Monday, November 30, 2015

The pleasure our society refuses to countenance

Last week, just after finishing my 4th set of squats (8 reps each, with 105 kg, slowly inching towards 110, nothing earth shattering, but demanding a lot of focus at my current shape), legs still trembling and heart pounding like an out of whack sledgehammer within my chest, I pondered for a while on how unusual what I had just done was in our age. Think about it for a moment: I had just put me through a lot of discomfort (specially in the last reps, when lactic acid has accumulated so moving the legs against the resistance of the barbell on the back causes pangs of pain to shoot through the quads, and the lack of enough air in the lungs makes you feel like a fish out of water), and would have to live with the dire consequences (for the following two to three days I would be so sore as to make simple things as standing up, or walking from my office to the coffee machine, a real chore), and for what reason? So the next week I could stand to put me through still a bit more (107,5, here I come!), and the next one even a bit more, and so on, with no discernible end in sight. Knowing that I won’t be getting any kind of reward or recognition for it, as I’m far enough from competitive numbers (and at an old enough age) as to not going to win any accolade or trophy for doing this. I guess I do it for the internal satisfaction of knowing I’m doing truly my best, I’m consistently putting the effort to be the best lifter I can be, irrespective of how that compares with all the other lifters in the world that strive after a similar pursuit. For the internal recognition that comes from having set for myself a goal that is difficult to achieve, and completing all the intermediate steps I’ve carefully defined as necessary to achieve that goal.

But it gets worse (much worse, actually!). After showering and changing clothes I got home, put the kids to sleep and settled in bed with the book I was in the midst of: Empirisme et Subjectivité, by Gilles Deleuze. I was reading it not because I found it enjoyable (it most definitely is not! Although at times dazzling in a highly refined, highly abstract sense it is also annoyingly abstruse, and somewhat pedantic, and overgeneralizing, but what would you expect from a French philosopher of the 70s…) or because I got a kick out of it, or to unwind, or to relax, or to amuse myself. And I’m not sharing it because I’m a snob (which by the way I am) and want to impress my two or three readers with how cultured and sophisticated I am. I read it because it deals with Hume’s philosophy, and Hume being one of the subjects of my dissertation I have made it incumbent upon me to become one of the most knowledgeable guys about his life and his thought on planet Earth. Even if that requires reading Deleuze, and to better understand him, some of his ilk so I’m more familiar with his impact in French philosophy in the 60s and 70s in general (the other books I’ve been reading this month, just in French: L’anti-oedipe by the same Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Surveiller et Punir by Foucault, and L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution by Tocqueville, which is from a different era but I found relevant all the same). Why I’m writing a dissertation in the first place would take us too far away from the subject of this post, I’ll declare that it is not definitely to be more successful with the ladies or to improve my standing at work and earn more money...

Now you may wonder, what does reading Deleuze (in French, I feel the need to punctiliously add) and going through an excruciating training program that requires repeating hundreds of times the same basic movements with a loaded barbell have in common? Well, they both may be considered to be pure instances of a kind of “pleasure” that our distinctly pleasure-seeking epoch doesn’t seem to be able to countenance, or even understand: that derived from doing difficult things, achieving challenging goals, or attaining distinctive skills. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive, because economically we can all see that society honors inordinately people that do clearly difficult things: to play basketball at Michael Jordan’s level, or golf at Tiger Woods’ (before he messed up his life and, arguably, his game); to drive an F1 car like Lewis Hamilton; to sing like Adele, or Rhianna or Taylor Swift (hhmmm… maybe wrong examples, we’ll get to famous performers again in a minute); to lead a company like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg…  they are all socially recognized high, difficult achievements, and the few that can perform them are celebrated and thus set a positive example for the rest of the citizenry.

However, before we discard as false my contention that current society (you probably have by now an inkling of where I intend to lead the argument) looks at the performance of difficult feats with scorns, and actively discourages people from pursuing complex, challenging endeavors, let’s look under the hood of the phenomena I’ve mentioned, and see how those outliers are pictured, and where the vast sums of money they receive come from. All the examples of successful individuals I’ve given (the ones society seems to bestow most rewords on) can be grouped under three categories: pure performers (actors and singers), sport performers (athletes) and businessmen. What are the key factors that ultimately determine success in each category? I propose the following, in order of importance:

·         Pure performers: luck + stunningly good looks + talent (which in turn is, on average, roughly 80% genetics and 20% learned)

·         Sport performers: genetics + discipline + luck (finding the right coach, being in the right environment to express one’s genetic potential)

·         Businessmen: luck + psychopathic personality traits + discipline (which could also be construed as one of the most salient psychopathic personality traits, hence “train like a psycho”, or “devote yourself to the company like a psycho”)

Now you may disagree with my portrayal of success in each category as being first and foremost due to luck, and other traits being both secondary and similarly unearned (you do not “earn” your genetics or most of your looks in any meaningful sense, as much as some people whose only merit is “choosing the right parents” would like you to think otherwise), but I don’t think it’s really up for debate. For every talented, dedicated, disciplined performer/ athlete/ entrepreneur you can present as an example I could point to hundreds (thousands?) of similarly talented, dedicated and disciplined ones that nobody has ever heard about, that are either struggling or broke just because they were less… lucky, not being in the right place at the right time to be noticed by a big team scout, a big manager, a big market surge. And if you think that all those that keep at it long enough and just keep trying end up “making it” and reaching similar levels of success… well, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you may be interested in.

And of course “society” knows it too. It “knows” that trying hard enough is not (by far) “enough” to guarantee any kind of success. And that’s why it doesn’t try to convince anybody to really spend that much effort in the first place. Let’s now turn our attention to how those “successful” individuals make their money: performers convince enough people to pay a little bit to look at them (it used to be to hear them, but these days “hearing” is just an excuse to just watch them twerk, or dance, or strut their stuff, or cavort, or canoodle, or act, or act out…); athletes are mostly paid by sport apparel brands in the belief that a lot of people will want to wear what their idols wear (also, in some sports, spectators are willing to pay to see them more or less live, and a tiny fraction of that money actually reaches them); superstar businessmen are just good in taking lots of money from “investors” (that’s almost everybody else, from you and me through 401 (K) and similar instruments to Warren Buffett) convincing them that they can do what they can’t (coordinate vast legions of employees to generate more profits than similar legions employed by their competitors, something an orangutan chosen at random in any given zoo has as much chances of achieving as Wall Street most celebrated tycoon). So what is society really telling every young person when it celebrates these “top performers” and showers them with money and recognition? Is it telling them to be more like those “role models”, when being so means mainly having more luck, or better genetics, something no human being is able to effect? Of course not, as pointing people towards something at which they could not but fail is a sure recipe for disaster and commercial oblivion. What is telling them is to partake of their glow without putting the effort, to obtain part of the gratification without the discipline, to bask in the warm feeling of achievement without the hassle and the sacrifice demanded by it. So what it really recommends is to download the YouTube video of the performer (that has to be accessible enough and “easy” enough not to require much previous training to enjoy), to buy the same shirt, or sneakers as the star athlete, and to buy the self-congratulatory books of the businessman (or just to buy the products manufactured by his company).

