Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Tired of winning, already? (to my American friends, with love)

Like with so many subjects, the Clash said it better (and shorter, and louder) forty years ago: ”I’m so bored of the USA”.

I know, I know, they are still the “indispensable nation”, an economic giant (their economy alternates as the world’s second biggest with the whole EU, which is not technically a country, both being already smaller than China), its military might far bigger than all the rest of the world combined, a cultural beacon shining its rays over all aspects of the life of the mind (from academic philosophy, whatever that is, to popular music and films) and of course an exemplar for the ages of what inclusive government (“of the people, by the people, for the people”, in the unforgettable words which close Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) should look like.

Only what it actually looks like nowadays seems to have lost some of its luster… and from the inability to properly govern itself a lot of noticeable cracks are becoming more noticeable, like:  

·         An economy that not only finds it more difficult to achieve past rates of growth, and seems every decade more stagnant than the previous one (a recurrent theme of this blog, and not confined to the USA), but that is becoming more blatantly unequal and has serious problems distributing the wealth it still manages to create (and that stupendous growth of inequality is what would constitute a distinctly American phenomenon: Europe outperforms the USA economically )

·         No noticeable cracks in the military front, except for why on God’s green Earth do you, guys, spend so God damn much in it, given the rest of the world doesn’t really care? It’s all right to claim that Europeans have been free riding for decades under Washington nuclear umbrella and they should spend more to defend themselves (but from who? From the evil Russians, who in 20 years will be less populous than Vietnam and haven’t been able to bring to heel tiny Ukraine in five years of low intensity war? From the threatening Muslim and Sub-Saharan nations to the South that would rather migrate than invade, because their citizens emphatically do not want to live under their current social arrangement?). It’s all right to get your pants in a bunch about the increasing assertiveness of a rising China, but if after 16 years you still have not been able to pacify Afghanistan (or whatever you were trying to achieve there) maybe it is time to reassess if more aircraft carriers (price tag: 13 billion USD) or more F-35 jets (a real bargain in comparison, only 100 to 150 million USD a pop, depending on how many are finally manufactured) are really needed to combat today’s real threats (as opposed to those envisioned by military planners three decades ago)

·         A culture that seems to cannibalize itself in an endless repetition of trends and mods that stopped being original in the late 60’s of the past century. Look, I love classic Rock’n’Roll as much as the next guy (and my share of Country, too, and I unashamedly declare myself an avid fan of the Star Wars saga, so don’t take the following as preaching from my high horse or trying to claim some extra legitimacy from being the most highfalutin’ guy you’ve ever heard). Thomas Pynchon is still my go-to fiction writer, and I find John Rawls one of the deepest thinkers of the XXth century. Norman Mailer was absolutely tremendous (more at the beginning of his career than at the end), Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike… they all taught me profound and subtle and… TRUE things about human nature in this particular time of our history. European thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer or Herbert Marcuse produced some of their best work there and even Derek Parfit visited frequently and benefited from discussion with local scholars. And, although I haven’t seen a full TV show (not even a complete episode) for decades, I hear that this is the golden age of television and that the amount of creativity and brilliance and genius in exploring the nuances and follies of the human heart have reached heights never heard of in the history of our species. Which is all great and good, but kids go less and less to the movies (another cultural form traditionally dominated by Hollywood) and watch less TV, preferring to spend time in social media (yep, I know Facebook and Instagram are both based in the USA) and playing videogames (an industry that is geographically highly dispersed). Let us leave it at the point we can all agree: cultural dominance, understood in the traditional sense of “soft power” (the ability to promote one’s own values and tastes) is increasingly slipping away from the USA.

But of course all those cracks are being exposed, deepened, accelerated and highlighted because of the rot at the core of the American social system: a political process that seems to be dramatically out of whack, as exemplified by the election of a person with the most “questionable” character (more on that in a minute) and, derived from that, in the inability of both elected chambers to agree on basic, necessary measures for the smooth functioning of the republic. Things like a Healthcare structure that doesn’t leave a significant fragment of the population frothing at the mouth (“socialized medicine!”, “death panels!”, “tax cuts for the rich in exchange for people being let die in ERs!”), increasing the debt’s ceiling so government can keep on working, simplifying a tax code everybody agrees has become dysfunctional and of gargantuan complexity or approving a budget that deals with the ballooning federal deficit in light of the upcoming massive increase in retirements of the baby-boomers.

Please note with the above enumeration I’m not saying the USA is in a particularly dire situation or in much worse shape than the rest of the world. Any regular reader of this blog already knows I tend to disparage the whole West in similar terms, and there isn’t a single nation or group of nations I would identify as distinctly virtuous or as being in a position to give moral lessons to the rest. The whole world already embraced the dominant reason of the age (Desiderative Reason) during the second half of the last century. Such reason is “exhausted”, meaning that it can not awake the enthusiasm of the masses, or gain its allegiance, or simply convince them to trundle along however unhappily. As a result, growing majorities reject it and express their dissatisfaction through the most intimate way such expression of their lack of identification with the collective future such reason dictates may take: what I have termed “gonadal vote”, choosing not to reproduce a form of life that at bottom they find not worth it. Furthermore, and in addition to not reproducing themselves they may reject each of the particular tenets of desiderative reason by not accepting the socially defined rules for determining social hierarchy (thus resorting to the biological default mode of such determination: strength and charisma in a new tribalism/ feudalism we already see becoming more prevalent in the economic realm) and by not accepting the socially determined set of sanctioned, “proper” desires (the alternative always being perceived by the majority of the social group as self-destructive and anti-social).

Again, par for the course, and as long as somebody doesn’t come along with a valid alternative (one that can be enthusiastically accepted by a sufficient majority as providing a better basis for collectively living) all we critical thinkers will be able to do is criticize this or that particular aspect of our dying, decaying, decomposing, increasingly clunky and malfunctioning system. Back to my dear and near USA, then, as it presents a particular form of decadence and decomposition I think it is worth noting.

Which will take me to a brief detour through my latest research in a particularly dark age of my native country: the years between 1930 and 1939 in Spain, the decade just before the Spanish Civil war (in which my grandparents were caught, and immediately after which my parents were born). The sad, worrisome aspect of those years is how people were studiously but inadvertently sorting themselves in two camps that were becoming more and more “irreconcilable”.  To facilitate the sorting and identification each half of the country felt the need to embrace a set of opinions and external signs that unceasingly became more encompassing. In the early thirties you could be politically progressive but still religious, a lover of traditional music and foods and maybe even enjoy bullfighting. By the middle of the decade it was getting harder to be “moderately progressive” in politics, as even the supposedly moderate socialist party (as opposed to communists and anarchists) was for the nationalization of the means of production and a quite interventionist program in the economy, education and organization of the workplace. But regardless of politics and its preferred orientation of the economy, a host of other aspects of being a citizen were being colonized by the political orientation: a “progressive” (a term not much in use then, for what I’ve seen, they would think of themselves as people “of the left”) should necessarily denounce the inherently reactionary character of religion, the constraints to human flourishing imposed by any tradition and thus reject traditional songs, cuisine, dressing and forms of entertainment (including, of course, bullfighting). That created some cognitive dissonances, as the popular base of many leftist parties was not as well educated as to thoroughly enjoy modern culture, but let’s leave that aside for a moment. The mirror image of such phenomenon could be seen at the other extreme of the political spectrum, as followers of “the right” had to necessarily embrace the Catholic faith, and every other traditional form of being in the social world, while denouncing vigorously any innovation as contrarian to the national spirit (in their parlance, “national genius, bequeathed to us by the blood and the sweat of our hallowed ancestors”).

