians by wearing clothes. All of which leads to threat to put him to do, and a series of dialogues between him and one of the wisest Australians about society, sexuality, and … perfection.

The perfect has long been meditated in Europe, and assimilated into the Christian religion. As Foigny was writing in Geneva, Leibniz was publishing philosophical texts that used the idea of perfection to explain the order among all possible worlds. Foigny’s text is, in one register, a similar exploration of perfection, and in another register, a satire of it.

Thus, the wise Australian at one point explains the emotional customs of the Australians with reference to their sexual autarky as follows:

“As for us, we are total human beings, and there is none among us who does not show all the parties of our nature with all its perfections: this is the reason we live without these animal ardors one for the other, and we cannot even listen to talk about it. This is the reason, again, that we can live alone, as though having need of nothing. Ultimately, this is the reason that we are happy [contents] and that our loves have nothing charnel about them.”

The two semantic extremes at work here are the animal and the perfect. Human perfection, according to the Australians, is wrapped up in distancing the human in all things from the animal. Which reminds the narrator of Western theology: “I couldn’t hear the worlds of this man without being reminded about what our theology teaches of the production of the second person of the holy trinity, and of all the effects outside of the Divine. I had ceaselessly meditated on the great principles of our philosophy, “that the more perfect a being is, the less it has need to act.” In this case, the less it had need to feel.

The perfection of the Australians is a sort of mirror of the idea of perfection in European philosophy, but what that mirror shows is a society that is the opposite of the European, and that is, for the European reader, horrifying.

I have no evidence that Rousseau read Foigny, but certainly the renegade preacher was known to Bayle. In history, the ludicrous invariably shadows the serious, so it is not really that surprising that as Leibniz built the great baroque structure of the theodyssey, in which perfection is used a kind of cosmological rule to reconcile all possibilities and realizations, in a shabbier intellectual neighborhood, the discourse of perfection was used to discuss sex and shitting among the hermaphrodite Australians.

In the Discourse on Inequality, perfection becomes a verb – to perfect – in the best enlightenment manner. It is one of Rousseau’s chief conceptual instruments for creating his own conjectural history of the foundation of society. But to take the term as a synonym for progress, or to take it as having a wholly favorable meaning, is no doubt a mistake, one that leads inevitably to much exegetical anguish.

Another day, another crisis

According to this NYT article, the OECD is playing its usual neo-liberal role in urging austerity on Europe.

This, of course, is the end game of a long history of reaction going back to the seventies, when policy elites and the generation of 68 turned their back on 'socialism' and began the long work of demoralizing populations and installing financial regimes that deflated wages, raised credit limits to cover their unpopular policies, and inflated the compensation of the investor and managerial class to a Gilded Age level.

Here's the deal: There's no such thing as an unsustainable government debt. The banks, of course, depend on the governments to enforce debt obligations, plus they depend on the governments to either give them money or loan them money at such low interest rates that it is the same (the U.S. 'capitalized" U.S. and foreign banks, hedge funds and the financial centers of corporations to the tune of 16 trillion dollars from 20008 to 2010 without anybody batting an eyelash). So, what army does Goldman have?

It is too bad that we live in a world in which bank debts are paid by practically free loans by governments, and government debts are paid by - crushing the middle class. Eventually, our debt serfs are going to look up and ask: who, exactly, do we owe this money to? The relatively paltry investment class, which includes about a million to two million people world wide? Sorry, I see no reason that countries should go down the hole just so these people can continue to enjoy their three vacation homes and the corporate jet.

If Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece were smart, they'd band together and simply say no. If the EU central bank won't print the money this group needs to fund a bank and buy their own debt - a very easy thing to do - they should do it themselves, make up a Southern Euro. It would immediately deflate, and reverse Germany's export advantage in Europe. I see no reason that they shouldn't do this - except for the fact that the neo-lib colonies among the elites in those Southern countries would be horrified.

Friday, November 25, 2011

the naked and the busy: Rousseau2

In Kleist's essay, On the Marionette Theater, Kleist presents a dialogue between himself and a marionette master concerning theater and the relation of the marionette to the human actor. The master voices the idea that even human actors display their souls not in their voices but in the bodies and their movements.

