Saturday, January 17, 2009

The lying image of happiness

”We have here reached the fundamental question, which is no longer related to the point of departure. The general question would be this: Can the existing relations of production and the relations of distribution which correspond to them be revolutionized by a change in the instrument of circulation, in the organization of circulation? Further question: Can such a transformation of circulation be undertaken without touching the existing relations of production and the social relations which rest on them?” – Marx, Grundrisse

At the end of the essay on the relationship between the art of the state and happiness, Forster uses a rather strange metaphor. He surveys the “secret workshop” of history, that which is at the center of all the rises and falls of all the world empires – which is human nature. And within human nature, one thing remains the same: reason. Reason is the binding universal, in the end.

Which leads him to this paragraph:

We want to leave it to speculative philosophy to find out why sensuality [Sinnlichkeit] must always almost constantly so overbalance reason, that the liberated effect of the latter is almost unnoticeable, and the governance of the world [Weltregierung] wins the appearance of a chaos, whose elements no sooner organize themselves, than a mighter attraction pulls them apart again: a chaos, where the rise and destruction of shapes sweeps before our eyes. We don’t want to investigate here the ways in which so many thousand millions of men have been so burdened down that a sad state of slavery has almost completely cut them off from the development of their capacity for perfection, and what compensation there is, or even should be, for them. When the only species, however, whose nature is characterized by moral freedom has, up to this point, given scope in a mostly incomplete way to extremely few members to enjoy this privilege; or, to use a convenient likeness, among millions of caterpillars hardly one succeeds in bringing to completion its metamorphosis into the shape of a butterfly that can lightly wing its paths through the aether and unfettered enjoy both its existence and the world: can it, ought it then annoy a man that somewhere it can be plausibly shown that henceforth the examples of this glorious development will be more common?”

There’s a certain shock in the example of the caterpillar and the butterfly – a balance between a dystopia of worms and a utopia of freedom. The idea that, during the whole course of history, the great mass never succeeded in shedding their worm-like state brings us back to the facts of “world governance” – for who has created the nurseries full of perpetual caterpillars than the prince butterflies? Forster’s further point, here, is that happiness, as the bond between the governors and the governed, must be questioned. “Finally, my friend, it seems like the time has come for that lying image of happiness which has stood so long in the path of mankind, to fall from its pedestal, and the true signpost [Wegweiser – pointer of the way] of life, human worth, to be put in its place.”

What happens when the lying image of happiness is thrown from its pedestal? It would seem, from Forster’s thesis, that either the state would dissolve entirely, having lost its function, or that the revolutionary moment would illuminate the structure of human worth in such a way that we would see it as, ultimately, identical to true happiness.

In the next post, I’m going to leap more than half a century to Marx’s notion of the “universal subject” – one that is undergoing, apparently, a translation from the merely locally human to an all sided subjectivity as dramatic as the caterpillar’s metamorphosis into the butterfly – in the passages in the First Notebook of the Grundrisse noted by Calasso.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Universal history begins on the Moon

“America changed the moon forever…” (152) - Mary Campbell, Wonder and Science

At some time in the year 1648, there was a party in a house in Paris owned by M. de Cuigy le fils. The conversation turned to the full moon, which was particularly brilliant that night. Everyone expressed some opinion or joke about the moon – for instance, that it was really the sun, which was peaking at the earth from a hole in the heavens to see what was going on behind its back, so to speak. One man was standing by rather moodily, silent. This man, Cyrano de Bergerac, was finally asked what he thought:

“And me,” I told them, wishing to mix my enthusiasm with yours, I believe, without entertaining myself with the sharpended fantasies by which you are tickling time to make it go quicker, that the moon is a world like this one; to which our serves as its moon.” Some of my friends regaled me with a great howl of laughter. “And just like this,” I said, “they may be mocking now, on the Moon, at somebody who is maintaining that this globe here is a world.” But however much I alleged that many great men had been of this opinion, I only forced them to laugh all the more.

