Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The decline and fall of… what, exactly?


I want to start this post with a confession: I bought my first books from Amazon around September 2002 (actually, that was my second purchase at the then budding site, as I had previously attempted to buy a book by William Burroughs which ended up being a cassette recording of him reading Cities of the red night, and which I think I never got myself to listening). My first order included a nice, hardback copy in three volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, cloth binding and all. Back then, I did with my Amazon orders what I was well accustomed to doing with my brick-and-mortar book purchases: I kept on indulging in them well before I had finished reading the haul from the latest one (or with the ones previous to that), so there were always books that sat in my nightstand unread for years, as I always found some newer, glitzier (or for some reason just more urgent) ones to turn my attention to. Also, I used to read multiple books in parallel back then, so finishing something or other always seemed more pressing than going back to the ones that, inadvertently, had been bought long ago. Be it as it may, the thing is that the imposing boxed set containing the first half of Gibbon’s masterwork had been sitting for 16 years in a corner of my library (the “history important books” corner, alongside the much revised, commented and dog-eared editions of Toynbee’s Study of History, Spengler’s Decadence of the West and Collingwood’s The Idea of History).

Since then, my reading habits have noticeably changed, as long ago I started reading a single book at a time, and not opening a new one until I had finished the one I was currently engaged with (no matter how boring or disappointing… indeed finishing boring and disappointing books has turned out to be a most rewarding endeavor, and a superb training method for attention and intelligence in general,  see my posts Why reading boring books is good for you and Maybe even better ). I also reined my obsessive-compulsive buying behavior, not ordering (or buying in a physical store) anything until I had cracked open the last exemplar hauled in the previous order. During those years of subtle but persistent change, whilst occasionally I remembered with regret the mountains of unread books I had accumulated in wilder, less disciplined times, I was still too attracted by the allure of new volumes to pay much attention to the former. And thus the Decline and Fall languished in a corner both of my physical library and of my mind, very occasionally giving a gentle tug to my attention, reminding me it was still there, unfinished business from the past. Long story short, a couple weeks ago I finally gave it a go, as it fitted neatly within my overall intent of understanding better how civilizations have collapsed in the past, to better be able to judge how our own may develop, when its particular collapse seems more evident by the day.

A few words about Gibbon’s work, then, before I turn my attention towards what we may learn from it. I (like every other half-cultured rube) was already familiar with the basic shape of the argument: the empire fell because of its internal contradictions, exemplified by the loss of civic virtue of its elites, with a little help of that obnoxious and most irrational heresy (Christianity) that was carelessly elevated to the role of official religion by Constantine. Such sketchy outline has been rehashed by so many later historians and thinkers (it very much permeates the Essay on the History of Civil Society by Adam Ferguson, and we can still find the basic idea of elites losing their ability to respond to external challenges because of the adoption of a universal religion better suited to proletarians underlying most of Toynbee’s understanding of social dynamics) that it has become a commonplace, and it’s difficult to evade or to challenge its main tenets. I had already high hopes for the writing style, as it is generally acknowledged to be a high mark of XVIII century English prose. Maybe I harbored unrealistic expectations, but I found the prose a bit flat and unenticing. Not abysmal, mind you, but stilted and clichéd at some points, and with some quirks certainly grating for modern sensibilities (Gibbon almost never encounters anything coming from Asia, be it a custom, a ruler, or a cultural artifact like a building, a painting, a vase or a statue, which he doesn’t automatically qualify as “effeminate”). Interestingly, it is a style that I’ve come to associate with German philosophical writings of the following century (the same standard turns of phrase being used and abused, the same highfaluting appeals to national character and the same understanding of a certain kind of exalted, highly emotional spiritual contemplation as the highest good, described in very similar and a bit conceited terms), which may be explained by the influence that Gibbon exerted on them (I may need to get to a contemporary translation to confirm that hunch, though). Not entirely my cup of tea, although competently executed.

However, I also felt it a bit lacking in the elaboration of a consistent theory of why things happened as they did, where the particular events narrated (colorful and amusing as they undoubtedly are) are weaved as different strands of causal ingredients that serve to highlight a common thread, making us believe that things were as they were for a reason. There is, of course, the underlying narrative I sketched before (the Senate just went soft and corrupted, let unworthy rabble become emperors, and in the end they couldn’t even defend themselves), but that barebones narrative leaves too many questions unanswered: did the whole senatorial class slumped wholesale into stupor and irrelevance? Doesn’t seem likely, as with few exceptions it kept producing some very redoubtable emperors; why did some noble families slid into irrelevance (other than by being exterminated by political enemies, which at some points seemed like all too common) while others kept on producing imperial scions for centuries? How did the development of latifundia and the disappearance of tenant farmers affect the civic spirit of both classes? (not that we should expect Gibbon to provide a class-struggle based analysis that would only appear in the intellectual scenario with Marx almost a century later); Why weren’t there any significant technological developments in almost a millennium? Was that a cause or a consequence of a society where more and more of the production was being carried out by slaves, lacking thus the incentive to economize in manpower?

It is probably my fault that I’ve come to enjoy “big history” (the “grand theory” as described/ warned against by Quentin Skinner) and in contrast seem to enjoy less the traditional way of telling it, which I find too much “one damn thing after the other” (long chapters of Gibbon seemed to me little more than:

…so Valerian went to that city, and fought that battle and (probably, we can’t be sure because our sources are crap and most ancient historians are not really very reliable, ya’ know) lost it, so he was murdered by his soldiers, who appointed Valerianus, who in turn went to that other city, where he fought that other battle, which he won (yay!),but then lost a subsequent one, and was in turn murdered by his soldiers (or slain in battle, according to a not-very-reliable source again, lovingly quoted in Latin), who this time appointed Valerianulus, who, who would have guessed! Went in turn to a third city where he fought a battle that he either lost or won…

I get it that most of those dudes a) reigned for just a few months b) didn’t do anything remarkable or leave any perdurable trace other than minting a few coins and may be erecting some memorial column or other and c) have reached us through chronicles written some centuries after their deaths by unscrupulous hacks with an ax to grind and some spurious interest in maligning/ whitewashing them, depending on the inclination of their patrons, but the succession of their exploits sometimes makes for some winding, unfocused and boring passages. So there you have it, I have the gall to, being and absolutely shitty writer myself (and egregiously overindulging in winding, unfocused and boring passages as much as the next guy), criticize one of the universally accepted masters of the English language… in words he would have considered fitting: o tempora, o mores!

Which doesn’t mean I’m not highly recommending the book. As Hugh Trevor-Roper remarks in the introduction (an introduction that would have benefited itself from some judicious editing), Gibbon is our first “modern” historian, trying to discern longer-term trends below the hurly-burly of battles, murders, rapes, illegitimate accessions, revolts and plagues that afflicted such unhappy and tumultuous interval of our common history, and applying a discerning critique to the different sources he masterly commands, trying to adjudicate between the sometimes wildly differing reports of his predecessors with (mostly) unerring authority. Just be aware that the discipline has evolved, language itself has evolved (mostly for the worse, I’m afraid, as we use less and less words to express poorer and less structured thoughts), and the classics, worthy of attention as they undoubtedly are, keep growing more alien to us by the day, and thus their books present some difficulties that should not be underestimated. 