Seen from the perspective of almost eighty years it is clear that in both sides there should have been scores of people of honor and integrity, of common sense and decency, but one of the amazing results of my diving in the period is how little trace they have left. What you read (and occasionally hear in the radio addresses that have survived) is more and more rancor, more and more depictions of the other side as a conglomerate of pure viciousness and pure evil, more and more cartoonish misrepresentations of what the other side thought and said. No discourse of them was less than a bunch of hideous lies and irrational threats. No program was less than an all-out, uncompromising effort to erase the own side from the face of the Earth that, if put in practice, represented an existential threat to every decent man’s and his family’s existence. And as each side ended up reading the same (disjoint) set of newspapers, hearing the same radio programs (no TV yet) and talking to like-minded fellow travelers, all seemed to reinforce one another’s worse fears, all contributed to exacerbate one another’s basest impulses until they were actually killing each other, starting with some elected representatives and escalating in a bloodbath from which the country, almost a century later, has not fully recovered (as attested by the never ending trickle of books and films that still deal with the conflict, the majority of them in such a partisan manner that it is difficult to believe they are attempting to reflect such a distant event).

¿Sounds familiar? As well it should, because any casual observer of USA politics should recognize the dynamics just described as not too dissimilar from the one currently ruling the political discourse in their country. First, the never ending expansion of the badges of belonging to a definite tribe: if liberals say the world is warming and human activity is a main cause, any self-respecting conservative will denounce it as a hoax. If left-leaning media say the theory of evolution is the cornerstone of all the biological science any proud right-leaning citizen will educate himself to find the cracks and faults in the theory to “disprove” it. If progressives favor cosmopolitanism and the adoption of foreign tastes in music, clothing, literature, movies, food or even sexual preferences any traditionalist properly bred will reject such tastes and adhere to the good old cultural forms of the hallowed 50’s of the past century. And, of course, as liberals, left-leaning people and progressives cluster together and end up forming a homogeneous, internally consistent tribe, so will conservatives, right-leaning people and traditionalists, each group having more widely encompassing norms and behaviors to better identify themselves and exclude the others.

Second, the two major tribes are sorting themselves out and having decreasing contacts between them. Without a compulsory military service (the draft) and an increasing ideological alignment within professional occupations (so university professors, movie industry executives, hotel workers and software programmers increasingly vote Democrat; whilst military personnel, rust belt industry workers, investment banking analysts and policemen lean more heavily towards the Republicans), and the advent of e-commerce allowing each citizen to obtain the necessities of life without human interaction,  it is more and more common for Americans to spend their whole lives without having to interact with anybody from a different political persuasion (which, as we have seen, encompasses more and more of their vital outlook).

As a necessary consequence of the first and second observations, it comes as no surprise a third one: each half of the country thinks in increasingly more disparaging terms of the other half. What you hear in Fox news (but again, it would be an error to think that it is a problem circumscribed to just one of the sides, the same happens in Salon, the Daily Kos, the Huffington Post…) about “libtards” is just shocking. How can such a bunch of unprincipled, unpatriotic, overall silly and amoral and depraved bunch of degenerates hold such sway over public opinion (the maligned “mainstream media”) and be so close to forever ruining the shining “city on a hill” that the forefathers so arduously built by turning it into a communist dystopia? Seen from the other side of the aisle, how can a cabal of greedy, selfish, scheming billionaires have so utterly brainwashed enough of their fellow citizens to be so close of thwarting the promise of the republic and turning it into a fascist dictatorship? Seen from afar, I see America as distinctly far from becoming either, but when I read some of its media I wonder to what extent my perception may be deluded.

What I do see, as I’ve already predicted (Whoever wins tomorrow, everything is going to hell! ), is them advancing at increasing speed along the slippery slope of dehumanizing the political adversary ,with too many people already caught in that poisonous dynamic. We know how that game ends (not only Spain has the blemish of a Civil War in its history, you know), what we do not know is, alas! how such dire consequence may be prevented. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Organizational justice II

[This may be the second part of a paper to be submitted to a conference in the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow w the same title, or may be not, depending on how happy I am with the final result… it is, however, an issue I have been wanting to tackle for some time now but had postponed so far to deal with lighter matters. You may find the first part here: Part I ]

In my previous post on this subject I made a first attempt to define justice as a set of rules to determine how the benefits accruing from being part of an organization should be distributed between its members, and failed miserably. The conclusion I reached is that there is not, and there can not be, such a set of rules. The dominant reason of our time has tried to convince us that such rules do indeed exist, and are based on giving to each as much as he adds to the value of each additional unit produced (equalization of the marginal cost of the factor -in this case the salary of the employees- with the marginal price of the product, at a production level defined by the intersection of the demand and supply curve), but looking more closely “under the hood” we find there is no such thing as a supply curve, a demand curve, a marginal cost of production for each factor (be it capital, raw materials, land or labor) or even a marginal price. So in practice we are left with the old dictum the Athenians addressed to the Melians: “the strong do what they can (or what they please) and the weak suffer what they must”. The executives set the salaries as they please, and the workers accept it as they must, or go search for employment elsewhere (knowing that each departure lowers their employability and thus forces them to accept positions at a lower pay grade).

As an aside, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that such kind of reasoning (that appeared in Northern Europe around 1750, displacing baroque reason and substituting it with the new aptly named economic reason) triumphed precisely because it spared the new ascendant class (industrial bourgeoisie) to have to think “ethically” in terms of reciprocity and equal dignity between them and their salaried employees, replacing the weight of tradition (that had taken shape to ensure since prehistoric times that the non-land-owning masses could reproduce and continue indefinitely helping their masters thrive by ensuring a “living wage” for them before the concept of a market-defined wage could even exist) with an apparently impersonal, seemingly legitimate, alternative method for determining how to calculate what every worker was due. Unsurprisingly, it turned out workers in the then new industrial occupations were due much less than their forebears in the fields, but that were expected just as much to be laborious, frugal, conscientious and, above all, able to keep on having kids to ensure there would be a “replacement army” ready to take their places when they died from exhaustion and insalubrious working conditions.

In summary, the application of “economic” principles to determine the shape of distributive justice within the organization will never be able to achieve a truly fair outcome, because it was (an unexpected stroke of the “genius of History”, as nobody really intended it or planned consciously for it) designed from the beginning to favor one set of citizens (the owners of the means of production, as rusty Marxist as it may sound nowadays) over all the rest.

What are we to do, then? Recognize that modern economic organizations will never be fair or equitable or just, and propose a withdrawal into an alternative spiritual realm separate from the unavoidable materialism and the worldly concerns of capitalism? That would be the “Benedict option” as proposed by Rod Dreher, but I’m not ready to concede that’s the only viable option to live a just life yet. Because, as I mentioned in the first post on this series (yep, this one may still not be enough, so I may end up giving the subject the full series treatment), there is another alternative we have to explore first, which will lead us away from the concept of “rules for distribution” and towards one of “rules for living (or just working) together”.  And, as I intimated there, I suggest we take our lead from Kant to get there.

