Friday 22 June 2012

Bryant on Being Qua Mechanism; the Baggage Thereof

Levi Bryant writes:
What we need is not a conception of being composed of objects, but rather of machines. Nor is it a pan-psychism, organicism, or vitalism that we need, but rather a pan-mechanism.
It's a very long and interesting piece that's still in development and is well worth the read. I'm sympathetic to the general thrust of it but what concerns me is whether mechanism is really a good metaphor for being.

Machines aren't generally understood as dynamic or evolutionary. They remain operational only within fairly limited ontological parameters. If a machine's composition changes radically then this generally means that it breaks down. In this respect, it is fundamentally brittle and necessarily reliant upon maintenance. Its ontology is highly dependent upon other things and it only remains what it is while it remains more or less ontologically consistent or stationary.

Real machines are a little too rigid, fragile and needy to serve as a metaphor for beings altogether. Moreover, machines as they are popularly imagined tend towards the other extreme and appear far too rational, coherent and solid (e.g. in Newtonian physics/metaphysics, which implies mechanical aspects of reality to be timeless, rational and holistic, like clockwork).

On the one hand, machines are too weak for mechanism to be a useful metaphor for being. And, on the other hand, machines, as they are often understood, are also too strong to be a useful metaphor for being. Being in general seems much more plastic than mechanical. (Plastic in the sense used by William James: "plasticity ... the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.")

The machine metaphor may be as old as philosophy itself but I'm not sure that it does justice to things.

That said, there are, of course, only so many words that we can appropriate for thought and I struggle to think of any that are obviously better (e.g. being qua organism has its own problems) but mechanism certainly carries some baggage with it.

Carr, Cameron and Question Time

Richard Murphy writes about Jimmy Carr's tax affairs and Cameron's missteps thereover.

There was a pretty good discussion of this issue in the first fifteen minutes or so of Question Time last night. Unite's Len McCluskey was superb -- informed, articulate and seemingly familiar with the Tax Justice Network. Ken Clarke was surly, evasive and clearly uncomfortable with the subject matter. His strategy was simply to avoid the question and dismiss, for instance, the slashing of HMRC budgets as unimportant. Against McCluskey's facts, figures and evidence (for example, that tax collectors bring in far more money than they cost to employ) he just turned his nose up and snorted. I think the audience noticed the difference.

Besides a handful of steam-eared reactionaries the mood was very much suggesting that the Carr case has been overblown, that the government was massively hypocritical and that they should be doing more to enforce the law with regard to tax rather than just complaining about particular cases. In fact, that last point was agreed on fairly unanimously, across the benches, as it were. For that reason it was unfortunate that no one really challenged Clarke's claim that the Tories are implementing a general anti-avoidance rule because, as we know, it is that in name only. They're making noises about cracking down on tax cheats precisely so that they can let ever more of them off the hook.

Andy Burnham came across very well generally, although he had very little to say about the tax issue. It continues to puzzle me why Labour are so reluctant to pile in on this issue more seriously as it's clearly a significant Tory weakness.

Cameron has created a rod for his own back by admitting that tax avoidance, while legal, is immoral. He mustn't be allowed to forget it. I'm confident that the likes of Murphy, the TJN, UK Uncut and so on will ensure that he won't!

Thursday 21 June 2012

Arial Sharon, Nuclear Blackmail

This is a pretty terrifying news story that seems to have passed by the mainstream media (but not Juan Cole):
Alastair Campbell’s serialized memoirs contain a ... revelation that in conversations with President George W. Bush in late 2002, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened to nuke Baghdad if Saddam Hussein hit Israel with rockets again.
Those nuclear weapons that, of course, Israel will neither confirm nor deny that they possess! Is this really the behaviour of an ally?

A very interesting new website has been buzzing through the blogosphere this morning:

They rate British think tanks and policy research organisations according to how transparent they are with respect to funding.