But surely of more interest to my modern anxious readers than my (highly idiosyncratic) opinions on Gibbon’s work is what I coyly suggested in this post’s title it may teach us about our current predicament. To such juicy comparison I now turn, starting with a quick recap of the underlying causes Gibbon identifies as being the real culprits of the collapse of Greco-Roman civilization (although only the Roman half of the empire is dealt with in the first three books, whilst the Eastern part would get its own subsequent three volumes, I haven’t bought those… yet!):

1.       Loss of public spirit by the elites (senatorial class), and of civic virtue, sense of decorum, and of obligation first and foremost towards the common good.

2.       Extension of the benefits of Roman citizenship to all the inhabitants of the Empire, thus debasing the value of such citizenship, and the homogeneity of the social body (and thus losing the ability to easily collaborate in common projects).

3.       Loss of discipline of the legions, that found there was more benefit to be had from deposing whoever happened to be emperor, and then choosing a successor (whose first decision would then be to rewards them generously in a vain attempt to ensure their loyalty) than from defending the ever more porous frontiers against continuous Barbarian incursions.

4.       Loss of faith in the common narrative shared by the elites (whose external manifestation was a traditional religion whose beliefs were, in the author’s arch-famous words “considered, by the people, as equally true; by the philosophers, as equally false; and by the magistrates, as equally useful”). Needless to say, that common narrative would be substituted by a new one, Christianity, that in Toynbee’s analysis was the expression of the universal religion of the estranged proletariat that already exhausted empires always formulate in their decomposition phase

Although of course Gibbon, like any other thinker, could not avoid projecting in his understanding and interpretation of events the forms, mores and most salient features of his own age, and his Roman citizens are thinly veiled Englishmen in the eve of the Industrial Revolution, threatened by external forces (mainly France) he identified with barbarism and a lower level of civilization (a civilization he, of course, understood as linearly progressing and having reached its apex in his own society) and subjected to a loss of traditional virtues for the love of commerce and material gain (the most forceful denunciation of such “corruption” of mores being found in a contemporary of Gibbon, the already mentioned Adam Ferguson, whose Essay on the History of Civil Society was published the year after Gibbon’s first volume), the parallelisms with our own age are nothing short of amazing:

1.       Whatever you consider the elites of our time (the media, politicians of every stripe, and millionaires, be them from show business, sports or industry), the confidence or admiration the public expresses in them is at an all-time low in all advanced societies. The reason is their evident selfishness, self-regard, narcissism and disregard for traditional norms of solidarity, decorum and simple common decency. Our forebears called that “loss of public spirit and civic virtue”, and it manifested itself in a perception of corruption and extended decadence not different at all from the one we have.

2.       Any attempt to somehow limit the public benefits to the native-born citizens of those same advanced societies where the elites are loathed and distrusted is regularly denounced by those same elites (plus most of the academic establishment tasked with ideologically justifying and perpetuating their dominion by the proper indoctrination of the young), as nationalist/ populist/ retrograde and most uncivilized and hateful drivel. The non-elite population can, with great difficulty, notice that those who so ardently preach in favor of the extension of public benefits to all are pretty zealous to preserve the enjoyment and transmission of their very private benefits for themselves and their descendants only (see my Problem with open borders ), without noticing any contradiction at all. The fact is, advanced societies (more markedly, Western ones, Asians are more circumspect in welcoming foreigners) show a clear tendency towards universalizing the benefits of citizenship, and that indeed causes tensions, fractures, and makes more difficult for them to coordinate their actions.   

3.       The military, in those advanced societies, has stayed loyal and disciplined so far. Although the 70s and 80s saw their share of military coups (mostly in East Asia, Africa and Latin America), a good deal of those devolved power more or less peacefully to civilian leaders in the last decades, and the threat of a “new authoritarianism” so far seems to come from the civilian part of the social body. But beware men with arms in a fragmented society slowly sliding into chaos and disorder, as ours is doing (so slowly, indeed, most commentators have not yet noticed it). I would expect armies to have a much greater role (not necessarily for the good) in the second and third decades of this century, but will have more to say about them in a moment.

4.       If we resort to François Lyotard’s concept of “postmodernity”, it is precisely the loss of legitimacy of every previous “grand narrative” what is most characteristic of our own time. Traditional (Christian) religion is bleeding adherents and authority, but the “secular” (whatever that means) alternative that appeared in the XIX century to crystalize and exemplify the hopes and desires of the disenfranchised proletarians of the then-crumbling world-system is as much discredited, if not more (I’m talking of Marxism, as much a religion as the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, Mayans or Incas). Which means that the true universal religion (again, in a Toynbeean sense) that captures the imagination of the proletariat of our times (the non-elite masses that cannot share the ideological tenets of the dominant belief system any more, and are thus growingly alienated) has still to take shape, or, seen from a different perspective, is still up for grabs. May be that role can be played by a re-energized Christianity (my own and very idiosyncratic preference, although I wouldn’t bet on it), may be by a rekindled nationalism (with whatever foreboding overtones you want to paint it: neo-reaction, neo-fascism, traditionalism, populism…) if and when it somehow acquires the ability to provide credible meaning and an action plan to a society sorely lacking both. May be by something entirely new we still don’t have a grasp of.

So I would say, except for the military running amok, we are quite advanced in a process of massive social disenchantment and hopelessness and loss of faith in a common future not too dissimilar to the one that precipitated the collapse of the Roman world. There is one difference, though, and to that difference I will now turn my attention: technology, which between the II and IV centuries of our era we believe was extremely stagnant, is nowadays progressing royally, and will surely deliver us from any kind of decline, decrease of living standards, or regression. Or so they tell you, don’t they (the same people, remember, that defends openness and generosity with the public goods they don’t use or need, while at the same time guarding jealously from competition or access the private goods they have amassed in an increasingly unequal system)? Well, I’ve got some bad news for you: technology is not progressing at all in any meaningful sense, except in one area: the ability of giant corporations to trade with your attention, which should be your most precious asset and which you are squandering and giving out for free (as attested by the fact that you are reading this blog -that is, if you managed to make it this far!).

Want proof? I’ll give you three pieces of evidence: total factor productivity (the ability of the whole economy to produce more material goods -the classical four F’s we humans need to be contented: food, fiber, fuel and procreation) doesn’t rise significantly since the 70s of last century; the median salary (what half the population has to live with) has barely budged since that very same decade in almost all advanced economies, despite the average GDP per person having grown fivefold (which means most of the increase in wealth creation has been corralled by a tiny percentage of the population); and in most of those same advanced economies, the guys currently in their 20s-30s are wont to become the first generation since the Industrial Revolution that will not live better (in terms of material wealth) than their parents.