This thought, however, of which the boldness skewed my humor, hardened by contradiction, plunged so deeply into me that, all during my walk home, I was pregnant with a thousand definitions of the moon, of which I could not give birth: so much so that, by the force of supporting this burlesque belief by quasi-serious arguments, it almost came about that I already couldn’t get the idea out of my head, when the miracle or the accident, providence, fortune, or perhaps what one would name vision, fiction, chimera or madness, if you like, furnished me with the occasion to begin this discourse. Having arrived back home, I went up to my reading room where I discovered, lying on a table, an open book that I hadn’t put there. It was of Cardan, and though I had no plan just then to read, my eyes fell, as though forced, upon a story of the Philosopher who said, studying one night by candle, he perceived to enter his room, through closed doors, two large old men who, after being abundantly questioned, responded that they were the inhabitants of the Moon and at the same time vanished.”

This is, of course, the beginning of the Voyage to the Moon, Cyrano’s secret book. It may be an absurd way to begin a thread on the history of universal history – a thread that I has been prefigured in my posts on Forster, and that I want to wind through a passage in the Grundrisse and a bit of The anti-Oedipus – but I, too, like to support burlesque beliefs with quasi-serious arguments. One of the beliefs that goes back on this blog to the very beginning of my human limit thesis is that the Great Transformation couldn’t have occurred without the discovery of America. One of the great intellectual themes of the seventeenth century was a coming to terms with the New World – that is, with a world that looked unexpectedly, and in fact totally, different from what had once been supposed. It was not only the earth, of course, that had become a New World, but New Worlds were being found by the astronomers – by Kepler and Galileo, for instance – which Cyrano knew well. He had probably seen the map of the moon made by his friend Gassendi.

Cyrano’s burlesque remark is one of the ancestors of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and the Marxist method, said the up to now silent bystander. And look, look! See how the moment of similarity in which two antitheses mirror each other, becoming each for the other what the other is for each - the seed out of which they evolve a different course of development – out of similars, differences – is sealed or signed, as it were, by a magically opened page of Cardan, the alchemist and astrologer.

Spinoza takes a hit

I’m surprised that this sad, sad blow to Spinoza’s reputation hasn’t been spinning around the theory blogs. I’m talking, of course, of Sarkozy’s endorsement of Spinoza. This is from Le Monde’s (excellent) literary blog (written by Pierre Assouline), reporting on Sarkozy’s speech at Nimes:

le président veut encourager le tournage des films en Corse, et réhabiliter Spinoza aux dépens de Descartes. Si si, “le” Spinoza, non sans avoir précisé pour nous éclairer sur cette initiative ébouriffante :”l’intelligence humaine est avant tout le produit des émotions, et ce serait une très grave erreur de centrer les enseignements sur les disciplines cérébrales en marginalisant celles qui font appel à l’intelligence des émotions et à l’intelligence du corps“. Il n’y a pas à dire, la France est vraiment le pays de l’exception culturelle.

“… the president wants to encourage the making of films in Corsica, and to rehabilitate Spinoza against Descartes. Yes yes yes, ‘the’ Spinoza, not without having presented for our enjoyment enlightening details of this astonishing initiative: “human intelligence is before everything else the product of emotions, and it would be a grave error to center our pedagogy on cerebral disciplines in marginalizing those which make an appeal to the intelligence of the emotions and the body.” What can you say? France is truly the land of exceptional culture.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The politics and anthropology of happiness

LI promised in a previous post to outline Forster’s little read essay, “The relation of the art of the state and the happiness of mankind”, written in Paris in 1793.

As we pointed out, Forster begins on a satiric note: he points to Russia’s justification of its recent conquest of Poland as motivated by concern for the “happiness” of the people, and remarks that all political arrangements seem, now, to base themselves on the happiness of the people. But what is happiness? And is there such a thing as the happiness of the people, or even happiness of mankind?

“But in what does the happiness consist which one wants so industriously to serve up to the human race? Common sense binds a concept with the word and I don’t know what general feeling transforms it into the object of the striving of all of those who are of one origin and similar education with us. Habituated from youth onward to regard the circumstance of comfort and the consciousness of pleasant impressions as basic, or with other words, to believe that an existence which can distinguish between enjoyment and pain could only be born for the first, we gradually develop an idea of that wished for way to be, in which the accumulation of pleasant impressions not only tops the accumulation of unpleasant ones, but also, through their changes and manifoldness, brings into our path continually new charms, and open up in us new sources of sentiment. Can we provisionally apply this definition? Then we may mention, for example, the happiness of the situation of the English tenant famer, and the misery of the Polish serf. Surely the prosperous man, who enjoys all the superfluity of his fat acres and meadows, is well clothed, and in a nice, clear house with handsome conveniences, at the same time in the prospect of his mind, of his feelings, of his principles, his meditations, his stock of knowledge, with a word, as a human, is the one with the widest advantages. He is easy in all his relationships, and in this comfortable situation he looks about himself, investigates who, from whom and to what end he is, gives thus the best part of himself, his reason, which elevates him over all of visible creation, its purposive development, and begins, to be conscious of his human value. The enervated slave of the sarmatian nobleman, on the contrary, in a decayed, smoky, naked hut, in dirty sheepskin, half eaten up by vermin, in his heavy as his lighter work, an his not completely unhealthy diet, knows simply animal affects, rests without a thought from his strivings, and dies without having tasted the higher enjoyment of the senses, without having enjoyed his mental powers or only knowing them in order to completely delude himself about the purpose of his existence. “