I will start by reminding my distracted readers that Kant seats at an interestingly unique point in the history of Western thought (recent witness of something that has only happened twice in the last twenty five centuries). The wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries had debilitated the authority and plausibility of revelation, and created and opening for that most exceptional event: the substitution of the keystone of Dominant Reason: the definition of what a life well lived consists in. It is indeed before Kant’s birth when life stops being primarily a matter of preparing oneself for a future and perennial hereafter, and starts being a matter of satisfying as many desires as possible, or (another alternative and identical formulation) of achieving the best possible balance between pleasure and pain decidedly here, in this world. I won’t dwell much in how such change took place (just a callout to the most salient thinkers that shaped the new sensibility which was the precondition for the wholesale acceptance of the new dominant reason: Spinoza, who dared to point out the multiple inconsistencies and morally dubious events narrated in the Hebrew Bible -that was the “authority-debilitating” hard lifting-; Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, who translated for the English speaking world a moral philosophy owing more to the Classical Hellenistic and Stoic thinkers than to the Church fathers; and of course, Hume, who worked out a philosophical anthropology in which only the pursuit of desires could serve as  a valid explanation of behavior, developments I’ve already narrated in History of Western Dominant Reason I and History of Western Dominant Reason II ). Being a clever guy, Kant had already noticed that previous attempts to base morality (the appraisal of the goodness or badness of human actions) in how conductive any given behavior was to a greater or lesser degree of happiness were doomed to fail, for the same reason we already identified as dooming any attempt to base a criterion for organizational justice in rules of distribution: the pleasure (or pain) that each individual derives from a certain state-of-the-world is strictly incommensurable, not only between individuals, but between different moments in the life of each single individual: there is no universally valid answer to “what is preferable, that I raise my salary so I can buy an additional Ferrari, or that I raise yours so each fifty of you can buy and additional loaf of bread?” (regardless of how strongly we may feel that only one answer is morally acceptable, the Ferrari-loving bosses of the world have ultimately succeeded in convincing us, through three centuries of tireless economic thinking, that it is far from a settled matter). There isn’t even a universally valid answer to the question “what is preferable, that I enjoy an additional glass of wine now that I am young and healthy, or that I abstain and thus enjoy a slightly milder and more wholesome old age, when I will be more weak and infirm no matter what?”  

Having been awakened of his “dogmatic slumber” (a very famous sentence penned by himself that has become a hopelessly worn-out commonplace, but the more I think about it the less sense am I able to make of it) by none other than Hume, Kant then started from the premise that a rule for the distribution of goods (or services) could never form an adequate basis for regulating the relationships between men, no matter how apparently impersonal (and thus “impartial” in some objective sense) it were. All that Hume wanted with the appeal to such rule was a justification of the then forming system of production (early capitalism) based on strong property rights (indeed, all the chapters on justice within the Treatise on Human Nature just deal with the need to respect validly formed and socially sanctioned property rights, regardless of how such property was acquired at the dawn of society). Hume himself knew that a society purely based on the pursuit of ever increased material goods bounded only by the respect of private property wouldn’t go very far, as countless coordination problems would arise for which no solution would be available within such purely egoistic framework (in more recent days people like Deirdre McCloskey have tried to resurrect the idea that respect for property rights and admiration for those that enjoy great amounts of them is almost exclusively all that is needed for a well-ordered, well-functioning society, in what constitutes one of the purest, most unadulterated defenses of our current form of dominant reason… the fact that the people under such reason is deciding in growing numbers not to perpetuate it should give us pause as to how unquestionably good and not amenable of being improved upon it really is). Hume’s solution was to add another principle to his understanding of man, that of sympathy for our fellow beings, that should ensure that we do not let our unbridled selfish interest conflict too much with that of the rest of our countrymen, allowing for some mutual concession and thus the potential resolution of such coordination problems.

But the appeal to sympathy can clearly be seen not to be up to the task, as sympathy is too elastic a principle, too amenable to being applied in degrees to be able to solve what we may term the “Ferrari problem” (even if I have all the sympathy of the world for the workers in the factory I own, I may consider they are already well-fed enough, and I really, REALLY, would enjoy that new Ferrari a lot, damn it!), which stands for every distributional justice problem we may think of. Remember that at bottom, our criticism of economic rules (be they classical or marginalist) rests on the premise that there is no such thing as a valid “utility” (being logically coherent, as in stable in time, transitive and commensurable between different individuals) that we could use to compare the moral worth of different potential outcomes (or of alternative distributions). If you substitute “feelings” or “emotions” for “utility” you should immediately be able to see what Kant saw: that Hume’s proposal for morally conducting ourselves (which we could cartoonishly summarize as “respect private property and be somewhat sympathetic to your fellow humans” -at least it clearly beats that of the Mongols: “if the city surrenders kill only adult males and rape all the women, if they resist kill everybody (after the raping, that is)”-) was a dead end, increasingly invalid for the needs of a growingly complex society.

His genius was abandoning the distributive framework altogether (he overcome it by transcending it, by casting a wider net), and instead of focusing on what rules should there be so everybody receives what they are due he decided to focus on a wider set: what rules should there be so everybody is treated fairly in every interaction, not just when the pay day comes around. He also identified (successfully, in my humble opinion) the biggest obstacle to acting morally (and another reason why any attempt to base behavior on feelings should fail to achieve fair outcomes): we humans are a selfish lot, regardless of how sympathetic we consider ourselves (or we teach ourselves) to be. In another worn-out commonplace of his: “from the crooked timber of humanity never straight ever came out”. We rest satisfied with giving little and taking a lot. Our true motives many times elude us, and rest hidden even from ourselves. Even when we feel we are being virtuous and upright, we may be acting mean and unjustly.

You may disagree with Kant’s philosophical anthropology, and highlight instead how evolution has made us a social being, prone to cooperation (but a rather particular sort of cooperation, that based on expected reciprocation, and we have as many evolved mechanisms to detect potential defectors and non-reciprocators and punish them as we have to offer tentatively to collaborate with strangers). His greatness comes from seeing that a truly moral system could not rest on the expectation of goodness (or lack thereof) from others. We had to be good, even in a world populated by devils. We had to be kind and helping and nurturing towards others absolutely, not because they deserved it, not because we expected them to reciprocate, but because they, being rational, had an unconditional dignity that demands it. Note that I’ve said “demands”, not “earns or may earn”, not “can give it in exchange”, not “merits”. Even the dumbest, less cultivated, laziest and even crookedest human being, just for being human (and thus having at least the potential of being rational, even if that potential is not entirely fulfilled) has dignity and has to be given certain rights and certain recognition. He then may, freely, do bad deeds that deserve to be punished, and thus have some of his rights abrogated.

