Monday, February 29, 2016

Bill, you’re pretty clever but I’m afraid you’re dead wrong about this one (against the dominant notion of "progress")

This interview with legendary Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates in Vox caught my attention, as it deals with a number of themes that have been occupying me of late: Billy's dreamworld
Any reader of this blog (as I tend to joke, all two of them) already knows that I strongly believe that technological advance has stagnated and is about to completely stop due to an utterly wrong and perverse incentive schema, so of course what I feel more strongly about is the contention by Gates that such view (most forcefully advocated recently by Robert Gordon, whom I cite admiringly with both gusto and frequency) is myopic, and that 20 years from now we will look at Gordon’s recent book (prophetically titled The Rise and Fall of American Growth) with irony and bemusement of how wrong he got it. On the contrary, I think it will be fully vindicated, and we will remember Microsoft as the harbinger of mostly bad things which befell society as a whole starting soon after it was founded. And I think Gates opinion paradigmatically illustrates the view, very extended between IT people (I should know, having been one of them for almost 20 years) that nowadays “every business is a digital business”, and that the little, growingly inconsequential innovation that still happens in IT can substitute for the stagnation in every other areas.

Like medicine (but don’t worry, great advances of really great significance are just around the corner, in the meantime life expectation keeps on asymptotically –that is, ever more slowly- approaching its biological limit as non-self-poisoning animals, roughly around 90 years) or energy production (ditto –sorry Bill, I work in an engineering firm specialized in the energy generation sector, so I’m a bit informed about it, and it doesn’t matter how much money any of your foundations throws at it, we are not going to witness any revolution that completely decarbonizes advanced economies in the next 15 years… so according to your quite clever equation we are essentially toast) or building (indeed, the shrinking populations of many European cities should allow for some interesting innovations in urbanism and how we create common spaces more habitable and accessible but what we see really happening is more colonization of the public space by corporate interests and more pollution and public squalor) or transportation (replacing all current internal combustion engines in 15 years with electric… nice dream, not gonna happen: Electric car revolution scheduled for 2022 note that a projection that still looks quite optimistic has the market share of electrics in 2040 being a paltry 25% of total sales… it doesn’t sound that revolutionary to me).

So we can take Bill’s delusions as another sign that, within the IT community the view that “Software is eating the world” is as prevalent as it was when Marc Andreessen said it for the first time back in 2011 (Software is eating the world). And why shouldn’t it? They are the only ones (with some bankers, we will get to that in a moment) reaping the benefits of the last discontinuity of how we produce and distribute wealth, so it behooves them to see all the world with not only rosy-colored glasses, but glasses which over emphasize the importance of what software does to our lives. It is telling that Gates has to resort to the now a bit worn cliché about the super beneficial effects of IT in the everyday lives of people not being properly measured in economic statistics (be them of available wealth, of income or of total factor productivity growth, all of which have been flat for 90% of the population for decades, doesn’t matter how many millions Microsoft has pocketed in that time): people before had a paltry set of vinyl LPs in their shelves, now with Spotify they can carry with them every track ever recorded! People had the Encyclopaedia Britannica occupying a lot of space (I wonder if Bill knows how many people had the whole damn thing back in the day… it was pretty influential, but because of price, never that much popular) and now they have Wikipedia for free! And, to top it off, gays can marry!!!!! How can we be so ingrate and not concede that humanity never had it so good, that technology (coincidentally, the technology that made him rich, that he is more acquainted with and that he feels he has had a significant role in advancing…) has vastly improved human lives and that, if we just let things run its course (i.e. if we don’t rock the boat and rest contented with the social compact that allowed for the appearance of such technology) we will have it even better and all will be good (again, thanks to software, energy will be somehow revolutionized, medicine will make us all, not only the rich in the 1% who can pay for it, live forever, and probably travel will also be greatly improved, and we will all tele-transport ourselves with no effort and –almost- no cost… and of course global warming will be magically stopped, or even reversed). It is telling that, when asked about the most significant book he would recommend, he mentions the almost ubiquitous between techno-utopians The Better Angels of our Nature, of the equally ubiquitous Steven Pinker… it is kinda becoming the bible of the movement, as much as my friend John Gray may be riled by it (John Gray really doesn't like The Better Angels).

But before thinking a bit about how plausible is the claim that software is “eating the world”, or that all of our technologies failing to advance more or less at the same time except for one (software) is no big deal, because better software is really all you need to have a better life, let’s turn for a second our attention to why it is that our tech visionaries seem to share that bizarre opinion. We can glimpse some of the reasons in this recent article at Wired: potential dark side of VR . It is surprising (I may have said shocking if my capacity for shock had not been blunted by  frequent observation of humanity’s follies) that in a society that seems to place so much importance in the exclusive possession of material things (remember that the dominant reason of our age assigns social precedence based almost exclusively in the amount of material things that one can exclusively command) seems to give so much credence to people saying that material things are not that important after all, and that their simulacra (that is what software is, isn’t it? Just a simulacrum of real experiences, but more on that later) can be just as satisfying, so people should really rest contented with their Spotify and their Wikipedia, and do not complain if their mattress is too hard, their houses too small, their means of transportation to get to work are shabby, their clothes made in Bangladesh are worn out after a couple of washings, the heating in their homes is insufficient, their food essentially trash which is killing them and the power plants that generate the cheap electricity they consume are in a state of disrepair and furthermore, burn great amounts of fossil fuels which is turning the planet’s climate into a hothouse…  But not to worry, soon they will have Oculus Rift and will be able to imagine they are basking in the sun in the porch of a Kennebunkport mansion (only there will be no sun in their filthy apartments, and the smell around them will be very different, and when at some point they have to take their VR glasses off they will be faced with a much less pleasant AR (Actual Reality).

In the end, such espousing of a universal income seems to be (unsurprisingly) tainted, as Evgeny Morozov argued in “The Guardian” this last weekend: Silicon Valley's support for Basic Income is a dastardly plot . Investors in tech companies, and Bill Gates, tend to see a brilliant future thanks to the ubiquity of software when software by itself does very little to improve people’s lives, as soon as we talk about actual people’s lives, as opposed to a tiny fraction of the time of a tiny fraction between them devoted to a specially perverse form of leisure. Ask an unemployed parent (out of work for years because globalization took overseas all the jobs he could aspire to perform), a single mom that has to work two shifts because she couldn’t afford day care if she didn’t, an elderly lady spending her days alone because her children had to move to different cities pursuing scarce job opportunities, ask any of them how happy they are because they have Spotify and Wikipedia and Uber and Airbnb, and gays can marry (well, some of them may have a gay relative, so at least the “progress” of History in the last decades has not  entirely gone down the drain). How excited they are for the soon-to-come launch of Oculus (or Sony’s Morpheus, or Playstation VR), and how their lives are about to be revolutionized for the better. Some revolution!