We can find a superb example of such social tendency towards easy satisfaction and mediocre pleasures in the demise of Playboy, as recounted by the always interesting AntiDem: Playboy after dark. A couple decades ago you needed a certain education to participate in the charade of buying certain erotic (probably it would be more accurate to describe it, regarding the mores of the times, as pornographic) magazine “for the articles”. It was the centerfold babe who made you disburse your hard earned money, but at least you had not to be put off by the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut or Jack Kerouac. Today there is no risk of any difficult art form interfering with your more or less instant gratification, as you can go to pornhub and dally with nothing but unadulterated porn, neatly arranged by categories so you can select the one that better caters to your peculiar tastes, wholly instinctual, as uneducated as you may wish.

Told in a language any regular reader of this blog will recognize, the dominant reason of our age (desiderative reason, for those too lazy or too distracted to recall) trains everybody, from the most tender ages, to seek for the most instant, less costly (in terms of requiring a previous continued effort) gratifications. It has perfected such training to the extent that we are witnessing the most protected, most spoiled generation in recorded history continuously complaining that they have not “enough”: not enough security and safety, when crime, aggression and even war (with the well publicized exceptions we all know about) are at historic lows; not enough labor opportunity when economic regulations are also at historic lows, and a case can be made that most companies find it difficult to add skilled workers for lack of supply (I do recognize that the situation for unskilled workers is pretty dire, thanks to that very same deregulation); not enough partners to enter in a committed relationship when ubiquitous communication networks make It easier than ever to meet and know people with similar interests and similar outlooks; not enough meaning when the digitization of most of our past has enabled untold amounts of information to be attainable at almost no cost (ah! But turning information into knowledge, and even more knowledge into wisdom, which is required for it to have meaning, is not something that can be done easily or without devoting vast amounts of time to it). They have enough, however, to keep the rat race operating at full speed. To keep producing immense quantities of mostly useless gewgaws that are rendered obsolete in ever shorter periods. To keep going daily to the same soulless work, and even to the same commercial gym where they spin their wheels in the vain hope that without really exerting themselves they will somewhat magically acquire the body of their dreams (which are as secondhand as the “house of their dreams” or the “car of their dreams” they were sold, and which had the ability to make them happy for exactly three seconds after their acquisition, and miserable for the three decades required to paid the corresponding dues).

So I’ll rather keep doing my squats, and reading my boring philosophers. If not for other reason, because they keep me from watching TV and babbling about last Sunday’s match and secretly assaying my colleagues’ suits, or cars or homes and comparing them with mine. I’d rather compare the pounds I lift, or the ideas I’ve thought (and written) or the miles I’ve run or the sceneries I’ve enjoyed in the wild. The tough things I’ve done to prove myself better, that have not detracted a iota of the ability of anybody else to lift or think or run or watch similarly, that can not be converted in positional goods because they are a) absolutely good, regardless of what everybody else does and b) non fungible, so what I read and lift and run and see can be equally read, lifted and run and seen by whoever takes the time to prepare himself for doing so. And I’ll teach to my kids about the old, worn out Greek concept of Areté, which can be loosely translated as excellence, of becoming who you are through struggle and effort end yes, sometimes even pain, and not to give a damn about suits and cars and homes. I just hope that prepares them to better resist the barrage of conformist, commercialist messages society daily throws their way… 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Is Donald Trump the next president of the US of A?

OK, guys, this is the deal: I’ve been half stuck writing an ultra-dense post on Marxist economics (an oxymoron, I know), but being the kind of exhaustive nutso I am it has taken me from “Limits of Capitalism” by David Harvey to “Late Capitalism” by Ernest Mandel to “Monopoly Capital” by Baran & Sweezy to “Studies on the Development of Capitalism” by Maurice Dobb. And of course I had to go back to “Capital” by Marx himself, specially volumes 2 (just to confirm how abysmally bad and muddled it was) and 3. And to “Imperialism as the Highest Stage of Capitalism” by none other than Lenin (just for funsies). Long story short, I’m still mired in the midst of it, not knowing when I may finish. So, as I usually do, I started a new post in parallel, to keep my mind occasionally out of the depths of bad metaphysics posing as bad economics. Only it turned out to be conceptually even more demanding (a project of mine for a long time, which was going to be an appendix of my dissertation but I finally pulled it out for lack of time: a refutation of Libet’s arch-famous experiment which has been construed countless times as the definitive refutation of the existence of free will, to which I answer bollocks, but going anywhere more nuanced than that requires apparently endless amounts of intellectual heavy lifting… again, I hope to be able to share an accessible version anytime soon).

So just to keep my faithful readers entertained, and for my own amusement, I decided to spend some time writing about the most non transcendental issue I could find in the news, the one less likely to require any sort of mental exertion, and being an avid follower of the American electoral process I obviously settled in the baffling (for all the punditocracy at least, we’ll see that the proverbial men in the street have a different view altogether) rise in the polls of the bombastic casino magnate and real state mogul of the title. As most informed citizens may know, currently the Donald leads the field of candidates to be the standard bearer of the Republican party come next November by a substantial margin, both nationally and in the first states to vote (Iowa –where he seemed to have lost ground to similarly implausible candidate Ben Carson for a while, but where he is solidly back at top; New Hampshire and North Carolina). He has been doing so for months, which makes his rise, at this point, substantially different from that of similarly outsider candidates in the last election cycle (when we saw the likes of Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and even Sarah Palin climb to the top of the republican primary polls for brief stretches of time, before the conservative electorate had a good look at them and decided they were not presidential material): Will Trump win?

Being a bit more than two months away from the first actual votes being cast (1st of February in Iowa), I don’t see how Mr. Trump may be dislodged of his position. He could try to offend Latinos, a rising voting bloc with increasing influence in the November election, by calling them rapists and threatening to deport 11 million of their brethren. He could try to disparage women, doing inappropriate comments about his only female contender (Carly Fiorina). He could try to alienate further the party’s orthodox anti-tax-at-any-price group suggesting that tax increases are not entirely off the table. He could try to drive away the hawkish wing of the party asserting he has no interest in nation building, troops on the ground (except for guarding the Southern border) or any “serious” foreign policy initiative distinct from talking tough to Putin, Arafat, whoever is leading China these days and Bashar el Assad… oh, wait, he has already done all of the above, and in each occasion pundits to the left and to the right have declared it the beginning of the end of his lead and the turning point leading unavoidably to the demise of his candidacy, only to see his lead consolidate in subsequent polls.