The second element of genius in Kant’s thought is seeing that emotion (in XVIIIth parlance it would be more correct to speak of “passions”) is not a reliable guide to good behavior. He overturns Hume’s arch-famous dictum that “reason is, and can only be, a slave to the passions” and proposes we go back to the Greek ideal of understanding reason as the charioteer that drives the chariot pulled, it is true, by desire and passion (epithymetikon and thymos, I know the choice of modern terms may be contested). And to counter Hume’s argument that reason is toothless, that it can never move us to act (an argument based on an understanding of reason as the ability to “compare propositions regarding the number and qualities of what we perceive”) he resorts to an intuition that ends up being (again, in my most humble opinion) stranger than the Scot’s objection: reason may be just the ability to compare propositions (or whatever other combination of mental acts), but it results in the ability of choosing different courses of action, as attested by the perception every one of us has of having a free will. That free will, however mysterious may be, is only understandable if we can present our own actions to ourselves as particular instances, or applications to particular circumstances, of general rules. Being truly free, then, is the same as acting in accord with true reason, and consists in following those rules that we have chosen ourselves to follow (that we have autonomously legislated for ourselves, to which we have decided to bind ourselves). It is now evident why Kant’s anthropology is not only incompatible with Hume’s, but its exact opposite: no place here for passions (“Sympathetic”, prosocial or otherwise) and no need to postulate a highly suspect universal “taste” (a word too socially caused and too variable between different societies to carry all the philosophical water that Hume asks it to carry) to explain how we manage to praise and condemn the same behaviors. Being free and acting reasonably are two sides of the same coin, that, if pursued consistently, would lead us to collectively build a “kingdom of ends” (Reich der Zwëcke) where those deserving to be happy would, indeed, be happy (something we can not count on happening in this Earth, because of the “crooked timber” problem we already mentioned).   

And indeed that “kingdom of ends” is a much better model for a just organization than the imagined set of selfish “optimizators” that try to maximize the amount of goods they receive under some distributional rule or other (“rules” not in the Kantian sense of “maxims” that guide our conduct, but of comparisons between heterogeneous and discontinuous quantities, like “marginal cost” and “marginal value” that purport to determine the ratio of exchange between them), sprinkled with varying (and impossible to measure) amounts of sympathy that the economic model proposes. In the “kingdom of ends” (from now on KoE) we treat each member of the organization as we ourselves would like to be treated, so there goes the Ferrari problem. We ensure certain inalienable rights are respected, and we clearly delineate the duties that come with those rights. We use people as ends in themselves, and never as means (2nd formulation of the Categorical Imperative). 

I dare to postulate as a universal rule that anybody in his right mind would prefer to work in a KoE organization rather than in an economic organization (expect those that would be assured to be in leadership positions with an inordinate fondness for Ferraris, who may prefer the economic alternative… we may question, however, to what extent such profile is compatible with the common definition of “being in his right mind”). However, that postulate does not allow us to consider the case closed, as it only reflects the interest of a portion of the stakeholders of any organization (namely, the employees). What if economic organizations are more efficient, and thus the whole of society (consumers, future generations) is better served by them? What if economic organizations can consistently generate higher returns on investment, and thus the owners of the invested capital are better served by them? How should we balance the legitimate demands of different groups of stakeholders against those of the employees?

Those are all valid questions, that will obviously require an additional post to be answered (another way of thinking about it: once we have set aside distributive justice as the right framework to deal with fairness in organizations, and turned to procedural justice, which gently nudges us towards a more contractualist approach, we must see how the inherent conflicts of interest around the organization, not just within it, are dealt with by the new framework). 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Organizational justice

[This may be the first draft of a paper to be submitted to a conference in the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow w the same title, or may be not, depending on how happy I am with the final result… it is, however, an issue I have been wanting to tackle for some time now but had postponed so far to deal with lighter matters]

Declaring that capitalism sucks and that the way we have chosen to organize our societies is fundamentally flawed and not conductive to human happiness and/ or flourishing is great fun and a source of moral validation (so much so that it is impossible not to perceive in such denunciations a whiff of suspicious self-righteousness that no truly moral worthy subject should stoop to), but at the end of the day everybody needs to earn a living, bring home the bacon, put some food in the table and a roof over his (and eventually his loved ones’) head and so on and so forth. Nowadays, to that end you normally don’t go out in the woods to hunt and fish and chop wood, but you join an existing organization, where you are assigned some tasks and perform them to the best of your ability. Or at least to the extent that would convince those in levels of responsibility that it is in their best interest to keep on employing you. Even if you choose the route of being an autonomous professional selling your skills in the open market there are a number of relationships you enter into (with the regulatory body that determines how your practice should be carried out, with subcontractors to deal with aspects of your daily routine you choose to outsource, with customers that -hopefully- end up paying your bills, with tax authorities you have to pay to so you can go on with your business, etc.)  that place you firmly within the context or an organization, even If it lacks a common juridical personality, as would be the case with the salaried employee within a company.

So the intermediate entity between the whole social system (capitalism, in all its soul-crushing evil, yadda, yadda, yadda…) and the individual is the organization. Even the unemployed belongs to one or multiple organizations: the agency that pays him the unemployment benefits (if there is such a safety net in his country), the newspaper where he seeks jobs or the provider that hosts the on line games he spends his days playing are all organizations he is more or less loosely attached to. The homeless person that seems to have severed every last social tie also belongs to some organization or other, from the parish or the social shelter where he sometimes sleeps to the mental health facilities where he may be eventually institutionalized. That means that, although very few can recognizably and significantly influence the whole social system, most can definitely have an impact in the organizations they belong to. Which in turn means that questions of justice, although they can be predicated of the whole social system, can only be put in practice in the institutions that mediate between such system and said individuals.

Interestingly, a lot has been written about the fairness and justice of the system as a whole: from Leviathan by Hobbes to A Theory of Justice by Rawls, including the Two Treatises on Government  by Locke, the Metaphysics of Morals by Kant, the Elements of the Philosophy of Right  by Hegel, On Liberty by Stuart Mill, the Communist Manifesto by Marx, the Responsibility Principle by Jonas, the Social System by Parsons, the Theory of Communicative Action by Habermas and Anarchy, State and Utopia  by Nozick. They all deal with society writ large: how it is ruled (or should be ruled), how decisions are made (or should be made), how property is held and transferred (or should be held and transferred -or not), what rights and duties people have as members of an all-encompassing group, what they owe to each other (the title of another book by Thomas Scanlon) and what they can demand each other. In the old Aristotelian term, they all find that justice required a certain political system, and that the definition of such system was the most meaningful contribution towards a more just world. But as to what happens when they step out of that all-encompassing group (the polity) and enter (more or less voluntarily, we will need to expand on that later on) in a smaller association, all have very little to say, apart from in general defending the possibility of individuals freely entering and leaving such association (but most authors seemed to have in mind political parties, or established churches rather than the more prosaic commercial companies that people in fact must join in a modern market-ruled economy).

Which is kind of a funny lapse, because, again, almost nobody is going to be able to single-handedly reform the whole judicial system, or seriously challenge democracy and the rule of law as organizing principles, or translate their denunciations of the free markets into more substantially redistributive institutions, but everybody has a certain level of control over how they perform their day to day work, the work they happen to do for, you know… an organization. So giving some direction of how to behave oneself in such environment would seem to be of more practical concern, and more influential, than thundering about the evils of a distributed decision making system (that happens to impersonally favor great wealth concentration at the expense of great effort and suffering from a poorly compensated majority that has to be kept in the dark about how stacked the system is against them) that has showed for some centuries to be quite impervious to any single actor’s decisions.