Our tech titans believe that Sw is all important because they feed from the very particular group for which software has been, indeed, a significant part of their lives: the cohort of American university students (or their European or Australasian equivalents) that started coming of age in the 90s, when videogames became good enough to keep people (some people, those with enough time or the peculiar mix of brain circuitry and hormonal chemistry to find spending hours on end in front of a monitor a satisfying enough way of using their time) hooked. The kind of people for which Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was a major event in their biographies. Coincidentally, the same people that defined the hook up culture, so their life for four years was essentially reduced to study (more or less, depending on how demanding their future alma maters were), gaming and (mostly drunk) fucking. Not much in terms of creating strong emotional bonds or training oneself in the importance of stable relationships.

Because that’s what the opposite of videogames and VR is: real friends, real family and obligations. Deciding to work a bit more, or sleep a bit less (or a lot less!) to provide a better future for your offspring, or to help a friend out of a rough spot, is the exact contrary to spend a turn more (and then another one, and another one) at your Civilization IV game. In the first case, the consequences of your actions are everything. In the second, there are no consequences whatsoever. That is software in a nutshell: the realm of the fake, where you can always restart the game if the choices you made turn out bad. Even in the corporate realm, it has this nasty little secret: 80% of the corporate investment in new applications comes to naught, doesn’t produce any noticeable change in the bottom line, leaves the company that made the investment not better off. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any good effect: it definitely lines the pockets of the ones who built the software in the first place, and who worked (hard, I’m not denying that) to install it. The same ones that will produce papers, and studies, and news reports praising the extraordinary effect that their industry had in their clients (an elaborate scam is no less of a scam if a lot of apparently respectable people participate in it).

Of course, people that have made a living out of writing (and selling) software, and that hire mostly kids that have spent their best years lost in the software realm (playing videogames), think that  software is the most important product of human civilization, and that advances in software are the prodigy of the ages. They don’t get much involved with the moral valence of a matrix scenario of millions living in trailer parks and being fed semi processed refuse but feeling happy most of their waking time in some artificial paradise because neither them nor their progeny (if it exists, a number of them choose to go childless… as the kind of life they live is not worth living, much as they may resist being characterized like that) nor their friends or loved ones would ever have to make such choice or be forced to live such life.

So I’ll end this post (as so many of late) with what a friend of mine described as a "call to arms": do not let them fool you. Software is not “eating the world”, and the advances in software and information processing do not compensate for the stagnation in all other areas of society, and specially do not compensate for the lack of progress in the average income of 90% of the population. When someone tells you how happy you should be because you have Spotify and Wikipedia shout back to them that they can keep their virtual baubles, and that you would have his Mercedes, his first class plane tickets, his platinum American Express and his 10,000 square foot Mac Mansion any day of the week over hearing canned music (mostly of abominable quality) and finding really fast when Donald Trump was born.   

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Postcapitalism (according to Paul Mason)

I’ve been some time now wanting to review the book of the same title by the “economic journalist” Paul Mason, but only yesterday (for reasons I will explain later on) did I reach a position to do so authoritatively. As I feared, the book expands unnecessarily (in most cases) on the ideas expounded in this article of the Grauniad which originally caught my attention and drove me to buy what I was afraid would be little more than an inflated version: Postcapitalism - the article . With “unnecessarily” I don’t mean the ideas are uninteresting, or entirely without merit. I just mean that all the worthy ones you can find in the book were already in the article, and to properly explain them may be a slightly longer one, still fit for publication in a magazine, would have sufficed (a long read in “the Atlantic” or even the “New York Review of Books”), so most of the 300 plus pages of the book are essentially filler.

Not useless filler, as the book starts with a denunciation of the ills of current capitalism that, being so much against the grain of what the majority of the media reports, certainly benefits from some insistent reiteration. Although not entirely original, either, as such tirades are very much in the line of what has been done (and is still being done) by the likes of David Harvey and David Graeber. Be it as it may, I think his exposition of how the current mostly neoliberal order has driven millions to unending poverty (since the start of the Great Depression and the imposition of austerity measures in some European countries, or of an insufficient stimulus in the USA) is basically true, as is his contention that the system is incapable of “healing itself” and getting all those people back in decent economic shape just letting the “magic of free markets” act. Add to that the incoming double whammy of man made (or at least accelerated) climate change and the demographic shift (populations procreating below replacement level in all advanced economies), plus the sputtering of the technological innovation engines and his case for “panic” seems pretty strong, and in line with what I myself have been preaching for some time in this very same blog.

So what we have in front of us is increasingly frequent crises, increasing inequality, growing masses of unemployed condemned to a life of squalor and hopelessness (that’s why mortality has raised between American middle aged white men and women, isn’t it? They are abusing drugs and drinking themselves to death as the only sensible reaction to a life of continually diminishing expectations) and in the end financial meltdown (credit fueled bubbles are the unavoidable response of the markets to ever shrinking demand, but bubbles have a nasty tendency to burst sooner or later), ecological catastrophe, famines, civil wars, the total breakdown of social order and the stupendously apocalyptic demise of capitalism. And if capitalism is going to implode no matter what, we better try to get rid of it sooner rather than later and start building the next social system, hoping it will turn out better and we could even avoid some of the ugly consequences it seems to have in store for us. So far, so good. Only if you start from faulty premises, you will most likely reach flawed conclusions, and the book under review soon steers into wackyville…

And what makes it go seriously astray is its adherence to the most harebrained of the ideas of my old friend Karl Marx: the labour theory of value. Amazing that after a century and a half of thorough disproving by stubborn reality somebody still buys that old canard, but such is what good Paul tells us confidently. According to Mr. Mason, not only did Karl hit the nail on the head with his theory of value (a theory that, as he should know, he took almost verbatim from David Ricardo, who in turn had taken it from none other than Adam Smith, founding figure of liberalism and capitalism as we know it: Of value and wages), but he even intuited in a most oracular fashion the advent of information technology, artificial intelligence, technological unemployment and the post industrial society. Not only did he intuit all those modern day wonders, but provided the recipe to deal with them, and the consequences for the capitalist mode of production of such tendencies. If we follow our economic journalist lead, Marx legated us all that wisdom in a book that only recently has been published in the West (first German edition in Moscow in 1939 and first English edition in 1973), the Grundrisse (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy), edited (barely) from a number of notebooks he prepared between 1857 and 1858 (previous to Capital) and obviously never reviewed or properly prepared for publication. To be more precise, in a section called the “fragment on machines” he forewarned us of the predicament we find ourselves in.