Their results are (with A being the most transparent and E the least):
A – Compass, IPPR, NEF, Progress, Resolution Foundation, Social Market Foundation
B – Demos, Fabian Society, Policy Network, Reform
C – Centre Forum, Civitas, Smith Institute
D – Centre for Policy Studies, Centre for Social Justice, Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange
E – Adam Smith Institute, ResPublica, TaxPayers’ Alliance
This shows an extremely strong correlation between left and right, perhaps unsurprisingly!  It'll be interesting to see how those rated badly react to their position (if they don't just ignore it).

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Jodi Dean on Critique

Jodi Dean on critique:

There is a certain left intellectual position that holds out critique as an unadulterated good.

Critique is superior, more knowing, more responsible than action. Indeed, it's held up against action, support, enthusiasm, as the more responsible and mature position. What are the presumptions at work in such a vision of critique?

1. That one's opponent is uncritical--as if the ideas expressed had not themselves been products of critical reflection.

2. As if any and every space were the right space for critique because critique is always right.

The problems with such a view, particularly now, is that they neglect the characteristics of our setting:

1. Constant critique and cynicism.

2. The academy as industry.

3. The need for left mobilization, coalition, and hope.

I have never met an activist or intellectual who didn't live and breath critique. That's how we wake up, eat, drink, and go to sleep. We are constantly critical. But in our enthusiasm for critique we neglect the ways we become dependent on its displacements of responsibility and activity, as well as it inner satisfactions of knowingness. For activists and intellectuals, it's not a matter, now, of being insufficiently critical. It's a matter of courage and will to push forward. We are already critical, together, in various settings. We don't need to, and shouldn't be, critical of ourselves in every place and every time. We need to build ourselves, our confidence, and our mutual trust.

Absolutely. There is no concept in the academy that is taken as uncritically as 'critique' itself. I've thought and written about this a bit myself recently, albeit in a less cutting and succinct fashion!

Etymologically (my dictionary informs me) 'critique' and 'critic' derive from both Greek and Latin words for 'judgement,' with literary associations. The Greek 'krinein' means to separate or decide and is also the root of 'crisis.' I think it also helps to associate critique with two other meanings of 'critical' -- that is, ‘unstable’ and ‘important.’

On this basis we can say that to engage in critique is (or should be) to exercise incisive judgement to render unstable things that are questionable, or to separate, judge and better understand things that are in crisis. Such an endeavour is critically important.

Unfortunately, ‘critique’ itself has become the least incisively judged, the least unstable and perhaps even the most pointless of academic endeavours. It’s not even clear just what the word means much of the time. For some it seems to be little more than saying damning things about the state, or capitalism, or war, or patriarchy or whatever, which is all well and good as far as it goes but it doesn't go far enough. When discussed theoretically it usually turns out to be some half-baked admixture of Kant, Marx and Derrida, usually avoiding specifics by taking the opportunity to assassinate ‘uncritical’ straw men instead.

Being 'critical' has become more of a pose or a demeanour than anything substantial. It's a social signifier, a territorial marker, a pin badge, a way that people identify with a particular kind of academic self-identity.

I don't entirely agree with Latour's essays on critique but he's been saying something similar for a number of years. (e.g. his essay 'Why has critique run out of steam?'.) His basic point is that critique has become too easy, too cheap. It's like it's been 'miniaturised' and is now embedded in everything. The problem we face today is not a lack of critical mindedness or a lack of cynicism. On the contrary, we have a hyper-abundance of both, within the academy and without. But it is an unfocused, aimless, fetishised critique that does no one any good at all.

Everyone knows that politicians are corrupt and businesses are selfish and men treat women badly and the powerful suit themselves and subvert others. But this knowledge is politically paralysing rather than rabble-rousing or invigorating because the misery just seems too monolithic and impenetrable to ever be challenged. Critique as practiced at present tends to reinforce this impression as it finds power and manipulation everywhere, under every rock, behind everyone’s back, insinuated into every nook and cranny of our lives. People, quite reasonably, conclude that they might as well make the best of what they’ve got since, well, what’s the alternative?

More and more critique-for-its-own-sake won’t help this state of affairs; it won’t render these affairs critical. It may even make matters worse. That said, we mustn’t abandon the concept or throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater; we must reconstruct the concept and reclaim what is of value in the critical tradition.

Critique is no longer critical in three senses of that word: with respect to questioning itself, rendering things unstable or being important. We need to address all three of these failures, in order.