But before we proceed with trying to change such sorry state of affairs, I’ll have something to say about that wider critique that so many intellectuals have luxuriated in so frequently until now. To avoid being labelled a conformist (not that I would care) I’ll clarify that I don’t consider such critique lacking justification or, more pointedly, merit. I myself have dwelled at length in the shortcomings of our current system (shortcomings that don’t entirely compensate for the more abundant ones exhibited by any alternative system ever actually attempted: Two views of the system), and have even tried my hand at sketching how an better system may look like (both here: What is Anarcho Traditionalism and here: What a sunny future for humanity looks like ). I take my hat off and raise my glass to all the dreamers, the purveyors of alternative social arrangements, the utopians and the commune-founding nonconformists (between which I’ve counted myself more than once). Let’s just admit they have not been historically very successful in hastening the dawn of Heaven on Earth or, absent that, the development of a society a iota more fair and just than our current one. And what I portend to do is to hasten such a dawn (of the more just society, I leave Heaven on Earth to the Almighty) by analyzing not how everybody should behave as a member of society, and how such vast construct should be arranged (something I’m in no position to influence whatsoever, as weren’t Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Marx, Jonas, Parsons, Habermas, Rawls or Nozick, each in his own time), but how we should act within the organizations that actually employ us, and how such smaller units should be arranged.

In a very Socratic way, if we intend to identify the rules for creating more just organizations we will need to start defining what justice is. The most common definition around is “giving each one his due” or “giving each one what corresponds to him”, which doesn’t get us that much closer, as we then have to inquire into what is due to each member of the organization, or what corresponds to each one, and we may to our dismay find that the answer to both is “what justice dictate they should receive”. So if we want to break from this circular definition we have two main alternatives:

·         Define justice as consisting in giving to each as they deserve, that is, what they have earned according to some previously agreed rules

·         Or define justice as giving to each as they require, that is, ensure everybody’s needs are equally tended for

Both are fraught with difficulties: determining what every member of the organization contributes to the common good (what he has earned, and thus what he in return deserves) is famously tricky (if I’m the one apportioning the rewards, I’ll likely have a strong incentive to value my own contribution and that of those close to me as more substantial than anybody else’s… anybody else would likely have a different view of such valuation, and thus of the justice of the resulting distribution); determining what each one requires independently of merit or contribution would incentivize free riding and asocial behaviors (as exemplified by the communist motto “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” that unsurprisingly fostered a society where everybody seemed to have a lot of the latter and very little of the former).

It has to be noted that the rules we are attempting to pin down have to do with distributive justice: within the framework we are dealing with, they would be the rules pertaining how to assign the benefits the organization provides. They have less to say regarding who is entitled to give orders, what are the limits of such orders (if they are indeed somehow limited) and how much exertion those expected to obey them should apply in carrying them out. We will have a bit more to say about that kind of rules (which we could group under the header of procedural justice), but let’s first explore a bit more how the aforementioned benefits are apportioned.

One approach to determining as fairly as possible the benefits each member of the organization “deserves” is to have an impersonal mechanism setting them. If any single person could decide with complete freedom what each member, including himself, enjoys of the common product it is difficult to avoid the impression that he will have a strong incentive to overcompensate himself and those close to him (the level of “closeness” can depend on a number of factors, like family ties or similar tastes or similar personality traits or even gender or race that are generally considered germane to “just desert”, and thus should not be taken into consideration if a just distribution of rewards is to be achieved). But if there are “external”, “objective” rules that he has to apply to decide how much of such common product he gives to each member of the organization we think that there is less opportunity for “unfair” or “unjust” distributions; we tend to assume that if the rules are impersonal and “objective” enough they should produce an equitable, unobjectionable distribution. That, of course, is absolutely false: take an impersonal rule like “give 100% of the organization’s income to the tallest employee” (or the fattest, oldest, youngest, of darkest complexion, of lightest complexion, whatever) or “distribute the organization’s income proportionally to the number of days between each employees birth date and the 23rd of June of 2003”. Such rules are surely as objective as you may dream, but the distribution that may result from their application won’t be “fair” or “just” by any standard measure, and will likely result in people leaving the organization in droves, except for those favored by them (that in most cases won’t be especially deserving, or able to contribute in an especially significant way, thus causing the quick demise of the organization for lack of adequate talent).

You may suspect I have chosen some outrageously irrational samples of “objective” rules to make some point, and you would be entirely right. The lesson I want my readers to take home is this: “impersonal” rules, with a patina of objectivity around them, do not guarantee a fairer, more just outcome than just giving full discretionality to a member (or reduced group of members) of the organization to decide about how the benefits it produces should be distributed. However, most theoreticians of the matter seem to have concluded (not recently, the argument started to take shape about 300 years ago) that there is one particular set of objective rules that almost magically guarantee the fairest, most just arrangement that can be conceived. A magical set of rules that allow us to forget about the fairness of the organizational arrangements we enter into, as its application ensures we all get the best deal we could dream of. What extraordinary set of rules are those? I’ll defer to a highly regarded academic text, the eighteenth edition of Economics by Samuelson & Nordhaus, page 288:

A general-equilibrium market system will display allocative efficiency when there is perfect competition, with well-informed producers and consumers and no external effects. In such a system, each good’s price is equal to its marginal costs and each factor’s price is equal to the value of its marginal product. When each producer maximizes profits and each consumer maximizes utility, the economy as a whole is efficient. No one can be made better off without making someone else worse off…

… The basic point to see is that, because prices serve as signals of economic scarcity for producers and social utility for consumers, a competitive price mechanism allows the best mix of goods and services to be produced from a society’s resources and technology.

We could formulate what I propose to call “the Economist rule” as follows: “give to each member of the organization as much as he contributes at the margin (as much as he adds value to each good or service the organization sells)”. That is indeed “how the real world works”: the salary of every employee (or the fee every independent professional can command) determined by the market in proportion to what the consumers are willing to pay for what said employee does to whatever it is his company (or himself directly) sells. Sounds very rational, objective, impersonal and thus fair, doesn’t it? Only it is essentially bunk, and it has as much to do with how salaries are really determined in a company as the number of angels that can fit on a pin’s head has to do with the atomic weight of iron…

Let us quickly review a number of problems of the definition of “an efficient general equilibrium market-system” as defined by Samuelson and Nordhaus (and widely accepted by most economists today):

·         There isn’t anything like “perfect competition” in most markets, starting with the labor market (where the number of weekly, monthly and yearly hours is capped by law; the state taxes those hours differently depending on the industry and legal status of the worker; there are in some jurisdictions floors to how much can be offered per unit of work -minimum wage-; there are vast asymmetries in negotiating power between the parts, even in the face of collective bargaining from the workers, and information about salaries in other industries or in other firms within the same industry is typically very difficult to come by) and including the energy market, the travel market, the manufactured goods market, the health market, the residential building market, the personal (domestic) services market, the agricultural market and the financial market, at a minimum to try to reduce externalities and protect consumers and the environment  

·         Neither producers nor consumers are in any meaningful sense “well-informed”. Even in these times of apparently easy access to “all of humanity’s knowledge”, when any conceivable piece of information is “just a click away”, you would be surprised by how little executives know about what their customers value, what they workers demand, what their machines can realistically produce and what their productive processes yield