Being the kind of thorough asshole I am, and specially afflicted by the academic bent that is to be ascribed to any recent Ph. D. I then felt that I could not go on thinking about Mr. Mason’s proposals until I had read for myself all that cornucopia of clairvoyance, so it may be said that Postcapitalism gave me the final push to finally dive in my own daunting copy (893 pages of mostly gibberish) of Grundrisse, that had been sitting on my nightstand for some months (I had bought it towards the end of last year, but hadn’t found the resolve to start it yet). Before continuing with the review of Paul Mason’s, then, I need to unload on poor unsuspecting readers my opinion of this piece of the sage of Trier’s work.

A (sketch of a) review of the “Floor Plan” (that’s what Grundrisse means, folks):

Let’s start saying that, at his best, Marx is not a great writer, or has ever shown a commanding domination of the German language. Some say (rightly, in my opinion) that Nietzsche was a great prose stylist. Some even say (dead wrongly, again according to myself) that Freud’s prose was one of his most notable achievements. Karl was not definitely in their league. I don’t think even the most fervid Marxist lauds what the German thinker did to words, and for reasons I can wholly sympathize with: long, winded sentences with poor structure and too many conditionals. A penchant for rhetorical flourishes to be immediately followed by uninteresting facts that detract from the argument instead of building on it. A quasi pathological inability to follow a logical succession of concepts and an almost comical disregard for what I recently heard referred to as “economy of language”.  And probably the most infuriating feature: his infatuation with the simplest algebraic formulations (subtractions and additions) that made him devote pages and pages (and pages and pages and pages!) to expound on formulas that he could have plainly enough expounded in a single sentence.

That single fact alone makes the reading of the Grundrisse  a most insufferable chore. I’ll illustrate with an example: Marx believes, somewhat tautologically, that the value of a commodity equals the total labour time devoted to its manufacture (including the part of labour needed to replace the needed machine’s wear and tear, to provide the raw materials, and other efforts to manage and distribute it). Within that total value (TV), he separates the amount of work strictly needed for the keeping the workers that participate (directly or indirectly) in such manufacture alive, which he calls necessary labour (NL), from the rest, which he calls surplus labour (SL), the latter being famously appropriated by the evil capitalist. Thus:

TV = NL + SL

Well, that is not that complex to grasp, is it? As it happens, for Karl it surely is, because he thinks it necessary to devote at least thirty friggin’ and frankly unbearable pages (with a tiny font size! And no line spacing! And almost no paragraph breaks!) to give us any imaginable example of what an addition means, and how it works:

So let’s say that the total value of thirty whoppers of yarn is measured as 20 thalers and 2 pfennings and one and a half groschen. But the part needed for the workers to live miserably while producing it is only ten thalers and one groschen. The rest of the time they are producing for free for the capitalist, so the difference being ten thalers and 2 pfennings and half a groschen is appropriated by capital, and is the only source of its profit. Now, if due to technological advance the time needed to produce the thirty whoppers of yarn were reduced so the salary to be perceived by the workers for that time were of only nine thalers and half a groschen (a 10,5% reduction) if the yarn were sold at the same price the surplus value and thus the profit for the capitalist would increase to eleven thalers and two pfennings and one groschen. On the other hand, if due to a crisis of overproduction the capitalist had to sell the thirty whoppers of yarn below its value, let’s say at 18 thalers and one pfenning and one groschen (a 12 and 64/288 % reduction) then he would lose a part of his precious surplus value, that would be transferred to the buyer, for a total amount of two thalers and one pfenning and half a groschen, whilst the necessary value of the commodity wouldn’t have changed a bit and stayed at ten thalers and one groschen. And Proudhon is an idiot for not seeing this, but Carey and Ramsey are even worse and vulgar economists blah, blah, blah, Lackeys of capital and petty bourgeois blah, blah, blah…     

And on and on and on it goes, for those thirty unforgiving pages (and then a little bit later, another twenty ones in a similar vein!) I hope you get the idea of just what unpleasant struggle is to go through such drivel. Many ifs, none of them minimally substantiated: why should the proportion between necessary labour and surplus value be that one? No clue, and the author recognizes that he gives those numbers as way of example, not because they have been measured or are specially plausible. Why modify one of the terms in that particular amount? Is it the exemplification of some other rule? Again, no clue, the author just fancies to show what those particular variations entail (no kidding! It is a goddamn equation, for Christ’s sake!), using those particular coins, that already sounded funny back then (in Capital at least he moved to use English currency after decades living in London, similarly confusing; it makes you realize just how much more rational and easy to use a coinage based on the decimal system is) and sound more funny and alien and unnecessarily complex nowadays.

It has to be noted that Marx could do better, if he devoted some time to tidy things up, eliminate redundancies, complete thoughts that are only sketched at first… the usual labor of editing for publication. The first volume of Capital is eminently readable, and the Communist Manifesto is even exemplar in the stirring tone of some of its proclamations. So part of my complaint is really a cautionary tale against publishing in book format a rough draft that required a lot of additional work to be half readable. Not that different from Volume 2 of Capital (funnily enough, Volume 3 is quite better than 2, by far the worst of the three, which is probably due to Engels being more assured of himself, and having less original material to work with, which allowed him to discard much more and take more liberties with the disjointed manuscript from which he elaborated the final version), with which it shares the penchant for endless pseudo mathematical disquisitions to illustrate how a sum works…  

What this particular jumble of half assed ideas and opinions does not, most empathetically, do, is provide any kind of blueprint of how a post capitalist society would work, or how information technology may pose a threat to the capitalist mode of production, as much as Paul Mason would like us to believe otherwise (a blueprint, it has to be said, that is conspicuously absent not just from this rough draft of a book, but from all of Marx work, which has caused not a little amount of angst and soul searching between his followers when, after winning their revolutionary struggles, they had to construct such societies with the catastrophic results all-too-well known by all).

Back to Postcapitalism

Mr. Mason then reads in a bunch of notes from Marx some indications of the potential of IT to upend capitalism. So what? Regardless of what the ol’ bearded revolutionary thought, isn’t it true that information can not be turned into a commodity (not being fungible) and thus that it threatens a social order based on the accumulation of exclusive rights to enjoy fungible goods (aka commodities)? Well, unfortunately it doesn’t. Let’s summarize Mason’s argument, and then comment on why it doesn’t carry as much water as he believes.

According to him (and again, taken verbatim from Marx), only human labour produces value. This is easily disproved by the fact that a) fertile land is more valuable than arid one before anybody does anything to improve it; b) the proportion between the prices of most natural resources doesn’t have anything to do with the amount of labour it takes to extract and distribute them (in strict opposition to the example Marx loved to quote about gold and iron, without ever inquiring in how many hours it take to produce a pound of each) and; c) the proportion of the price commanded by different occupations doesn’t have anything to do, again, with the previous amount of time devoted to acquire them.