And perhaps it’s time to question whether the university is the best setting for these projects. After all, most good critiques were written either from prison or from poverty.

Monday 18 June 2012

Niall Ferguson, the BBC's resident Austerian

Among all the malicious, self-satisfied, self-certain, smug, cretinous hacks to infect our public discourse in recent years Niall Ferguson holds his own against any.

I hesitate to write such words as this is precisely the kind of derision upon which Mr Ferguson thrives. Like all self-righteous, power hungry establishmentarians, the more widely and vehemently he is despised the more he is assured of his own profound, hardnosed acuity. Nevertheless, he truly is such a weasely, unscrupulous shit that there really is no other way of discussing him.

He was made famous by glorifying the British empire before being ushered into the American establishment by virtue of his cheerleading for neoliberal capitalism. He makes a fine living as a tweedy, professorial mouthpiece-for-hire for whatever right-wing, plutonomic, plutocratic meme is doing the rounds. Today he is the man who proves that BBC news has become little more than a cipher for naked, neoliberal, plutonomic interests.

Just as the right-wing austerity agenda is crashing and burning across Europe, both economically and politically, Ferguson has been granted BBC Reith lectures for 2012. From this platform he will preach the Austerian Gospel: government is bad, suffering is good and Europe's tens of millions of unemployed should be grateful.

And so to this article that the BBC have published:

Bill Mitchell has written a far more surgical demolition of Ferguson's article but I will throw in my own two pence worth.

Among all the nonsensical, ignorant, fundamentally wrong ideas that Ferguson could have plucked from the plentifully undead throng of neoliberal dogma – that cornucopia of zombie economics – he has chosen the 'Oh, won't somebody please think of the children?!' meme. Or, more specifically, that we must slash public debt and embrace austerity not because tax cuts benefit the rich, or because selling off state assets for a pittance benefits the rich, or because deflating wages and creating an enormous pool of desperate labour benefits the rich, or because funneling vast quantities of public money into unaccountable bank-casinos benefits the rich, or because eviscerating the middle classes benefits the rich, or because slashing employment regulations benefits the rich, or because crippling inland revenue services benefits the rich, or because facilitating tax avoidance benefits the rich, or because crushing the state's ability to do anything against the wishes of capitalists benefits the rich – none of that, let's be clear; we must slash public debt (via austerity) today because otherwise future generations will be responsible for it instead.

The worst thing about this claim is that, intuitively, it seems correct. If the state is like a big family then if we run up debts and pass these onto our children then we are burdening our children when most of us would rather like to leave our children in credit, leave them an inheritance. Moreover, it seems intuitively correct since it portrays the whole scenario as one of collective guilt; we've all been very bad, we've all had it too good for too long and now it's time to pay the price. Naughty, naughty welfare state. The paternalists and masochists among us find themselves right at home in such a narrative.

Of course, contrary to popular belief, the state is absolutely nothing whatsoever like a big family, especially when you're dealing with a sovereign state that can issue its own currency. And the claim that it's the excesses of the welfare state that got us into this mess is just an outright lie; it's the private debt crisis and the resulting recessions that are the principle cause of the deficit/debt problems.

But let's just consider the economics of the children meme for a moment.

First of all, people forget that debt is only an outgoing expense from the debtor's point of view; from the creditor's point of view it is an income and an asset. A family in debt owes that debt to persons outside the family, therefore the family as a whole is a debtor. If the debt was owed internally, between the family members themselves, then each family member's debt would be the income of another family member and therefore the family may not be a debtor overall at all. This is much more like the situation with the state. Much of the debt is not, in fact, a liability at all; it is an asset that can be relied on for future revenue, both in terms of private income and consequent spending and in terms of taxation.

Secondly, state spending doesn't just evaporate into thin air. The children meme suggests that we're all kicking back and living it up today and having our children foot the bill, whereas what's really happening with most state spending is that it creates and maintains the very institutions and infrastructure that allow our children to have any kind of life at all. If we've borrowed from future growth to fund present day investment then all we've really done is borrowed from our children's adulthood to pay for their education, security and welfare when they're still children (and making it at least possible that they'll find jobs when they leave school). Hardly a tale of uncaring, selfish hedonism.

