Thursday, March 23, 2017

The shape of dominant reasons to come

If you are a regular (the regular?) reader of this blog you already know that you should be devoting all your waking hours to craft a new, healthier dominant reason to replace the crumbling, failing one that has been keeping Western societies together since roughly 1750, and the whole world since 1950.

OK, all your waking hours may be a bit of a stretch, it would still be a worthy and courageous and gallant feat to devote a few hours a day to such complex endeavor. Problem is, dominant reasons are defined by being unquestioningly accepted by the vast majority of members of the societies in which they take hold, which means here and now that for your (or mine) effort to bear fruit you need to convince about 7 billion people (give or take a few million here and there) that:

·         The ultimate goal of their life is wrong, what they have been told a life well lived consists in is crap, the definitive good they strive for is a poisonous lie. They need instead to orient all their energies towards “A”

·         The socially sanctioned desires they have been nurtured to harbor, cherish and satisfy are internally incoherent, self-defeating and a source of discontent and dissatisfaction with their own lives. They need instead to start desiring “B”

·         The criterion for deciding your position (and everybody else’s) in the social hierarchy, which determines who yields to whom, who gives orders and who obeys, how the products of the collective efforts are apportioned and who gets precedence and recognition in every public gathering is unjust, unfair and illegitimate. We need to substitute it with “C”

Seems like quite a tall order, doesn’t it?  Specially when neither you nor me have the slightest, darnedest, frigginest idea of what “A”, “B” or “C” look like. To make things even more difficult, their current configuration, somewhat obscured by what good ol’ Karl called a “superstructure” that obfuscates its real nature, has produced a historically unparalleled prosperity and opportunity for enjoyment between the masses. I don’t want to wax too rhapsodical about the benefits and advantages of our current system (I already did in Da System, you know ), but if you want to change the underlying justification that has, in the first place, conjured literally billions of people into existence (no other combination of answers to social organization basic questions has proved, in all of our species history, to produce enough wealth to allow as many of us to be born and survive into reproductive age) and then lifted so many of them out of poverty (regardless of what some theorists, mostly of a Marxian bend, may enjoy pointing out to the soul-crushing, unacceptable, astronomical inequalities of today’s society, they are nothing special seem from a historical perspective, and they constitute the norm rather than the exception of how humans tend to organize their affairs, romanticized imaginings of a “golden age” in our common past aside), you have to be very sure of what you intend to put in its place, as it has many, many, many more chances of making things worse than of improving them (see every experiment of reforming society along entirely new lines, unburdened by the ideas of the past, of the last three centuries, practically anywhere in the world).

What I mean with such “justificatory” reminder (lest my readers forget I tend to group philosophers in two broad camps, one being the former, the other formed by the “critics”) is that there is a strong, well intentioned case to be made for a strong conservatism, as any changes in the basic fabric of social relations (and dominant reason is the most basic of those fabrics, as it constitutes the pre-condition for people being able to agree about anything at all) that has brought us here would be vastly more likely to do harm than good. What I will kindly bring to the attention of my readers is that we are not in normal times, and caution in this case may not be the best part of courage, but the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Having acknowledged that the elements of our dominant reason haven’t become dominant by sheer luck, but because they also happened to be the ones that made the societies which embraced them militarily more powerful (and thus in a Darwinian fashion eliminating those that were more lukewarm in their adoption), we should also remember that the “fitness” of a system (understood as the dominant reason that sets the tone of what ideas have chances of being implemented plus the institutions and customs and mental habits that embody their implementation) is a function of the environment in which it evolves, and that the environment has as much to say about how it thrives (or shrivels) as the system itself.