"Just look at that girl who dances Daphne", he went on. "Pursued by Apollo, she turns to look at him. At this moment her soul appears to be in the small of her back. As she bends, she look as if she's going to break, like a naiad after the school of Bernini. Or take that young fellow who dances Paris when he's standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it's a frightful thing to see) in his elbow."

These examples are not neutral - they gather and explode in his next passage:

" Misconceptions like this are unavoidable," he said, " now that we've eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back."

That methodological circumnavigation, in search of the back door to paradise, is how I intend to pursue this investigation of Rousseau - and in fact, ultimately, all investigations. A paradisial truth that comes by way of the serpent's path, that is what is going on here.

In that spirit, let's take up one of Rousseau's predecessors in the European tradition of imagining the other.

Gabriel Foigny was an underground man of the classical age – a drunk, a lech, an ex-priest. He fled from a monastery in France, where the bonds of chastity were evidently too tight for him, to the Protestant freedom of Geneva, in the 1660s. There he found a job as a teacher – his attempt to go on preaching under the new dispensation was discouraged when he appeared in church drunk – and married a low class slut who proceeded to cheat on him. Being an educated man, he turned his hand to the market for reading matter. First, he created playing cards of a kind, on which there were prayers – or perhaps Tarot signs. Then, in 1676, he published a manuscript he had been ‘given”, La Terre Ausrale. Later on, he admitted that he wrote it himself – by this time he was on the hop again, leaving behind a pregnant maidservant and a set of angry Genevan ministers. The TA is an account of a colonial Sinbad the sailor who ends up, after various adventures in Africa and Portugal, cast up on the Australian shore. Australia, here, is not to be confused with the continent of that name – it was more like More’s Utopia than Van Dieman’s discovery. The account of the naturals of Australia is accompanied by a dialogue between the protagonist and one of their sages. Through this sage, Foigny expressed, as Geoffrey Atkinson put it, his “open and secret revolt against society and its institutions.” [39]

Such a revolt, to be radical, must go back to the very root of society. That, of course, is paradise. Society begins in the annihilation of paradise, as readers of Genesis know. Or I should say, its annihilation for humans – for it is part of the magic of the story that the Garden of Eden is not abolished by the Lord. It exists, but it exists, now, outside of human existence. It is barred. Thus, no sentence in human history has had the effect of Adam’s communication to God that he and Eve are naked. For, as God immediately replies, “who told thee that thou wast naked?” It is one of those moments for which Joyce, in Finnegan’s Wake, devised his long sentence-words, dividing one Viconian epoch from another: “The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonneronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr”.

But if we go around the world, as Kleist’s dramaturge suggests, perhaps we can get in the back way. Foigny’s sage-sauvage is, as Atkinson writes, ‘filled with horror at the idea of wearing clothes”. He cannot be persuaded that clothing is an aid to morality – comparing the Europeans to “little children who no longer know an object as soon as it is covered with a veil.” [63] As without, so within. The colonial process – or the civilizing process – puts into relief superstition as its privileged target, while its subjects, the subjected, gaze with disbelief at the superstitions of the civilizers. Ultimately, what was this, for the Europeans, but the rejection of that peculiar moment in Genesis, when God, for once, stops being a politician or a magician – when he makes clothing of skin for his creatures. As he once made Adam of clay, the act of a worldmaker, so he now clothes them, the act of a colonizer – but colonizer in the most intimate sense. There is no more intimate act ever attributed to Yahweh than this: ‘Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skin, and clothed them.” As though Adam’s announcement made the seals fall from God’s eyes, too. The intimacy in this act is in its superfluity: after all, having condemned humans to labor – and the sexes to division of labor – there’s no reason that Adam and Eve could not have made their own clothes. What kind of divine necessity is on display, here? What kind of cosmic discomfort? We know that the Gods, other Gods, can be moved by human nakedness – can be stirred to desire. Per Ganymede, per Leda, per Daphne, per every metamorphosis, ever skin that goes on and every skin that comes off.