Thirdly, debt levels have been much higher in real terms. The British state managed to fund its twentieth-century wars with a far higher debt burden than today without turning into Weimar Germany. Of course, the kind of productive activity resulting from total warfare isn't strictly comparable to peacetime but nevertheless debts and budget deficits has been much higher in this country in real terms historically and, of course, are higher contemporaneously in other countries such as Japan too. In all cases mass unemployment and its associated miseries have been avoided. Japan, said for fifteen years to be on the brink of hyper-inflation and collapse by Ferguson and his ilk, continues to afford its citizens a very high standard of living. Not an economically perfect model but not Greece either.

There are many more economic fallacies embedded in the children meme but you get the idea.

You've got to hand it to Ferguson, he is as brass-necked as they come. To earnestly and unabashedly endorse austerity in the name of tens of millions of unemployed, young Europeans is jaw droppingly brazen. It's difficult to believe that such claims are made sincerely, although it doesn’t really matter if he honestly believes this stuff or not.

50% youth unemployment isn't just a 'hard price' that must be paid for the common good – it's a crime the social and economic destructiveness of which will be felt for generations. To not only endorse these crimes but to do so in the name of those who they harm most egregiously is not only ridiculous, it is profoundly offensive.

The brand of economics that Ferguson endorses is discredited more and more every day. The political maelstrom that their failure has inevitably lead to has barely gotten going but it has already taken down governments and brought the Euro to the brink on more than one occasion.

Ferguson begins his article by expressing concern for "Western democracy" – precisely the institution threatened by his agenda. He speaks of renewing "the social contract" between generations when really his whole ideology is about severing all social ties wheresoever they occur. The plutocratic agenda is actively hostile to democracy. When it isn’t installing technocrats in Italy it’s interfering in the Greek elections by fear mongering about the consequences of a leftist victory. It’s an agenda that shreds every kind of social tie, understands human beings as nothing but selfish individuals and justifies individual wealth and individual destitution as nothing more than the results of differing individual worth.

What Ferguson wants is a democracy where the vast majority of people consistently vote against their own interests. The only social contract Ferguson wants is the kind that justifies destroying the prospects of generations of young people all for the sake of some expansionary fiscal contraction that won’t ever happen.

Like all tyrannical regimes the neoliberal one wants everything its own way – it wants to break public institutions and then complain when they don’t work properly; it wants to act against the vast majority’s interests but still enjoy the vast majority’s support; it wants to destroy everything and be thanked for it afterwards.

We don’t need Ferguson’s zombie democracy whose citizens are so deafened by the din of wall-to-wall propaganda that they’ll vote for whichever party they despise the least. We need social democracy. We need to say that the welfare state remains both necessary and possible. We need to celebrate this, the single most productive vessel of human betterment ever conceived. We need to say that the welfare state’s best days are ahead of us, not behind.

A democracy that is not a social democracy is a contradiction in terms. There can be no meaningful political enfranchisement without social solidarity and vice-versa. Ferguson's 'social contract' is a farce; an excuse to shred society still further by playing the old and the young off against each other when, in fact, they are the ones most affected by Ferguson's agenda, when it is they who should be uniting against his clamourous, lecturing newspeak.

Taking a step back, by way of conclusion, what does the existence of this argument tell us? It tells us, firstly, that no claim is so stupid, baseless or corrupted as not to be enthusiastically expounded by our cherished media institutions if it benefits the rich and powerful. But it also tells us, secondly, that the rich and powerful need these lies. Why not just be honest? Why not just say 'We're going to shred the social safety net and claim all the power and wealth for ourselves. Why? Because we want to and don't give a damn about you or your needs.'?

This is the one weakness of the powerful: they have to maintain the pretence that the way things are is the best way for all of us. They have to do this even when all of the evidence clearly states the contrary and where the whole edifice is crumbling and collapsing all around us. They need would-be Atlases like Ferguson to prop up the un-prop-upable. If they are ever forced to admit the brutality of their naked self-interest then their rule will be exposed for what it is -- and their days just might be numbered.