One notes that the question of happiness quickly moves from the psychological, in the above passage, to the anthropological. The psychological seems not to offer sufficient information to decide the question – after all, the question is not just about the greater number of pleasant as opposed to unpleasant sensations, but what, exactly, makes one sensation pleasant and another unpleasant – which is why Forster moves to scenes of happiness, as though comparing two prints. Of course, Forster has seen both the English tenent farmer and the Polish serf - the latter when teaching in Livonia. Within the classical vocabulary of the character, Forster shifts to the modern sociology of types – the English tenant farmer vs. the Polish serf – and then to their social environments. In good enlightenment fashion, what we seem to want to find, to answer the question of the happiness of the people, is a universal. But the different circumstances under which the free English farmer and the chained Polish agricultural worker exist make it hard to find a universal maker. Happiness, as a universal, seems to flatten out here – in which case the art of the state that creates the conditions in which the two types live will get no guidance from the principle of happiness.

Forster puzzles over this point. In a sense, he shifts the question of happiness, at this point, from the pleasant impression – the animal condition for happiness – to consciousness of human value. To make the point that happiness is bound up with the cultural conditions of mankind, he procedes to make a comparison between Europe and China. His notion is that, in one way or another, a state does create the conditions under which human beings strive for happiness. Make those conditions miserable enough and the striving for happiness will never reach the human level. Forster’s nightmare vision of China as a vast totalitarian kingdom of pain and poverty is drawn, then, as a systematic contrast to Europe. The system of government there seeks to anaesthetize forever the capacity for perfection (Vervollkommnungsfaehigkeit) in its subjects. To do this, they preach the unchangeability of all social relations, unconditioned obedience to the orders of the state, blind belief in every doctrine of the state. Thus, the Chinese government has pampered into existence unnatural things – Unarten – after millennia of despotism. (Perhaps this is a reference to the eunuchs of the palace).

“Perhaps one might ask: if in Europe a system of government like the Chinese one comes into power, would the consequences be the same? Our higher development, our deeply probing research of the truth, our speculations about the limits of our existence, our knowledge that has become so vast due to our trade and seafaring, our useful sciences, our arts elevated to the highest purposiveness, our taste, our manners, our bodily advantages – must they not blaze such a path, that all the advantages of the best alimentation of the human race are joined with the care for moral stability? Who can decide, what series of millennia, what eccentric movements, what pauses, in brief, what revolutions must have prepared the present mechanisms of the human race in east Asia?”

Using these cultural examples, Forster is developing a method for his anthropology, in which the condition of the people – for instance, the animal existences into which the Chinese peasantry are forced – mirrors the intentions of the state. Yet the state, in Forster’s scheme, doesn’t simply shape the people out of shapeless material. Accidents and nature count. Europeans, for instance, are more lively and inquisitive than the Chinese due to their racial type and their geography, evidenced by trade and seafaring. This is not, by the way, the view of China that had prevailed in enlightened circles. And it begins, or stands near the beginning, of a colonialist discourse that will revel in drawing the scene of Asiatic despotism to highlight European freedom.