But let’s leave for a moment aside the fact that he is subscribing to an untenable theory (a theory, by the way, that the very same Marx weakened considerably in Volume 3 of Capital, when he recognized that supply and demand can explain long term deviations from the value of many goods, understood as the amount of human labour they contained… now if such value can’t be used to understand prices, what purpose does it serve? None, It is just a metaphysical category to argue that the evil capitalist is taking something that belongs rightfully to the workers), and let’s ask ourselves why he is holding it. The answer is that the belief in human labour as only source of value translates into a “contradiction” at the heart of capitalism: as automation reduces the content of human labour in all production, a smaller and smaller proportion of the population is tasked with the creation of the increasing amounts of value that all the rest have to appropriate and distribute, leading to instabilities, growing crises and finally the cataclysmic collapse (it also led to the “falling rate of profit” of which quantitative economic analysis has failed to find any consistent proof).

In Marx view, that contradiction could only be solved by the overthrow of capitalism (that was thus unavoidable, and caused by its own internal development) and the substitution of “wage labour” (subject to be divided in a necessary part and a surplus which was in turn appropriated) by “social labour”, where people would only work the part strictly necessary for their reproduction, and thanks to technological advances that part would occupy a tiny fraction of their day, the rest being devoted to be “a shepherd in the morning and a literary critic in the afternoon” (that’s the Marxist utopia in a nutshell for you).   

What Mr. Mason adds to such naïve view (note that naïve is not the same as undesirable) is that a good deal of the transition (the technological advance part) has already happened, and the only reason we are not massively benefitting from it is because the process has been sequestered (predictably) by a tiny cabal of greedy plutocrats that have captured the representatives of the people and are twisting the legislative process to try to keep all the wonderful consequences of such advances to their exclusive benefit. But he considers such efforts to be doomed in the end because of the nature of modern technology, it being “information intensive” and information being inherently shareable (its value, rather than decrease from being shared, increases, which squares poorly with that value deriving only from the human labour devoted to its formulation, but I digress). Indeed, one of the parts of the book I enjoyed more (and that was a real addition to what he had already shared in the article I linked to at the beginning of this post) was his discussion of Kondratieff cycles, and how the fifth cycle had not been allowed to run its course (we should be already in the upswing, but we are still in the trough part, and given the rest of conditions described in the book it is hard to see how we could get out of it) because for the first time the labour movement failed to stop the greedy capitalists, and thus those capitalists wringed a number of concessions from workers that allowed them to perpetuate (indefinitely) an essentially unjust, necessarily stagnant social compact that has no way of self correcting but its final implosion.

But there is no need to worry, as the author gingerly tells us that it is only a matter of time until we peacefully realize that information just wants to be free, and spontaneously abandon the clutches of salaried work for cooperatives and more communal based forms of production and distribution (the share economy being a harbinger of the new times) that leave plutocrats and their greedy organizations behind. The precise form the new collaborative economy will take is understandably hard to predict, but it is starting to take shape thanks to the ubiquity of internet (of things and persons), the cloud, zero marginal cost production and the advent of the prosumer. So just sit back, relax and let it unfold, all we need to do to get rid of big bad ol’ capitalism is to relax and enjoy the ride, and let the cunning of reason (or the universal march of the spirit in History with capital H) do its trick.

Which is all fine and good, albeit unlikely, because the author seems to forget a little inconvenient but stubborn truth. It doesn’t matter how much “informational content” the old activity of planting and cropping and packaging may have, there still needs to be someone that actually goes to the field and picks the apples, or drives the harvester (and some of those activities are as far from being picked up by robots as you can imagine). Also, the design of blades for wind turbines can go through a thousand iterations in a computer model, while a few years back just a couple of physical models could be tested in a wind tunnel, which makes for a much more optimized shape, but a) the more optimized shape brings in a paltry improvement of less than 0.1% in the efficiency of the turbine and b) again, still we need someone to actually build the damn thing, which requires a pretty big, capital intensive factory, and then transport it to a godforsaken location, install it and maintain it. “Every business is a digital business” is great as a marketing tool, but very poor as an accurate description of actual society or as a half usable policy guide.

So I just wonder in this brave new world of sharing economy and self realization and endless possibilities where we have left salaried work behind and we essentially do the chosen tasks that we feel like doing at any given moment (that’s what the post-capitalist utopia of Mason tends to sound like to me, at least) who the hell will a) keep on doing the soul-crushing iterative work that still needs to be done if we want to, I don’t know, keep on eating? And b) hoard the enormous resources needed to keep the economy functioning: power plants, industrial equipment factories, microprocessor factories to power all those AI thingies we will be surrounded by, telecommunications infrastructure –antennas, routers, modems, distribution boxes, multiplexers… the myriad non-sexy goodies that keep our infrastructure running and that, so far at least, nobody has figured out how to keep on churning except by paying people a boatload and a half to go and, ahem, producing them.

By ignoring these two inconvenient realities I’m afraid our little book under review, after starting brilliantly with a vibrant denunciation part, veers off course rapidly through the Marxist gobbledygook and ends up with the usual bland recommendations that any self satisfied leftist is wont to proffer these days, recommendations that are not likely to have much effect anyway. Maybe it’s a bit unfair to accuse a journalist of not producing a program actionable enough (or not working to enact it himself), and that is a critique you could legitimately level against my own thinking, as I haven’t offered anything much better in my posts so far. Time to correct that and get back to the drawing board to define in starker terms what should be done, as what I wrote more than a year ago (What I thought a long time ago that should be done) now seems to me insufficient, and not doing enough to better our common lot is, although also the most extended, the great moral failing of our time.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Beyond desiderative reason (next steps in my philosophical journey)

Well, well, well. As announced in my latest post, Wednesday of last week I finally defended my dissertation, to great public and critic’s acclaim, and finally earned my Ph. D (so now you can officially call me “doctor vintage rocker”, thank you very much, although plain ol’ “doc” probably would do just as well). I’ll probably devote a later post to how it went, what the judges said (very level-headed criticism, which I agree with and which will surely help me become a finer writer and subtler thinker) and how I responded, as there are some lessons there that can be useful for the next generation of postgrad students (not that I believe there are so many of those between my readers, but you never can tell).

What I wanted to dwell on in this post is how I see my thought evolving in the next years, and probably share with you the most likely content of my second book. Of course, some words about my first book are in order prior to that. Because, of course, the immediate task I have in front of me is to rehash the dissertation so it becomes a readable volume, which I can present to real-life editors for publication. That means getting rid of two thirds of the bibliography and about as much of the footnotes (the remaining ones will be moved to the bottom of the pages where they appear instead of being all of them at the end like they are now), and most likely a thorough overall “lightening and tightening” of the main storyline, so I don’t digress so much, I substantially reduce (or outright eliminate) every side argument that doesn’t contribute to the story I’m telling and I get rid of all the “monstrous paragraphs” of over 250 words without a single colon, and of nested conditionals where parentheses, hyphens and commas succeed one another so by the middle of the sentence it is almost impossible (unless one has been blessed with a preternatural ability to concentrate and follow hyper-abstruse arguments) to know what the hell I was talking about.  I think that stylistic clearing will take me two or three months (if I can muster the energy and discipline to keep on working diligently in what until last week I considered basically a finished project, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem), so around May-June I should be in a position to start showing the “Critique of Desiderative Reason” (I’ve gained enough confidence as to drop the “Elements” of the title, there is not much left to criticize outside of the almost 500 pages I’ve produced) to prospective editors and even present it to some literary prize (in the category of essay, nobody would mistake it for a novel though).