But hey, they will have Internet! Smart phones (to communicate more impoverished messages with more brainless peers)! cheap giant plasma TV screens (on which to look at utter rubbish)! That is, they will have a shitty house, shitty clothes (very much like the ones I myself wore as a teenager, for what I see), a shitty urban environment (public squalor amidst great private wealth, albeit for the majority that great wealth will be held by other people) and a shitty health, partly caused by the polluted atmosphere and partly by the shitty food they will eat, which they will pay with the shitty salary provided by a shitty, precarious job. But they won’t mind, because they will also have a thousand shiny screens so their attention will be almost continuously held by wonderful algorithms away from their shabby surroundings into wondrous realms of amazement and entertainment and fun! I doubt even the most refined virtual reality will, in the long term, prevent them from at some point revolting and overthrowing such anti-humane, meaningless system, but who am I to know?    

Well, before being labelled a loony pessimist and total nut (not that I would care), I’ll point my hypothetical readers’ attention to an additional parallelism, as shocking as the previous three (remember, the one about undisciplined armies is still the only element missing from a full-decadence scenario, and we may not be as far from that as we like to believe). Do you, dear reader, know which are the two only ages of recorded history of “voluntary population contraction”? that is, of decreasing population in the absence of major wars or epidemics, just by the sheer lack of belief in the common future, by sheer lack of commitment with the continuation of one’s own system of beliefs, by sheer abandonment of the participation in a shared narrative that gives meaning to one’s life, and makes one want it to continue in his descendants. A hint: one of those ages is precisely II-IV century Europe, which saw Rome go from a million inhabitants to maybe a quarter of that, and saw the surrounding fields and villages, all over the continent, being depopulated and left uninhabited. And it was not a catastrophic event, but the result of millions of individual choices, of individual couples deciding that, in the end, life itself was not worth living (a question that was already dangerously close to the balance for their Greek cultural forebears), and if life was not worth living, it was not surely worth creating or passing to the next generation. The barbarians kept crashing at the gates until, when the gates finally went down, they came inside a mostly empty territory, with nary a functioning army to stop them. The other only age that has seen a similar phenomenon? Our own, our very current enlightened and hyper-prosperous day. So prosperous indeed, that we have collectively decided to enjoy ourselves so much that we don’t have enough time or energy to do things as little enjoyable as raising the next cohort of enjoyers…

Don’t give me, then, sophistic answers about the greatness of the technological revolution we are supposedly in the midst of. About how the awe-inspiring creativity of the unchained human intelligence, free of the bounds of superstition, held firmly by the wings of sacred Science, and soon to be complemented by that of the machines we are creating, will soon overcome every and all limitations and create a post-scarcity society where we will all be rich as Croesus, healthy as a fit teenager, and live happy forever in the land of plenty. We are a decadent, wasted, spent bunch of pathetic and deluded hairless apes that have forsaken the traditions and rituals that gave their short lives meaning. And, alas! Meaning is in the end more precious, and more difficult to obtain, than material wealth, than bodily comforts. At some point in the next three or four decades we will realize we are not a iota closer to “defeating death” as the Egyptians priests were. Not a iota closer to developing a real general-purpose artificial intelligence as Leibniz was. Not a iota closer to a society of unlimited material riches freely available for everybody as the slave societies of Greece and Rome.

Which brings me back to this post’s title. Who are those “we”, exactly, bound to decline and fall? Because decline is a relative concept, and for “us” to decline (relatively) somebody has to be (relatively) rising. If we are to fall, it has to be at the feet of somebody else who is apt to benefit from our falling. Some would say the Chinese are the ones better positioned to succeed “the West” as Earth’s foremost society. Bollocks. I hereby enunciate what I will call the “Vintage Rocker Rule” (VRR): “no society has ever become hegemonic with a fertility rate below 2.5”. How many babies are Chinese women having these days? A quick look at the CIA World Factbook tells us it is a whooping 1.6. No wonder they have ended their one-child policy, but so far everything indicates it’s too late, and the reversal is having almost no effect. Since decades ago it was not the fear of punishment what kept Chinese couples from having more than one little boy (and man! Did they prefer it to be a male! As shown by one of the most skewed male-to-female ratios at birth ever recorded), but the pressure of pursuing a competitive career in the crazy environment of keeping-up-with-the Joneses-dialed-to-eleven of contemporary Chinese society. So good luck dictating to the rest of the world how to behave and what values to acquire when 50% of your population is 65 years old or older, as theirs will be in a couple decades (when the USA finally crashes, if they continue in their current course)…

The fact of the matter is, there are no barbarians with the demographic oomph to seriously challenge the Western model, with its accompanying dominant reason. Islam? Fuggedaboud it. In the heart of Ayatollah-land (Teheran) devout ladies are having 1.4 babies on average. Immigrant populations in the social democracies of Europe are freaking out conservatives and nationalists of their host countries keeping a fertility significantly above that of the natives, but they can’t escape the pull of the times, and in 2-3 generations they revert to the mean (as Mexicans are doing in the USA). The only geographically significant place substantially resisting the trend towards sub-replacement fertility is Sub-Saharan Africa, which doesn’t offer much, at this moment, of an example of social organization one could think is required to present a semi-credible bid for world domination. But, is demography is destiny, just give them time…  

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The allure of populism and the demise of democracy


Don’t believe everything the media (mainstream or otherwise) tells you… Right now it’s become fashionable to state (and journalists do it with annoying frequency) that we live a “populist moment”, that populist politicians are in the ascendant, that populist policies are resurgent, that populist options are being (the horror of horrors!) chosen by electorates all the world over (normally with presumably dire consequences) and that even our most cherished form of government, democracy (a form, it has to be noted, that apportioning power in proportion to numbers, should be intrinsically populist, as by definition the populace is the most numerous stratum of the political body) is in danger of being subverted/ debased/ superseded/ abandoned by some unspecified populist alternative (see the las number of The Atlantic, under the ominous title “Is Democracy Dying?” it expounds at large what such abandonment may consist in, but don’t expect to find great clarity in most articles, except may be in this one by Anne Applebaum: What Americans can expect ).

As usual with intellectual fashions, there is a lot of nonsense being presented as common sense (albeit, when the former becomes common enough, one has to wonder if it qualifies as the later, but I digress), so in this post I’ll try to weight the potential truth of those alarmed denunciations by trying to better define what populism (as presented by the media) is purported to be, and then I will try to adopt the point of view of the populists themselves  to determine if the denunciations have some substance.

So, who are these evil populists?