And what I’ve been arguing in my last posts about technological stagnation, the decadence and demise of our social model and the impending doom of most of what we hold dear (a functioning society, for starters) is that the wild success of desiderative reason has so much altered the landscape that originally facilitated its bloom as to render itself entirely “unfit”. What until now has worked so brilliantly to displace and annihilate any rival system has become completely maladaptive, like a virus that, having colonized most of the cells of its host organism, has little room for expansion short of killing it, and thus condemning itself. Consider:

·      Demography sucks: There is no demographic growth, and in the most advanced societies (Japan, Korea, Singapore, Western Europe, the USA once you take last-generation immigrants from the birth rolls) there is an accelerating population contraction. This is not an aftereffect of the 2008 recession, as the tendency had been brewing for decades. You may search for fancier or fanciest underlying explanations, but I’ll stick to the simpler one (which I’ve dubbed “the gonadal vote”): for most people in those societies, life is simply not worth living. They may not confess it, and even declare to pollsters that their “subjectively perceived life satisfaction” is a 4 or a 5 in a Likert scale of 5, but facts talk louder than words, and the surest way to know how they really feel about their life “all things considered” is to assess to what extent they would fight and exert themselves to extend it to other people (namely, their children). Applying that metric, the undeniable answer seems to be “not much, really”.   

·      Innovation sucks: There is not much technological advance. I know this assertion goes against the grain (to put it mildly) and flies in the face of a real deluge of assertions by journalists and “opinion makers” that insist every single minute and every single day that we are living in the most wondrous, most “disruptive” of times. I’ll remind my readers that a career in journalism consists essentially in acquiring the ability to talk about something you do not understand at all to people (the proverbial masses) that understand about it even less than you. Any doubt? Try to read in the MSM (or even in specialized media) a single article about a subject you are truly knowledgeable about without feeling a) sorry b) indignant or c) shocked by the amount of stupidity, bias, half-truths, common places and outright lies it contains. It is safe to assume the rest of the content is not much better, so extract your own conclusions. So we can safely ignore what journos say (I’m looking at you, Tom Friedman). Regarding opinion makers, they all suspiciously hold titles (either consultants or venture capitalists, or hacks for the former) that make them very likely to benefit from the anxieties and doubts of a society duped into believing that seismic changes are just about to submerge them in a sea of unprecedented innovation. I may devote more time to explain why this society in fact innovates so little (completely head-over-heels incentives, which reward blatant and naked rent seeking instead of risk taking), but as of now, just take my word for it.

Please note I’m not saying no invention will ever again be made. I do not have the slightest clue of what creative contraptions the fewer and fewer true innovators out there may come up with. Neither does Mr. Friedman, or Ray Kurzweil or Elon Musk or Peter Thiel (which doesn’t prevent them from confidently stating that an “AI revolution is just around the corner”… it is not). What I do have is a strong and well informed hunch that the majority of “revolutionary” technologies now in the making will disappoint and fizzle out, that truly disruptive inventions are few and far between, and that our society requires growing amounts of resources to keep a similar pace of innovation to the already anemic one we have grown accustomed to, and that marshaling those resources is gonna be more and more difficult to accomplish.

·      Economics sucks: Even in the realm in which the societies that embraced desiderative reason excelled, the production of material goods, there is not much growth. Well, of course, if demand doesn’t grow (rather the opposite, as there are less and less consumers around due to demographic contraction) and supply doesn’t become more and more effective (due to lack of technological advances that have any measurable impact on productivity, regardless of what brilliant algorithm some kids are developing to play obscure Asian ancestral games better and better) why, oh, why on God’s green Earth would you, a responsible industrialist, want to expand your production? Why incur in the same or more costs (as you can not wring any more productivity from your current factors of production) if you are not going to be able to sell more and more products (as there are not going to be more consumers, and those that are already in the market are not going to have additional income to spend) and thus obtain greater benefits?