If we are to understand the world of the primitive man of Rousseau's Discours on Inequality, we have to look through the eye of the needle of the European man that Rousseau saw all around him - a man whose chief economic industry lay in making clothes or textiles. Nudity, which is characteristic of that early man, is also characteristic of a certain kind of leisure. And it is with this symbol that we may as well start.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In which an Icelandic prole shocks a member of the 1 percent...

John Lancaster’s review of Michael Lewis’s book is as disastrous as, alas, Michael Lewis’s book. Lancaster is very impressed by nominal debt. He is very clueless about wealth inequality. And he is a classic upper class type. His first story is about an Icelandic waitress he meets in Rejkavik. Now, the first thing to notice about this meeting is that Lancaster is in Iceland. He apparently finds that harmless and decent, since he apparently finds his position in the top 1 percent worldwide just a fact of natural history. But this waitress! Why, during the boom, she tells him, she used to go and fly to Milan and shop.

Now, how often the waitress flew to Milan and shopped is anybody’s guess. After hearing from the serf, no doubt after being served his meal, Lancaster is all agog. The story is exactly worth what he paid to find out if it is true. Zero.

But given a mindset so blind to the system that puts the herring in his belly, Lancaster is all set up for Lewis’s book, which strings together stories of proles spending money they don’t have (shamefully!) and governments with the gall to, well, have the kind of social services that were agreed upon in the fifties.

Lewis’s book, of which I’ve only read the articles in Vanity Fair, is, alas, not one of Lewis’s more insightful outings. For instance, he takes his cues on California’s situation from Schwarzenegger. Not once, in the VF article, does Lewis show the least awareness that Schwarzenegger was elected against Gray Davis on a Bushian economics ticket of cutting taxes for the wealthy and businesses. Not once does Lewis show any awareness that Schwarzenegger accomplished this shabby feat by simply borrowing shitloads of money. Using Schwarzenegger as his guide to the California economic crisis is like being taught fire prevention by a pyromaniac.

As for Lancaster, the blind snobbery of his piece is equivalent to the ignorance with which it is loaded. Telling us that the world owes 195 trillion dollars is as meaningless as telling us that the world is rich because, in 2007, the world had accumulated 60 trillion dollars in derivatives.

The question that leaps to mind is: who does the world owe this money to?
And the answer is pretty simple: it is owed to a relatively small handful of investors. Worldwide, they compose perhaps 1 percent of the population – perhaps less. And guess what? They can be ripped off without any consequences. What Lancaster didn’t seem to notice in his dinner in Rekjavik is that the waitress didn’t really care. Why should she? Iceland didn’t back its banks. When the banks collapsed, according to Lancaster, they left debts the equivalent of 330,000 dollars for every Icelander. And, it turns out, those debts went to heaven. Big deal.

What is obviously needed at the moment world wide is a change in the disproportion between the wealth of the wealthiest and the rest. And this is a political question that will come when, as is likely, people wake up, like Icelanders, and realize: no, they don’t owe that money. Because they have the power simply to cancel the debt. Just as the governments have the money and have used the money to back the banks, because backing the banks was in the interest of the elites, the people can, and will, once the issue is represented, be backed by the government too. The U.S. government that loaned out 16 trillion dollars at 1 percent interest or below to hundreds of banks and hedge funds around the world could, actually, do the same thing to the people. It would be terrible, John Lancaster’s sherry would go down his throat the wrong way at just the thought of waitresses from Iceland shopping in Milan, but it is, you know, more than possible.

Solving all our problems before lunch (U.S. edition)

Okay, okay. It’s time to solve the deficit problem, in one paragraph. Here goes: restore Clinton’s tax rates, save for capital gains (raise it to 45 percent), and the marginal rate on top earners (those making 500 thousand or more), which should slide between 50 and 70 percent. Shrink defense expenditures in total to 100 billion dollars a year. Stir, wait a decade, bingo.

Of course, many would disagree with this course of action – including myself. I think EITC should be raised to 50,000 per year, thus pretty much knocking out the lower 50 percent from any income tax, and I think all corporate loopholes should be closed and the corporate income tax should remain the same. In the meantime, I think the U.S. should transform the post office into a post office bank, with which people could open up tax free savings accounts for retirement, education and health that would take the place of 401ks. And I think the money so generated could be used, for one thing, to buy U.S. T notes. In the end, we should work to take sovereign debt out of the hands of the private financial institutions.