Let’s start by enumerating the parties signaled by the MSM as embodying the current wave, all of them having been repeatedly declared populist (or, in one case, going through a marked phase of populism): of those currently in power, we have Fidesz (lead by Viktor Orban) in Hungary, Law and Justice (lead by the surviving one of the Kackzynsky brother, Jaroslaw) in Poland, Justice and Development (lead by Recep Tayyip Erdogan) in Turkey, whoever is in power (lead, regardless of party name and professed organization, by Vladimir Putin) in Russia and… the Republican party (lead, nominally, by Donald Trump) in the United States of America; with a more or less decent showing, and in some cases participating in government coalitions, we have the National Front (lead by Marine Le Pen) in France, Party for Freedom (lead by Geert Wilders) in the Netherlands, Alternative for Germany (lead, more or less, by Alexander Gauland) obviously in Germany, Swedish Democrats (lead by Jimmie Akkeson) in Sweden and both the five stars movement and the League and Forza Italia (led respectively by Luigi di Maio, Matteo Salvini and the incombustible Silvio Berlusconi) in, where else, Italy… quite a roster.

As you may expect, those parties have a number of differences, as they respond to electorates with different histories, institutional frames and expectations of what the democratic process (or, more widely, the process of forming a collective will from the separate strands of individual and group preferences) entails and permits. However, I think the common denomination is essentially valid, as they share a significant number of features:

·         Rabid nationalism, as each of them publicly states their “national identity” (a poorly defined set of features that supposedly distinguishes them from all the rest of the world, a conceit exposed by the fact that a significant number of those features -independence, rugged individualism, agrarian values, manly assertiveness to the point of aggressiveness, a recent or distant past of military conquest of foreign lands, etc.- are shared by all of them, hence losing a good deal of their differentiating power) has intrinsic value, and the nation itself that embodies such identity is distinctly superior to the rest of nations due to history, or culture, or economic power, or military prowess. I’ll have more to say about nationalism in a moment, but at this point it’s enough to remark that it is the source of the populists’ most noxious and unsavory attitudes.

·         Mistrust or disdain of traditional democratic institutions (free press and independent judiciary first and foremost amongst them) as part of an illegitimate cabal (the “deep state”, the cathedral) that has, for some time now, monopolized the levers of power and exerted a stifling control on what could be thought and publicly said in the favor of an elite that has grown foreign to the essence of the nation. This distrust is easily expanded to encompass any sort of learned or expert opinion (and the professed anti-intellectualism of certain American right would be its more advanced pathology), understood as darkly allied with such evil and scheming cabal.

·         Nominal adherence to free markets, but veiled intervention to “tilt the scales” of untrammeled competition in favor of perceived friends (or ideological allies), especially in the world of media or any means or influencing public opinion. Notionally, in economic matters all these populists tend towards conservatism/ neoliberalism (and thus towards lowering taxes rather than raising them, deregulation rather than substantial regulatory intervention or subsidies -although they don’t recoil from the latter, preferably directed towards mentioned friends and allies).

·         Exaltation of a whitewashed past when the nation was purer/ freer/ more authentic, not so influenced by foreign fashions and influences. Hence socially conservative, and opposed to any recognition of the existence of distinctly aggrieved (or historically discriminated against) subgroups within the national community, understood as monolithic and homogeneous. 

·         Open enmity towards supra-national institutions (EU, UN, ICC, IPCC) including commerce and unrestricted flow of capital. Those institutions are understood by the populist in a similar way as the traditional internal (national) democratic institutions, with the difference that they cannot co-opt them to their own advantage.

·         Virulent denunciation of some perceived (and mostly fabricated) “other” that supposedly endangers the national unity and harmony. This alien other (alien in the sense that it has situated itself voluntarily outside the exalted national identity the populist is committed to uphold and defend) is uniformly painted as entirely evil, entirely opposed to all that is noble and good, entirely deluded (as having rejected the summum bonum that constitutes the national identity, it can only pursue debased, depraved and demeaning ends, applying its clouded judgment to such ends, in turn, can only lead him to a twisted logic and to contradictions and obfuscations), but at the same time entirely cunning and dangerous. The  diabolical “other” is at the same time very stupid and foolish (can have no intelligence or wisdom, because if he had any of them he would realize the wrongness and hopelessness of both his means and his ends) AND very resourceful and capable… he occupies all the levers of power, both within the nation and in international institutions, as we have seen, even after the populist faction is appointed to office, and even when they have been occupying it for years. He has a near monopoly over education, which it applies to corrupt and poison the minds of the younger generation. He also controls almost all the media, which uses to spread false information to justify its grasp of the state. Some feat, given its presumed intellectual disabilities.

This “other” is necessarily ill-defined, protean, shifting and adapting to the needs and expediency of the moment. It has some colorful and highly idiosyncratic instances, like the fixation of the Hungarian populists (Fidesz) against the progressive billionaire George Soros or the distaste of Putin-admiring Russians for gays, which they tend to see lurking behind any manifestation of distinctly Western initiative against Russia of the last fifty years, but there are two common elements in the “other” that every one of those movements have craftily constructed: their own countries’ left (widely understood) and immigrants (most markedly, those coming from poor countries, and even most markedly between them, those coming from poor Muslim countries  -because let us admit it, nobody virulently complains of the amount of ultra-rich Saudis thronging in their streets).

I think the key features of the populists that have political analysts, journalists and pundits more or less foaming at the mouth are the first (nationalism) and the last (fixation on a scapegoat that is blamed for all the ills of the polity). Indeed, any other feature seems negotiable, but a blind identification with a certain (very traditionalist) understanding of the national soul and the detestation of their own domestic lefties and foreign poor (and mostly Muslim) immigrants is absolutely essential, both a common thread of the narrative they tell to make sense of the world and a badge of honor for identifying themselves amidst a sea of potential traitors and defectors.

I cannot help pointing the inherent lack or credibility of the nationalistic discourse exhibited by supremacist of every stripe: If you are a white European guy, I would consider your opinion about the superiority of white guys and the Western civilization highly suspect. Ditto for women, Jews, Americans (just the most loudmouthed and obnoxious of nationalists), gays, heterosexuals, atheists and whatnot, each claiming the inherent and undeniable moral and historical rightness of their cause (which can be stripped down to the proud belonging to the group they identify with, regardless of the fact that such belonging is essentially due to chance, and thus carries exactly zero merit or dessert with it). Not that I consider a certain amount of healthy identification with one’s own group entirely unjustified.

