September 30, 2007

Tom Tomorrow

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 8:16 pm

Why no utopia? (Wino Utopia). I should be reading economics; instead I’m reading comics. Looking through the archives of Tom Tomorrow’s great weekly strip. Age shall not weary it, nor hindsight dim its lustre.

September 17th 2001: “What will happen in the wake of this monstrous act? Some form of retaliation against someone is clearly inevitable – but it’s hard to imagine it will stop there… we are far more likely to find ourselves trapped in an escalating cycle of violence and retribution for years and even decades to come.”

September 24th: “Bin Laden’s organisation consists of perhaps a few thousand men scattered throughout dozens of countries… It’s like being at war with MENSA or something…”

November 5th: “This week: Patriotic Optimism! … No new terrorists will rise from the ashes. “Sure American bombs killed my family and destroyed my home – but I will always be grateful…””

August 30th 2002: “The Optimist’s guide to war in Iraq. … Iraq’s many splintered factions quickly join together in harmony and bring stability to the land… The war destabilizes the entire region – but in a good way!”

April 1st 2003: “Of course the Iraqis won’t put up a fight! They’re going to lay down their weapons and welcome us as liberators! … / Of course there have been casualties! What did you expect? No one ever said this was going to be easy!… / Of course the occupational government had to impose martial law! But it’s only a temporary measure until we can restore order! … / Of course Iraq has descended into chaos and civil war – but Iran is going to be a cakewalk!”

And January 30th 2007: “It’s true that I predicted an easy victory, a grateful Iraqi populace, and a rapid flowering of Jeffersonian democracy… and to the extent that those things haven’t entirely happened yet, you could say that I was at least partially wrong…. However – that doesn’t mean that you were right! You may have predicted that the war would turn out badly – but you did not predict the precise way in which it would turn out badly – nor the exact sequence of events leading to that outcome! So as far as I’m concerned the only lesson to be drawn here is that nobody can predict the future! That’s it! No other lessons! End of story!”

Meanwhile The Economist, still defending its decision to support the war, has started referring to opponents of the occupation as ‘populists’, who “pander without reservation.” (Sept. 8th-14th, p. 28) And, according to the latest Seymour Hersh New Yorker article, “there has been a significant increase in the tempo” of the Bush administration’s planning for an attack on Iran. “’They’re moving everybody to the Iran desk,’ one recently retired C.I.A. official said. ‘They’re dragging in a lot of analysts and ramping up everything. It’s just like the fall of 2002.’” In another eerie parallel, “The bombing plan has had its most positive reception from the newly elected government of Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.”

Tom Tomorrow: please be wrong this time.

Slavery in ‘Empire’

Filed under: History, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 8:05 pm

I’ve been reading Niall Ferguson’s ‘Empire’.

“After the British first came to Sierra Leone in 1562 it did not take them long to become slave traders. In the subsequent two and a half centuries, as we have seen, more than three million Africans were shipped into bondage on British ships. But then, towards the end of the eighteenth century, something changed dramatically; it was almost as if a switch was flicked in the British psyche. Suddenly they started shipping slaves back to West Africa and setting them free… What was going on to turn Britain from the world’s leading enslaver to the world’s leading emancipator?” (p. 116)

Ferguson’s answer is religion: the rise of evangelicalism, and the new pressure-group politics that came with it. But what was behind this rise; and why did the evangelical project of liberation and conversion gain the dominance it did?

I don’t know! (See the ‘vitiated by ignorance’ tag). But I’ve just been reading Foucault; and through those spectacles this looks like a textbook move from physical coercion to social discipline and control. The British rejection of slavery only came once they (we) had gained dominance of the trade – and of the seas. It only came once the massive movements of population that were necessary to establish fledgling new world industries had been accomplished. The expansion of the British empire was driven not just by the need to expropriate ever more land, commodities and labour; it was also driven by the need to create new markets. The ‘Anglicisation’ of native populations can be seen as the systematic generation of demand. A slave cannot be a consumer. The evangelical goal is to generate the same or greater labour than a slave’s, in exchange for British products.