What comes after that? Well, I’ve not discarded to start formally studying another field, be it entirely new (I definitely would enjoy knowing more advanced mathematics, but I find learning them difficult to compatibilize with pursuing my professional career as engineer and a modicum of family life) or related with what I’ve been learning these last seven years (both History, Economics and Psychology would dovetail nicely, in different ways, with my current “theory of everything”). Of course, on top of that I intend to learn to weightlift competently (but I have to undergo surgery to reattach my left bicep tendon to the bone) and possibly to box…

So as usual I’ll need to set some priorities, and pursue some of those interests slowly and intermittently, and devote more time to others, no big deal, it is called life and I hope to keep juggling conflicting passions to the day I die. Back to my philosophical development, then, and the book I’ll start to write right after I have the “critique” ready for publication. Preliminary title: “beyond desiderative reason” (not very original, I know, just building atop what I already have). Tentative contents:

Part I: In how deep a doo-doo are we?

·         Stating the problem: man can’t think entirely outside the dominant reason he has been brought up in. For us, that is desiderative reason (that imply that the only rational way of behaving is following the three commandments stated in this post: definition of desiderative reason), and as much as we recoil in horror when we first learn of it, we must admit that to gain legitimacy (and support from the majority) any discourse that does not conform to such commandments must present a coherent set of guidelines regarding what the ultimate purpose of life is, what criteria should be used for determining the social hierarchy and what desires are socially acceptable that not only results more appealing than the current set, but allows the society that embraces them to prosper (according to its own internal definition of prosperity) more than the current one (which is, let’s not forget, incredibly prosperous and incredibly miserable at the same time).

·         Desiderative reason’s ledger: but why do we need to think an alternative set of values at all? We are living a true golden age, when violence is declining (see The Better Angels of our Nature by Pinker), and although developed economies have been in a rough spot almost since the 70’s, in that time overall poverty (albeit only in some parts) in the rest of the world has been substantially reduced, so although inside each nation inequality has increased, for the whole of the planet it has decreased, and it can be credibly argued that we live in a more just, more fair world than what has been the historical norm. Wouldn’t it be better, then, to accept that as a species we” never had it so good” and to embrace the dominant reason that has served us well up to now and that has been instrumental in bringing us to this point? I don’t think so because a) we have it so good by borrowing heavily against future generations, to which we are bestowing a “filthy dump” of a planet (the Pope’s words, not mine), which is morally unacceptable –let’s call this the problem of sustainability; b) we have it so good that we are collectively choosing not to have more babies, which can only be understood as meaning that for the vast majority in the end life is not worth living, so why transmit it –let’s call this the problem of reproducibility; and c) we have it so good if we compare our current social life with the abysmal record of our predatory past, but were we to compare it with how our conscience tells us things should be, we don’t have it so good at all (with children dying in the third world of easily preventable diseases, occasional famines, wars, drug addiction and mental problems going untreated, lousy education for many, overall squalor of crumbling infrastructures for the many amidst shining walled enclaves for the few even in the first world… the list goes on and on and on) –let’s call this the problem of the unmet standards. As I have argued elsewhere, those three problems are not accessory to our society, and thus amenable to be solved within the current dominant reason. They have arisen, and are much aggravated, precisely because the dominant reason can’t fail to produce and aggravate them. If we want a society that is sustainable, reproduces itself and is able to meet its own moral standards we have to reject desiderative reason altogether, and replace it with something better.

·         Desiderative reason’s constraints: this should be the real linchpin of the book, as I’ll argue that the three problems rendered insoluble by our embrace of our form of dominant reason derive their intractability of the following features: a) monist materialism, which leaves no space for recognizing the reality of values (values being a kind of ideas entirely supervenient on their material substrate, thus both causally and explanatorily redundant), and hence closes any way for solving the sustainability problem (there being no values, there is no way to adjudicate rationally between the claims of the presently living and of those not yet born, so it is not surprising that the former are taking all for themselves); b) naturalism, as a life that is just the chance product of a mechanistic universe that happens to be so is not just purposeless, but also not worthy of being transmitted; and c) determinism, as if we have no free will at all there is no point in even trying to build a society that approximates more our moral standards. Furthermore, a) and b) and c) (and the fact that it behaviorally it clings to a consequentialist ethic) are necessarily caused by d) its epistemological empiricism, that presents as plausible only those material entities that can be posited as a deterministic cause (and again makes problematic any talk of subject independent values). Nothing new so far: within the parameters of desiderative reason the three problems are truly unsolvable, and we are in deep doo-doo indeed, and that’s why desiderative reason has to be superseded.

Part II: What do I know? What can I know?

·         The universal solvent: since the early Enlightenment rationalism (which would formulate what ended up being the dominant ontology, materialist monism) eroded the belief in a transcendent reality by plausibly showing how the belief in such reality came to be in entirely natural terms. Now we have seen that rationalism itself came to be by equally suspect means, gaining acceptance not because it somehow described “better” the external reality, but because it helped the societies that adopted it produce more material goods, and thus field better equipped armies, and thus dominate anybody having any alternate belief. “Truth” understood simply as “in accordance with extra-mental reality” didn’t enter in the equation, so we shouldn’t expect such system to be any more “true” than any other. As has been repeatedly documented, the project of a universal reason that rejected any insufficiently founded belief ends up devouring itself, is internally inconsistent and shows itself to be as insufficiently founded as any other historically justified system of beliefs.

·         Two magisteria: Does that mean we should accept skepticism as the only coherent worldview? Far from it. The history of science and the convergence between the predictions (and the observations) of its different branches gives us hope that there is an “observer independent” reality that we can understand. Now the fact that such reality is understandable is but a hope, and can not be substantiated by science itself. We will see later on to what extent our belief in the validity of such understanding is warranted, but we need first to complete our analysis of what a legitimate epistemology can tell us about the world. At this point it is enough to show that as what we will call scientific enterprise has been spectacularly successful in improving our knowledge of certain fields of reality (essentially matter), the attempt to extend its methodology to other fields has been a similarly spectacular failure: economics, sociology, politics, psychology.