Now that all this is clear, let’s discuss the real deficit we should be attacking. The political illuminati (as Marx called them) have created a vast hallucination, which goes like this: the social insurance system created in the developed economies in the 30s-60s are such that “we” are no longer able to afford them. The reality, however, is that “we” were much, much poorer in the 30s through the 60s. After generations of toil, after factoring in productivity gains and Solow’s residual, we find that we are infinitely richer than our grandparents or great grandparents. So how is it that we ended up poorer?

Here’s how we get to the real deficit, the equality deficit. In the last thirty years, the political illuminati have operated under the hallucination that the political structure set up to allow the social insurance system, which progressively shrank wealth inequality, could be ‘reformed’ by encouraging the kind of growth that increases wealth inequality by leaps and bounds. In fact, there is a reason that the Gilded Age and the New Deal are antithetical: in the former, ‘we’ do become relatively poorer – in relation to the national wealth – even if we become, in absolute terms, richer – although not much. Eventually, the equality deficit is going to kick in and that means it is going to kick out all the struts that have underpinned the middle class for the last sixty years. We’ve reached this point. Absurdly, “we” are told, in the country of Fortune 500 fortunes, that we are too poor to retire, to be educated, or to go to the doctor.

This is the story as told by our political illuminati, and it is a fairy tale. In reality, we are wealthy enough to work less (35 hours per week should be the legal norm), to retire well, and to luxuriate in universal health care and universal access to education up to and including college.

How do we obtain this ‘utopian’ vision? By looking at reality. Rather than contending with the mind-forged fantasies beloved by the pundits, we look at the society made by all, and we begin to repair the equality deficit. We operate, in other words, as free human beings. Marx, one hundred fifty years ago, called for the workers to break their chains. The chains, now, have long been broken. We have simply to walk out of them. And in so doing, we can start to pay attention to what is really important, such as reconstructing our technological infrastructure so it is green and Gaia friendly. And writing poetry, painting pictures, singing songs, dreaming involved dreams, making love, etc., etc.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Rousseau, the solitary: 1

Let’s jot down a highly speculative suggestion concerning the different angle of vision that separates Hume from Rousseau, and – more generally – separates the culture of Britain and its white colonies from the ‘Continent’.

The difference between Hume and Rousseau is found, textually, in the way each envisions the present in which they are writing. Hume, as we have seen, envisions that present as an endpoint along a line of intellectual and, in general, cultural progress, from which it is possible to look back and judge the past. Rousseau, on the other hand, does not see the present in terms of historical ‘success’ – and he does not see the past in terms of one unilateral progress. Famously, with Rousseau, the notion of rupture enters history. A historical region – say, the region encompassing ‘primitive man’ – can be described, outlined, and even phenomenologically analyzed – but the total social fact that counts, in that region, is not whether it tends towards the present. The present becomes a much more tricky thing, in Rousseau’s hands – much more malleable, much less describable under general terms.

The harried barbarian of Hume’s account of religion feels the steps of an invisible power through the events of his life and makes his limited speculations on what to do to manipulate that power. Hume’s middling class of man, his ideal avatar of common sense and sentiments, can look back from his present, holding Newton’s Principia in his hand, and see what the barbarian doesn’t: that the real invisible power is held by the designer of the universe, whose design has been revealed in the course of civilization to the scientist. The middling man, however, turns away from the monstrous discovery of the young Hume, which is that the invisible course of intellectual progress has not brought him any nearer to explaining cause itself.

Rousseau shares something of Hume’s idea of intellectual progress. As he makes clear in the Discourse on Inequality, human perfectability is not just a fact of history, but of natural history – it is what distinguishes the human animal. But Rousseau, much like Darwin later, tends to erase the teleological import of this idea.

Which leads us to another difference between Rousseau and Hume, and I think I can say, generalizing madly, between the cultural assumptions of their separate semiospheres: on the existential plane, where Hume sees the middling man – the individual – as the hero of the historical present, Rousseau sees the solitary.