·         A direct consequence of the above is that the much vaunted coincidence of marginal costs with marginal prices that sets the overall production level for each firm is but a mirage. To begin with, it presupposes a production function where the costs slope upwards (the cost of producing an additional unit grows with every additional unit produced) and a consumption function where the utility (and thus what the consumers are willing to pay) slopes downward (as they derive less satisfaction from every additional unit consumed), which is theoretically pleasant to contemplate, but not that frequent in real life. In real life not only production and consumption functions can slope in whatever direction (depending on demand elasticity and the amount of fixed vs variable costs) but are more discrete than continuous, so they may not even intersect in any meaningful sense (so firms necessarily produce either less or more than what the public is willing to consume at the price they ask for, and there is no “natural” way to adjust prices to make demand and supply coincide, having to resort to rationing, queuing, perpetual inventories or semi-permanent overcapacity)

·         Although I can grant that companies (or suppliers in general) know what maximizing benefits consists in (benefits are measured in money, and although money can get pretty metaphysical, i.e. how much are Apple’s benefit really worth, if it finds no attractive investment to park them into and all it can do is sit on top of them as a growing and useless pile of cash?, at least everybody can agree that if firm A earns more money than firm B in the same amount of time, it is generating more benefits) I firmly believe that there is no such thing as “maximizing utility” for consumers. What the f@%k is utility? How does it compare between different people? And for the same person between different moments in time? I know, I know the standard answer of economists: “revealed preferences”, so utility is exactly and precisely measured by what the people is willing to pay for each unit of satisfaction. Rather than go in a furious rant that would take me far away from the original goal of this post, I’ll just point that such argument is rather circular, and using the fact of people paying a certain price for something as a justification that such price is the right measure of the value of such something is the very definition of question begging, and introduces in the explanandum the very explanans that we are trying to define.

In summary, if there is no such thing as “perfect competition”, no such thing as “well-informed” producers and consumers and no such thing as meaningful “utility maximization” through the information provided  by prices, can we say with a straight face that the “market mechanism” ensures a just and fair distribution of the companies’ rewards? No, we definitely can not. Which means we can not abdicate our responsibility of fairly rewarding our fellow employees by discharging the decision on how much to pay them to the market, assuming that if we pay them a “market salary” we are doing good and all is well. Because such “market salary” is an empty ideological construct (“ideological” in the worst, most Marxist sense of the word: a deliberate attempt made by those that benefit the most from the current system to justify it and thus better impose it on the many disadvantaged by it). Nothing new here, as I’ve already developed most of my objections to the supposed application of economic logic to real life here: Shortcomings of economic "science" and here: Shortcoming II (some drollery)

So we are back at square one: we quickly dismissed the possibility of a distributive justice based on needs, as it compromises the viability of the organizations that adopt it by attracting and rewarding free-riders and moochers. We have just dismissed the possibility of a distributive justice based on desert, as the supposedly objective criteria used to determine the amount of desert of each individual is highly suspect, and ends up leading to tremendously well paid top executives profiting handsomely from the squalor and exploitation of the majority of the workforce.

What I would suggest is that we better dismiss distributive justice altogether, and confine it to a wider organization (the whole state, which uses its power of taxation to achieve a more just distribution of the whole social product). For smaller, economic organizations (firms and companies) I would argue that it is procedural justice the one that we must be concerned about, and the one that defines if they are fair to its members or not. And to define the “right” sort of procedural justice and how it should be understood I propose to look not at the classical economists and utilitarians (Hume, Smith, Mill), but to a figure that only recently has been vindicated as having something relevant to say about organizations. None other than the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Which will require an additional post, as this is already too long (well, this looked since the beginning like a to part installment, I’m sure you already saw this coming)…

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Are you terrified yet?

After the third terror attack in England in so many months (one in Manchester, two in London) it behooves us to consider if we are pivoting to a true clash of civilizations, in Huntington’s sense, and if the world we inhabit is more dangerous, or more risky, than the one we grew up into (let’s say, between 1970 and 2010 or, if we want to align the focus of our analysis with the great tectonic shifts of history, between 1989 -the year of the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War- and 2001 -the year of the attacks that felled the twin towers in New York on Sep-11 which in turn triggered the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003).

But before we discuss the issue at hand, let me give a little background of my upbringing, as it has surely colored my understanding of this “terrorism” thing. I grew up in Madrid, in the 70’s. A little separatist group had been recently established vying for the political independence of a small corner of the country, the Basque region (that group was the only recently disbanded ETA, whose two first murders happened in 1968, although there is an apocryphal attribution of the killing of a 22 month old girl in 1960, most historians today think they were not the culprits of that one). In the second half of the decade they were killing between 60 and 80 people a year, more than one per week: mostly policemen and soldiers (members of the “occupation army” both in the Basque provinces and in the capital) but also businessmen who didn’t pay the “revolutionary tax”, bus drivers, teachers, owners of bars and restaurants, patrons and simple passers-by gunned down or blown away just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again, rare was the week that didn’t bring the news of another attack, or another victim. Some were, as mentioned, members of the “state security forces” in the terrorists parlance (as if such category were not just another kind of salaried worker, directly providing a much needed service for the well-being of most), but unavoidably many of them were not.

Later, well in the 80’s the band would lose its initial “legitimacy” (in the eyes of a part of their populations of origin, who still saw them as freedom fighters again Franco’s dictatorship, many years after such dictatorship had been replaced by a democratic government) by perpetrating ever more savage acts, bombing apartment blocks and public places were scores of women and children would be killed (like a shopping mall in Barcelona in 1987, causing 21 deaths, or the blowing of an apartment building housing policemen in Saragossa in 1987 also, resulting in 11 deaths, or in Vic in 1991, with 9 dead).

All that may sound like ancient history, like the wars of the Greeks and the Persians: some historians tell you who were the good boys, and who were not so good. All equally removed from us, burdened with concerns and preoccupations very different from ours. Until it all becomes awfully close and clear. I remember very vividly the morning of the 14th of July 1986, as a car bomb exploded just three blocks away from my house, as a bus transporting policemen passed, killing 12 of them and wounding scores of bystanders. The bomb went off besides the entrance of the tube station I sometimes used to go to school, and although I wasn’t taking it that particular day, it felt near enough to make it uncomfortably real. And it was not just my country. 

On some summers we would go to Ireland to practice English, and learn of the state of slow motion civil war up North (Bobby Sands was already in jail, he would die in prison in 1981, after a hunger strike) and the renewed activity of the IRA, both in Northern Ireland and in London. In Germany we heard of the RAF (Fraction of the Red Army) led by Ulrike Meinhof (suspiciously found dead in her cell in May 1976, she apparently hanged herself with a towel, something I propose my most venturesome readers to attempt, just to realize how difficult it would be) and Andreas Baader (even more suspiciously found dead, also in his cell, within a high security prison complex, with a difficult to explain shot in the head in October next year). In Italy the “red brigades” were conducting a terror campaign that culminated with the kidnapping and killing of the Christian Democracy leader Aldo Moro in 1978 (I personally remember with great clarity the images in the news -still in black and white back then- of the just found corpse of the politician). In most of Latin America those were also the “lead years” that would end in the rise of more or less sinister military dictatorships.