·         The God that failed: Such failure stems from the attempt to a) reduce the mental to a manifestation of its material substrate (the neurons that constitute the brains in which thinking and feeling supposedly take place) and b) reduce collective behavior to an aggregate of individual behaviors, each individual behavior understood along the previous lines (as that of a mechanical maximizer of a ghostly quality called “pleasure” that for some obscure reason nobody has been able to measure or compare to a set standard). a) explains the failure of any attempt to formulate a “scientific psychology”, and b) (based on a)) the failure to formulate a similarly “scientific” economics, politics or sociology.

Part III: What is really out there?

·         What do we think of when we think of pi? Escaping from the conundrum exposed in the previous section requires that we give a second look at what we believe is a legitimate object of inquiry and susceptible of being agreed upon. It starts rejecting mathematical constructivism and embracing certain foundationalism (mathematics as a discovery of independently existing entities, which smacks of Platonism and is as shunned by physicists as secretly espoused by mathematicians). My contention will be that sets, and numbers and, yes, the number pi, are as existing and as real as atoms, and molecules, and bricks.

·         Who is it that does the thinking, anyway? Now we have argued that there may be more in the universe that “stuff” we can more convincingly make the case that numbers are not the only non material (“non stuffy”) thing out there. There are also minds, distinct and irreducible to the neurons and neurotransmitters and other gooey stuff that support them. I will begin arguing from a reductio ad absurdum: to negate the independent existence of minds require us to negate the most immediate datum we have in front of us, the very fact that we are conscious. That is indeed absurd, and we have given it some credence because it was packaged with some other sets of beliefs that seemed reasonable as long as the scientific method was accepted as the sole criterion to separate true from false (things like materialist monism, remember). But the more we become conscious of the failings of such beliefs (the inability of psychology, economics, politics and sociology to cohere as a unified corpus describing a mind-independent reality or produce a falsable and replicable set of experimental validations of their core tenets, the inability to replicate consciousness in material substrates, much as we hype and exaggerate the achievements of AI research, the inability, in sum, to solve any of the three problems of desiderative reason from within) the more we should recognize the cognitive dissonance of such position (that states that we are not really conscious at all, and consciousness itself is but an elaborate illusion we should renounce) and abandon it as untenable.

·         My mind, other minds, who cares? So if we accept the existence of our own mind as distinct from matter we gain something (we can understand how it can be free but not random, separated by the causal chain that inexorably links all material events but still heavily influenced by it) but a whole new (or not so new) set of problems arise: how does that mind interact (has causal efficiency) with matter? How warranted is our belief in other minds distinct from our own (the problem of solipsism)? Is mind enough to bestow value? What is value, anyway? We will be able to point towards the solution of some of those, but probably not all: the definition of mind we propose (and what makes it irreducible to matter) is precisely that it cares, it judges that some states of affairs have importance, merit attention, effort, concern. Thus it values those states of affairs, and can wish for them to be preserved, or to evolve in certain directions. Such caring and valuing are the essence of consciousness, inseparable from it, and we will show that any attempt to reduce them to a side effect amenable to regular laws not only has failed (Hume and his mechanistic explanation of the arousal of emotions, and of course also Freud and his “cathexis” of “neuronic energy”) but has necessarily to fail.

Part IV: Is there something more (than what is really out there)?

·         Why does reality seem rational (understandable)? Nope, evolution doesn’t even begin to explain it. The appearance of design beyond the biological world: our minds as necessarily the image of the mind of an original designer (and the fine tuning argument). Some common alternative explanations: the infinite regression of a) the universe as a simulation b) multiple universes.

·         God so what? Even if belief in that original designer is warranted, what else can we deduce from such warrant? Surprisingly little. Theodicy and revealed religion. The consequence for ethics.

Part V: Putting it all together. The post-desiderative society

Guys, I haven’t yet thought this one out (although I would be surprised if I were led to somewhere very different from my Anarcho traditionalist manifesto and my ideal society of the future…) however, the layout is clear enough, it sounds like a lot of fun (duh! These were the problems that were constantly in the back of my mind while I was researching and writing the “Critique”, no shit Sherlock I find them fascinating) so it seems like I’ve already found what I’ll be doing for the next few years!  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Elements for a Critique of Desiderative Reason (yup guys, this is finally the real deal)

So the moment has finally arrived, and I’ve programmed this post to be published exactly at the moment when I’m defending the dissertation that, if approved by the professorial jury, will grant me my doctorate (which I will duly reflect adding the corresponding “Ph. D” to every and any description on-line of myself, screw modesty and humility after almost seven years of hard work!). What follows is the slightly abridged and minimally edited version of the dissertation defense:

<< Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and illustrious members of the tribunal. I’m most grateful for your presence here today, and hope that when I finish my lecture you will consider it a time well spent.
I would like to start my defense by posing a question to everybody in the audience: Why am I here? I do not mean in this room at this particular time of the day, although that may be the necessary beginning of the answer I want you all to think about. I mean why am I on this planet, all of these years I’m given to live. And I’m not interested in a generic, species wide answer (“to pass my genes on”, “to reproduce”), but in a most individual, first-person perspective one (hence the wording: why am I here?). I’ll give you a hint of the kind of answer I’m trying to get at: think about what you would like as a defining feature of your own life when you contemplate it whole, as you may on your last day. Not as the defining feature of your life right now, as you are actually living it, but the ideal one that would make you feel contented and satisfied with having completed a “well-lived life”.

Good, let’s call the answer to both questions (what is the ultimate purpose of life? And how would I like my life to have been led? which I contend have one and the same answer) by the Greek letter theta (q). We will come back to this towards the end of the lecture. Now I recognize that is a most difficult question. I’ve been struggling with it a lot for the past seven years, and am not fully satisfied with the answer I’ve arrived at, so it would be unreasonable to expect that anybody can reach such answer in a few seconds. Indeed, some would argue that most people do not arrive at such answer at all in their whole life (and are not the worse for it!), and manage to lead meaningful lives without having to contend with such weighty matters. But the fact that most do not arrive at a satisfying answer does not mean they do not pose themselves the question. I want to drive your attention to one life situation when most people not only publicly ask it, but they also share their attempts at an answer: in funerals or wakes, it is common for the attendants, even when not very acquainted, or having been a long time without seeing each other, to exchange some sentences along these lines, especially when the deceased was young. The fact that the sentences tend to be somewhat platitudinous, or clichéd (“such is life”, “what’s the end of all this struggle?” “live for the day, because you really can never tell when it is all going to end”) should not obscure their meaning, as they point to some very fundamental aspect of our inner lives.