I happen to be a Spaniard, and consider myself a Spanish patriot, out of fashion as that may be nowadays. I dearly love my country and would sacrifice without hesitation a number of things for it (effort, substantial treasure and in certain circumstances even blood), but I don’t for a moment think it has any valid claim to superiority over most other countries that occupy this populous planet of us. Yep, we had our moment of glory under the sun, enormous empire where the sun never set and all that, but dude, that was five hundred years ago, and since then things have gone mostly downhill for us (one could claim one of the most protracted and humiliating decadences ever as a sort of perverse distinction, but I’m not really into that kind of masochistic bragging). I don’t see my countrymen as especially clever, especially virtuous, especially hardworking, especially strong (or any other measure of physical health) when compared with any other nationality, current or historical. On the other hand, I neither see them as especially idiotic, especially vicious, especially lazy or especially infirm. As happens with almost any feature that follows a normal distribution within any population, our collective average in any of those characteristics (both good and bad) will be slightly higher and/ or slightly lower than the collective average of any other (my guess is that Americans are, likely, more hard-working than us on average, Lithuanians are stronger than us on average, Israelis are more clever than us on average, etc.) but that really doesn’t tell us much about how a particular Spaniard compares with a particular national of each one of those countries (or of any other) in each one of those features, as the intra-country variation is much, much bigger than the puny differences between national averages.

All of which is to say, I’m OK with loving your country, when done with a clear, unclouded eye, which means loving it in spite of the very real shortcomings and vices of your countrymen (and, that goes without saying, of yourself), not because of their imagined virtues. What I see in the proclamations of the aforementioned populists is empty jingoism and boastful dissembling, thinly supported by a highly biased interpretation of their own History where their supposed ancestors did no wrong, were unfailingly courageous and right, but were hobbled by an unfortunate coalition of bad luck and deceitful enemies. I just, mostly, don’t buy it and neither should you.

OK, given who they are, have they real bite?

Or at least, should they? Consider this somewhat haphazard mishmash of well-known facts: Is America an oligarchy? : in the US alone, 4 guys own as much as the bottom half of the country, and 400 billionaires could buy with the wealth they currently hold the entire amount of goods and services exchanged yearly in France (a rather vacuous comparison, btw, but that’s what happens when you ask a journalist for shocking facts about inequality: they mix a static quantity -a stock- with a dynamic one -a flow-). Given that, we would expect people to be royally pissed off and to be willing to hear anybody proposing them to take to the streets armed with torches and pitchforks to correct such untenable state of affairs. But that is not really what we are seeing. The populist movements we identified above are not proposing to redistribute such skewed distribution of wealth, to go after the stupendously humungous fortunes of the few so they can be enjoyed by the many or to somehow level the playing field so the chances of so unjustifiable differences arising and perpetuating themselves are somewhat decreased. Not at all. Not a single one of them points the finger at the rich and powerful as the originators of the little man malaise, as the (quite likely) cause of its economic stagnation, of its shrinking life prospects, of its very likely not reaching the standard of living that his parents enjoyed. Rather the opposite, they all tend to celebrate and lionize the captains of industry, the titans of finance, the helmsmen of the all-powerful corporations that “create wealth” and that should be left to themselves so they can go on with the important business of amassing monstrous riches in the (vain) hope those riches will somehow trickle down to the rest of us.

They have, however, to offer an alternative explanation to the maladies affecting societies. Just to remember my readers, those societies where populism seem to be ascendant (and many where it still it doesn’t):

·         are increasing their productivity less and less, and expect it to go into reverse any time soon. That is the sad price to pay for a technology that is only developing its ability to manipulate data and, in the last instance, to keep people’s attention away from their real-life problems, which only keep growing in the meantime (the predictable price of not paying attention to them)

·         are less and less able to improve the technology that keeps their physical infrastructure afloat (energy production, transportation, consumer products manufacturing, building of homes and industrial facilities). The only thing they are consistently improving is their ability to command the people’s attention, by keeping it glued to screens big and small that monopolize it, barter with it, and fill it in the end with the most inane and unsatisfying (in the long-run) drivel

·         are growingly unequal, and thus improving their GDP per person without barely improving the median income (another way of saying all the gains are being corralled by the 10% at the top, and most of them by just a fraction of that 10%)

·         are incapable of reproducing themselves (average number of children per women going more and more below the replacement rate), are growing older, and are promising themselves a number of goods and services they are noticeably unable to produce, thus going into ever greater debt that they are ever more evidently not capable of honoring

·         are, in some cases (the US of A) in worse physical shape, and indeed erasing some of the health gains of the last century, seeing for the first time an actual decrease in life expectancy (I would expect more societies, both advanced and developing, to see similar trends in the near future, as the basic hopelessness of the situation of the majority of their populations sink in, and they start translating such hopelessness into self-destructive behaviors which in turn cause a spike in what Case & Deaton have termed “deaths of despair”) 

I’d say a good deal of those problems have a common cause: elites (I know what I’m talking about, I’m one of ‘em) have become the almost exclusive beneficiaries of what society produces, have sequestered the political process so it only deals with what concerns them (us) and steer it so they (we) keep on reaping the rewards of our technologically enabled social world. The solution, thus, would seem clear: kick those evil elites (again, for those of you with too thick a skull to have noticed, that would be me and my pals) out of power, confiscate their ill-begotten riches, usurped illegitimately from the toil and the sweat of the masses, and distribute them more widely so everybody is happy and contented again (and, in the process, they once again consider life worth living and thus devote some significant effort to increase it by, for example, reproducing). Yeah, I know, ‘twould never work, has been tried and caused even greater problems that what it attempted to solve (Socialism! Communism! Revolution and death and mass poverty! Yadda, yadda, yadda…) soooo, instead of thinking how we solve it in a different way that sidesteps those well-known (and very real and scary) problems, let’s delude ourselves thinking there is really another cause of society’s ills. If possible, one that is, like, really easy to eradicate.

But before we pivot to that cause, let’s consider first, the contradiction that populists have to accept once they are in power: the economy (and the whole society) that was terrible and going to hell and amidst a “carnage” a few years ago (before their accession) suddenly is all hunky -dory, without any of the key underlying variables having changed at all (in the US you can see that delirious triumphalism from Victor Davis Hanson in his shambolic National Review to the editorial page of the WSJ). If you look at GDP growth, unemployment numbers (real ones: percentage of working-age population actually working, as opposed to percentage of adults accepting to be declared by the state as work-seekers when such acceptance gives them no discernible benefit), crime statistics, percentage of foreign-born population, divorce rates, percentage of kids born out of wedlock, prevalence of drug use, life expectancy or growth of TFP in any of the countries where populist poster-boys are in power (namely, USA, Poland, Russia, Hungary and Turkey, with the UK sitting uncomfortably in a gray zone), they all stay roughly where they were before the populist takeover. Either they were wrong back then, and things were not so dire, or they are wrong now and things are not so rosy (actually, both positions have some elements of truth in them, and both are not the whole truth…).