At some point, we have to accept there is a good chance that come February he is still leading, and starts to transform that lead in more delegates than any other candidate, up to the republican convention in July. Maybe not yet the biggest chance, but definitely not a negligible one. In the remaining of this post I want to discuss what may prevent that from happening, and how likely I think that scenario is. According to most analysts, Trump has benefitted so far from a highly fragmented camp. The big money behind more conventional (and more palatable to the party’s establishment) candidates has been too divided to let its influence be noted, but at some point (sooner rather than later) it will start coalescing. Also, at this point in previous races the vast majority of the electorate hasn’t been paying any attention at all, so when asked by pollsters who they would vote for, rather than confessing their ignorance they offered the only name they recognized, which would favor inordinately the candidates with a more widely known “brand” (an area in which Mr. Trump can not be beaten). As the real voting approaches, the received wisdom goes, voters will seek more information, get more familiar with the proposals and the personas of the different alternatives and gravitate towards someone more viable (more electable, with a broader appeal, that could attract the number of moderates needed to win a general election, an area in which you would expect the magnate to be very vulnerable).

The fragmentation is indeed bound to diminish in the following months, as more and more contenders realize they don’t have a snowball’s in Hell’s chance and quit (I’d say Christie, Huckabee, Gilmore, Santorum, Pataki, Kasich and Fiorina will exit first, followed by Carson, Bush and Paul, leaving just Rubio and Cruz to battle it out with the Donald ‘til the end). However, I’m not that sure about the “more information” effect, as this campaign has been accompanied by unprecedented levels of attention, attested by the stratospheric following of the five debates celebrated so far. I’ll just cite an admittedly non-scientifically, non-representative sample I directly witnessed not long ago. One of my FB contacts asked his republican friends how many of them would support Mr. Trump, were he the Republican candidate in the general election. This person is as civil, accomplished and cosmopolitan as you can dream of, so his network of acquaintances should be representative of the most enlightened wing of the Republican Party. About 40 people answered, and not a single one of them hesitated declaring they would vote for Trump in the blink of an eye (some were even annoyed that the question was being posed at all, while nobody seemed to have any qualms or made any question about that vile, lying, mail-hiding, America-bashing Hilary Clinton that the Democrats were about to coronate without such qualms). To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. Some of the respondents I had interacted with before, and I knew them to be also educated, sophisticated, financially secure, well grounded and participating in the civic life of their communities. And they were declaring their potential allegiance to an individual that, according to the (mostly liberal, we have to concede) media was a bigot, a know-nothing, a fear monger, a con man, a swindler, a populist, a peddler of dangerous racist fantasies, a buffoon, utterly unelectable and would lead the GOP to its most embarrassing and crushing defeat in centuries. It is then that I started really paying attention to the Trump phenomenon and what it can tell us about the state of American society, and to see that there is a whole undercurrent that the mainstream press is not adequately reflecting.

Some of that undercurrent is explained by the level of vitriol and mistrust I explored in my post about increasing polarization that affect most (western and non-western) societies: on polarization, but some is specific to the dynamics of the American society. It has become a commonplace to understand the Trump story as the manifestation of the anxieties of a segment of the white citizenry that see its traditional grasp on most levers of power slowly slip away. Doubtlessly, there is something of that (just see the comments of his supporters decrying what they perceive as unpardonable grievances: affirmative action that gives more opportunities to blacks than to their kin and a lax immigration law enforcement that has allowed a considerable number of Hispanics to shape the social fabric of an increasing number of communities), but I don’t think that exhaust his appeal, or the capability of that appeal to overcome what in other times would have been insurmountable barriers (the electability issue). What I think the “angry old white males” narrative glosses over is the amount of young males (mostly white also, yes) and of women that are almost as much frothing at the mouth as the former at what they perceive as the unrelenting attack of the current administration on everything they consider good and worthy: Old Dixie, America’s standing in the world, the sanctity of marriage, the freedom of each and every individual to be as bigoted as they want (thus refusing to officiate/ serve/ register a gay couple, for example) and of course, the right to have as many military grade weapons in their homes as they damn please, irrespective of criminal history or even mental state.

As it has been documented, all those people (many of whom are not that old, and not male to begin with) are fed up not only with the administration, but with the party they expected would take a stand against it, and that for the last seven years has been unable to roll back what they see as an irrepressible tide of godlessness, secularism, state intervention in the economy and favoritism towards that “other people” they consistently see as dangerous, riotous, degenerate and undeserving (so whatever is given to “them” has to be taken from the law-abiding, God-fearing, hard-working citizenry, all coded words for white, Anglo, mostly Protestant). And that inability has driven them to be so extremely mistrustful of the establishment candidates the party elders are trying to shove down their throats that they see every Trump bluster and offense as a refreshing proof that he is unbounded by the unholy alliance of convention and special interests that fetters the existing cadres of the Washington bureaucracy, that he is not in the payroll of big corporations, with an eye to go through the revolving (and revolting) door that connects former lawmakers with the moneyed interests of K Street and Wall Street, detrimental as that connection is for the “little guy” with which they identify.

So I’d say I’m more bullish on Trump's prospects than the majority of political analysts I’ve read so far. I don’t think its irreversible yet, and if the electorate happens to be a bit more rational than what I credit them for I think Rubio is the one better positioned to end up being the party’s standard bearer (I don’t see how if they suddenly start paying an inordinate attention to matters of general electability the republican voters may pass over Cruz’s similarly glaring flaws). But I don’t think it is going to be nearly half solved by March, so we still may see a Republican party in full panic mode (we have seen “somewhat panicky” so far) confronting the perspective of being represented in November by the most unorthodox, most unhinged, most unbound by convention or convenience candidate of its whole history. A candidate that, frankly, I can’t see having an infinitesimal chance come November against Hilary (as I can’t seriously imagine any other Democrat winning the nomination, barring an outright indictment from the FBI in the mail affair, which seems highly unlikely, to put it charitably).  Be it as it may, it sure as heck is going to be fun to watch.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ten things every seasoned lifter knows