There is another aspect of those occasions that I want to draw your attention to. I would dare to say that in the majority of such utterances people show a certain dissatisfaction, in the face of such sudden remainder of our own mortality and the transience of our presence in this planet, with how they are actually leading their lives. Again, it is surprising how they are willing at those moments of vulnerability to share with relative strangers such profound, intensely personal dissatisfaction, which normally has to do with devoting too much time and effort to pursuits that are not that important (typically work and empty leisure) and not enough to those that we are more likely to miss when the time to depart comes (spending quality time with friends and family). That mild dissatisfaction at the personal level becomes a chasm, a gaping abyss at the social level. We know from time immemorial what makes human lives worth living, and what conditions have to obtain for humans to flourish and be satisfied (to have a “good spirit” in Aristotle’s words):

So we can legitimately ask ourselves why it is that the lives we live are so distant (as recognized in those moments of crisis) of the ones we tell ourselves we would like to live, both individually and as a group.

And part of the answer comes from a fact that I hope our little exercise of trying to formulate the ultimate end of life has highlighted: we can go on living without bothering too much with such heady thoughts because the society we are raised into already provides us with a readymade answer. As indeed it should, as having a widely shared answer of that type is one of the preconditions of the very existence of a viable, well functioning society! It seems obvious to me that human flourishing requires a well functioning social body, as our ability to flexibly coordinate our efforts is the ultimate explanation of our success as species (as opposed to both compete in a war of all against all, as most big mammal males do, or collaborate according to an inflexible program as ants are termites are so able to showcase). To achieve that flexible coordination we need not just a shared symbolic language, but also to share a common understanding of what constitutes a reason, so we can convince, persuade, cajole, prod, suggest and incentivize each other in pursuit of what then become common goals. The implicit set of statements that form that common understanding is what I have called “dominant reason”, and to be more precise, a successful dominant reason, one able to articulate a social group that can at least reproduce itself, and if possible outcompete other groups has to address at least the following three areas:

·         What’s the ultimate goal of life (the highest in a hierarchy of reasons that thus gives support to all the rest)

·         What’s the ultimate criterion for social ordering (who can command and who should obey)

·         What desires are socially sanctioned (what it is legitimate to desire, to wish for)

And it is the main argument of my thesis that we have built during the last centuries a single social system (which can be for the first time in history called a “world-system”) that encompasses every society on Earth under the sway of a common dominant reason. I have called that reason “desiderative reason”, and it is characterized by providing the following set of guidelines:

·         The ultimate goal of life is to satisfy as many desires as possible

·         The position in the social order is determined by the amount of money one can command

·         All socially sanctioned desires are manifestations of one single desire: to be as high as possible in the social hierarchy thus constructed (so as long as what you desire can be construed as status enhancing, go for it!)

It is my contention that such reason is highly toxic, and not conductive at all to the happiness, the well being and the contentment of the individuals under it. Some words to explain its dominance then are then called for, as such explanation shall be the first element in its critique. What we have to realize first is that dominant reasons are not consciously chosen to ensure the maximum happiness of the members of society who, willingly or not, have to give their consent to them. Rather than of “choice” we should speak of “selection”, as dominant reasons are features of societies that compete between them for the resources of a limited world, and those more “fit” are wont to grow, prosper, and thus transmit their values and ways of reasoning to their descendants, while those less fit are slowly absorbed into more successful ones, when not outright exterminated. I would also contend that the main measure of “fitness” in an environment of inter social competition is the ability to produce material goods (and, increasingly, to trade services in exchange of money in an established market, but we do not need to get concerned with those subtleties at this point). Not because material goods provide any advantage by themselves or make the societies that produce them more attractive or more capable of peacefully persuading their potential competitors of the superiority of their ways, but because the society able to produce more material goods is able to divert that production to more bellicose end, and thus field larger, better equipped armies that in turn can crush any competition.

That’s the story of the West in a nutshell: since the middle of the XVIII century (and based on a technological superiority that started to assert itself since the XIV) it has used its superior ability to extract labor from its citizens to produce more goods than anybody else, and has consistently used that ability to raise itself to the center of a world encompassing system from which it has forced everybody else (every other society) to a “periphery” that had to exchange commodities with them in highly disadvantageous ways, resorting to brute force when necessary to reassert the conditions most conductive to perpetuate such arrangements. As the peripheral countries have embraced the West’s dominant reason they have enhanced their population’s abilities to produce equivalent amounts of goods, and are thus becoming able to more credibly challenge the old central nations. The price, of course, is that they get embroiled in the ugly consequences of such reason: the growing gap between how they would like to live and how they end up living.

In order to better understand how such dominant reason came to be (and thus what is valid and what not, the kernel of what a critique consists in)we have then to turn our attention to the basic discontinuity in the history of mankind that constitute its immediate origin:

Although much different from an aesthetic point of view (how they have expressed their inner life) and from a technological point of view, for much of humanity’s history the landscape of experience has been pretty much the same (the long horizontal line that hovers around an annual income between 400 and 600 of dollars a year that has been our lot for most of history): hard toil most of the time (a bit more or a bit less depending on the fruitfulness of the soil and climate and the harshness of the stations), frequent periods of outright hunger, a very monotonous diet, a life between 35 and 45 years in duration, being survived by 2 sons, which would require the birth of between 4 and 8 (thus a son’s dead being an inseparable part of human experience) and a basic identity between how the world around one worked between the moment of his birth and the moment of his death. But starting in the countries around the North Atlantic around 1750 conditions start to change, and keep changing so dramatically that in the extremely short time lapse (for historical standards) of 250 years we arrive to a totally altered, unprecedented field of possibilities of what being human consists in.

To provide some structure to the historical analysis I have identified five “dimensions”, or features of  both the socioeconomic arrangement of society and the corresponding features of the intellectual landscape (the great themes that thinkers discuss, and that tend to cluster for any given period around certain traditional dichotomous values):

Let’s turn our attention, then, to European society at the beginning of the XVIII century, still a “society of orders” where birth accounted for much of the social recognition one could expect and where it was a safe assumption that the world at life’s end would look very much as it looked like at birth:

However, a couple of developments taking place at this time are going to dynamite (and dynamize) this society and to change it beyond recognition. One is the rise and consolidation of Protestantism, after its bloody separation from the mainstream faith (Catholicism); Protestantism, by forcing almost every able bodied member of society to attend a weekly assembly devoted to values (and how one should live) is going to have the effect of a high-energy source of X-rays near a DNA molecule (in this analogy the set of values that constitute the dominant reason of the age would be the DNA): it will facilitate its change and mutation, and thus accelerate its evolution in an atmosphere of open hostility between competing powers (not that different from the most recent Cold War, the role of the backward and sclerotic Russians being played back then by the Catholic powers). The other development is the coming of age of the Scientific Method, thanks to the combination of widespread literacy (to be able to read the Bible), the printing press and the existence of a phonetic alphabet (that’s Mac Luhan theory of why the scientific revolution did not happen in China, which have had the printing press for much longer, and I find a lot of merit in it). The key figure that will benefit from both developments to crystallize a system with some recognizably modern features, able to really leave behind the ways of thinking of the old order is the Scottish philosopher David Hume, whose thought I will very briefly summarize:

It has to be noted that the last aspects of Hume’s thought are highly problematic, as it was obvious to himself that Sympathy could very well fall short of ensuring we take enough care for other people’s concerns and troubles, and that the existence of a Universal Standard of Taste (or a universal criterion of goodness) is very doubtful. We will deal later on with the problems derived from Hume’s insufficient taking into account altruist considerations, at this point it’s more interesting to dwell on the new rationality that he would enable, where economic science would take off in its own (thanks to the Adam Smith, one of Hume’s disciples and friends) and where God would be mostly banished from rational discourse and consigned to the realm of theology, a discipline most thinkers would not trouble themselves with from there on.