Continuing this line of thought – the individual of individualism is necessarily heroic. And tends, necessarily, to be ‘self-made’. Even the dullest textbook of mainstream economics bears traces of the fairy dust of this mythic character. His self-madeness makes him much like Prajapati in the Golden Egg, a product of his own desire, his own father, son and mother.

The solitary of Rousseau’s more dire account of history is, on the other hand, anti-heroic, and his solitude is existentially conditioned by his break with myth. The Rousseau of the Confessions is not simply the progenitor of the anti-heros of the literature of solitude – the Raskolnikovs, Leverkuhns and Mersaults – but also marks a certain incoherence that will come to trouble all politics in that cultural semiotic. The self-made man is a political creature, whereas the solitary has a more difficult time inserting himself into the discourse of rights. The right to solitude is not founded on property. It is threatened by a society of unleashed individualism.

Friday, November 18, 2011

scandal in the U.S. and France

While America has the Kardashian divorce, which brings together so many American traditions – a little Horatio Alger, a little Daisy Miller, a little Debbie does Dallas – France, too, is hosting a scandal that brings together those two great French things: psychoanalysis and grammar. I’m talking, of course, of the wonderful libel trial going on right now that pits one of Lacan’s daughter, Judith Miller, against Elizabeth Elisabeth Roudinesco. Miller is suing over a paragraph in Roudinesco’s Lacan, envers et contre tout (Seuil, 2011) (and Roudinesco is countersuing Miller). The paragraph goes like this:

« Lacan mourut sous un faux nom, le 9 septembre 1981, à la clinique Hartmann des suites d’un cancer du colon qu’il n’avait jamais voulu soigner. Bien qu’il eût émis le vœu de finir ses jours en Italie, à Rome ou à Venise, et qu’il eût souhaité des funérailles catholiques, il fut enterré sans cérémonie et dans l’intimité au cimetière de Guitrancourt. »
Or: “Lacan died under a false name on September 9, 1981, at the Hartmenn clinic due to the effects of a colon cancer that he never wanted to treat. Although he had emited the wish to finish his days in Italy, in Rome or in Venise, and he would have wished for a catholic funeral, he was buried without ceremony in the intimacy of the Guitrancourt cemetery.”

My translation is to the French what a mut is to a pure breed greyhound – but such is the fate of translation. In any case, the day of the hearing was packed. All the Lacanians were there. And of course, the whole case came down to how to interpret qu’il eût souhaité… The lawyers fell into a controversy about this that must have brought all those in the courtroom back to their school days – for what kind of verb tense are we talking about here? Maitre Kierjman, in a brilliant summary of the evidence of the case, appealed to the heart and soul of all present by plunging into this issue:

« Le plus-que-parfait du subjonctif marque généralement une proposition à valeur conditionnelle. Son emploi est dicté par la conjonction « bien que » (« bien qu’il eût souhaité »), qui introduit une proposition dite « concessive » qui peut être lue comme ayant valeur indicative ou conventionnelle. Mais, ce qui doit être souligné ici, c’est la concordance des temps et le fait que le plus-que-parfait vient marquer une action révolue et antérieure à celle de la proposition principale »

Well, that settles that! However, Assoulline’s numerous commenters (his article received a Kardashianistic 325 responses) plunged as Frenchly as possible in disputing this interpretation:

“Débat grammatical qui rappelle « Le barbier de Séville » mais Me Kiejman possède moins bien sa langue que Beaumarchais. « Bien que » introduit une concession, c’est à dire une opposition, pas une condition (confusion avec le conditionnel passé 2 ?). D’autre part il s’agit dans le choix du temps, « eût souhaité » et non pas » souhaitât », de logique et non de concordance des temps : « souhaitât » eût marqué (valeur conditionnelle) une simultanéité impossible puisqu’on l’enterrait à ce moment là.”

For those who’ve fought their way through the French conditional and subjunctive, having only English – the language of servants! - as their guide, it is good news that the French themselves have a hard time understanding how they are using it.