If we put Forster’s claims in the perspective of the question of happiness, we see two things: one is that happiness is a more complex matter than we first thought. It is a form of perfecting the human, not just an accumulation of pleasant over unpleasant impressions. This movement away from the naïve hedonism of the dying libertine strain in the eighteenth century is not peculiar to Forster: one finds it everywhere (Smith’s sympathy, the fashion for the sentimental, etc., etc.). More interesting, perhaps, is the second thing: whereas Forster begins by asking, implicitly, if the “governors” [Regenten] can bring about human happiness, he shifts to making happiness the chief, or even the only bond between the government and the people. To speak of the happiness of the people isn’t just a fashion indulged in by eighteenth century princes: without happiness, the conjunction between the governed and the governors is wholly accidental. Without happiness, the governors are revealed as simply robbers. This, Forster insinuates, is what the French revolution has been about – the creation of a necessary bond between the governors and the people. In consequence, we must destroy a whole line of statecraft, a certain wisdom of Realpolitik that runs through the 17th and 18th century, summed up in a anecdote from Choiseul, Louis XV’s minister, who told a courtier once, “you are a good man, but you will never be a good statesman. You do not despise the people enough.”

For Forster, the government of contempt does positively act upon the happiness of the people:

“Unholy cruel contempt for humanity! It is this that eternalizes the sad phenomena of ignorance and slavery among the masses, when it first lifted the ambitious [Ehrgeizigen] over their equals. And now they dare, to call to witness their own handiwork? Over the current state of the species, the philosopher and the politician agree; but he feels either wise, about what men could or should be; he reveals the causes of their degradation, and seeks out the means that can help them approach once again their real definition.”

This, of course, is the key to the connection between happiness as the perfection of man and equality. In the politics of contempt, the people’s happiness is taken to be a different thing from the happiness of the ruler. The rulers are wise so that their subjects are ignorant, and strive for wealth so that their subjects can be content with little.


The rest of Forster’s article is, in a sense, a sort of reply to Burke that takes another path than that of Paine. Where Paine’s objection is based in the universal rights of man, Forster agrees, tacitly, with Burke that the foundations of power require an order such tht the first task of the art of the state is to bring about that order. This is the terrible power of the French revolution – it puts into question the very order of the principalities of Europe. Forster presents a dilemma: either the governing class is telling the truth about governing for the happiness of the subjects or they are not. If they are telling the truth, what kind of order do they propose to make their subjects happy? And what image of happiness is mirrored in that order? And if they are not telling the truth, then how can the governing class of a particular time object to being dispossessed by other predators?

The effect making the ground of the legitimation of order the advancement of happiness is profound. In the instant that this is accepted, a light is cast on the bond between the princes and the people, and a question can be asked: is this bond necessary? Does it arise out of the people themselves? There is, in a sense, no Burkian escape route – the call upon tradition, upon the grace of life, doesn’t give us the necessary connection between the governed and the governors which would justify the governed having any loyalty to the governors. The people who break into your house and throw a party may be as gracious and beautiful as you like – but that doesn’t answer the question of what they are doing in your house.

In the disconnection of the upper class (hoheren Stande), in the impossibility of setting limits to their presumption, their power, their influence, lies the seed of destruction of the great kingdoms. So fell the Roman Empire in the East and the West, and so must every hegemonic power collapse, which isn’t based on the oriental mechanism of unchanging class and castes.”

Forster has before ascribed this state to a revolution. Now he drives the point home – only a revolution could freeze into place a state of affairs in which human reason, which really exists – in fact, exists universally – is, as it were, suspended or curtailed.

‘The politics of the European princes thus brings about the opposite of the harmony in which finally everything must be merged; far from providing the basis for the peace of the human race, they eternalize his revolutions; far from distributing the general happiness, they cannot guard the ruling dynasties themselves before the most self-centered changes of happiness. Great personal properties may make an exception here; yet how seldom these turn out to be nothing, and how fleeting is their appearance! How dangerous it has so often been to the boldly striving princes, this simple proposal to rule alone. How quickly in the end collapse these foundationless buildings under a weak successor, which were built up into towers by his greater predecessors all too quickly and grandly, more to serve his own phantasy than to last!’

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bernhard - attacked

The lovegermanbooks blog (yes, as in the niches for sexual tastes in Fourier’s utopia, in the world of blogging, every obsession and interest must eventually find its blogger) there was a reference to Maxim Biller’s review of Thomas Bernhard’s posthumously published book, My Prizes. In the U.S., from time to time, fights erupt about snark in reviews. The New Republic and the Atlantic both try to sneak a little gunpowder in their usual reviews of fiction – although in the Atlantic’s case, the hatchet man, B.R. Meyers, is so unbelievably tasteless that he is continually blowing himself up, and leaving his targets unscathed.