How does the dominant reason after Hume look like? Very different from the Baroque one, for sure:

As we’ve seen, the society under this new form of rationality would excel in the production of commodities, but at a terrible price. Justified by a materialist, mechanistic thought it would see inequality rise to alarming levels and the exploitation and dispossession of vast swathes of population are still considered the great moral blemish of that age (at least in Europe they nominally got rid of slavery, something that can not be said of every society under the sway of this mode of rationality). Unsurprisingly, society has in itself the tendency to counteract those extreme oscillations in any direction of its main defining features, so economic reason would give birth to the romantic movement, which would in turn coalesce in a different kind of dominant reason, which I’ve called sentimental reason:

Sentimental reason was subject to its own forms of excess, and one of the most remarkable features it showed was its legitimation of the overthrow of the ruling class that had led the destinies of Europe for millennia (the nobility) and its replacement by a new social actor (the Bourgeoisie) that having essentially solved the problem of survival demanded the resolution of a much subtler one: that of amusement and finding meaning. That’s why this rationality toyed with the idea of bestowing the highest recognition to “genius”, as highlighted by the episode of Goethe and Beethoven crossing paths with a group of Burghers and noblemen, towards which the first (a son of the previous rationality) intends to yield, but which the second (a romantic hero) resolutely sets aside. It is to be noted that in this period the ability of philosophy and speculative thought to influence public opinion (the theater of that dominant reason we are dealing with), displaced by a discipline that sprung from it in the previous period and that had fully matured since then, as illustrated in the work of Karl Marx. It is to Marx to whom we owe one of the distinctive features of desiderative reason (the understanding of money as the sole criteria for social dominance), but we will deal with that in a later stage.

However, the development of technology and demographic pressure (it’s difficult to shine even when you have “one in a thousand” talent when you are surrounded by many such thousands) will cause the dominant reason to oscillate in the opposite direction, thus becoming a reason more inclined to a rationalist, positivistic, impersonal age (where other people are slowly driven out of the proper subject of philosophical inquiry):

At his point in history we find the next significant figure in which I want to spend a few minutes, as it is to him to whom we owe the final configuration of our current rationality. It is in the fully bureaucratized “kakanian” double monarchy that ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the XIX century where a Jewish physician was starting t make his name. We talk, of course, of then not-so-young (44 years) Sigmund Freud:

It has to be noted that, in a show of that “cunning of reason” that Hegel talked about, the good Sigmund never formulated the character of the original overarching desire that I am positing: for him it was rather the desire to have sex with the parent of the opposite sex that had to be overcome, but I find such explanation so implausible, and so lacking in explanatory power for most observed conduct, as to feel confident in disregarding it; the analysis of Freud’s own reported dreams and his biographical details (his need to banish from his side any old friend who show any attempt at independent thinking that he always saw as an attempt to overshadow him) has provided me with much additional material to confirm the display and recognition of social superiority as his real driving force.

What Freud provides us with is the last element we needed to fully understand the desiderative reason we submit (mostly unconsciously) to:

It is easy to see the roots of the success of such rationality. Men educated in it have no interest in God, no interest in their fellow countrymen, not even interest in themselves or the inner sources of their actions, their hopes and their desires (as that source is eternal and immovable, and based on a monstrous premise, that if followed would tear society apart). They are only interested in, they can only devote their attention to, things. Its production and its enjoyment. Continually pressed to acquire more of them, to display more of them, even to discard more of them so they have place for more, newer, shinier objects that constitute the sole object of their attention and their affection.

So where do we go from here? It may be a good point to take stock of the swings of the dominant reason we have briefly gone through, as the direction of the social arrangements and the economy may be more predictable than the vagaries of the imagination of public intellectuals:

No such luck, as we see that in the most recent period the correlation between the socioeconomic dimensions and the intellectual ones seem to have been greatly weakened. Even as we see signs of a social shift against the inequality that has ballooned in the last decades, and such shift takes the form of increased regulation and a decreased role for private property, it is not clear that may reignite growth and induce a new era of increased economic activity, as the two engines that historically have propelled such growth (demographic expansion and technological innovation) are pretty much exhausted and are inconsistent with the prevailing dominant reason, after it has exhausted the possibility of further expansion in untapped peripheral areas. In any historic juncture there are three paths open (improvement, maintenance of the status quo and more or less slow decline), and this is no exception:

Confronted with this image, I have to confess I see little cause for optimism. One of the dirty little secrets of our society is that we can no more count on technological progress to get out of our current predicament, as it basically stopped in 1970 and the current focus on short-term profits and increased awareness of the environmental cost of previous developments makes it unlikely to restart. Although science has a track record of unexpected spurts and discoveries that would grant a kindle of hope, we can not count on it blindly, and that leaves us with scenarios II and III.

I have little doubts that probability favors massively the regression to what has been the historical norm, and all that it would take for us to plunge back to what, from today’s standpoint would look like a new and barbarous dark age is for the mega corporations that increasingly dominate the production of goods, service and entertainment to complete their already well advanced conquest of the regulatory apparatus of the state. They don’t even need to fight or struggle for it, because there is not “they” pushing for such ambitious agenda.  There is no hidden cabal of conspirators plotting to overthrow the fragile (and already limited) institutional equilibrium that keep each group of our complex society imperfectly represented in the political process, but the blind forces of the market (not just of goods and services, but most pointedly of ideas), acting through the dominant reason of the age just developing themselves. However, for that conquest to hold, they need at least our acquiescence, an acquiescence necessarily based on our acceptance of the basic tenets of what a valid reason is.
So I will end my defense with a request. Do you remember your theta? The ultimate reason for living we devoted a little time to formulate? the next time you hear that the goal of life is “to have fun”, “to enjoy yourself”, “to have gratifying experiences” (that always come with a price tag attached) remember that under the guise of that liberationist discourse hides the society that has most successfully enslaved its members, extracting (voluntarily!) amounts of work that would have put to shame any Roman slave master.  The task of any freedom loving human, of anybody committed to the universal dignity and emancipation, is to rise against it and combat it.
Many thanks for your attention >>

I'll let you now in a later post how it went