1.       Progress comes irregularly. Some months you add a few pounds to most of your lifts, some years you end up where you started at best, or even regress in some. Within any given month, some days you feel great and have no problem moving weights that were very challenging just a few weeks ago, and some days you feel like the empty bar is already difficult to lift. That’s OK, learn to accept it and keep going.
2.       Consistency beats any other variable. Perform Lift A frequently (2-3 times a week, every week, w no excuses) and regularly (always with good form, 15-25 total reps per session, in the 70%-80% of your 1RM, trying to improve the total number of reps or the average pounds lifted from one session to the next) and it will improve. Perform Lift B every now and then (less than once per week) and haphazardly (changing substantially the number of reps, the intensity and the variable you aim to improve between consecutive sessions) and it will most likely stall, unless you are a total noob (when almost any training methodology, or lack thereof, will work).
3.       Beyond the intermediate level there is no such thing as “general strength”. As it grows farther from its baseline level, strength becomes more and more movement specific. If you want to get bigger numbers in the deadlift, past certain point it won’t help much to do good mornings with 40% of your 1RM DL, or “grip work” with your 0.5 CoC… if you want to improve your bench press (and who doesn’t?), past certain point it won’t help much to do standing presses with pink dumbbells or hundreds upon hundreds of bodyweight push ups. You will need to deadlift heavy and bench press heavy to improve in those lifts, and that means using the competition stance (the one that allows you to move more weight). There is just no way around it
4.       However, squatting is the closest thing to a magic juice that provides you with that hypothetical “general strength”. In doubt, squat heavy and frequently, and most of the rest of your lifts will go up even if you change nothing else. There are lifts that allow you to move a greater tonnage (the DL), but they take more than what they give. There are lifts that require the use of a greater number of muscles (the power clean and the power snatch), but they require such a level of speed and skill that they do not allow for the high number of reps at high intensity that the squat does, and I believe it is that sweet spot of being demanding enough, challenging enough and systemic enough that makes it an unrivalled option for growing stronger. Want proof? Any sensible weightlifting program relies almost exclusively on the squat to make the lifters actually stronger, and then has them performing countless reps of the competition lifts just to perfect the technique. Why? Because said comp lifts are too technical to be “trainable” in a sense that allows for strength improvement beyond a quite modest level, while the squat allows for an almost infinite progression with very modest technical demands
5.       There are a number of things almost as valuable as strength: speed, flexibility and mobility, being mostly pain free, and having a modicum of endurance (I define that modicum as being able to run 10K under or around 50’ any day of the week without any special preparation). A sensible, balanced training plan would account for the maintenance and development of all of them. However, notice the “almost” I placed before “as valuable as”… There are times when you throw common sense through the window and devote some time to maniacally pursue greater strength to the exclusion of everything else, and rather than stretch and foam roll and do some cardio you just add a couple sets of heavy deadlifts or twenty crazy widowmaker squats (you know the old routine: load the bar with the maximum weight you could do ten reps with, and do twenty reps, whatever it takes… a real test of character!). Yup, everything aches almost daily, you can barely walk, you need five minutes to reach your shoelaces so you can tie them and you couldn’t sprint to cross the road even if an eighteen wheeler was barreling towards you. But when you break your previous squat PR, even if it is by a modest 5 pounds you feel so elated that you really don’t care about all the misery you have put yourself through
6.       Lifting with gloves is like running a marathon in high heels. It probably could be done, but what’s the point?
7.       To lift big you need to eat big. Trying to “cut”, or reduce your percentage of body fat, or do a “recomposition” is all well and good, but it won’t in any way help you put up bigger weights. Unless, again, you are quite a newbie and can still get some mileage of improving your neuromuscular efficiency (from inhibiting the golgi organs in your tendons to learning to recruit more neuromuscular units and using your leverages more efficiently through better technique) the only way to move more weight is to have more muscular units to begin with. That means making your muscles bigger, something that happens spontaneously if you train consistently and non-idiotically, as long as you feed them enough. Which in turn requires almost axiomatically eating above maintenance level (sometimes significantly above) and gaining weight, and not all of that weight is going to be lean mass. If you had “striations” and visible veins (even more visible abs, which require a body fat below 10%) better say goodbye to them if you really want to beat some PR’s. Hey, I’d rather be fat, strong and awesome than skinny, “well toned” and weak (and ladies on my age bracket are not that big on striations, veins, abz and all that unhealthy looking paraphernalia, anyway), but   to each one his own
8.       Rest is what happens between productive sets. It serves to recover barely enough to complete what you had planned. Your attention and focus are an important part of that recovery, to ensure you get to the bar anew ready to crush it and overcome what (specially in the final sets) should be, if the session was properly planned, a grievously challenging task. Talking to other people does not help that process, but distracts from it. Ditto for browsing the web in your mobile phone, looking lecherously at the girls in the gym or looking intently to your own image in the mirror (mirrors are banished from serious training places), doubly so if you raise your shirt to have a loving look at your abs or “flex” or “pose” in any manner whatsoever. Hearing distractedly the background music (as long as it is not some testosterone-reducing current commercial monstrosity, as is frequently the case in big box gyms) is OK, though
9.       Lifting is not funny, exciting, entertaining, amusing, merry, mirthful or gay (although a lot of gay people do a lot of it, strength not being normally their main concern, but I digress). It is hard work. It is a struggle which demands sacrifice, renunciation and joyless dedication to give even middling results. Why do we do it, then, and stick with it through thick and thin, in the hot and humid days of summer and the dark and freezing days of winter? Beats me…
10.   The most complex periodization schemes can be summarized as “take one step back so you can take two steps forward”. Then repeat. And repeat, and repeat and repeat 

Monday, November 23, 2015

An abridged history of Western Dominant Reason II

I’ve been somewhat muted of late, not because of the infamous “blogger’s laziness” (a well known seasonal malady that affects our species) or the even more dreaded “blogger’s disillusionment with the medium” (not so seasonal, but usually with a much higher fatality rate), but because I had to travel to Ankara for a negotiation that turned out to be more complex than expected, and kept me holed between the hotel and my prospective customer’s premises for all of last week, and didn’t left much free time the week before that with all the preparations. On the plus side, I had a really great time (negotiating, although sometimes tense, can be a lot of fun if approached with the right mindset), and was dazzled with how much Turkey has evolved since my last visit there (a bit over six years ago). A very, very fascinating country and culture, which I intend to learn more about in the next months. Now, back to my usual concerns, in my previous post on the subject of the title (History of WDR I) I described the evolution of “dominant reason” that determines how we think, how we rationalize our choices, how we decide about possible courses of action  and thus what kind of solutions to our society’s problems we can arrive at. I run out of time when describing the type of reason that dominated Western society at the end of the XIXth century, and it is high time to resume the narration at that point:

·         Bureaucratic reason (1900-1945): By the end of the XIXth century, then, the Romantic Movement in art is exhausting its enormous initial energies, partially consumed by its own excesses, and partially displaced by the unrelenting advance of science and technology. A predictable nature which seems to yield its bounties to those wielding the knowledge of the universal rules that bound its behavior doesn’t easily fit with the belief in an unruly “spirit” (be it of the age, of History or animating each individual being) that romanticism so much exalted, so it was the latter which was jettisoned from the common understanding of what it was that made us tick, which then had to be reformulated towards the following:

1.        The goal of life is to satisfy desires (no surprises here)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is marked by the title bestowed by the State/ the Party

3.       There is only one worthy desire that society should not just condone, but actively foster: to get as high as possible in the social hierarchy (aha!)