But Germany is undergoing something weird, lately. Call it the Lady Bitch Ray phenomena: insult, cacophony and obscenity have become a much larger part of the staid German scene.

This is the first paragraph of Biller’s review:

“The asshole Thomas Bernhard, and I say this, although I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, the asshole Bernhard has almost certainly only written one single good book. This book has just now appeared, although he wrote it already in 1980, and it shows, what kind of asshole he was, and perhaps he didn’t want that, for it appears, as long as he was still alive – and if I wanted to, I could go on in this sleep inducing, saying-everything-and-nothing Thomas Bernhard tone endlessly, because nothing is simpler than to write like this, I think, thoughtlessly adding one sentence to another, mere sentences, that are alike and yet always just a little bit different, then exactly like this is the way they appear in the head of the writer by writing, and if one is named, say, Isaac Babel or Junot Diaz, one finally seeks to chose out the best of these so very similar sentences, but that is naturally more work, as simply writing down all of these sentences, like Thomas Bernhard, buy which the reader can pick them out for himself.”

Who doesn’t revere Bernhard? But it is hard not to laugh at Biller’s parody. And of course Biller is here putting on the style of the gunslinger writer. He may be irritated, too, as he has had a hard time, himself, with the combination of asshole and literature, since a novel of his was banned by the court on behalf of a former lover and her mother, who, they charged, suffered from having their privacy invaded by Biller. Such a law would wipe out literature, but I believe it was a Southern German court, maybe Bavarian. And what can you expect?

Here’s the second paragraph. It makes sense, coming from a man who has been bruised by the court. Although there is something narrow about Biller’s idea that writing is a form of assault that should be judged on how severely it injures its target. But I do like a good rugby scramble:

And if one even like the great, dirty, provincial Austrian german Asshole Bernhard insults here a painter, politician, writer as a giant asshole and there a city as provincial and uncultured and Austrian or german, then one has so to speak the readers on one’s side, who believe that they themselves are not uncultured provincial Austrian or German assholes, thus all, thus even the Austrians, thus even the Germans and the most important thing is, not to underpin his hatred with arguments and to ground with grounds, as the blustery growly opportunistic coffee house loudmouth Thomas Bernhard cleverly also never did, then otherwise someone might have felt really hit by him and not simply literarily mentioned and flattered, and even correctly, and then the Superhypocrite Bernhard had never counted between Flensburg and Linz as a Superwriter, and as never happens to the editions of the German poets and thinkers, I guess, to fundamentally assemble their people and put their life-lies in question, etc. But I don’t care, and thus I will, a not so German poet and thinker, try to explain, why I can’t stand Thomas Bernhard, and do so on the occasion of what is certainly his only good book. And to succeed, I must first explain the reason that it is good.”

My prizes contain the story of the prizes that Bernhard received, and what he thought about the whole process – that it was shit. But, Biller says, the stories as Bernhard tells them are not high literary and Bernhardian, but resemble the stories of a schlemiel – he doesn’t say that last bit, but that is what it sounds like. And of course Bernhard is telling stories about himself – how, on a panel to award a prize, when he suggested Canetti, another judge said, well, he was a Jew – and Bernhard didn’t say anything. As Biller shows, he was a go-alonger, a mitlaufer, he never spoke up, he shook hands, he listened to idiot speeches, he gave idiot speeches. He needed the money. Biller is very scoriating about Bernhard’s sugar-momma – although Biller oversteps the persona he is building for himself by so doing, even though he compares Bernhard to Haider, who also had a sugarmomma, apparently. They also both had ten fingers and both had penises. The evidence couldn’t be more obvious! Let’s measure his neck for the rope. Etc.

Not convincing about Bernhard, but at least one is convinced that this is a man who knows what he hates in literature, and – unlike the dreary Meyer of the Atlantic, with his ninth grade English teacher style – knows how to create literature out of what he hates in literature. Sometimes, anarchist’s rule no. 1, you just gotta blow something the fuck up.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Marx and Forster

“Post history is inhabited by men who believe in “good causes”, in “man”, in “society”, in many other hypostases. But, it is ruled by a mocking (and perhaps transcendental) being for whom all is material, interchangeable, exploitable – a perpetual manipulator who invents forms and throws them away, who quickly tires of common materials and is always looking for untried ones, who excavates the rain forest of the Amazon and drills pack ice to add flavor, an exotic aroma, to the kykeon, the broth served in the Mysteries.” Roberto Calasso, The Ruins of Karsch, 249

