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.

Debt The First 5000 years, Part I

I'm working through David Graeber's Debt, the First 5,000 Years.  I'm not sure if the whole argument holds together quite yet for me (I still have 100 pages to go). But there are several sections in it that have completely blown my mind.  Like this:

Many of the specific arguments and examples that [Adam] Smith uses appear to trace back directly to economic tracts written in Medieval Persia.  For instance, not only does his argument that exchange is a natural outgrowth of human rationality and speech already appear both in Ghazali (1058-1111AD), and Tusi (1201-1274 AD); both use exactly the same illustration: that no one has ever observed two dogs exchanging bones.  Even more dramatically, Smith's most famous example of division of labor, the pin factory, where it takes eighteen separate operations to produce one pin, already appears in Ghazali's Ihya, in which he describes a needle factory, where it takes twenty-five different operations to produce a needle." 

--David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 279

For more on these topics see: Hosseini, Hamid: [you'll likely need a library or university login to access these:]

1995, "Understanding the market mechanism before Adam Smith: economic thought in Medieval Islam." History of Political Economy 27 (3)

1998, "Seeking the roots of Adam Smith's division of labor in medieval Persia." History of Political Economy 30 (4)

2003, "Contributions of Medieval Muslim Scholars to the History of Economics and their Impact: A refutation of the Schumpeterian Great Gap" in The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Economics III: A Companion to the History of Economic Thought.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

How neocolonialism really works

If the apartheid regime had really wanted to break Mandela, they should NOT have sent him to Robben Island.  If you spend 30 years breaking rocks you will come to identify with others who break rocks (miners, laborers, farm workers).  No if they had really wanted to break Mandela, they should have sent him to Harvard, on a tennis scholarship.