So I have an intimate, first person experience of what it is to live in a society besieged by terrorism, where terror attacks are not an exception or something that every now and then seem to come out of the blue, to be quickly forgotten, but part and parcel of everyday life. Where you know some of your countrymen are actively dedicated to the overthrowing of the (more or less) legitimate form of government. You wake up in the morning and go about your life (go to school, to the Uni, to work, buy groceries, visit a friend, go to a movie) knowing that a certain number of those you cross paths with are devoting all of their waking energy to plot for mayhem and destruction. In “secret locations” they store weaponry (machine guns, pistols, revolvers, explosives, pressure cookers, nuts and bolts, ignition switches, catapults, truncheons, balaclavas, knifes… their arsenal, luridly shown when arrested, always has some shockingly outdated, incongruous materials), they train in their use, they follow political leaders, members of government, industrialists, famous journalists or just look for busy places where they can cause the maximum carnage. And as they more or less successfully carry on their grim trade and the list of casualties grow by the day you become number and number to a certain amount of pieties: the rule of law, presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, the unconditional evil of torturing a prisoner to attempt to extract some information…

Indeed, I recall that being (as it still is nowadays) the absolutely predictable reaction of a growing segment of the population: harsher punishment for terrorist; Bring back the death penalty! Mix them with common criminals, so they are regularly beaten, and raped! (in the mind of a certain segment of the public, “normal” incarceration is supposed to be a Holiday spa, certainly not much of a punishment for such grisly acts as terrorists have committed. And of course, not only the perpetrators, but their accomplices must be similarly prosecuted. And not only current accomplices, but potential ones. To prevent their hateful ideology from propagating, freedom of the press (and of association) can and should be curtailed. You don’t want to provide the killers with a bullhorn and allow them to form a political party so they can better spew their credo of violence and aggression against innocent people! In my own country, the “German solution” (difficult not to reach the conclusion than the country’s security forces had something to do with the “suicide” of the Baader-Meinhof leaders) was almost universally praised.

Now we know that some countries went along those lines further than others. Spain dabbled in “state terrorism”, and a “counterterrorist” group was founded (GAL, the not terribly imaginative acronym for “Counterterrorism Liberation Group”) with funds and material support from what were then called the “states’ sewers”. Active between 1984 and 1987, they killed a number of militants accused of belonging to ETA or their political arm (HB), but also up to 10 people with no relationship whatsoever with the band. They contributed to the end of what was known as the “French sanctuary” (where people accused of terrorism in Spain, a democracy on the verge of joining the EU, could roam absolutely unimpeded) but also helped a significant segment of the public opinion in the Basque provinces stay resolutely in favor of the terrorists’ activity (presented as a legitimate defense from an equally bloodthirsty national state that had no qualms to resort to similarly indiscriminate violence) for many years. However, due in part to their sheer bumbling incompetence (the “GAL affair” would be used against the then-governing socialist party once the many links between them and the government became public, and the Home Secretary that probably oversaw their creation ended up serving time in jail) they did not irreversibly degrade the still very recent democratic institutions of the country, and the final disappearance of ETA was due to the vast majority of the population turning against their methods, rather than the “military defeat” that many dreamed of in their worse days. Although militarily defeated they were, with their commandos being regularly dismantled by the police and a growing number of members behind bars claiming for a “negotiated agreement” being one of the factors that undoubtedly accelerated their demise.

In a certain sense, that’s the better outcome that could be expected. European democracies were never really threatened by left-wing radicals in the late 70’s (we now know that they had some modest material support from the Soviet Union, but not so much between their own citizenry to ever have a realistic shot at seizing power, or just triggering a popular response that would seriously destabilize democratic governments), and even the separatist movements (IRA and ETA) that continued into the 80’s and 90’s never had much of a chance, no matter how serious the grievances against the local populations from which they drew their support truly were. 

Thus, the societies they tried to terrorize, just by staying resolutely democratic and not deferring to those between them that claimed for more “extraordinary powers” to better combat the scourge of terrorism, defeated them at the end of the day. But not all the countries were so lucky: in Latin America, as I mentioned, democracies were indeed overturned (in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador…) and replaced by military rule, that in most cases ended being worse for the majority of the population than the terrorists ever were, and most have still not fully recovered from the cronyism, corruption and loss of civic spirit that totalitarian rule entails. Not only that, but they are probably much less equal societies than they were back then, with solidarity between elites and the majority of the population significantly eroded by the former’s support to military regimes, and the latter’s bearing the brunt of the repression and abuses of said regimes. I’m not saying that terrorism is the only explanation for the rise of the harvest of strongmen and military juntas that seized power in the region in the 70’s and 80’s (a wide number of additional reasons explain that, including the interference of USA’s State Department and the more or less open support of the CIA), but ti definitely had an oversize role in such developments.

Talking about myself, I can say that now (with Basque separatists’ terrorism all but extinct for a decade, although the latest terrorist attack in Spanish soil was pretty spectacular: on March 11th 2004 ten explosions in trains at peak hour would cause the death of 192 people and injured more than 2,000) I oppose the recourse to “extraordinary means” to combat violence as much as I did back then, when my political philosophy was forming, and basically consisted in being against what the majority of my countrymen would be for (always the contrarian). Always against the death penalty (the state has no business taking any of his citizen’s lives, no matter what unspeakable evil they may have perpetrated). Always against limits to a free press (heck, if we allow “The Economic Approach to Human Behavior” by Gary Becker to be widely discussed and sold, I can’t see why we shouldn’t do the same with “Mein Kampf”, “Das Kapital”, or any similarly demented manifesto from whatever half-addled visionary psychopath).  Let us not forget I’m a Kantian, so in particular always against torture, which is for me a line in the sand beyond which I do not think it permissible to go ever (not even in a “ticking bomb” scenario, and furthermore I think the plausibility of those scenarios is mostly hogwash). A society that grants certain “extraordinary powers” to its government so it can more effectively provide security and “fight terrorism” may be in for an ugly shock, when the behavior of the government ends up being as immoral as that of the baddies it had to purportedly fight.

But, as opposed to today’s dominant narrative, I don’t think such opposition aligns me instead with your average wishy-washy liberal (in the American sense): I’m not especially fond of a number of progressive shibboleths, from identity politics to representative democracy itself (although I don’t know of any historical example of single party polity that was supportive enough of a free press to win my admiration), and I believe in a number of tenets (from the moral superiority of what, from lack of a better term, we may call the Western tradition to the existence of biological differences between races and sexes, plus a certain irrational allegiance to heteronomous norms for organizing collective existence that have been definitely out of fashion for at least a couple of centuries) that put me waaaaay beyond the pale for your average run-of-the-mill left-leaning enlightened citizen. However, as usual in this blog, I don’t think my own highly idiosyncratic thoughts and opinions are as interesting for my readers as a wider analysis of why the majority think as it does. So rather than discuss what I personally think about the terrorist threat (that can be summarized as: it exists, it is blown out of all proportion by a frenzied media, as it is much less serious than it was four decades ago, and it is best combatted with good police and an exquisite application of the rule of law) I want to devote the remainder of this post to consider why it gets so much attention and what is the most rational attitude towards it (towards the attention, that is, not towards terrorism itself: it goes without saying that the only rational attitude towards terrorism is of unqualified condemnation -without forgetting that one man’s terrorism is another man’s dignified struggle for liberation and recognition, see Menachem Begin and Hotel King David bombing).

