Thursday, January 30, 2014

Marxian political economy verses Marxian ontology

I've been circling around this idea for a while but just didn't have the words to express it correctly.  But now I think I've got it.  It seems to me that:

Marxian political economy is usually quite good.  Marx and those he inspired tend to have remarkable insights into the workings of capitalism. Furthermore, Marxian theorists tend to be able to see past the smoke and mirrors of the hustle, to see things as they really are (which sets them apart from liberal and neoliberal thinkers who become so intoxicated by the film flam show that they eventually become a part of the hustle).

BUT, Marxian ontology (theory about the nature of being) is often woefully inadequate.  Marxian ontology seems to have a couple of different variations -- 1.) that capitalism is what corrupts and if we could just get rid of capitalism everything would be better or 2.) the bourgeoisie is inherently corrupt and if we could just replace the bourgeoisie with the proletariat everything would be better.

But it seems to me that 1.) capitalism is just one of many things that can corrupt; and 2.) that all human beings (regardless of what station in life they are born into) are vulnerable to corruption.

So what happens if we marry the Marxian critique of capitalism with an ontology that says that all human beings are prone to corruption, that power corrupts, and that we need checks and balances to rein in the natural human impulse towards corruption?

Re-thinking the Original Affluent Society Hypothesis

I believe it is true, as has been reported elsewhere, that indigenous people were able to meet all of their needs for food and shelter, with about 14 hours of work a week. The rest of the time they could devote to leisure, play, art, love, storytelling, what have you.  Which sounds pretty great.  (Whoa, a quick google search reveals that even this original assumption is questionable.) Whatever the number is, let's just use 14 hours for argument's sake here, the problem is as follows: when a culture that spent 14 hours a week on sustenance met up with a culture that spent 14 hours a week on sustenance + 1 hour a week making spearheads, arrows, and knife blades, the result was likely not pretty.   And if a society that spent 14 hours a week on sustenance + 1 hour on weapons-making met up with another society that spent 14 hours on sustenance + 2 hours on weapons-making, well the results there would not be pretty either.  Several points emerge from this:

  1. The original affluent society hypothesis only seems to work if one has no enemies and is never likely to encounter enemies in the future (a set of conditions that does not exist anywhere in the world I don't think).  
  2. The arms race has likely been going on for a long time.
  3. The crazy situation that most societies have arrived at -- of spending 40+ hours a week working -- makes better sense if we realize that societies have maximized how much efficient labor is possible in a week.  Said differently, 40 hours a week makes better sense if we realize that only 14 hours are for food and the other 26 hours are for buying the very best weapons in order to  scare off enemies in a dangerous world (and that societies that go beyond 40 hours a week tend to break down because work just is not  efficient after that point).
  4. The retro-romantic notion, that we can somehow go back to an original affluent society (Derrick Jensen, who I like a lot, seems to advocate this position) is a bit untenable because -- a) the arms race would just start all over again and b) the amount of (state) intervention required to prevent such an arms race from breaking out again would be so massive as to resemble totalitarianism.  

I get that those who advocate a return to a hunter gatherer society have a different ontology than I do (they assume that human nature is more peace-loving than I do).  But the history of the world suggests that human beings are prone to rather massive amounts of violence as well.  And protecting against the possibility of that violence takes a massive amount of labor (which then explains a large part of the political economy of many nations).

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Okay let me rap this down, because I just haven't seen this explained elsewhere even though it seems like common sense:

Bullying is akin to drug addiction.
  • Most people do not do it.
  • Everyone is susceptible to doing it.
  • Some are more susceptible than others.
  • It activates the same dopamine pleasure centers in the brain.
  • Once you develop a taste for it, it becomes a hard habit to break.  
Okay but let's go the next step:
  • Most activity on Wall Street is a form of organized bullying.
  • Austerity (such as the austerity that EU bankers are forcing on Greece right now) is bullying for pleasure.
  • The Republican Party is an entire political party based on bullying.
  • The low prices for consumer goods and high profits for U.S. firms are often a result of U.S. bullying around the world.   
So: much of our economy, much of economic policy, and nearly a third of Americans are in the throws of this destructive behavior that is akin to addiction.

Neoliberalism as an ideology, much of the pundit class, and most academic economics departments exist to give cover to bullying. David Brooks' entire career is based on giving polite intellectual cover to bullies (and he is well compensated for his services).  

