Saturday, February 18, 2023

The reactionary rictus: Macron's deformation of social insurance

 Paul Quinio's editorial in Liberation about the collapse of the debate on the "deform" of the social insurance system in France revolves around a reference to an apocryphal phrase of Churchill's: that democracy is the worst system of government, except any other. That quip has always been a conditional surrender of an essentially reactionary stance, according Capital and the established power the lion's share of the discursive wealth of the nation - as well as the real wealth - and calling it democracy. France has never submitted to this kind of thing. The strike, the demonstration, all are not dead in France.

Macron viewed his larger task one of "normalizing" France - a nice little Thatcherization with some euphemism liberalism thrown in, like "apologizing" for colonialsm (while of course keeping French troops in Africa whenever the cause arises). The "reform"/deform of the social insurance system was key to Macron's larger cause. Quinio is entirely right about Macron's ultimate responsibility for the further decline of "democracy":
"But we must observe that the Chief of State has forgotten that the French, in barring the route to the extreme right, have in the second round of the presidential shown proof of their political maturity. Since, Emmanuel Macron has made a show of having been elected "normally" on his program (the reform of the retirement system) or his person. To this political maturity he has only responded with contempt for a non-neglible part of his electorate. To turn his back on the spirit of his election (and the promises of his second round campaign) is all the more an error in that he doesn't have, politically, the means, sitting as he does on a relative majority. That he enfeebles his majority, that he enfeebles he himself isn't really the important thing. But that, by his choice, he has raised up the French against each other, at the risk of further fragilizing the machinery of democracy that permitted him to fill his place, is much more serious."
I don't think Macron gives a shit for democracy, and so I am not totally in accord with this editorial, that credits Macron and the majority with good faith. This rhetorical assumption of good faith, which journalists, washed in the neoliberal waters, bring to the powerful seems to fight the forces arrayed against democracy on the worst terrain possible. However, it is true that Macron has exacerbated a division, a fracture, in France that is symbolized by the very deformation of the system he is trying to put through - a deformation that will make the lives of the upper class that much more cossetted and the lives of the rest that more ugly. Financially, the reform is judged not by a market standard - by that standard, the interest on French bonds shows that there is no crisis - but on a fictional-symbolic standard - it is the crisis of tomorrow that requires this action now. Interestingly, other crises of tomorrow - for instance, a climate change that might well wipe out French agriculture, decimate the rivers, and destroy the lifestyles of the majority - are to be approached petit a petit, until, alas, we all have to adopt to the Sahara-fication of the world.
The crisis of the tomorrow is here today: an out of control oligarchy, a muffled health crisis due to despair, a disenfranchised (politically and economically) youth, and an establishment that considers rules are for others. Myself, I see no way that Macron's "reforms", which will most likely be voted in by the Senate, will last past Macron's tenure. The deformed system will be so swollen with exceptions it will be a joke. Although: it was always meant to be a joke. On the principle that he who laughs last laughs best. That is what reactionary culture and politics amounts to.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

liberalism, neo-liberalism and the justice system


I was reading Madame de Stael’s Considerations on the principle Events of the French Revolution – as one does – and found this perfectly formed sentence that rang my chimes. De Stael is explaining the predominance of a Richelieu or a Mazarin, who though foreigners came to possess such absolute power in France, and she produces this perfectly balanced sentence:

« Les individus de cette nation sont trop vifs pour s'astreindre à la persévé- rance qu'il faut pour être despote ; mais celui qui a cette persévérance est très-redoutable dans un pays où, la loi n'ayant jamais régné, l’on ne juge de rien que par l'événement. »

