Friday, March 13, 2015

From Economics back to Philosophy

I realize my latest posts have been almost entirely devoid of philosophical content, being very centered in the perspectives of the latest vintage of European leftist parties and what the insights of economic historians may tell us about the likely direction of the capitalist mode of production (or rather, mode of organizing the whole of society, as the first truly global system, both in geographical scope and in its overwhelming force that ends up influencing every aspect of the life of the individuals under its sway). Time to correct that “economicist” deviation, and put in perspective why I think understanding how decisions of what to produce and how to distribute it is relevant to my main concerns, which are more centered around what the good life consists in, how we should act to achieve it, what we owe to each other, and how it all relates to the ultimate (true) stuff the Universe is made of.

Now to illustrate that relevancy I’m going to describe (somewhat uncharacteristically, I recognize I tend to be a bit opaque about myself) a bit of my personal “journey” of discovery about how the world (and the mind in the world) works, as it reflects at an individual level most of the relationships I’ve found also hold collectively.  When I was young (like, really, really young) I fell in love with Philosophy. Metaphysics, Ethics, Ontology, Logic, Philosophy of language, Philosophy of mind, I just couldn’t have enough of it. Modern or Classical, Continental or Anglo-Saxon, Analytic or postmodern, critical school, Frankfurt school, revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, whatever. I just read with no rhyme or reason whatever fell in my hands, in general preferring to spend my time with books than with people (I was lucky that my father had taught me the basics of how to lift and pushed me hard to compete in track and field, or I would have been the slobbest slob that ever roamed the Earth). Until the time came to choose a career, and I had to decide between studying what I loved and studying what I could most likely make a living with. Being a logical guy, and having read (and been dumbfounded by) Vattimo and Lyotard and Foucault and above them all Marx I “knew” that Philosophy was dead, and that the real explanation of how the world functioned, and what tickled people to action were economic relations. So I studied Industrial Engineering (because it was heavy on physics, and I still recall with special fondness my training in quantum mechanics), and shortly after I finished that one, I started to study economics, to really get a grasp of the hidden laws that shaped society.

Only I soon found the discipline was a joke, an ungodly mess of conflicting opinions with the flimsiest empirical support (if any) where the aforementioned laws were nowhere to be found. The doctrines of Marx, those shining paragons of simplicity and explanatory power, were long ago discredited, as the guy really missed a number of important points and just elaborated on a theory (the neoclassical economy of Smith and Ricardo) that he never fully grasped, and which he never really saw working (as he never held a position of responsibility in his whole life in any productive endeavor which may have showed him why people take the decisions they take). Finally, the prestige of the profession was not that high (understandably). So, seeing it wasn’t illuminating at all, and it was utterly useless for my professional advancement, I just let it be and abandoned the study of economics (as taught in Spanish public Universities) for good.

After years of struggle to establish myself professionally and start a family, I gravitated slowly but sure-footedly towards Philosophy again. Only an engineer (with a good foundation of basic physics) sees speculative thinking under a wholly different light, as his training has helped him develop a bullshit detector of the highest sensibility, so many of the currents I admired in my infancy and youth I now read as the utter nonsense I still consider them to be (this would made for a pretty interesting post by itself, let’s just point here that the I find aspiration of “social sciences” and the like to an epistemic status similar to that enjoyed by physics and chemistry amusing but scandalously misguided). Be it as it may, I started pursuing a doctorate in Philosophy, finally aligning my academic orientation with my original passion. And what I have found researching my dissertation is that there is indeed a very close relationship between the socioeconomic organization of society and the answers people tend to find acceptable to the eternal questions it is the task of Philosophy to unravel. Only it is not a one way influence, as Marx somewhat simplistically thought. The dominant reason of each era (of each time and social group) limits the problems that can be posited, and the shape that the solutions that are proposed to them can take. That framework in turn limits and shapes the solutions that are imagined, and the social forms (institutions, laws, hierarchies, morals) that can flourish. And those social forms in turn determine how the decisions about what to produce and how to distribute it  are reached and enforced. So it is the dominant reason of each era the main force behind the economic organization, and not the other way round. That economic organization in turn influences the ways in which the dominant reason evolves, specially in the struggle with neighboring social groups, as the group that can produce more material goods typically can put more boots on the ground (of the battlefield), equipped with better weaponry, so their own specific reason tends to propagate and be imitated, whilst that of the less successful groups is smothered and quickly forgotten (a primer on the idea of dominant reason and the five dimensions I have found that characterize it can be found in this post: The five dimensions of dominant reason (I)).

If I’m not entirely back where I started I am at least closer, as I have found a different link between my original interest (the ideas people have to explain the most basic questions: the true nature of reality, the possibility of an afterlife, the existence of free will and moral responsibility, the kind of life we can rationally pursue, the duties we have towards our neighbors, and towards the environment) and the peculiar level of description taken by the “dismal science” (which is not so dismal, as the sycophantic tone of much of what today passes for economic thinking attests, and most definitely is no science at all). I follow avidly economic news, and read even more avidly economic history, and am quick to express my opinion about economic developments because I see all of them as harbingers of how our own dominant reason is more likely to evolve. So I talk of Syriza, or Podemos, or Arrighi’s cycles of accumulation, or Brenner explanation of the origin of the last long economic slump, or the impact of our gonadal vote (towards demographic collapse) because of what they tell me about how people think, how reason itself is being configurated and distorted and prodded to evolve along certain predictable paths.

So you can confidently expect more of that kind of analysis in future posts, as right now it is just part of how I roll…

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