In our previous analysis we asserted that the common feature of all current populism is their fixation in a scapegoat at the base (instead of at the summit) of the social structure. We have to now note the obvious inadequacy of those scapegoat to explain/ justify everything that seems to be wrong (which seems to be a lot): immigrants are simply not enough to be causing our societies malaise. Not in the USA, not in England, not certainly in Poland or in Hungary (as expounded in Applebaum’s Atlantic article I linked before). Ditto for gays which, highly visible as they now are, still constitute less than 20% (and probably less than 10%) of the total population, and not particularly powerful or influential outside of the entertainment industry. Women may be a more credible root cause (they are the ones not having the babies after all, although I’d argue that’s more an effect than a cause, and one shared with their husbands to boot, btw), but not even the most wild-eyed chauvinist would accuse women in toto as the culprits of our extended malaise, as they reserve their most venomous verbal darts for those between them that claim to be feminists. And feminism is a most flexible and imprecise category (hell, a substantial number of men nowadays claim to be feminists too, so depending on how you define the concept it encompasses most of the non-fringe population). The relationship between women, feminism and politics is pretty convoluted, and although most populisms are (explicitly, like in Turkey, Hungary and Poland, or implicitly, or at least more mutedly, like n the USA and Russia) against most tenets of XXth century feminism (free access to abortion, explicit protections against wage discrimination based on gender in the law code, harsh punishment of sexual harassment understood in a most comprehensive way, active encouragement of equal representation of men women in all institutions, etc.) they cannot (and typically do not) can use all women as scapegoats, and although feminist are much maligned and signaled as the culprits of a good deal of what is wrong with society (decline of traditional family, slackening of the moral fiber, disrespect for authority of the younger generations…) you cannot easily and conveniently distinguish a feminist woman from a non-feminist one (outside of feminist marches and protests, that is), which somehow blunts its usefulness for those in power.

So let’s recap and see where we’re at: dominant reason has painted us into a corner, and shaped a social compact that is inherently inimical to the flourishing, and nationalism/ populism/ traditionalism won’t cut it to restore the system’s frayed legitimacy.

Because that’s the real trouble here: legitimacy. Democracy is losing it, and the mild authoritarianism that naturally comes with the populists' package is attempting to regain it, but will of course fail (remember, scapegoating evil immigrants, or supranational organizations, or liberal billionaires, or what have you, can only cover so far your own lack of solutions for a society that runs its member to the ground because of the internal structure of the desires it condones, the hierarchy it recognizes and the ultimate reason for living it provides), so the question is if hard authoritarianism will follow… of course, according to both Alt-right and SJWs, we are already in a hard authoritarian state, they only differ in who runs it: the Cathedral according to the former and the patriarchy and multinational corporations according to the latter. 

But… if you ask to an unreconstructed sexist father of a traditionalist family or to a starry-eyed liberal or to the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation how they feel running the world and bossing over everybody else they will all confess to you they feel powerless and excluded from the decision-making centers of social life. Even more, they will most likely complain (yep, even the powerful CEO) of their unfair treatment at the voluble hands of public opinion, that seems to be unfailingly against them and what they stand for.

So the answer to the question I posed to myself at the beginning of this section is a resounding “no”. Populism has no real bite. By misdiagnosing the problem of our current social compact they are at best delaying the inevitable collapse of the society enabled by our current dominant reason, and at worst making it both more probable and more violent. As I determined long ago, scapegoats do not reenergize societies beyond the short adrenaline rush caused by their collective obliteration (an exercise that, as requires the application of violence against our fellow human beings, usually leaves the perpetrators morally tainted forever). Populists today may run globalization to the ground (not that I would lament that particular outcome) erecting barriers to commerce, free movement of people and even ideas. They may even triumph in creating more racially and culturally homogeneous societies (which may require, as is the case in the USA, the breakdown of today’s culturally and racially diverse nation states into more manageable, less diverse units) but they will not triumph in reviving the arcadia felix they promise to their deluded followers. Those homogeneous societies will be as little innovative, as unjust, as unhealthy, as unequal, as hopeless and as inimical to human flourishing as today’s. You may kick the browns, the blacks and the Jews out of the country, you can reinstate the patriarchy and the social and sexual mores of the 50’s (not necessarily of 1950’s, mind you, but of whatever century that suits your fancy) and get all the gays back in the closet… as long as 1% of the population owns almost all the wealth, directs all research and development to improve their amusements and life expectation alone and firmly controls the ideology production and distribution mechanisms, the life of the suffering masses (the populus that so nonchalantly put or maintained that 1% in power) will not improve, and they will resort (as they are resorting now) to their last freedom, the freedom to vote with their gonads not to perpetuate such abysmal and unsatisfying state of affairs.

But, ah! You may resort, once the aliens are kicked out and social norms of propriety and tradition have been restored, once we are wholly one people, professing one faith, respecting one monarch (one undisputed source of authority that prevents us from going back to the self-destructive habits of disunion and faction)… only then, say you, we will undoubtedly build together a more just, more healthy, more fair and more hopeful society! Homogeneity and sharing common values are, for the enlightened reactionary (let’s call them the “thinking man’s populist”, which sadly implies they end up being the “populist without the population”) the precondition for the more responsible behavior of the elites, which only then would stop acting exclusively in the pursuit of their selfish interest and would instead redirect their genius and unbound potential for good to the betterment of the lives of their fellow-subjects, and that is what would cause a new bout of human flourishing and a new sense of collective purpose and a new wave of contentment that would at last reverse our current collective trajectory of decay and degeneration. Well, if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’m interested in selling. Elites will be elites, in this society as in any other, including utopia, the Pays de Cocagne (English equivalent: Cockaigne), Schlafferendland and Neverland. Will they be more virtuous and less self-interested if they see their largesse benefitting exclusively those that think like them, believe like them and, most pointedly, look like them? According to those that would like to speak for them (i.e. the whole American Alt-Right and Neoreaction), sure they will! According to myself and roughly half a million years of hominid history, not a chance in hell!

Before I finish, I’d like to clarify that I’m not simply taking sides here, and declaring that a certain flavor of “revolutionary conservatism” that favors discarding the current political consensus and choosing “alternative” views (espousing, in an expression cherished by the American Alt-right, opinions outside the current “Overton window”) is necessarily suspect, and to be rejected because the only morally legitimate political options go in the direction of a bigger role of the state in a more drastic redistribution (the opposite opinion, anathema to all populism, traditionally ascribed to the left). Redistribution by the State has a very poor track record, and is indeed wont to cause more problems than what it solves (in my pointing to the evils of current dominant reason and how to overcome them I have never said that the State had a bigger or smaller role to play, I tend to entirely leave it aside), starting with increased chances for corruption, cronyism and moral hazard. This post has been mainly critic with movements that identify themselves as “rightist” or “traditionalist”, but I could very well write a similarly long one criticizing the shortcomings and hypocrisy of their specular image, movements that identify as “leftist” or “progressive”. I’m not intending here to “positively proselytize” and convince anybody of the superiority of any given (existing) political position. What I’m trying is to open up people’s eyes, and make them realize that almost any political movement on offer today (left or right) is trying to dupe them dishonestly into adopting positions that are internally incoherent, depicts its opponents as cartoonish villains without sufficient basis, would if adopted turn out again their own interests and, in the process, make the rich richer and cause unnecessary suffering on a number of innocent bystanders, unjustly signaled by those wont to profit as the cause of all evil.