But first, to put things in perspective, let’s remember a couple facts: the number of people who have died in terrorist attacks in the whole wide world in the last years hovers between ten thousand and forty thousand:

That looks pretty bad, doesn’t it? But if we decompose the figures a bit, we quickly see that most of those victims, sad and heartbreaking as they are, are very much concentrated in a few trouble spots, which (and I know I’m being admittedly rude and insensitive here) we could summarize as “Muslims killing one another”. The majority of casualties of terrorist attacks, as publicized as disasters like the Bataclan shootings, the Lockerbie bombing or Madrid train explosions are, com from bombings and shooting of Shia Muslims at the hands of Sunni ones (and a considerably lower amount of the opposite). So much so that some newspaper have already noticed that while journalist in the West routinely look for the “human interest” angle of the victims of the (comparatively few) attacks in the West, they give at most a statistical summary of the much more violent carnage relentlessly unfolding in the rest of the world (Terror attacks in the West and elsewhere ). Now I don’t want to convey the impression that not all acts of terror are similarly tragic, or that there are different classes of victims, some more deserving our sympathy and commiseration than others, but as I want to center my subsequent analysis on Western media and Western society reactions, I’ll zoom in the number of victims in Europe and the US, namely:
So in the worst year (1988: 270 people died over Lockerbie and about 100 in Spain due to a single terrorist group, the already discussed ETA) a bit more than 400 Europeans died in terror attacks. Within a population of about 250 million.

What about the USA? For all practical purposes the USA has suffered a single, very traumatic big attack (Sep 11th) and then a drip of smaller ones (the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 being the most notorious, and deadliest, of them):

So on a typical year terrorism, that modern scourge, that deadly plague, that most awful threat of our times, is likely to kill a couple hundreds Europeans and a couple dozens North Americans. Some plague! Just to put it in perspective, in 2016 deaths directly attributable to tobacco use reached 7 million worldwide, and slightly less than half a million in the USA. Deaths in car crashes amounted to 1.25 million worldwide, almost 35,000 in the USA.

And of course, the number of fatalities in car accidents in the USA is actually below that of people killed using a gun:

Yup, I know the source is the Communist News Network, not a reputable source like Taki or Breitbart (just kiddin’ folks) but the numbers add up with what I’ve been researching in other sources. And the majority of those deaths (about two thirds) are suicides anyway. And the statistics do not reflect the hundreds of thousands of acts of violence prevented by heroic and well-trained armed citizens protected by their sacrosanct right to keep and bear arms, enshrined in the 2nd amendment. Yadda, yadda, yadda, my point is, a society inured to that level of violent death (self-inflicted or otherwise) has no rationale for taking every sort of constitutionally dubious measure (special tribunals, state-sanctioned “enhanced interrogation” methods, foreign detention sites with no judicial supervision, discretionary powers to snoop into the communications of ordinary citizens with no explicit warrant, and on and on and on…) because some weirdo or other decides every few months to kill one or two of his countrymen whilst shouting “Allahu Akbar” (instead of shouting “gimme your wallet” or the plain ol’ “you talkin’ to me?”).

So back to my original question: if you live in Europe, or the USA (or Australia, or Japan, or Korea, or Canada) these are still pretty peaceful times compared with historical standards, and your chances of dying or being hurt in a terrorist attack are as slim as those of being struck by an actual, honest-to-God lightning, and much, much lower than being involved in a car accident or contracting a cardiorespiratory disease due to second-hand smoke. Just to clarify, things are much grimmer if you live in Iraq, Afghanistan or South Sudan, but that’s not what we are talking about here. I do not read Iraqi, Afghan or Sudanese newspaper, but I do read European and American ones, and rare is the day when terrorism is not in them. Months after any substantial attack we are still discussing them, obsessing about them, analyzing how the perpetrators radicalized, who they talked to, what they were like, what they posted in social media and what signals if any they did give of their growing alienation.

And I think that is the key to the fascination of the media with terrorists (or, more precisely, with terrorists who strike in our midst, as they really couldn’t care less about the ones that choose to blow themselves up in Helmand or Lahore): they are the perfect example of the “other one” in our midst that most substantially reject our value system. As a brief aside, what is that value system made of? A rule for assigning social precedence (who gives orders and who has to obey), a set of socially sanctioned desires (what is it considered legitimate to strive for) and, most conspicuously, what a life well lived consists in. The trifecta of dominant reason. Which is the real key of the attention we lavish on those that reject the three tenets wholesale: painting them as the most evil, most disturbed, most despicable and most deserving of scorn (it is interesting to note how frequently they are depicted as “losers”… well in a sense they are, and that’s part of the reason they chose not to participate in the common criteria for assigning positions in the social hierarchy) serves the purpose of increasing the social cohesion, by emphasizing the worst outcomes of stepping out of the majority’s consensus of what serves as an intelligible reason for action (those conforming to the dominant, desiderative one).

Indeed, a crumbling dominant reason that is questioned (or openly rejected) by a growing percentage of the population can not expect to obtain new allegiances through positive messaging: that is what being exhausted entails, it has stopped efficiently convincing the newer generations of its validity, and can only resort to pointing out how much worse any imaginable alternative is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the terrorists’ credo is a valid, viable, imaginable alternative (I have not studied whatever form of reason was dominant in Xth century Arabia, but I doubt it can function to instill XXIst century globalized society with a functioning set of shared values), I’m saying we find it endlessly highlighted in the news, in the press, on TV, in memes and FB posts and incendiary podcasts because a number of actors see it as a useful foil (“don’t like desiderative reason? Look how much worse the alternative looks like”) with which to prevent further social degradation. And again, it’s not that I think preventing social degradation is an unworthy goal. I’m all against social degradation, but presenting a boogie man, a red herring and crying wolf all in one is not going to do the work.

It is not going to do the work because when a dominant reason loses its grip on the collective imagination the only way to revive the fortunes of the suddenly rudderless group that it previously helped to coordinate is to replace it with a new one. As far as I’ve been able to see, no dominant reason ever was revived by the oversized depiction of an external threat. Rather, such strategy has frequently backfired and accelerated the demise of the old set of values, and their replacement by a new one. Like Burke fulminating the incoming Romantic Reason by associating it with the excesses of the Terror phase of the French Revolution (did Burke, and many like him, manage to sustain Economic Reason? Nope, Shelley and Byron and Wordsworth were in the end more influential than Condorcet and Rousseau and Voltaire in overcoming the venerable dominant reason he so much cherished, but overcome it they did, and thus Romantic reason ended reigning supreme in England as much as in the Continent). Or like Heidegger fulminating against bureaucratic reason in the name of god ol’ romantic one (well, in his home country romantic reason did experience a comeback, and a whole world war was needed to unseat it again), or Adorno, Benjamin and Horkheimer fulminating against the then rising desiderative reason (from their bureaucratized perspective, it was so much better in their eyes to have a cadre of humane, well-trained, cultivated public servants organizing society and deciding on the social hierarchy, rather than the messy business of leaving it to the market!).  

So don’t get too fixated on the barrage of news of atrocities in the great Western capitals (atrocities that can, and should, be stopped by patient police work, not by the granting of “extraordinary powers” to governments too prone to abuse them). Whatever hodgepodge of half-baked value system comprising legitimate desires, criteria for social precedence and what a life well-lived looks like as are proposed by people that try to advance them by indiscriminately blowing people up will not prevail, I have little doubt about that. But neither will our own current set, if only because it has shown itself incapable of physically reproducing those that should embody it. Decrying and denouncing and belittling the former will do little to bolster the latter. Accelerating the advent of self-driving cars, and thus reducing the number of accidents, on the other hand, seems like a very worthy endeavor...