It is worthy to note which society adopted this kind of reason first: Prussia, which in this timeframe grows much faster, both in its ability to produce material goods (and, associated unavoidably to such growth, in its military might) than its traditional enemy, France, which stayed mired in a more romantic way of thinking (all the way to the trench warfare, with her soldiers marching to the Somme gaudily dressed in red and blue). England got a whiff of the new trends, but they were still buffeted by their burgeoning empire and their ability to play the alliance game to compensate for their dwindling military superiority, and did not fully feel the bite of their comparative disadvantage until they barely saved the remnants of their expeditionary force in Dunkirk. The Ottoman empire fell because of its inability to bureaucratize until a young officer (Kemal Ataturk) imposed the new rationality, and something similar happened with Tsarist Russia, where the bureaucratizing Bolsheviks found a romantic social structure so rotten from inside that just a kick in the right place sent the whole edifice tumbling down. So did the whole economically advanced world, led by Germany (as the old Prussia absorbed the rest of the traditional German-speaking principalities and kingdoms not already part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), turn to the dictates of the new dominant reason in that very convulse period? Not really, as the polity that was becoming the hegemonic power, taking the mantle from the British, was experimenting with an alternative form of reason that would prove to be even more efficient than the bureaucratic one to extract every ounce of effort from the citizenry. It is towards the other side of the Atlantic we have to turn now to find the latest twist in the history of our civilization’s frame of thought

·        Desiderative reason (1945-????): Indeed, at the beginning of the last century it briefly seemed as if the USA would adopt the same model for justifying human behavior as the rest of the economically advanced world. Specially after the Great Depression and through the New Deal the State was becoming more and more important in determining each citizen’s social position, the public intervention in the economy accounting for a bigger percentage of the nation’s GDP (through increasing regulation, anti-trust legislation and direct investment in infrastructure). But instead of following the path that Prussia was trailblazing, based on centralization of collective decision making within a cadre of highly trained, enlightened civil servants, who were above all entrusted with determining everybody else’s worth (and their own) by some official title or other in a rigidly regimented and compartmentalized social body (able to benefit from a high degree of specialization), they chose instead to test an alternative way of recognizing merit, much simpler and, if rougher, more effective in the end: money, assigned through the vagaries of an apparently (although never substantially) free market from which it derived its legitimacy, which in turn presupposed individual citizens( consumers rather than citizens) with no debts and no allegiance to any higher group (a convenient fiction if there ever was one, still widely held).

Why the Americans pioneered such kind of reason is an interesting (and highly debatable) topic I will leave for another day. I’ll just point out that Sigmund Freud traveled to the USA in 1909, and since then the influence of his system of thought only grew (as the NYT reminded us a few years ago, tracing the first references to the doctor in its pages: Freud in the NYT), until it took a monopolistic hold of psychology unrivaled in any other country. Only in France, after the bitter defeat of WWII, can we find a similar enthusiasm for the psychoanalytic doctrine, although by then it is arguable to what point were the French intellectuals still significant contributors to Western dominant reason (well, the most noted existentialists, Sartre and Camus, wrote there and then, and the term postmodernism, if not necessarily the concept, is also mostly a French creation, as is structuralism, so until the late 70’s they were still punching well above their weight in the intellectual scene).

Be it as it may, it is my contention that desiderative reason is a significant factor in the Allied victory in WWII. But in that conflict it did not yet prove its superiority over bureaucratic reason (we will come to that soon), but over the previous incarnation, sentimental one, as the axis powers (most definitely Germany and Italy, with Japan being caught in the middle of the transition between Sentimental and Bureaucratic) had regressed to that form, with their cult of the hero, their worship of their own historical genius and their recognition of might as ultimate arbiter, and thus their rejection of reason and their enshrinement of the most irrational tendencies of the human spirit.

Now, what had that new iteration of dominant reason changed over the previous one?, a very significant factor, as for the first time reason becomes a closed, self-sustaining system in which what the individual is taught as a valid reason for acting (satisfying desires) receives a social sanction, and is given content by society itself, through a social construct in whose creation everybody participates (money), thus taking the form we are already so familiar with:

1.       The goal of life is to satisfy desires

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is marked by how much money one has (by how many material goods one can exclusively enjoy and how many services exchanged in the market one can pay for)

3.       There is only one worthy desire that society should not just condone, but actively foster: to get as high as possible in the social hierarchy

As I’ve said in other places, the genius of such system is its perfect independence from any external factor. The very concept of value is hypostatized in money, made immanent and freed thanks to that purported immanence from any state of affairs that may obtain in the world. That’s why so many people believes in the extrinsic, unarguable value of money (and try to justify it by appealing to some obscure intrinsic property, or propose to “anchor” it to some other equally socially constructed commodity like gold), and get truly nervous and confused when it is pointed to them that it is just a convention, a convenient way of keeping track of who owes what to whom (whose fluctuations always favor some group and pauperize others).

Remember that, according to my system, different reasons are promoted and extended not because they are “closer to the truth”, and definitely not because they make the citizens that subscribe them any happier or better off, but because they make the societies that embrace them better at producing things, thus allowing them to be militarily superior to those that do not, until they obliterate them. That obliteration can take different forms, from the gentler (let them play “catch up” until they become undistinguishable from you), like is happening with China, to the most brutal (drop a couple of atomic bombs in populous cities until they surrender unconditionally and allow themselves to be administered by foreign consuls until they adopt your values, including first and foremost your dominant rationality and they come to think of what is rational and what is not exactly as you). So it may be argued that desiderative reason proved in the traditional way its superiority (a term entirely devoid of any moral connotation, as should be clear by now) over sentimental reason, but not over its immediate predecessor (bureaucratic). 