“In many ways, the model mission in Africa was the London Missionary Society’s Kuruman establishment in Bechuanaland, nearly 600 miles north-east of Cape Town… The essence of the Kuruman project was simple: in turning Africans into Christians, the mission was at the same time civilising them, changing not just their faith but also their mode of dress, hygiene, and housing… ‘The people are now dressed in British manufactures and make a very respectable appearance in the house of God.’” (p. 122).

Or, as Joseph Chamberlain told the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce in 1896:

”The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office are chiefly engaged in finding new markets and in defending old ones. The War Office and Admiralty are mostly occupied in preparation for the defence of these markets, and for the protection of our commerce… Therefore, it is not too much to say that commerce is the greatest of all political interests, and that Government deserves most the popular approval which does the most to increase our trade and to settle it on a firm foundation.” (p. 255).

September 25, 2007

Appalling Ignorance…

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 6:32 pm

… I need several years in a copyright library before I’m in a position to write another word.

But I’ll probably keep blogging anyway. A new category: ‘Vitiated by ignorance.’ Please feel free to dismiss everything that follows as worthless speculation.

Moments in the Cultural History of Soap

Filed under: History — Tags: , , , — duncan @ 6:29 pm

“The first step towards lightening

The White Man’s Burden

Is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.

Pears’ Soap

Is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances while amongst the cultures of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.” (Ferguson, ‘Empire’, p. 256)

Meanwhile, “Tissot believes that soap can be consumed directly, and that it will calm many nervous ailments; but more often it is sufficient to consume, first thing in the morning, by themselves or with bread, ‘soapy fruits’ – that is, cherries, strawberries, currants, figs, oranges, grapes, ripe pears, and ‘other fruits of this nature’. But there are cases where the difficulty is so serious, the obstruction so irreducible, that no soap can conquer it.” (Foucault, ‘Madness and Civilisation’, p. 157).

Googling ‘Social History of Soap’ brings up countless scholarly works – perhaps tens of thousands. According to this abstract,

“Late 19th century soap advertising relied upon four main ‘fetishes’: the soap, white clothing, mirrors, and monkeys.”

So much to read, and so little time…

September 23, 2007

Time out of Mind

Filed under: Self indulgence — Tags: , , — duncan @ 6:33 pm

The fact that the meaning of one’s life is occluded; the fact that it must be occluded, as part of the essence of mortality; the fact that one’s ignorance or partial knowledge is the force driving one onwards; the fact that even in one’s imagination no final reckoning can take place: all these are hard things to accept. Great anguish and bafflement.

And the beauty of the everyday world: innumerable and overwhelming. Why is this not mentioned more often? Debasement of hyperbole. We need universally accepted symbols for the inexpressibly distressing or beloved.

September 16, 2007

Mount Moriah

Filed under: Philosophy — duncan @ 5:28 pm

In his important late book ‘The Gift of Death’, Derrida meditates on the story of Abraham and Isaac. His theme is responsibility: the meaning of responsibility, as it is understood by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Derrida starts with a discussion of Jan Patocka; then he moves into the orbit of Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard, or his avatar Johannes de Silentio, believes that Abraham’s sacrifice is both monstrous and admirable. Ethically, within our earthly world, Abraham’s willingness to murder his son is monstrous. It is a crime that cannot be forgiven, an absolute step beyond the morality that guides human conduct. Yet Abraham is also commendable. The ethical sphere, Silentio argues, is suspended or subsumed by the word of God. And so Abraham is right to (be prepared to) murder his son: he is right to obey God’s command, even though our ethical sense revolts against this crime. Silentio’s purpose, in Fear and Trembling, is to praise Abraham’s faith without diminishing his actions’ horror.

Derrida reads Kierkegaard through Levinas; he sees the ethical and religious spheres in terms of alterity. But – no surprises here – Derrida is suspicious of the opposition between the religious and the ethical. For Kierkegaard – and for Levinas following him – Abraham’s relation to God is fundamentally different from his relation to Isaac. God as the absolutely, infinitely other can be differentiated from the human others of the ethical sphere. “Even in its critique of Kierkegaard concerning ethics and generality Levinas’s thinking stays within the game – the play of difference and analogy – between the face of God and the face of my neighbour” (pgs. 83-84). For Derrida, this game is unsustainable. Kierkegaard and Levinas are unable to adequately distinguish between the otherness of another human and the otherness of God; they are thus unable to distinguish between the religious and the ethical.