So if we were going to do something about it, what would be the steps?

Well, like drug addiction, we:
  • educate people about the dangers of bullying (whether that is on the playground or on Wall Street or in Congress.);
  • take steps to nip it in the bud when we see it (arresting Wall Street Bankers for their role in the housing bubble and collapse would be a good start);
  • set up a system of rewards and punishments such that people are rewarded for cooperation and excluded from polite society if they show signs of bullying (anti-trust laws, Glass-Steagall before it was repealed, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are attempts to stop economic bullying through law and policy).  
Of course another way to stop a bully is to become a bigger bully.  But that just starts the whole process all over again with a different set of actors on top.  The great failures of communism in the 20th century all stem from trying to become the bigger bully and from not realizing that in addition to winning -- you actually have to change the game (by replacing bullying with intersubjectivity). The great genius of Jesus, Gandhi, and King are that they realized that in addition to winning, you actually have to change the game.  

Sunday, July 07, 2013


Capitalism is the delusion
that through domination
we can achieve immortality. 

Where I'm at

Okay so this started coming to me so I may as well write it down: 

Most of the problems of the modern world are caused by capital. Global warming, deforestation, toxic waste, mining, slavery, the global financial collapse in 2008, massive and growing inequality, sweatshops and 1300 dead in a factory in Bangladesh, food that doesn't have any food it in, the obesity epidemic, the rise of type 2 diabetes, 1 in 10 Americans on antidepressants, 11% of kids diagnosed with ADHD, most cancers, corruption of our political system, imperialism and neo-imperialism, death squads, the drug trade -- all of these are caused by capital. 

The evidence to prove that case is obvious, overwhelming, and incontrovertible. You do not have to be Marxian to understand this but apparently it helps -- Marx and the schools of thought that have evolved from his initial insights have done the best job of illuminating the problems caused by capital over the last 150 years. 

BUT, and here's the thing that most Marxians and anarchists do not understand -- getting rid of money, property, or markets does not necessarily solve these problems. Indeed the places that have tried to rid themselves of property, money, or markets (for example, the Russian Revolution, China under Mao, Cambodia under Pol Pot) have produced all sorts of horrors of their own -- genocide, famine, prison labor camps, authoritarianism, a massive system of corruption (indeed corruption IS the political system in those countries). Part of the problem is that money is a funny thing -- what is it? -- a stored symbol of value, a universal method of recording promises between unrelated parties? It's pretty tough to replace that without introducing all sorts of additional problems and complications. 

So I guess where I'm at is that many of the fiercest criticisms of capitalism are indeed correct. And also many of the fiercest criticisms of alternatives to capitalism are also probably correct. The only viable alternative that I can see at this point is the Scandinavia model -- capital is allowed to do its thing, but it is controlled and directed towards more socially useful purposes through massive taxation, financial regulations, currency controls, taxes on financial transactions, etc. (I get that not all of these measures are in force at one time depending on the country). But capital is always the genie that gets out of the bottle, that figures out how to spill beyond its container in ways that poison the entire system. I'm open to other alternatives, I'm just not seeing them yet. (I guess zero growth economics looks promising too, but it's still so new that I don't fully understand it yet).

The not so subtle dog-whistle of the term "Islamist"

Okay, I've got a beef with the word "Islamist." LOTS of respected news organizations use it -- from the NY Times to Smithsonian Magazine. It is supposedly used to differentiate fundamentalist-Muslims-who-want-to-hurt-us (the Islamists) from moderate and liberal Muslims. But my sense is that the term "Islamists" is a code word for "it's okay to kill these guys." We do not have a corresponding term for fundamentalist Christians, Buddhists, Jews, or Hindus. Either we should start dividing up all religions between their violent fundamentalist wing and their more moderate wing using the "ist" construction (Christianists, Buddhistists, Judaists, Hinduists, etc.). Or we should drop the term altogether and treat people as individuals according to their actual words and deeds.