Kierjman also told the jury that he had consulted Poe’s Purloined Letter and Lacan’s essay on it in composing her defense. Miller is of course defending herself like an Antigone who just happened to defy her brother’s wishes – or did she know those wishes better than Roudinesco? The Millerian faction is claiming that Roudinesco is suffering from the delusion that she is somehow related to Lacan – maybe the true daughter! – which, such is the work of the unconscious in the courtroom, was symbolized by Kierjman’s slip when he called his client « Mme Lacan”.

I predict that this case will be of the kind that Freud called Interminable analysis.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The nature in the Natural History of Religion: 4

Within the circles of the New Learning in the 17th century, a relatively new word was bandied about to take the place of what their ancestors would have called paganism or idolatry: polytheism. (Schmidt, 1985). When, in 1639, Edward Herbert sat down to write De Religione Gentilium, translated as ‘The antient religion of the gentiles” by a Mr. W. Lewis in 1705, he used “polytheism” to broaden the humanist notion of non-Christian religions. Herbert, who may not have been a deist himself, was certainly looked as a precursor by eighteenth century deists, who adopted his history of religion. It went like this: in the beginning, men worshipped one supreme God – the thought of whom was written on their hearts – but they had an unclear view of the difference between the universe and the creator of the universe. Over time, priests and then ‘imposters’ arose, who exploited the people’s awe before the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars to make these the objects of adoration. Always, of course, the people had a notion of the one Supreme God, but as these objects were adored, they gradually acquired the status of sub-gods, of separate intelligences.

The deists of the 18th century thus were rooted in the kind of thinking that, at least partly, John Locke tried to destroy: the kind of thinking that goes back to innate ideas. However, the deists used a rhetoric that was peculiarly suited to the 18th century views of the philosophes, with their emphasis on the adoration of one God, rather than the multiple cults to saints, the virgin, and the criminal who claimed to be God’s son in long ago Judea.

Hume was inclined to see Locke’s side of things, as far as the roots of our knowledge go; and he was also inclined to take the Presbyterian side in constructing the history of religion. Calvin, who used the word idolatry, poured scorn on the idea that the first humans were monotheists. If, as Scripture shows, they were filled with lust, disobedient, and murderers at the slightest provocation, why should we credit them with the virtue of worshipping the one true God?

Thus, in one way, Hume’s Natural History of Religion – which may seem to the modern reader to be a blow against Christianity – can as well be read a conservative counter-blow to deist nonsense, inserted into Hume’s larger project of clarifying the sources of our knowledge.

But this is a text that is definitely over-determined. Calvin’s view of history was essentially static – notwithstanding the extra-historical event of Christ’s birth and death. Hume’s was not. As he makes clear from the beginning, he fully accepts the enlightenment view of progress, and in fact, in a twist, he uses the deists language to describe it: from our current spiritual knowledge, derived from understanding that the perfect design of the universe implies a perfect designer, we can establish a footing in scientific reality, so to speak, by which to go back and survey the history that led up to us – us middling men, us common sense clerks, us the enlightened. It is with religion as it is with the other human arts and sciences: “ We may as reasonably imagine that men inhabited palaces before huts or cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture, as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs.” (4)

Hume doesn’t just aim to reverse the order that the deists establish: putting polytheism before monotheism. He also wants to account for religion itself. Thus, the historical problem becomes a psychological and metaphysical one – as it was for Herbert as well. Having eliminated the idea that the barbarous, necessitous animal, man, had the innate idea of God inscribed on his heart, Hume next looks at the seemingly empirical explanation: that man looked around at the heavens, the earth, the sky, the moon and the stars, and was so overawed by their splendor that he elevated them to the status of Gods. Herbert’s argument was that the religion of the pagans could not be understood outside of the symbols that formed, as it were, a language underneath the language of the cults. The symbols were necessitated by the great fact that the supreme God was invisible: invisibility is a great motive force and determinant of religion in Herbert as well as Hume. Herbert attached himself to the ancient explanation that the sun was worshipped at first as the natural symbol of the great invisible power, and then, gradually, in a sort of eclipse of the symbolic function, as the God himself.