Derrida’s critique comes to be focussed in a single phrase: tout autre est tout autre. Every other is wholly other. God as infinitely other is no different, in his infinite alterity, from my neighbour. And therefore the suspension of the ethical by the religious is already in operation within the ethical: it is the very essence of the ethical. When I make any ethical choice I make a sacrifice like Abraham’s: I turn away from other obligations and suffering. The concept of responsibility would have no content without this sacrifice – which is always also a rejection of responsibility. “As a result, the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal and aporia.” (p.68) Still more memorably:

“As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others. I offer a gift of death, I betray, I don’t need to raise my knife over my son on Mount Moriah for that. Day and night, at every instant, on all the Mount Moriahs of this world, I am doing that, raising my knife over what I love and must love, over all those to whom I owe absolute fidelity, incommensurably.” (p. 68)

It seems to me that we are here at the heart of the controversies surrounding Derrida’s work. Is this moral relativism? I can see why many people believe so. In his book ‘Renewing Philosophy’, Hilary Putnam concludes his discussion of Derrida by writing that, while he admires many of Derrida’s own political judgements, “the philosophical irresponsibility of one decade can become the real-world political tragedy of a few decades later. And deconstruction without reconstruction is irresponsibility.” While Putnam doesn’t discuss ‘The Gift of Death’ (which was published in French in 1992, the same year as Putnam’s book), Derrida’s claim that the concept of responsibility is inherently aporetic seems as good reason as any to accuse deconstruction of irresponsibility. On the other hand, if the concept of responsibility really is aporetic, then to ignore this is to ignore responsibility itself: to misunderstand or evade it – perhaps in the name of ‘good conscience’.

I dug out ‘The Gift of Death’ this week, and I’ll end, for now, with a long passage I read on the way to work yesterday.

“The concept of responsibility, like that of decision, would thus be found to lack coherence or consequence, even lacking identity with respect to itself, paralyzed by what can be called an aporia or an antimony. That has never stopped it from ‘functioning,’ as one says. On the contrary, it operates so much better, to the extent that it serves to obscure the abyss or fill in its absence of foundation, stabilizing a chaotic process of change in what are called conventions… What is thus found at work in everyday discourse, in the exercise of justice, and first and foremost in the axiomatics of private, public, or international law, in the conduct of internal politics, diplomacy, and war, is a lexicon concerning responsibility that can be said to hover vaguely about a concept that is nowhere to be found, even if we can’t go so far as to say that it doesn’t correspond to any concept at all. It amounts to a disavowal whose resources, as one knows, are inexhaustible. One simply keeps on denying the aporia and antimony, tirelessly, and one treats as nihilist, relativist, even poststructuralist, and worse still deconstructionist, all those who remain concerned in the face of such a display of good conscience.