Friday, May 17, 2013

I need crowdsourcing help with a question about Cambodia

As many of you know, I'm a huge fan of James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds (I've written about the book here, here, and here). One of the great things about the internet in general and blogging in particular is that it sometimes enables one to harness the wisdom of the crowd.  Sometimes a reader will leave a comment that adds an insight or that bit of data or a link that blows one's mind -- that one could not have found through traditional search methods. I don't have as many readers as I used to as a result of not keeping up with my blog (during graduate school).  But I have a question that I very much need help with.  So I thought I would send it out into the world and see what comes back.  

Here is the question that I could use your help to answer:

On page 325 of the paperback (1998) edition of Elizabeth Becker's brilliant book, When the War Was Over, she writes:

"Like the Eastern Zone cadre who escaped to Vietnam once they understood they were scheduled for extermination, the cadre under the minister of industry bolted and went into hiding.  But they were not close to a border; they were not within the protective reach of the Vietnamese army. They could only band together and operate as a rogue vigilante group in Phnom Penh itself, a group of angry, armed factory workers bent on taking revenge against Pol Pot, Duch, and the revolution.  They apparently ambushed and killed other cadre. When Ieng Sary said he feared a coup d'etat inside Cambodia at the time, he was undoubtedly referring in part to these men."  -- Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over

I am eager to know more about this group of factory workers who fought back. I checked in the Notes at the back of the book but I did not see a reference for this paragraph. Can anyone point me to any books or sources who might have additional details on this rebel cadre?  Has anyone documented their whole story? 

It is my feeling that Cambodia needs to find its own Oskar Schindlers -- the people who fought back and the people who resisted Pol Pot.  Elizabeth Becker's book Bophana does a brilliant job of that.  But I know there are many many more stories of resistance that can be brought to light -- and this story of the factory workers who fought back seems like a promising possibility. 

Any help you can provide to track down more information about these factory workers would be very much appreciated.  

Friday, January 04, 2013

Some thoughts on Cambodia

Having just returned from four months in Cambodia, I thought I'd jot down my thoughts while they are still fresh in my mind.

1.  Angkor Wat is not doing Cambodia any favors.  Angkor Wat like many wonders of the ancient world, and like much of the U.S. Capitol including the Washington Monument, was likely built by slave labor.  It is physically beautiful but it is also a testament to the power of despotic kings to force people into bondage.  The Khmer people rightly turned away from the Angkor temples following the fall of the Angkor Kingdom -- claiming that the area was haunted by ghosts.

It was the French, in the twentieth century, who rebuilt Angkor Wat temples and revived the myth of Angkorian greatness -- in order to develop a sense of Cambodia nationalism in order to further French colonial aims (Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over).

The Khmer Rouge explicitly stated that their goal was to replicate the greatness of the Angkorian empire.  The forced labor camps of the Khmer Rouge were done in the attempt to replicate the irrigation systems of the Angkorian empire and to squeeze two rice crop out of the land each year instead of one (Angkor supposedly achieved 3 or 4 rice crops a year as a result of their irrigation systems -- but one of the leading theories of the collapse of the Angkorian empire is that the land was rapidly depleted leading to declining crop yields and hunger).  The Khmer Rouge even named the party, "Angkar," to invoke the memories of the Angkorian empire.  Ironically, in many ways the Khmer Rouge succeeded in replicating the Angkorian kingdom -- re-instituting slavery, hunger, and societal collapse.

Now, many Cambodian universities, in the attempt to rebuild Cambodia society after the Khmer Rouge are once again invoking the greatness of Angkor in order to propel the rebuilding of the country. This is just repeating the mistakes of the last 100 years (and the last 1,000 years).

I believe that if Cambodia is ever going to have a peaceful and prosperous future, it needs to call into question the legacy of the Angkorian kingdom and Angkor Wat.

Furthermore, UNESCO has some explaining to do.  Many UNESCO Heritage Sites were originally built by  slave labor.  Yes the sites are often archaeological wonders and they bring badly needed tourism dollars into the country.  But it seems to me that UNESCO also has a responsibility to question the slave labor systems that brought these works into existence in the first place.  In fact, the entrance fees to visit these sites (often paid by wealthy white people from the developed world -- people who benefited from the legacy of slavery) should be viewed as a form of reparations for slavery and should be directed towards social programs to reduce inequality.