In the chapter on History Experiments, Calasso makes a run at the great theoretician of “universal history”, the moment when man overthrows god – the theoretician named Marx. Marx is the most explicit exponent, Calasso thinks, of the modern moment, which consists of the recognition that there are no limits to man’s domination over the world. This is the moment of universal solidarity. And whether it is the capitalist system or whether a socialist system succeeds it, whether the working class seizes the means of production or simply seizes the occasion to demand fatter retirement benefits, underlying the Marxist schema is the overthrow of the human limit. We are become as gods, and the gods fall shrieking, then, to the earth, and end up in full length Disney cartoons, to finish their weary existences.

“Marx speaks of post history when he mentions the passage from ‘history’ to ‘universal history’ – an experimental phase of history in which everything forms a single body, in which nothing is external to society and everything acts on everything else, as in the resonant primordial cosmos. Its empirical foundation is the world market, since this market is an escape – an exit with no possibility of return – from Borniertheit, from local narrowness. The world market reinvents a kind of fate (just as post history in general reactivates all the archaic categories, which now apply to a reality that inverts the one in which they were created).”

LI was just going to translate some of Georg Forster’s essay, but we first wanted to draw a line, show that Forster is part of a “stem family”, to use the sociological term for a nuclear family over a number of generations of descent, in which one finds Marx too. From the world circumnavigator to the prophet of universal history, things line up with an eerie symbolic and mythic resonance, as though we were dealing with the fates indeed. Not only, of course, would Marx have been aware of the revolutionary generation of Germans – that small band – but Hegel was, of course, vividly aware of Forster, partly by reason of Caroline Micahaelis. That woman, like one of the princesses of Priam’s house, made her long way from the fall of Mainz to the center of German intellectual life, in Jena, in the 1790s, where she sat in Schlegel’s household, conversed with Novalis, and kept in mind the things that she had learned at Forster’s table – by her own account, the commencement of her political education –before divorcing Schlegel and becoming Schelling’s wife. Hegel, in fact, lived with Schelling and her for a year – lived in their house. And surely at some point the death of Forster in Paris, and his “errors”, as the Humboldts put it – verirrte Forster, the man who erred, the traveler whose meanderings didn’t form a coherent journey in the eyes of the shocked, retreating bourgeoisie, Caroline’s ugly man of private failures – who would know more what went down in Mainz than her? and public sublimity – must have arisen as a case for those Jena intellectuals.

And from Forster:

“The happiness of mankind is, according to the assurances of the Governors, the constant goal of their patriarchal concern. The most recent manifesto of the conqueror of the Poles breathes out this spirit and is guided only by this speech. I will not in any way cast doubt on its sincerity here. The confusion of turns of speech, as I have said in another place, is of course great enough; only on the words – happiness, truth, virtue, have our leaders now invested too much to seek whether they can help themselves without them entirely. Without this would the right of the Strong soon be a much too shaky prop for their domination. Even the robber’s final goals are quiet possession and enjoyment. If he finds the means, with his booty to return from out of the cave into the bosom of bourgeois society – don’t you think that he would end up presenting himself as the most jealous defender of its rights, as the strictest revenger of injured property? Anyway, penetrate the history of all revolutions, or for example only the most recent ones, and look how the jealousy of all the quickly succeeding parties, as soon as they grasp the ruder of the state, loudly rejects the bold revolutionary means by which they have made the people the instrument of their victory, preaching in favor of order, peace, obedience to the laws and immunity for persons and property – after the raging tribunals, the slanders, the accusations, the legal murders, the plunderings had set in motion the sacred insurrection.”

The Reindustrialization Bank of America

Unfortunately, the reporting about Obama’s ‘stimulus” in the Press has concentrated overwhelmingly on the price tag. This is the kind of thing that is catnip to the economists, who love a number and a model the way a kitten loves a ball of yarn. It is also a way of shirking the occasion. No number will bind up the economy. No number will produce out of its pocket the road back from the abyss for the U.S, still the most powerful nation in the world. The abyss is not just getting fewer video games for the kids at Christmas. It involves a worldwide environmental crisis, as well as a nationally limited one – the drought in the West – that is getting bigger every year. It involves a worldwide cultural crisis, as thirty years of dumbing have put us all on the day shift of endless pantysniffing idiocy, strangling the capacity to daydream and replacing it with various forms of porno. It involves the decline and fall of the war system – Hitler’s triumph, the system has been used for sixty years in the developed countries (as well as the U.S.S.R) as the economic stimulus of first resort, the prosperity of which served to buffer the population that gained from it from feeling the traditional reach of the wars that were directed against less fortunate populations.