Guys (and gals)… just don’t fall for it!

Friday, September 7, 2018

What is a person? (hint: corporations need not apply, neither do computer programs, by the way)


I’ve expounded a number of times the interesting (for me at least) parallelism between writing philosophically and lifting weights, although I recognize the relationship and similarities escape most people, that thus find the choice of subject matters of this blog utterly baffling. This last month I experienced another instance of that parallelism, in the response I received to my posts on business ethics. It is a well-known fact of barbell sports that you get the best results from training with people stronger than you: they inspire you, challenge you, show you what a well-conditioned body is capable of doing and they can even check your form and give you tips on how to better train and execute the key lifts in the platform. It is better, from the standpoint of how fast you can progress towards your genetic potential, to be the proverbial small fish in a big pond than to be the biggest fish in a tiny one, meaning that the weights you are able to lift will increase faster if you regularly attend a gym with many other lifters with many years under their belts and able to lift higher poundages than you rather than staying in your neighborhood gym (or in your home gym) and being the strongest guy around but stuck forever with a 250 pounds bench, which may seem like a great achievement and keep your little and fragile ego happy, but is nothing really to write home about (as you may realize the moment you set foot in a serious strength gym, where people warm up with that weight, and then go up to 400 hundred pounds in a heavy day).

However, I’ve always trained alone in my own gym, and, back to the other term of the comparison, written mostly to myself (not that the comment section of this blog has been a bubbling source of alternative ideas to challenge and refine my own, guys)… so it is a very welcome surprise when people intellectually better equipped than me (or at least far more clever than myself) have something to say about my musings, as my friend Pedro Linares had a chance to do a few weeks ago in his own blog (The Vintage Rocker on Business Ethics ). I found his comments very apposite and stimulating, I’ve been pondering about them since then and they have helped me refine my own ideas about the matter (and see how much I lose by not putting them in the open more forcefully, and thus missing on the opportunity of discussing them, and refining them, and enriching them with other cogent people contributions). In this post I want to discuss three points he mentions (although I will devote much, much more space to the first one:

·         “corporations have their own culture, so it’s OK to treat them as persons (by, for example, punishing them)”, with which I basically agree (that’s why I said that personhood was a “useful fiction”, the usefulness deriving from the fact that they do indeed seem to have agency (to be part of the causal explanation of why people within them act as they do), and thus they require being considered as agents, and being, if possible, goaded into responsible, socially useful behavior. I will have much more to say on this point, so let’s for the time being move on to…

·         “cases are great for teaching”, I basically concede this one, I’m 100% for going to the old scholastic method of the “disputatio” and have the students debate to death the relative merit of each moral position… but only after I’ve taught them the tools to bring to each defense. Indeed, half my classes thus last term were devoted to the discussion of cases. What I wanted to convey is that, being valuable educational tools to illuminate the content of moral theories and illustrate how they apply to real life, I find the abusive resource to them of most business ethics books both tiresome and counterproductive. Specially because, again, lacking any firm moral conviction (because moral conviction requires the embrace/ acceptance, critical or otherwise, of a pre-existing tradition to give it content and bite, and modernity is built on the explicit rejection of any such tradition, understood as an unacceptable source of heteronomy, and thus contrary to the sacred and promethean self-invention and self-actualization of the individual, only accepted source of value and worth) those cases illuminate and illustrate little, and end up taking the universal form of “on the one hand… but don’t forget that on the other…”, giving to the students the impression that anything goes and almost any outcome can be morally justified.

·         “identifying corporations as devoted to the exchange of commodities is too narrow a definition, they should create value to society” (yup, like tobacco, gun manufacturers or advertising agencies… and I won’t go into consultants, lawyers and the like) although I basically agree with the “should”, I cannot but sadly observe that this is one of the cases where the gulf (or rather, the chasm) between what is and what ought to be seems more unbridgeable. Fact is, my poor students will indeed work in companies that create no value whatsoever to anybody outside of its shareholders (if they are publicly listed) and, if they pay a decent wage, to its employees, and they will need to make do with that. Not all (I hope), but some will, although some of them were already wealthy enough to work entirely for free, or to forego working altogether for the rest of their lives). I myself worked, for the first fifteen years of my career, for a company that even in the most lenient understanding of social value did not produce much of it (unless you fully subscribe to some form of trickle-down economics in which making a few top partners filthy rich somehow benefits everybody else, because those rich partners will then require the services of maids, butlers, chauffeurs, interior decorators, landscapers and the like, giving them all stupendous opportunities to flourish and prosper they would have otherwise lacked… not entirely implausible, but not terribly convincing either), so I still think it more operational, or educative, or pedagogic, to stick to my definition of what job-providing companies are and stand for, and make my students think about how to behave in this imperfect world of ours, instead of in an ideal one where the is-ought divide is not so manifest.

Now I wanted to expand a bit the first point, as it may require me to add some substantial material to my already written and in search of an editor book. Organizational culture does indeed exist, and we have to consider to what extent it influences its members’ behavior. From a first-person perspective, it does seem to influence it very much, as an appeal to a “culture of corruption” is indeed one of the most extended lines of defense in any case of corporate malfeasance that ends in front of a judge. And there is some truth to it, as we humans are social animals, constantly looking for our fellow human’s validation, finely attuning our behavior to what we see as prevalent in the group we want to belong to. And there seems to be no upper bound to the depravity of the behavior one can indulge oneself in with the appeal to such compliance, as amply attested in the literature, from the infamous (and apparently not-entirely-replicable) experiments of Milgram (students administering lethal doses of electricity to their apparently screaming and writhing subjects) and Zimbardo (students reveling in sadistic behavior when asked to play the role of prison guards in Stanford) to the countless reports of otherwise well-behaved and civilized citizens turning against a minority between them and almost exterminating it (Nazi Germany and to a lesser extent Fascist Italy).

Of special import to my teaching, how does the acknowledgement of such influence of corporate culture affect what I tell my students about how to act? I have to confess that my initial reaction was to answer such question with “in no way or manner, responsibility is always individual, ethics is about how individuals should behave, as only individuals have agency… the recourse to what others do or avoid doing is but a poor excuse for not living up to our own codes and rules”… but on reflection, a more nuanced answer is needed. Part of the reflection has been prompted by my re-reading (this time in their original German) of the writings of the foremost thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Out of fashion today, and adhering to a questionable Marxist interpretation of how society worked (derived by the fact that what they did for a living was to teach in a university environment, even in exile in the USA, which equipped them very poorly to understand how private companies work, what the profit motive really is, and what get salaried men ticking -salaried men, that is, that could lose their job in a moment’s notice, as opposed to tenured professors with all the security you can dream of), they still are first-line witnesses of an advanced society going collectively bonkers (and then escaping it and landing on another one apparently more free, only to find that it harbors its own kind of insanity and irrationality), and have thus something valuable to teach us. And one of their lessons (hinted at both in Adorno’s Minima Moralia and in Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason) has to do with the subtle incompleteness of the mora rule that summarizes all of cognitive ethics (according to their “kinda-successor” Jürgen Habermas), that is, the categorical imperative or, in Habermas telling, the good ‘ol “golden rule”: do unto others as you would have done unto you (ore, in more technical terms, as crafted by Kant, act only according to maxims you would like to see enacted as universal rules).