2.  I hate to say it, but it seems to me that Buddhism is not doing Cambodia any favors either. Yes, Buddhism was the only institution to provide education throughout the country over much of its history.  Yes, Buddhists  were horribly persecuted by the Khmer Rouge.  Yes, the country needs some sort of moral foundation and Buddhism seems like the most appropriate source of that wisdom.  Yes, Buddhist institutions are doing a wonderful job of providing housing to Pagoda Kids who want to attend university in Phnom Penh today.  Yes many aspects of Buddhist aesthetics and tradition are beautiful.

But Buddhism as an institution is deeply hierarchical and sexist.  It emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking.  And a theology that minimizes the importance of the here and now, teaching that life is just suffering, helps to create the conditions that keep monarchs and despots in power (why protest political conditions or organize to improve public policy if life is always just suffering?).

In fairness, no other religion is doing Cambodia any favors either.

3.  When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution by Elizabeth Becker is a masterpiece.  Understanding Cambodia is like trying to understand a game of chess played across 100 dimensions.  There are only a handful of people in the world who have enough experience in the region, perspective, and skill to tell the story.  I believe that Elizabeth Becker has written one of the greatest political science works of all time.  I highly highly recommend When the War Was Over to anyone who is thinking about traveling to the region or hoping to understand Cambodian society.

4.  Cambodia's Curse by Joel Brinkley is a dreadful book.  Yes, someone needed to write a book about the endemic corruption of the Hun Sen regime.  And that book had to be written by a foreigner, because any Cambodian who wrote such a book would likely be jailed or killed.  But Joel Brinkley's research is woeful, his thinking is a mess, and his writing is sophomoric.  In the acknowledgements at the end, Brinkley actually says that he read twelve books about Cambodia (by contrast a scholar like Elizabeth Becker cites hundreds of books in her research). Moreover, it seems that Brinkley's real goal is to use the on-going culture of corruption in Cambodia in order to excuse U.S. war crimes in the area in the 1960s and 1970s.  I have lots more to say about Cambodia's Curse, perhaps in another post. But for now, suffice it to say that Joel Brinkley is not doing Cambodia any favors.

5.  Studies of Cambodia refugees in the U.S. suggest that as many as 60% to 70% experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It seems likely that Cambodians still living in Cambodia (particularly older people) experience PTSD at similar or even higher levels.  But here's the thing to understand:  the majority of Cambodians probably were ALREADY experiencing PTSD, even BEFORE the Khmer Rouge came to power.  Five centuries of colonization proceeded by centuries of slavery and despotic monarchs will do that to a people.  The hyper-vigilence of the Khmer Rouge, the paranoia, and the extreme levels of violence of the Khmer Rouge are all what you would expect from people who already had PTSD.  The genocide by the Khmer Rouge surely dramatically increased the number of people suffering from PTSD.  [Evidence for this theory comes from the fact that Lon Nol, no communist, was deeply paranoid and had already begun massacres against ethnic Vietnamese people living in Cambodia as early as 1970. Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over.]

In some respects then, that makes Paulo Freire's work even more important for revolutionary movements.  Any oppressed people is likely experiencing PTSD.  And, as I've written previously,  Freireian pedagogy is really about treating PTSD in the society at large -- as the necessary first step to heal the wounds of colonialism before gaining power. Absent some transformative healing process, an oppressed people gains power only to violate all of its ideals by lashing out in crazy ways characteristic of PTSD.

6.  There appears to be this odd wrinkle to communism in Asia in that Pol Pot, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh are not listed as having any children.  That would be extremely odd given the conditions of the era (war, lack of access to health care including modern birth control) and given that men in those societies were generally expected to have children.  Now perhaps these men did have children and they were just kept a secret (in order to keep them safe).  But if these men indeed did not have children -- that's even more interesting.

It seems to me that children have a humbling effect on people.  Any national leader without children has never experienced the ego-distonic effect of having a little person, who is your own flesh and blood and who you love, absolutely refuse to do what you tell them.  I think children are vital to help soften and temper the excesses of our political leaders.

Communist Revolutionary heroes in Latin America -- Castro, Che, Ortega -- all have children.

7.  One of the biggest barriers to transitional justice -- in Cambodia and in other war scarred regions around the world, is that political leaders in the United States are often unindicted co-conspirators, who should also be on trial.

It is true that the Hun Sen regime is dragging its feet in prosecuting former Khmer Rouge leaders through the ECCC.  The Hun Sen regime's failure to engage in a process of truth and reconciliation is a national disgrace that prevents the country from healing and reaching its full potential.