« Les individus de cette nation sont trop vifs pour s'astreindre à la persévé- rance qu'il faut pour être despote ; mais celui qui a cette persévérance est très-redoutable dans un pays où, la loi n'ayant jamais régné, l’on ne juge de rien que par l'événement. »
Translation: The individuals of this nation are too lively to submit to the perseverance it takes to be a despot; but he who has that perseverance is very formidable in a land where, the law having never reigned, one judges only by the event."
De Stael’s Considerations, according to the introduction by Laurent Theis, made a large stir when they appeared in April, 1818, the year after her death.. Remusat wrote that it was an event on par with the appearance, in 1802, of Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity, De Stael had died in 1817, as the White Terror was abating, but while the Reaction to the Revolution was still strong.
By the time she died, she was a force apart, a real force in Europe. Having, through her father, the fabulously rich banker Jacques Necker, entry to all the great houses of the Ancien Regime before the start of the Revolution, and being a brilliant woman – a quick study who instinctively combined the culture of sensibility and the ideals of reason in her own bearing in the world – she had made herself almost singlehandedly (shout out here to Benjamin Constant, her sometimes lover) the transitional figure between 18th century revolutionary principles and 19th century liberalism.
It is from that perspective – a classical liberalism that was still magmatic, still unclassical – that she surveyed the Revolution.
This, to her, meant having a strong sense of the France of the Old Regime – a France with its multiple terrors and wars, and its striking inability to produce a governmental form that would legitimate the social hierarchy by which it was ostensibly ruled.
Liberalism, which gives scope to inequality of wealth and power as an inexpungable part of human society, and preferable to the attempt to abolish them -an attempt that is both violent and futile – has long had a hard time with justice. If justice before the law is, in theory, where all citizens are equal, the practical situation of justice forms not an exception to the rule of inequality but a reflection of it. How could it be otherwise? The third power of government is based on a theoretical miracle, even as liberalism's great charm as a political system is the acknowledgement that miracles don't happen.
“One judges only by the event” – by what the powerful do, not the rules to which they are theoretically bound. In this, I think we can see reflected not only French history, but American history too. In our late neo-liberal hour, it is characteristic, maybe diagnostic, that the breakdown of all parts of the justice system – from police enforcement to the almost comic marketplace in lawyers that gives the rich a headstart to the imbecility and political ambitons of the judges to the inhumanity of the jails – we are witnessing something like an Ancien Regime moment. De Stael’s idea of the outsider who gets inside and becomes a despot is a pretty prophetic description of the extreme right leader – Trump and Bolsanaro being the latest examples. These leaders thrive when the system of justice unwinds as completely as they have unwound in the U.S. Surely among the multiple reasons that Obama was succeeded by Trump is the Obama administration’s idea that punishing big businessmen and businesses was an economically bad idea – in essence, giving their seal to the oligarchy. The Chickenshit club of the Justice department – as Jesse Elsinger called it in his book – casts its shadow today. Who among us thinks that the scoundrels at the top, the Sam Bankman-Frieds, are going to receive the same treatment, the same punishments as some black 19 year old accused of selling an ounce of crack? Nobody. The very idea is laughable. The whole of the legal profession exists to make that a no-go. Les Miserables, dressed up in American popular culture, is going on every day in every city in America, and we all know it.
Events ride mankind, and always will. But rules soften events, make them easier riders. As the rules cease to apply, we all feel the spurs in our flanks, drawing blood. They will ride us to death.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Alchemists among us, blockhainin'


When Marx overlays the transformations of money into commodity and commodity into money with the parodic language of alchemy, he is following a theme that goes back not only to Faust, but to the beginning of the theory of the political economy. About which, Carl Wennerlind has written an essay entitled “Credit-Money as the Philosopher’s Stone: Alchemy and the Coinage Problem in Seventeenth-Century England.” Wennerlind’s essay  proposes that the 17th century natural philosophers took the alchemical proposal of creating wealth out of nothingness – or base metal – quite seriously. And, vice versa, "when the Bank of England showed in 1694 how credit-money could function, there was a rapid falloff in the patronage of alchemists…”

Curious phrase, credit-money. We would now simply say money, since it wouldn’t occur to any possessor of same to assume that the material ot of which the money was made was equal in value to the money. You won’t get much for a strip of green paper that doesn’t have the magical symbols of U.S. power on it now, will you? Of course not.