Well, I just have to remember my readers that after the brutal conflict that pitted desiderative reason against sentimental reason, there was a more protracted, albeit less intense one that saw it face off against bureaucratic reason. It is called the Cold War, as it should be apparent by now that the Soviet Bloc was the direct heir of the latter, the original Prussian State having transformed itself after the October Revolution in the Communist Party. And it should be clear enough that the reason the liberal democracies modeled after the American template “won” unambiguously that contest is because they proved without a doubt they were much better at making their citizens produce more material goods, more thingies, which allowed them to have more capable armies (of course, the burden of the proof was very unequally distributed, with the USA bearing the brunt of it, but also ironically showing the potential of a massive State intervention through their “weaponized Keynesianism” to stimulate economic growth in a more comprehensive way, all the while publicizing the supposedly superior virtues of “unbridled individualism” and a “minimal intervention of the state in the free market”).

The fact remains that by the end of the XXth century desiderative reason was the only rationality standing, and that it reigned supreme over the first complete World-System in the history of our species, to which it could be applied the immortal verses:

One reason to rule them all
One reason to find them
One reason to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them
(let’s just remember that the ruling, and finding, and binding have already taken place, so that means we are already “in the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie”, which is not the merriest of thoughts…)

It may be argued that such rationality is becoming old news, and that something else must be on the horizon, with the advent of the internet, and mobile communications, and the rise of China and Secular Stagnation (the result of a thought system geared towards intersocial competition when there is nobody else to compete against) and whatnot. There are indeed some signs that desiderative reason may be crumbling under the weight of its own success (as there were some similar signs regarding the weakening of sentimental reason in 1848, but then it lasted for 50 additional years), but interpreting them will be the matter of a future post.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Preparing the ground for Anarcho Traditionalist Economics

Everybody seem to agree that growth is sluggish so too many stay mired in poverty, that there are not that many jobs to go around, that globalization has contributed to an already unacceptably high inequality and that technological innovation has been stagnating lately (well, the last point is still hotly debated, but I’ve been around just enough time to have reached my own conclusion: my life at 20 was vastly more different from my life at 10 than what my life at 40 is from the former… we do have the internet and mobile phones, but we travel using the same means, produce energy in the same way, erect buildings with the same materials and shapes, construct roads, dams, and factories with the same blueprints and even die of the same maladies, may be a tad later). Even acknowledging those problems, the majority in what is known as the First World still thinks the overall socioeconomic system is, not to put too fine a point about it, the best we have ever had as an species, so to tinker with any of its main tenets (from the dominant reason that justifies it and pushes every citizen to strive to the utmost to comply with its three main commandments to the market organization that colludes with such reason in rewarding differentially those that are already in a favored position) would be utter foolishness. Even in the less economically developed countries the minority in power agrees to a man with the excellence of our system (at least, the part of it dealing with economic rules, which they try, with different levels of success, to separate from the political and social rules), and only varies in the extent in which they try to have the majority of the population under their command participate in the increase in wealth that they expect to extract from the increased adherence to the aforementioned rules.

But I think we could collectively do much better. I’m not a great fan of growing the amount of material goods produced and services paid for within a society (the most extended measure of economic well being is the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, which counts as if it meant something manufacturing new gadgets that replace old ones with the exact same functionality, but then create additional environmental problems by filling the already huge landfills, and also counts the provision of “services” that demean both the provider and the buyer) as I think there are things more important for human flourishing that what those metrics capture (a clean atmosphere and natural landscapes, rich and dense networks of relationships, a shared narrative artfully articulated), but I recognize the accumulation of whatever is measured by such metrics does have a positive impact in the lives humans can lead.

Between 1950 and 2010 the average GDP per person in the USA (similar figures for the UK and Germany, and good representatives of the rate of improvement in most First World countries) has roughly trebled (from 16,000 $/year in 1950 to 50,000 $/year in 2009 in constant 2009 dollars). Even if we concede that a fraction of that increase is “well-being neutral” and it just reflects that the person in 2009 receives additional income that he then has to spend without extracting any utility from it, like consuming more gas in a longer commute or in pills to sleep better and to combat his chronically higher work related stress) we have to admit that he is considerably better off than his forebears. How much better? We know that he has access to a much greater variety of some of life’s pleasures: better looking food, although I have my doubts about how much more tasty it is, and even greater doubts about how less healthy overall; bigger homes (but further from his workplace); incrementally more comfortable means of transportation; more leisure options like music, satellite radio, TV shows, even books, almost any work ever published delivered to his doorstep in mere hours (but less time to enjoy it)… We also know that his life expectancy at birth has grown, albeit at a much smaller pace lately (it grew from roughly 45 years in most Western countries in 1900 to roughly 70 in 1950, while it has only grown to 80 in the last 65 years –and is actually decreasing in some groups, as this much touted article by Gina Kolata in the NYT recounts: Whew, USA white low-middle class is screwed!). So interestingly, it is undeniable that a lot of progress (in well-being, I’m not talking yet of personal freedom, opportunities for recognition, equality or fairness in the distribution of the social product) has been made in the last century, so even for the poorest members of society it is far better to live today than in 1900, but not so much than in 1950 (and, as it is famously noted, for most of American middle class, no real gains in disposable income have been achieved since 1971).     

What about the rest of the world? it is much more of a mixed bag. In some cases (most of sub-Saharan Africa) they are barely better than how they were in 1900, which is not that different from how they were in 1000 AD (maybe even worse, as 1000 AD was before the most serious ravages of the slave trade) both in GDP per person and in life expectancy. In other (Latin America, North of Africa, India, China –that has had to recover from a much deeper and miserable place due to the catastrophic policies of its “Cultural Revolution” and “Great Leap Forward”- and South West Asia with the exception of Korea and Japan, which for all practical purposes are today equivalent to any other advanced economy) they have advanced in fits and starts, amid some occasional regression, and they are roughly where we were around 1970. Russia and its satellites would be in a similar position (both in life expectancy -69 years in 1962 and 68 years in 2009- and in GDP per capita –from 8,000 $ in 1970 to about 20,000 $ in 2010).