But it is also true that the U.S. committed genocide in Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge.  McNamara and Nixon were both war criminals and should have been prosecuted as such (both men are now dead).  But Henry Kissinger is still alive and is one of history's most notorious mass murderers.  Making matters even more complicated, I believe that the U.S. was right and just to oppose communism in the region. But the carpet bombing of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Second Indochina War was genocide and should be prosecuted as such.  Again it is a post for another day, but if the world is ever going to move to some sort of standard of international human rights, war criminals from the United States will need to be prosecuted according to the same standards that are used to judge others.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Inside the mind of the oligarchy

From the brilliant, "Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading in Political Theory" by Wendy Brown: 

Writing about Greek culture during the time of Aristotle:

Greek man grasped his existence through acting politically and could not know that he existed unless others acknowledged his action by bestowing honor upon him.  "Denial of honor due," says Jaeger of the classical Athenians, "was the greatest of human tragedies." Failing to receive honor for great deeds did not merely diminish the glory of the activity but threatened man's sense of self at the deepest level.  According to Jaeger, Greek man, "estimated his own worth exclusively by the standards of the society to which he belonged.  He measured his own aretē by the opinion which others held of him."

More significantly for the nature of political life, this recognition and honor by one's peers could not be shared with another and still serve the purpose of asserting and affirming one's existence.  For a man to achieve recognition, hence existence, he had to obliterate the greatness and thereby the existence of some other man or men. Manhood itself appears to have been predicated upon the shortage of available existences.  "As aretē is man's only weapon against oblivion," the diminished aretē of another was the only means of asserting one's own aretē and existence. The agonistic nature of Greek politics was thus not a mere component or consequence of the quest for manhood through action but part of the bedrock of this quest, a necessary feature of its foundations.

--Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading in Political Theory, p. 62

So think about the indignity that Mitt Romney and his surrogates express when he is asked to release his tax returns.  It's not just that they are saying "no" -- it's that they are offended that any of the little people would even dare to make such a request.  The reality is that this has been going on for thousands of years.  It's not enough for the oligarchy to be rich, they only get pleasure when they are rich AND we bow down to them. 

So too when Republican Governors fall all over themselves to deny services and increase pain for poor people. But their actions stem from the very ideology described above. For them, greatness is a zero sum game -- they can only be great only through obliterating the greatness of others (in this case women, people of color, and the poor). 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Part II

Another chunk from David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 years that blew my mind today:

"Legally, our notion of the corporation is very much a product of the European High Middle Ages.  The legal idea of a corporation as a "fictive person" (persona ficta) -- a person who, as Maitland, the great British legal historian, put it, "is immortal, who sues and is sued, who holds lands, has a seal of his own, who makes regulations for those natural persons of whom he is composed -- was first established in canon law by Pope Innocent IV in 1250 AD, and one of the first kinds of entities it applied to were monasteries -- as also to universities, churches, municipalities, and guilds.

The idea of the corporation as an angelic being is not mine, incidentally.  I borrowed it from the great Medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, who pointed out that all this was happening right around the same time that Thomas Aquinas was developing the notion that angels were really just the personification of Platonic Ideas. According to the teachings of Aquinas," he notes, "every angel represented a species."

Little wonder then that finally the personified collectives of the jurists, which were juristically immortal species, displayed all the features otherwise attributed to angels... The jurists themselves recognized that there was some similarity between their abstractions and the angelic beings.  In this respect, it may be said that the political and legal world of thought of the later Middle Ages began to be populated by immaterial angelic bodies, large and small: they were invisible, ageless, sempiternal, immortal, and sometimes even ubiquitous; and they were endowed with a corpus intellectuale or mysticum [an intellectual or mystical body] which could stand any comparison with the "spiritual bodies" of celestial beings.

All this is worth emphasizing because while we are used to assuming that there's something natural or inevitable about the existence of corporations, in historical terms, they are actually strange, exotic creatures.  No other great tradition came up with anything like it.

--David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 304.

I think that's how the Roberts Court see corporations -- as angels that are better than actual human beings.  That's why the Roberts Court consistently grants rights to corporations that actually exceeds the rights they grant as natural to human being.