The list of projects included in this article by James Galbraith, who has been reliably clearsighted about the problem of predator capitalism, is a great place to start putting faces on the -000000000000 numbers. Here’s a selection:

The industrial crisis requires immediate action if the auto companies are to survive. For such cases in the future (and there probably will be some) the relevant precedent is the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, headed during the New Deal by an intrepid businessman, Jesse Jones, who saved many important companies with a combination of loans and workout plans. A new RFC would enable the federal government to assist industries– perhaps not as large, not as essential, or as threatening as the collapse of the automobile industry would be — but on a somewhat systematic basis for the duration of the crisis.
As for helping the workers who are most severely affected by the industrial aspects of this crisis, Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economics the New School, has proposed a simple and effective step that would further the cause of universal health care: reduce the age of Medicare eligibility to the age of 55. That would take much of the cash burden of healthcare costs off of enterprises, where they don’t belong anyway. And it would provide the opportunity for many workers who would like to retire but won’t do so because they can’t afford to lose their health insurance.
The housing crisis requires mortgage abatement, a resetting of the toxic adjustable rate mortgages already being initiated through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and also a concerted effort out in the neighborhoods to restructure mortgages and to keep people in their homes. Here the historical model is the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which did this in the 1930’s — an enterprise that took about 20,000 people to manage 1 million mortgages. Essentially the same effect could be achieved today by buying back the mortgages through Fannie and Freddie and then turning them over to a restructuring facility – the present version is known as the H4H, or Hope for Homeowners program.
The point is that while you cannot effectively stabilize the price of housing, you can try to save the existing housing stock, stop the spread of blight, the abandonment of homes, and the homelessness that results from an unchecked wave of foreclosures. We will then have preserved those neighborhoods and those communities for a better day.

The great mistake of the boys of October was not just in approving a program that could easily be seen to be the biggest bank robbery in history, perpetrated by the CEOs of the financial system, but in not seeing the opportunity before them - given the numbers the government was willing to put up, we could easily have created a national bank, capitalized to the tune of some 700 billion dollars, that would invest in re-industrializing the U.S. True, the political fighting would be intense, as this kind of thing entails some shocking encroachments on U. of Chi school verities, and would rightly be seen by the upper 10 percentile as an erosion of their share of the national wealth. But the falling of the industrial base has since made it even more obvious that Citi was a bad investment for America. Galbraith is right to hark back to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation of the 30s, and if such an entity had been in place in December, we could have begun to coordinate a really comprehensive response to the twin problems of a worsening dependency on oil and an American auto industry in freefall. A number of intermediate steps might have to be taken to solve these problems that would involve creating public entities ex nihilo, and then spinning them off to private investors. For instance, it just might be the case that U.S. autos could double their mileage if, as in Europe, cheap diesel fuel were available. In Europe, such fuel has long been subject to a refining process such that it is a lower emission fuel than U.S. gasoline. There is no comparable refinery capacity in the U.S., so the U.S. government should simply build one. Such would by no means be the final step towards creating a much more sensible green vehicle –hydrogen offers one path, electric rechargeable batteries another. Now is the time to pour money into R and D on all innovative engine types, so that we have the prospect of replacing the entire fleet of cars in the U.S. with green ones that can hook up to be recharged anywhere in the U.S.

At the moment, the idea of the state interfering this massively in the economy still lacks popular support. However, it doesn’t lack economic rationality. The private sector has long misallocated capital to projects with short term horizons to please equity investors. This has been a big factor in the de-manufacturing of America – which is a story not only of manufacturing jobs lost, but of big manufacturing opportunities squandered. Investors are as aware as anyone that those companies that are innovative – that show the greatest productivity growth – aren’t as profitable as those companies that are quarter to quarter beauty pageant winners. There are exceptions, like the computer industry, but one notices the shortfall in say broadband too – as opposed to, say, the abundance of I-phones. One requires heavy capital investments that will result in a slow but steadily increasing yield, the other doesn’t.


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