Given that, I have the following position to stake: technological advance was a net positive for everyone in the West (broadly understood to include Japan and Korea) until 1970, and from then on it has served mainly to lift the fortunes of the top 1% with little benefit to the rest. The meager increase in life expectancy since then can be mostly attributable to the reduction in smoking (so in a sense we are better off, since we have mostly stopped poisoning ourselves voluntarily with a potent carcinogen, although we probably still do it inadvertently with a thousand similar toxic fumes that envelop our cities without us noticing). That means that for most of the world (Africa excepted, as they may still need a couple decades –if everything goes well, which it rarely does- to get to where the advanced economies were in 1970), they have already reached the level of socioeconomic development that is optimal for the majority of the population, and whatever they manage to keep growing is likely to improve the wealth (and overall well-being) of a similarly tiny sliver of their populations, at the price of exacting an increasing effort from everybody else (not coincidentally, the great theorist of the modern phenomenon of burnout is a Korean, Byung-Chul Han). In a series of posts more than a year ago (culminating here: What should be done IV) I analyzed the current stage of capitalism understood as a world system defined by the following features (to which I assigned the accompanying moral valence):

1.       Secure private property rights -positive

2.       Use of money - positive

3.       Commodity production (that requires markets to determine the price of every merchandise and service by the intersection of its supply and its demand) – negative/ neutral

4.       Labor market, that determines the wage level also by the intersection of supply and demand (but subject to specific regulation) - negative

5.       A technological level that allows for cheap food, energy and communications (each less than 10-20% of the average basket of goods) - positive

6.       Globalization (minimal barriers to the circulation of goods, capital and information) - positive

7.       Digitization of experience - neutral

I concluded that only 3 and 4 were problematic (non conductive to maximal enablement of human flourishing), and that only 4 actually required doing something about it, which back then I thought was implementing a UBI (Universal Basic Income) that would free people from having to work involuntarily and/or in degrading conditions. That was a very incrementalist approach, which I thought was granted by a basically positive evaluation of where the described system (which I dubbed “digital capitalism”) had taken our societies. Such incrementalism was justified by my appraisal at that date that growth rates in GDP would pick up and revert to the previous trend rate (around 3.5% for most of the West) and, both in the USA and Europe there would be a fast reduction in unemployment, an increase in the percentage of the working population and a resumption of the increase in wages that would in turn enable a reduction in inequality. Not only none of those have materialized, but I do believe now that with the current socioeconomic structure they will never materialize. Inequality, low labor force participation, miserable salaries with no prospect of rising (which enable the recently noticed phenomenon of the “salaried poor”, people that after years being fully employed still are below the poverty level, have no expectations of ever rising above it and sure as hell can not afford things we take for granted as signs of having reached a middle class status like owning o house, no matter how small, owning a car or even a set of personal appliances like a smart phone or a PC) are now a part of the landscape, a constant reminder that something is seriously amiss in the way we organize the production and distribution of goods and services.

One of the reasons I have despaired of ever seeing the current system reform itself, or correct its most glaring problems, is because I’ve concluded that the solutions being offered by the different macroeconomic schools are all wrong, and wont to disappoint:

·         Monetarists believe that loose monetary policies will do the trick, and low interest rates will sooner or later cause investment to resume, capacity to pick up and we will be back to normal. Unfortunately we have been stuck at the “zero bound” where rates can’t go any lower for more than half a decade, and the results have been… underwhelming. Most serious monetarists already concede the point and simply declare this is the new normal, and we should get used to interest rates near zero as long as the eye can see (and that those, being the new “natural rate” won’t even specially stimulate the economy, simply there is nothing that can be done and an anemic growth is just what’s in the cards for all of us).

·         Neokeynesians maintain that the problem is one of low aggregate demand (something with which I agree), and resort the old recipe of getting the state to replace the non existent private sector to try to spend our way back to growth and prosperity. They can (rightly again) point to the unmitigated disaster of austerity policies in the EU (where the proponents of tightening the budget and cutting public spending in the face of an already deep depression should be criminally prosecuted for the amount of unwarranted suffering they have inflicted in the population of their countries for no logical reason whatsoever). But in this case, sadly, the fact that the opposite policy is insanely wrong does not mean that the one they propose is right. As Japan abundantly shows, you can force the public sector to spend like there is no tomorrow and that is not going to kick start the economy back to the growth rates of the 80’s of last century (Spain between 1999 and 2007 could serve as a similar cautionary tale). There comes a moment (and most Western economies are well past it) when there are simply no more good investment opportunities that the public sector can profitably undertake, and the multiplier then becomes vastly below one, so you just sink good money after bad with no noticeable result, “crowding out” starts having a pernicious effect, while the national debt balloons (it doesn’t seem to matter in a scenario of very low interest rates, but at some point it will become a serious limiting factor for any additional growth)

Basically that covers the “mainstream”, “sensible” positions in economics today, everything else being a collection of loonies and hucksters trying to sell snake oil like supply side economics, trickle down, tax cuts that pay for themselves and other mythical beasts, that have no more real existence than the Easter bunny, unicorns or fire-breathing dragons. The more clear-eyed within the profession admit we are facing a “secular stagnation”, as the two great components that have kept the economy growing at a fast pace have exhausted themselves, to wit:

·         Demographic growth (more people meant more consumers and more producers at the same time) is essentially over, except in some backwaters in Africa, and demographic contraction is already in an advanced stage in places like Japan, Singapore, Russia, most of the UE, and soon Latin America and the USA. Good luck finding increasing numbers of consumers in the next decade there. China is also already about to start decreasing in number, but as their numerous citizens continue going from dirt poor to moderately poor (to, maybe some day, moderately affluent) you can still hope to sell them additional units of whatever gewgaw. Ditto for India. But even those will eventually peter out

·         Technological advance, which in turn drives increased productivity, so your dwindling workers can keep on producing the same (or even more) has gone the way of demographic grow. The reasons of its demise are not as clear, but my hunch is that it has to do with the aging of the population and the incentive structure of the market we have jointly created being massively slanted towards short term gain, which leaves very little resources to more long term, potentially disruptive technologies.

So if we can not trust that keeping things basically as they stand now (plus a UBI) may get us out of our low growth predicament, and such predicament ensures that increasing numbers of workers (specially the youngest and the less skilled) are left out of the economic ladder, increasingly hopeless, may be it is high time to ditch incrementalism and go for a more radical alternative (what used to be termed the “revolutionary” path). It has to be reckoned that the revolutionary record is pretty dismal, even if we concede high marks to the English and American Revolutions, we still have to fail the French, the Russian, the German, the Spanish (the last two happened in a very convulse period, in the face of counterrevolutionary tendencies that either threatened or effectively brought about a good deal of similarly perverse effects), the Chinese (which we could extend to encompass the Korean, Vietnamese and Cambodian), the Iranian and most likely the Lybian, Egyptian, Syrian and possibly Ukrainian… more than enough to discourage any aspiring revolutionary that the odds are heavily stacked against him, and that more likely than not the unexpected results of whatever discontinuity he may champion may end outweighing the potential positives.

However, we shall not be deterred by the failures of the past. All this was intended to serve as a preamble of my next post regarding the desirable economic organization of society, which although as tongue-in-cheek as usual when I deal with the dismal science (which I do not consider a science at all) will probably be a bit more daring and a bit more unmoored in reality than usual. We blog, after all, to improve our ability playing with words, so play we will, and find out where our revolutionary fancy takes us.    