“Credit-money… served as a means of payment and had the capacity to circulate widely. These paper notes were wholly or partially convertible into assets or income streams designated as security. As such, they could fully complete a transaction and serve as a store of value…” In the system of political thinking that held at the time, this was as miraculous as the transmutation of metals promised by the Philosopher’s stone – or so our author claims. It is for this reason that the two things – the bank and the alchemist – were held in the same field, as substitutes one for the other. Or rather, the bank, by the alchemical feat of creating value out of de facto currency, drove out the alchemists, who’d been patronized by the Stuarts. ‘This transition from alchemy to credit was swift and complete, perhaps nowhere more dramatically evidenced than in the Duke of Orleans’s dismissal of his court alchemists in favor of John Law’s land-backed paper currency.”

That last event has an aura, doesn’t it? The court alchemists are always trying to get back in. The latest species of them mechandize pseudo-currencies, which have cleverly named themselves “crypto-currency”. A crypto currency is a contradiction in terms – currency itself is the most obvious thing, and has to be in order to operate. A crypto-currency, on the other hand, props itself on the subliminal idea that all that obviousness is simply the surface of some conspiracy, against which the little guy – the little guy who spends a lot of time fantasizing about internet poker and such – has to protect himself.

Carl Wennerlind wrote about this phenomenon in another article for the Berfois, an online magazine so erudite that few people have heard of it. Which might be the reason that Sam Bankman-Fried was invited to the big NYT Dealbook summit instead of Carl Wennerlind. More’s the pity, for while SBF is an Adderall addled son of privilege whose business career is a xray of our current state of corruption, including the indulgent justice and regulatory system that seems deadest on giving him the tenderests of pats on the hand for defrauding thousands of customers of billions of dollars. Wennerlind could have spoken about a genuine topic: the perennial search for absolute unearned wealth. A sort of zero in the general economy of sacrifice.

Here's a quote from the Berfois article.

“Despite many reports of successful transmutations [of base metals into gold], efforts to find the lever that would give mankind control over the money stock failed to materialize. At this point, the same social reformers who had pursued alchemical transmutations switched their attention to the promotion of a generally circulating credit currency, authoring some of the first proposals for such a currency. The similarity between alchemy and credit was far from lost on them, with one person suggesting that a well-functioning bank is:


Capable of multiplying the stock of the Nation, for as much as concernes trading in Infinitum: In breife, it is the Elixir or Philosophers Stone.

Casualties of Credit [Wennerlind’s book] argues that there was indeed a link between alchemy and credit, but one that goes deeper than credit money replacing alchemy as the solution to the scarcity of money problem. I suggest that the new political economy that laid the foundation for the Financial Revolution was greatly influenced by the Scientific Revolution, which included alchemical, as well as, Baconian and probabilistic thinking.”

Winnerlind’s article turns on a history that is overlooked by the usual historians of economics. Though you will see beaucoup titles and phrases about the “magic of the market” and the “alchemy of finance”, these things are taken as Disney metaphors, with no roots in the actual beliefs of businessmen and bankers. Winnerlind’s history is a reminder that no, actual businessmen and bankers do search for philosopher’s stones, which, at this present moment, is dressed up as encrypted blockchain technology – something that is as real and as futile as alchemical torts and the search for transforming lead into gold. The seventeenth century writers had already discovered that money is metaphor  - “Materia Prima, because, though it serves actually to no use almost, it serves potentially to all uses.”

We are still there, guys.


All of which had to do with England’s problem in the Early Modern Era – a shortage of specie. The solution proposed by some members of the Hartlib circle – the most advanced philosophers in England, including Boyle and William Petty – was to fund experiments to turn tin into gold.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...