The sacrifice of Isaac is an abomination in the eyes of all, and it should continue to be seen for what it is – atrocious, criminal, unforgivable; Kierkegaard insists on that. The ethical point of view must remain valid: Abraham is a murderer. However, is it not true that the spectacle of this murder, which seems intolerable in the denseness and rhythm of its theatricality, is at the same time the most common event in the world? Is it not inscribed in the structure of our existence to the extent of no longer constituting an event? It will be said that it would be most improbable for the sacrifice of Isaac to be repeated in our day; and it certainly seems that way. We can hardly imagine a father taking his son to be sacrificed on the top of the hill at Montmartre… Things are such that this man would surely be condemned by any civilized society. On the other hand, the smooth functioning of such a society, the monotonous complacency of its discourses on morality, politics, and the law, and the exercise of its rights (whether public, private, national or international), are in no way impaired by the fact that, because of the mechanisms of external debt and other similar inequities, that same ‘society’ puts to death or (but failing to help someone in distress accounts for only a minor difference) allows to die of hunger and disease tens of millions of children (those neighbors or fellow humans that ethics or the discourse of the rights of man refer to) without any moral or legal tribunal ever being considered competent to judge such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of others to avoid being sacrificed oneself. Not only is it true that such a society participates in this incalculable sacrifice, it actually organises it. The smooth functioning of its moral discourse and good conscience presupposes the permanent operation of this sacrifice. And such a sacrifice is not even invisible, for from time to time television shows us, while keeping them at a distance, a series of intolerable images, and a few voices are raised to bring it all to our attention. But those images and voices are completely powerless to induce the slightest effective change in the situation, to assign the least responsibility, to furnish anything more than a convenient alibi… We are not even talking about wars, the less recent or most recent ones, in which cases one can wait an eternity for morality or international law (whether violated with impunity or invoked hypocritically) to determine with any degree of certainty who is responsible or guilty for the hundreds of thousands of victims who are sacrificed for what or whom one knows not…” (The Gift of Death, pgs. 84-86.)

September 14, 2007

State versus Freedom

Filed under: Economics, Friedman, Politics — duncan @ 8:50 pm

The most dominant theme in Friedman’s book is the infringement on individual liberty by the state. The corollary of this theme is that decisions made through the market are voluntary.

This simplistic opposition is deeply flawed; it is the root source of Friedman’s malign political thinking.

In his chapter on social welfare measures, Friedman is attacking paternalism. “This position [a paternalistic advocacy of compulsory pensions] is internally consistent and logical. A thoroughgoing paternalist… cannot be dissuaded by being shown that he is making a mistake in logic. He is our opponent on grounds of principle, not simply a well-meaning but misguided friend. Basically, he believes in dictatorship, benevolent and maybe majoritarian, but dictatorship none the less.” (p. 187).

If Friedman is serious that paternalistic welfare is a form of dictatorship, then I see no way in which this argument can be restricted to welfare alone. If it is dictatorship for the state to interfere with the freedom of its citizens, then all state power is dictatorship. Democracy is majoritarian dictatorship.

This position, “internally consistent and logical”, leads to libertarian anarchism. But Friedman is not a libertarian anarchist. He believes in the legitimacy of some state power. Indeed, one of the chief claims of his book is that democracy is the best form of government.

How can Friedman square this advocacy of democracy with his condemnation of majoritarian dictatorship? It seems to me that he either needs to scale up his attack on government, or scale down his condemnation of paternalism. To attack welfare as a form of dictatorship, while making no such claims about other forms of democratic power, isn’t playing fair.

That’s the first problem with Friedman’s position: when it suits his argument, he presents state power as inherently and absolutely dictatorial. The second, bigger, problem is that he presents market transactions as inherently and absolutely voluntary.

“The possibility of co-ordination through voluntary co-operation rests on the elementary – yet frequently denied – proposition that both parties to an economic transaction benefit from it, provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed.

“Exchange can therefore bring about co-ordination without coercion. A working model of a society organized through voluntary exchange is a free private enterprise exchange economy – what we have been calling competitive capitalism.” (p. 13).

But, as should be obvious, coercion is a matter of degree. Even the most horrific torture leaves a sliver of freedom; even the most bilaterally voluntary transaction involves dissymmetries of power. Every exchange involves a power relation; and these power relations have their influence on the movement of our economy. Friedman’s reification of free exchange evades the extent to which no exchange is ever wholly free.

On which subject there’s a whole lot more to say…

September 10, 2007

A troubling new addiction:

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 8:30 pm

Wikipedia discussion pages. I can’t get enough of them. I don’t bother with the articles any more. I flick straight to the talk section, and try to deduce the main content, Rashomon-style, from the ebb and flow of its controversies. It’s the same irrational hunger that ruins my pleasure in DVDs. If I rent a movie, I’ve got no choice: I have to watch the extras on that disk: every actors’ commentary, every ‘making of’ doc, every Q&A, every video diary by a wacky bit part player, every piece of historical contextualisation from a noted academic theorist. It’s a fucking nightmare.  Now I only rent movies without the bonus features: I just watch Woody Allen flicks, I don’t have the time to waste. And, gradually, the same thing’s happening with Wikipedia. So far I’ve managed to keep off the edits histories, but it’s the next step, I know. That’ll be my weekends gone: hunched over the computer screen, too preoccupied even to download porn, scrolling down page after page of usage quibbles, mainlining re-writes.