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

An abridged history of Western Dominant Reason

For some time now I’ve been sharing with readers of this blog the concept of a “dominant reason” that determines how we think, how we reason and thus what kind of solutions to our society’s problems we can arrive at. I will have more to say in future posts how such reason is transmitted to kids (and adults) to ensure it is constantly reproduced, and strengthened through each individual’s lifecycle, but I would like to dwell in this post on how such reason came to be in the first place. It is a dense, complicated history, which starts at least 2,300 years ago in Greece, and which has been enriched by many traditions originated outside Europe (Judaism, Middle Eastern wisdom literature, a handful of Chinese inventions, Mongol military tactics, and a long etcetera), so I will focus just in the latest four hundred years, the period I have studied more in detail and about which I feel more confident talking about. It helps to conceive such reason as the answer that a society gives itself to some historical discontinuity, normally catalyzed by a significant (seismic?) change in the technology it uses to adapt itself to its environment, an environment marked both by its natural surroundings (the climate it experiences, the fertility of the soils it occupies, the stocks of plants and cattle it has access to) and the separate societies that it has to interact with. I maintain that we can find the following main discontinuities in the period under consideration of Western history, and differentiate the following types of dominant reason in response to each of them:
Now let’s review what are the rules that each type of reason presented to the members of society reared in it (under its dominion):

·         Baroque reason (1650-1750): The Westphalian treaties that gave birth to the modern state system (necessarily in balance, threatening with annihilation any nation small enough or unproductive enough not to enter in an alliance with others) had just finished the wars of Religion in Europe and marked the end of the hegemony of the Spanish empire (soon to be compounded by the accession to the throne of the feeble Charles II in 1665, whose catastrophic reign serves up to this day as a warning of the perils of monarchic rule). Religion was still important enough to fight and die for, as a result of the gains in agricultural productivity population had already recovered from the last bout of the Black Death and socially the hereditary aristocracy, although still strong (specially in the countries in the periphery of the forming World-System, which pivoted to an economy based on a few staple commodities produced for such market) was ceding its place of preeminence to a new ascending class: the bourgeoisie. If we had to summarize under just three headings what made people tick, it would be:

1.       The goal of life is to save oneself (in the afterlife)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined by birth (so there is no point in trying to improve one’s place in it)

3.       People may pursue a number of different, sometimes conflicting desires (first and foremost to survive, having enough food, shelter and health; afterwards things like belonging to a group, and even acquiring some mastery in a recognized pursuit, from humanistic disciplines to crafts as prescribed within the guild structure –what MacIntyre called “a practice”- were welcomed)

It is easy to see that producing material goods was not the most immediate concern for the vast majority of the population, and that societies following those 3 rules were abysmally worse than ours in growing their GDP. They had other, more pressing concerns, and just didn’t devote that much effort to it (and why would they? Since they were kids they were taught that there are more important things in life than working and selling things or selling their time to earn more money)

·         Economic reason (1750-1800): The longest period of peace in the history of Europe in many, many centuries (I once told a classroom of young kids in Mexico that they shouldn’t be fooled by our recent economic successes, what Europeans had showed the rest of the world how to do during 99% of our shared history, what we are distinctly good about, what we really excel at is killing and maiming and invading and destroying each other). So it comes as no surprise that the economy takes off, technology really comes into its own, we inadvertently stumble upon the most generic procedure for problem resolution that man has ever known (aka “scientific method”), we launch the Industrial Revolution, we define a way of governing a polity that for all practical purposes is the best we have ever had (parliamentarianism, with England’s “Glorious Revolution” and the American war of independence), we fall in love with the somewhat contradictory concept of universal reason (aka the Enlightenment) and we top it off with the discovery of a new form of totalitarianism in the name of majority rule and a new round of continent wide slaughter (aka French Revolution and Napoleonic wars).  In the meantime of such a meaty half century, our friend David Hume (leaning on the teaching of Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli –which I’m not sure he even read, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Samuel Butler and Francis Hutcheson) formulates a moral system entirely independent of religious teaching, and thus enables the enthronement of a slightly different set of principles for conducting everyday’s life:

1.       The goal of life is to satisfy desires (as only emotions, or in his words, “passions”, can move us, and those passions can only be explained as the impulse towards feeling pleasure and avoiding pain, which is what desires consist in)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined mostly by birth, but it can be slightly improved by “moral worth” (as defined by social consensus)

3.       People may pursue a number of different, sometimes conflicting desires (survival in a peaceful time is more of a given, so things like recognition, justified by an innate “sympathy” can play a greater role)

It may seem like the production of material goods is still of no great concern for the majority, but we see that one of the obstacles to devote most of one’s energies to this worldly pursuits has been removed, by redefining the goal of a life well lived (something that happened first in the protestant countries, as described superbly by Max Weber, but also Werner Sombart, as I mentioned in this old post Luxury and Capitalism, so it comes as no surprise that those countries surge to the position of world hegemony vacated by the Spaniards and their Genoese financiers).

·         Sentimental reason (1800-1900): The bourgeois upheavals of the preceding period (English and American) were relatively mild and bloodless affairs compared with the one that closes it with a cataclysmic bang (the French Revolution). Even when performed in the name of Reason and weaving into its banner nice slogans like “Freedom, Equality and Fraternity”, “the Universal rights of Man” and all the rest, it soon backfires through the Terror and triggers a conservative backlash in the rest of Europe (until the revolutionary embers were rekindled by the middle of the XIX century) that turned a significant amount of the intelligentsia against reason and autonomy and towards authority and tradition. All the arts were rocked by the romantic turn, and the majority’s idea of what was a reasonable way of living could be no exception, so for those times the big directions about how life should be conducted looked something like this:

1.       The goal of life is to satisfy desires (indeed, the more outrageous the desire, the better)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined mostly by genius (the cult of the artist), although genius is sooner or later recognized by the majority (the solitary artist, true only to his calling, is but a temporary stage), which can also ennoble themselves by recognizing it

3.       There is only one desire worthy of being pursued, to “be oneself”, to “become who you are”

It has to be noted that for such a seismic shift in what the dominant reason accepts as a valid object of desire the “subsistence problem” had to be mostly solved first. It’s OK to have a bunch of young people full of angst and ennui demanding a “revolution of taste” and a “transvaluation of all values” as long as you can feed and clothe them, and they are not going to distract the vast majority of people toiling in unwholesome factories and mills more than the time strictly necessary for them to forget about the hopelessness of their condition (so they are really agents of their alienation by making it more bearable, rather than the revolutionaries they considered themselves to be).

Mostly old history (and very schematic one at that), but it sets the stage for what I’ll have to say about the last two iterations of the dominant reason whose evolution I’m documenting, which I’ll do in a soon to come post.