Hume disputes that this could possibly be the case, as it would entail a sense of metaphor and, beyond that, of generalities that the vulgar could not have had, or could not have been interested in. Their leisure and work was all, in Hume’s view, taken up by local matters, not the framing of general hypotheses. Out of this view comes, perhaps, the most interesting and influential idea in the Natural History. Instead of deist’s insistence on awe – the philosophical sensation – Hume insists on the mediation of the passions:

“We may conclude, therefore, that in all nations which have embraced polytheism, the first idea of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears which actuate the human mind.”

Tossing out contemplation is consistent with tossing out indolence of a certain type. For Hume, the round of little life for the mass is a total thing. And yet, outside of the Natural History, he certainly recognizes that contemplation or awe arises in ordinary life. In a letter to a friend about the time in which he is composing the Natural History, Hume promotes a now forgotten Scottish poet named Wilkie (Hume was always a great promoter of Scots literature, against the ‘criticklings’ of London) and relates the following anecdote:

“You know he is a farmer’s son, in the neighbourhood of this town, where there are a great number of pigeon-houses. The farmers are very much infested with the pigeons, and Wilkie’s father planted him often as a scarecrow (an office for which is well qualified) in the midst of his fields of wheat. It is in this situation that he confessed he first conceived the design of his epic poem, and even executed part of it. He carried out his Homer with him, together with a table, and pen and ink, and a great rusty gun. He composed and wrote two or three lines, till a flock of pigeons settled in the field, then rose up, ran towards them, and fired at them; returned again to his former station and added a rhyme or two more, till he met with a fresh interruption.”

It is a humorous image. In the movie Jude, which is taken from Jude the Obscure, Michael Winterbottom creates a harsher version of a boy being employed as a scarecrow – put out in long, lonely fields with a noisemaker. The boy is Jude, who we know will fight, in vain, against the class rigidity of Victorian England to have himself accepted as a scholar. Hume’s friend, however, is already the son of a farmer and on his way to the ministry. Still, the image and its uses are striking.

Yet in the Natural History, Hume sticks to the idea that the vulgar, its mind still mostly too blank, or two written over by the common business of life, to produce any epic concept, produces an epic concept – God – only, as it were, by accident. Out of the intersection of the local forces of nature (which give us not the serene sense of design, but a bumpy sense of chance and change, wrapped around the continuities of season, sunrise and sunset), man produces supernatural powers: “But what passion shall we here have recourse to, for explaining an effect of such mighty consequence? Not speculative curiosity surely, or the pure love of truth. That motive is too refined for such gross apprehensions; and would lead men into apprehensions of the whole frame of nature; a subject too large and comprehensive for their narrow capacities. No passions, therefore, can be supposed to work upon such barbarians but the ordinary affections of human life; the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food and other necessities.”

Nature, then, is read through the constituents of human life. Out of feeling, we project – a magic word, not used by Hume but surely signaled, here – upon the storm anger, and upon the sunlight mercy.

John Farrell, in Freud’s Paranoid Quest: psychoanalysis and modern suspicion, has noticed that Hume’s epistemology seems to tie in very well with Freud’s notion of projection.

“Such ‘projections’ of the empirical subject onto the data of experience are, for Freud, a normal, unavoidable part of life: “For when we refer causes of certain sensations ot the external world, instead of looking for them, as in other cases, within, this normal proceeding is projection.” Or, as Hume would have it, ‘If we believe, that fire warms, or water refreshes, ‘tis only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise.”

Interestingly, this edifice depends for its credibility upon a class distinction – between the barbarian and the man who has reached the shore of civilization. Hume’s very tone, in the Natural History, tells us that he is such a man. But he is also the man who, younger, found himself unable to reach that shore at all as he contemplated the notion of cause, and saw the world fall apart in his mind as he could not comprehend nor justify it through reason. What holds the two figures together, I think, is that common sense is returned to – and in that return, is made the subject of a certain irony that makes it hard to know, in the end, how to take Hume’s paen to the designer of a universe in which things fit so perfectly. It is more than a paen – it is our footing in the reality of the present that allows us to go back and reconstruct the past. If there is no spiritual progress, that reconstruction is epistemologically equal to the constructs of the past, and even, dare one say it, to those made up by the barbarian scarecrow in the wheatfield, the child abandoned by a class system that, to him, looks like barbarity in its final state, the parts all neatly designed to exclude thought and crush all passions that are not of use to it.