Why? What’s the appeal? It’s the same spurious behind-the-scenes thrill, I suppose, that makes me watch reality TV and The West Wing. The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s okay; but it would be much more fun to read about the frenzy of academic intrigue, backstabbing, resentment, envy and bitterness that went to produce just one desiccated sentence. Now, wonderfully, we can. Wikipedia contributors seem to divide fairly neatly into the strenuously polite and the insane. In post after post editors try to hold madness at bay through sheer force of etiquette. And, of course, any forum that throws together the pedantically erudite with slap-happy vandals is going to produce some geeky fun. “I’m pretty sure Kant never authored a work titled, ‘Do Me Like a Dirty Pig’, so I changed it to what the underlying link led to.” “What’s up with this? Actually it’s a little known work in Latin age me similis immunda sus.”

I can justify it, of course. Here we have the production of knowledge itself, for all to see. I hope some future e-historian is making notes. Wikipedia is the most culturally significant collaborative work since The Iliad. Unprecedentedly huge swathes of society are working together on the decision – What do we count as truth? Those discussion pages lead us to the fissures in our self-conception; they tell us what the finished pages never can – the true shapes of our doubts, our anxieties, our obsessions, our fears. They show us the private life of facts; the subterranean sludge of culture. Wikipedia is the true portrait of our age. (For all of the above, of course, citation needed; I’ll try to do some work on it when I get time.)

September 9, 2007

Material Grrl.

Filed under: Economics, Friedman, Politics — duncan @ 7:10 pm

“The more capitalistic a country is, the smaller the fraction of income paid for the use of what is generally regarded as capital, and the larger the fraction paid for human services. In underdeveloped countries like India, Egypt, and so on, something like half of total income is property income. In the United States, roughly one-fifth is property income. And in other advanced capitalist countries, the proportion is not very different. Of course, these countries have much more capital than the primitive countries but they are even richer in the productive capacity of their residents; hence, the larger income from property is a smaller fraction of the total. The great achievement of capitalism has not been the accumulation of property, it has been the opportunities it has offered to men and women to extend and develop and improve their capacities. Yet the enemies of capitalism are fond of castigating it as materialist, and its friends all too often apologize for capitalism’s materialism as a necessary cost of progress.” (Capitalism and Freedom, p. 169).

A remarkable passage. Friedman here seems unable to understand the concept of materialism except in relation to the distinction between physical and human capital. A materialist society, Friedman suggests, is a society dominated by physical commodities; a non-materialist society is society in which human services play a more important role.

But, of course, (do I need to say it?) this isn’t what materialism means. My Oxford dictionary’s first definition reads:

“a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.”

The contrast is between ‘economic’ factors (exemplified by material possessions but certainly including human services), and spiritual ones. A materialist perspective would, for instance, focus on the size and make-up of a nation’s income, while neglecting less tangible qualities of life. Friedman’s claim that capitalism is not materialistic is couched in the most materialistic terms imaginable.

September 7, 2007

Friedman on Drugs

Filed under: Friedman, Politics, Sarcasm — duncan @ 9:30 pm

Contrariwise, check out this interview with Friedman. It has two main positive features:

1) I agree with it, more or less. (Legalise all drugs; destroy the black market; make the war in Afghanistan at least not wholly untenable; have a big party.)
2) It’s hilarious.

On the other hand, Friedman as ever seems almost psychotically impervious to the real world.

“Interviewer: But with regard to crack, considering the fact that it’s very addictive and considering the fact that…

Friedman: That’s very dubious. It is addictive, but I understand from all the medical evidence that it’s no more addictive than other drugs. In fact, the most addictive drug everybody acknowledges is tobacco.”

“everybody acknowledges” is the killer.

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