Adorno and Horkheimer thought that such directive was incomplete in the face of the Holocaust, they proposed a new formulation along the lines of “act only according to norms that make the repetition of Auschwitz more unlikely”. If I may get a bit technical again, what made Kant’s classical formulations insufficient for them was precisely their focus on the individual, taken in abstraction of the group, and the fact that if the maxim-rule dichotomy was understood in a certain way (a way that precludes only “logical impossibility” of universalization, then nothing prevented its adherents to universalize the most heartless and brutal exclusionary behaviors, as you can universalize without contradiction rules of the type “despise everybody belonging to group X (or having the salient identifying feature X)” that is, you can see no logical impossibility in such maxim being accepted even for those belonging to such group (or exhibiting themselves such feature), even if it is unlikely they would be very enthusiastic in their adherence to it. Modern Kant scholarship tends to dismiss such criticism, pointing out that Kant surely wasn’t thinking in logical impossibility, but in a less restricted universalizability test, and in that reading, Adorno and Horkheimer’s expansion does indeed seem a bit redundant, but if we abstract from the realm of what Kant’s expression “really” mean (or, more broadly, of what an internally self-consistent deontological position would entail) we can see that they have indeed a point. One can live as a dutiful, free of blame public servant (or salaried employee), doing exclusively what is right (and if he is to be a paradigmatic deontologist, doing it for the right motive, acting “from duty” in Kant’s sense), but with that contribute to the evil ends of the authoritarian, bellicose state he serves, or the self-enriching, social-good-be damned ends of the profit-maximizing company he works for.

Limiting ourselves to the more circumscribed field of business ethics, I worry that my students may apply my teachings to the letter, and still contribute to a more unequal, more unfair, less valuable (all things considered) work environment. They may be loyal and conscientious workers, never attempt to bribe a public servant, never lie to advance their careers, never use their colleagues as mere means, but always treat them as ends in themselves, recognize their dignity and intrinsic worth in every interaction… and still fail to contribute to a better world, where the higher good is realized. Not only that, but end up being a bit of a self-righteous pricks that are very good at competing (and that compete very fairly and according to socially sanctioned norms… but ruthlessly all the same) and even very talented (their talents including acting as an inspirational leaders of those teams that are put under their responsibility), the unreflective use of those talents being applied only to further a more deadening, more materialistic society, more inimical to true human flourishing. A bit of how I see I was myself in those first fifteen years of professional career I’ve frequently referred to.

It surely kinda sucks, because everybody I know that goes into teaching ethics, and I’m certainly no exception, does so in the hope of contributing to a better world, both for those that directly receive the teaching and for the society in general, to which we expect they will be willing to contribute differently and more ardently. Have them become excellent drones, optimally efficient slaves, great rule-followers, when those rules guide us collectively over a cliff seems pretty much the definition of failure in our field. Of course, such problem goes well beyond our initial discussion about corporate culture. It has to do with the dominant reason I so frequently decry in this post, the extended way of judging within a society what is rational and what is not, what constitute a valid reason for acting and what doesn’t, what desires are intelligible and to be socially sanctioned, and which ones are deviant and to be repressed, suppressed or punished when acted upon. Paying attention to such vastness, maybe the needed reformulation of the categorical imperative should be along the lines of “act only in ways that delegitimize and erode the current dominant reason, and that bring about an alternative one that is not as self-destructive and anti-humane as it”…

Which is, by the way, what I’ve been trying to do for the last ten years, first by devoting a 
substantial amount of my time to understand said dominant reason, then to extend such understanding within my limited environment, then to expand such environment by returning to teaching in a subject where I could have the most impact (wow! Told that way it almost makes for a compelling, consistent life-story! How uncommon these days!) And which, by the way, makes me see that indeed I’m not teaching my students enough if I just drive their attention to the great ethical traditions and present them as frameworks for thinking about their individual behavior, shorn of any social influence. I need indeed to make them see how the people they surround themselves with is going to have an enormous, oversized influence in what they end up doing. What they do will also influence them, but it is a very asymmetrical situation, specially at the beginning of their professional careers, where most of the influence goes from the group to the individual (in an almost Lorentzian manner, individuals are primed in those first years into what will be their longstanding attitudes and understanding of what is right and what is wrong in a job) and very little goes in the opposite direction.

And that being so, I have to imbue in them the perception of their responsibility not only over what they individually do, and what they individually achieve, but over what the group deems acceptable and worthy of being collectively enforced. Over their group’s culture, in other words. It is not enough to be personally upright and just if you allow yourself to be surrounded by bigoted opportunist and say nothing when they vent their noxious opinions, because you would then, at least, be committing a sin of omission by allowing their ideology to go unopposed, to present itself as the accepted, de facto standard and thus to become dominant (or strengthen its previous dominance). There is, then, a positive duty to contribute to a healthy culture, a culture that embodies those values that allow the individuals to prosper and flourish, and that sees to it that the company (the organization based on the legitimate improvement of the social ranking of its members) does indeed contribute to the social well-being, and thus reduces the distance between what there is and what there should be. I recognize that such prodding is not free of perils, as toxic, anti-humane cultures come in all sort of ways, and our hyper-ideological, hyper-partisan age, fueled by social-media that trades in our attention by encapsulating us in ever-more similar echo-chambers has made us become very adept at identifying the toxicity of those cultures less aligned with our pre-existing ideological and epistemical preferences. So for a conservative, a toxic culture to be reformed may be one more respectful of variety (even when it is for variety’s sake) than of merit, where political correctness rules and where progressive pieties are routinely given lip service, whilst for a liberal (in the American sense) toxicity would rather manifest itself in a lack of recognition of the inherent value of diversity, an overzealous identification with the dominant (white heterosexual male oriented) Western tradition to the exclusion of any other perspective, or a monomaniacal pursuit of material benefit, alternative social goods (like a pristine environment or more relaxed lifestyles) be damned. It is not, however, my intention to take a side and defend the superiority of one (ideologically aligned) culture over another. Suffice it to say I now recognize the need to pay attention to corporate culture in what I want to teach to my students, to give them the tools to identify the aspects of the culture of the corporation more likely to affect their own moral outlook, and to be careful and critical of them, so whatever they end up doing, they are more aware of why it is they are doing it.

As a teacher, I don’t think one can aspire to more.