Please note I’m not saying no economy will ever grow again, and that the current  trend of long recessions followed by underwhelming (albeit sustained) growth periods will last forever. The whole world right now seems to be in a sweet spot, every major economy growing and with no major scares in the horizon (just like in March 2007, isn’t it reassuring?). The West is not growing its GDP at a dazzling speed (again, compared with the central decades of the XXth century, that really seem to have utterly spoiled us), but growing it is. Ditto for India, China and even Latin America. True, and I’m the first one to rejoice in such blessed state of affairs. But I just don’t see it as either sustainable or equitably distributed (as 99% of the added production is being hoarded by the wealthiest 1% of the population, something that has been happening since the 70’s of last century, as shown in the “chicken graph” I painstakingly devised here: The lies we are told ).So yep, China will experience its ups and downs, more of the former than the latter. It will hit some major bump in the road, and it may get pretty ugly (major social upheaval, overthrowing of the CCP, those kind of things), and then it will resume growth, approaching asymptotically the more advanced economies (that means: never really completely catching up with them, not in this century at least). Ditto for India. Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore, the USA? Minimal growth in per capita terms, and negligible one aggregated, when seen with enough perspective. Sorry to bring bad news, it is what it is.

·      But politics sucks even more: As a result of the three previous trends, politics is broken beyond repair. Most groups have been historically appeased (made to accept their subordinate status) with the promise of an ever growing economy that would, sooner rather than later, “lift all boats”. For a good portion of the XXth century (the period between 1945 and 1970) that promise hold (more or less) true. But not any more. At this point, 90% of the population is proletarian (in the Toynbeean, not in the Marxist, sense). They do not identify themselves with the values, the tastes, the preferences or the policy choices of the 10% that concentrates roughly 100% of the wealth (and 80% of the income, static riches are much more unequally distributed than monetary flows). The 10% favors free trade, open borders, multiculturalism, a meritocratic distribution of outcomes (heavily biased by the differences in endowments different people start with in life) and market based allocation of resources like health services, housing and infrastructure. The 90% favors protectionism (that right or wrong they associate with better paid jobs and labor stability) and restrictions to immigration, identifies chauvinistically with their parochial nation and culture, want to equalize opportunity and a needs based (communal) allocation of resources that ensures that everybody receives a bare minimum compatible with human dignity. Or they will, if the elite hadn’t inadvertently discovered (since the eve of time?) that the best bridle to the masses redistributionist impulses was to show them an easily identifiable outgroup that lived worse than them, and that would thus benefit more from such redistribution. What in the USA so noticeably happens between the non-college educated whites and other minorities: they have been taught to associate taxes with improving the lot of blacks and latinos (to the point of almost reaching their level of consumption), and thus they would rather slash taxes on the rich and be themselves worse off, as long as said outgroup is considerably worse off (the way McCloskey tells it, they choose to have one of their eyes plucked off, as long as their neighbor has both of theirs plucked).

In this case, I am positively saying that I see no respite or occasional improvement in the horizon. Lacking a common understanding of what the good life consists in and how to legitimately pursue such life, we will continue seeing more and more rent seeking, more and more outrageous inequality, more and more traditional politicians deaf to their electorate’s needs (and running for office just to make a buck, or a load of bucks, from it), more and more “anti-system” parties with no positive program, kept together by mere scorn and detestation of any particular pet cause that happens to push their buttons, attracting increasing percentages of the vote and producing more and more hurtful outcomes (Brexit, Trump, Front Nationale, whatever, expect more of them…) This is the area where we can more clearly see that the system is crumbling, that the elites just want to extract as much rent from everybody else as humanly possible (I’ll expand a bit in how they use Economics to justify and legitimize such extraction in a forthcoming post), that the vast majority has been turned into proletarian masses more and more opposed to such elites, but contented and neutered and unable to offer an alternative vision of their own, capable only of saying no, distrusting any “expert” opinion (from climate change to vaccines) and turning to increasingly more destructive ideologies (from radical Islam to alt-right ethno-phantasies).

Given all that, I hope my readers share at least a bit of my concern and my urgency for developing a viable alternative reason that can prevent such dire tendencies, and arrest our slide into ever less functioning social mores.

But starting to shape such alternative will, once again, have to wait for another post…

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